Hidden Truths About Energy: Why One Source Just Won't Cut It

energy Energy involves many complex issues, from how it is sourced to where it is used.  Crafting intelligent energy policy also means understanding how cultural, social, and political issues come into play.   

Dr. Michael Quah is one of the well versed experts in this area.  With qualifications from Harvard and Yale, a 20+ year career in as an engineer and consultant, his latest work is with Energy Studies Institute and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.  He also does research and development for the U.S. Army around energy technologies. 

According to Dr. Quah, taking a systems-of-systems approach is advantageous.  The bigger picture view, taking into account even some of the smallest details, is useful to understanding complex interrelationships.   

With energy, nothing can be oversimplified.  Beyond that, energy projects-- whether from renewable or traditional energy sources-- need to be carefully analyzed for lifecycle costs and long term impacts. 

“Anyone who champions one source of energy doesn’t get it,” Quah says.  “We need everything.”  It is this diversity in supply and generation that will yield ultimate energy security and independence. 

While many people hype green energy, there is the often one overlooked necessity: renewables need storage.  It is a critical issue to understand, as merely slapping up more wind turbines won’t solve electricity supply issues if the wind stops blowing one night. In early 2008, that’s exactly what happened to one area in Texas, proving just how challenging wind power can be to work with. 

“Technology is an absolute necessity, but a totally insufficient condition,” Quah says.  In other words, there is no silver bullet.  Technology is merely one set of tools to be used as part of a larger strategy.   

Strategically, it is critical to understand different energy needs.  There are three different energy diets: an “electronic diet” that fuels power plants, a “process diet” that fuels production and manufacturing, and a “liquid diet” for transportation.   

human element Threats to security mobilize people.  In the U.S., the “electronic diet” is dependent on foreign sources for only about 10% of the fuel sources.  With some serious energy efficiency measures, it’s possible this 10% shortfall could be met.   

“When it comes to energy efficiency, it’s about changing culture and behavior, not just technology,” Quah says.  “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”  Greed for energy ultimately undermines our energy security and independence.  This needs recognition, both at an individual and national level.   

The sad part is, when it comes to energy efficiency, it is often the letter of the law is often used more than the spirit of the law.  Take for instance green buildings.  In LEED projects for example, a comprehensive energy efficiency strategy built into the overall design and construction of a building could be “dumbed down” into a series of tag on efforts.   

While some energy efficient measures might be taken, they aren’t necessarily ones that are strategically important in making a big dent in overall energy consumption.  It becomes a box-ticking exercise more than a serious attempt to curtail energy use—changing the lightbulbs when you could transform the building. 

When it comes to the “liquid diet”, the fuels that power transport networks, the U.S. is 60% reliant on foreign sources—a significant proportion.  There is no easy way to replace oil.   Over time, gradual shift towards electric based transport will need to take place. This will mean investment in other forms of energy, as well as the means by which to store them, be it fuel cells or batteries. 

nuclear power plant When John McCain advocated for more nuclear power capacity under the guise that it will make the U.S. more energy independent, he is mixing and clouding the issues.  Nuclear is wrought with problems, and will do nothing to address short term transport needs. 

Many experts agree that nuclear power is reaching the end of its usefulness, but in the short to medium term still has a role to play.  Recent findings by the Energy Watch Group illustrate that the number of active nuclear power plants have decreased globally to 436 reactors.  Not only that, but there is a decline in uranium supply since 1991.  Much of the fuel is now used from decommissioned nuclear weapons, with a bulk of it coming from Russia.  John McCain doesn’t seem to understand the security of supply issue when he advocates nuclear energy. 

Beyond fuel supply issues and extraordinary construction costs, the long term costs of decommissioning plants and storing radioactive fuel make nuclear energy a very expensive option. 

Dr. Quah believes in a market driven approach when it comes to energy evolution in the future.  From the cost of fossil fuels, to pricing carbon emissions that affect climate change, the years ahead will see people steer increasingly away from these sources.  “We will get out of an oil age not because we run out of oil,” he says.  But will these market factors move quickly enough in the context of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions?  There is an opportunity for an extremely costly disconnect for people worldwide if energy and climate changed aren’t addressed together. 

hydro dam On the subject of climate change, Dr. Quah finds the lingering “debate” irrelevant.  “There are natural effects that contribute to it that we can’t do anything about,” he says.  “There are anthropogenic factors that we can do something about.  We can only worry about what is within our control, so why not get started?”  No matter what causes change, change will still come, and adaptation will still be necessary. 

Beyond energy and its direct impact on climate change, Quah also worries about water issues worldwide as well as migration.  “What often goes undiscussed is the impact water constraints will have on development, especially in countries like China and India,” he says.  He cited occupation of Tibet as one example of China’s attempts to secure more water supply.   

Dr. Quah also believes that widespread migration from areas like the Middle East, as well as low-lying areas is inevitable in the future.  “The reality is that mass migrations will probably hit earlier than we think.”   

Chris Tobias is Celsias Editor-at-Large and Lead Strategist at Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

Read more on Celsias:

How to Treat Carbon Like Sewage

Floating Wind Turbines Set Sail

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  • Posted on Dec. 29, 2009. Listed in:

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