Sunday, February 24, 2008

Energy in Texas

Permit me an attempt to illustrate the future of energy in Texas, and by extension that of the whole nation.

Wind power will keep on increasing, and Texans will be proud of leading the nation, especially since we don’t have the environmental stigma that is pinned on Californians. Eventually solar will become cost-effective, first popping up in various places that provide additional rebates, and then statewide as the incentive to invest becomes obvious. Geothermal in Texas will be hampered for a long time by permitting, regulations, and uncertain engineering relevant to the long-term economic and energy potential of various sites. It may never develop to its full potential because of preferred investments in renewable solar and wind. Energy efficiency, continually recognized as providing the most low-hanging fruit, will never be sexy enough to fully capture public attention and thus never play as effective a role as it could.

Natural gas, coal, and oil will continue to be our life-blood for as long as they are economical and likely even after this point. We have no alternatives right now. There is a chance that we will build more nuclear plants, but if we choose not to, it will be more because of the economics and the unrealistic fears of terrorism and catastrophe than because of concern for the implied responsibility to deal with the waste products. In the end, whether or not climate change becomes increasingly apparent and detrimental to society, we will not phase out coal and gas until we can do so without hurting the economy. This fact will continue to appear very reasonable given that climate change impacts may cripple an already unsteady economy, making significant expenses too costly to citizens to be politically viable. Carbon capture and sequestration, as hopeful as it is, will probably be too little too late. Overall, significant reductions in carbon emissions will likely occur at a much slower rate than is needed.

Likewise we will continue to use oil to fuel our cars, and this convenience will likely increase in price over the long term further hobbling an already weakened economy. But we will continue to drive everywhere, because we don’t particularly want to change. And we will continue to build sprawling cities dependent on driving everywhere, and the economic and social costs of doing so will become increasingly apparent yet just as certainly, completely intractable. Gas prices may eventually rise high enough that our society will face serious obstacles in providing basic human services. At the least, prices will rise high enough to contribute to an economic depression – even today, the price of transportation (buying a car and all the gas) cannot be separated from the debt-driven consumer society that has been over-extended credit.

Most hopefully we will manage to cobble together enough biofuel energy and vehicle-to-grid services along with depleting oil supplies that we can maintain our society at its current levels and avoid catastrophic social problems. If we manage this, it will come at an extreme cost to the environment – ecosystem services such as clean air and water will begin to diminish as biodiversity drops. This collapse will be related to continued CO2 emissions with their concomitant, unpredictable climatic results as well as the necessary increased agriculture production and land use, misuse of water resources, and pollution impacts.

A time frame for when and exactly how all of this will happen is pure speculation. Even less certain is how we might react to such problems. Major oil fields in Saudi Arabia won’t likely fail tomorrow, but production could drop significantly from demand with major economic consequences anytime in the next 50 years. Less predictable climatic events will occur more regularly over time, and the aggregation of such events will put additional strain on our political and economic systems. We choose this path, knowingly or unknowingly, because we are unable to redirect the inertia of 150 years of modern society. We have neither the necessary land ethic to treat the Earth as we would like to be treated, nor the ability to recognize the inevitable results of our current habits or foreswear the conveniences that we now consider our inalienable rights.

And Texas will be an energy leader through all of this.

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