Powering The Planet — Editor's Introduction
Senior Features Editor
Finding Fault, Exploring Alternatives
For the Greeks, the word for energy was energeia, meaning activity. That has some meaning today.
Indeed, there is great activity surrounding energy, from investment and development to regulation and legislation.
In Washington, there's a rush to judgment and action.
There's talk of a windfall profits tax. The Senate recently debated landmark legislation of climate change. The president signed legislation mandating a suspension of deliveries to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Congress has held public hearings looking for answers on the the dynamics of the industry and the marketplace, calling on the heads of the nation's top oil companies as well as such great investors and financiers of our times as George Soros. The spike in prices has raised questions about market manipulation.
At the same time, the federal government has ponied up billions of dollars in tax credits to encourage alternative, renewable energy, complimenting private sector investment into areas such as solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, clean coal-- even nuclear. (See our primers on these energy sources in the "Need To Know" section.)
The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for instance, extended tax credits to the geothermal energy industry and officially branded it a renewable energy.
"There's been a great bubbling of innovation," is how energy expert, Cambridge Energy Research Associates founder and CNBC analyst Daniel Yergin puts it. "The energy industry is pretty high tech."
The Energy Dept., for instance, estimates that wind power could generate 20 percent of our electricity needs by 2020 (vs. 1 percent today), with the right investment and infrastructure build out.
Prospects And Comebacks
The solar industry is flourishing like never before. Major chipmakersare turning their considerable resources to flat- panel technology, driving down costs to make solar energy more competitive. More than 12,700 power-producing sites connected to the US grid in 2007.
Another industry is looking for a comeback — nuclear power. While the industry flourished in countries like France, it's been out of favor in the US for three decades, following safety concerns and financing problems. Its cost-effectiveness, however, has proven irresistible in the current climate. The federal government is supplying financial assistance and dozens of applications for new plants have been filed.
There are also high hopes for clean coal technology to exploit the nation's vast coal reserves, now the primary source for creating electricity. Such technology — meant to reduce carbon emissions and global warming — has thus far proven expensive and somewhat elusive, but utility companies around the country are working with the government and industry to achieve a breakthrough.
Yes, innovation can also be inexpensive and uncomplicated, but it can have unintended, unwelcome and controversial consequences.
Take ethanol, for example. Years of federal subsidies created a boom for the biofuel, which is used for transport, most often as a supplement for gasoline. US farmers devoted more land to corn. Corn prices rose, helping to drive up food prices for staples such as breakfast cereal. Now, record corn prices may be crimping the ethanol market.
Though corn-based ethanol has been a successful experiment in renewable energy — Brazil's three-decade long experiment with sugar cane has been even more successful — the fuel-vs.-food debate means the biofuel industry's future lies in non-edible substances that don't require land used for agriculture. Switchgrass is one experiment underway — in the Oklahoma Panhandle, aka the Oil Patch.
Food for thought. Actually, make that fuel for thought.