the film
Economic and dam related articles

Power Hunting

by Steven Boyd Saum
California Monthly, Nov/Dec 2005

The geopolitical, environmental, and economic liabilities of fossil fuels are increasingly apparent. But what are the alternatives? A look at current sources, and what's in the pipeline.

ENERGY EXPERTS KNOW they must work harder to wean the world from carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels. Those fuels power 80 percent of the globe's electricity and nearly all of our private transportation. Questions of climate change and limited supplies aside, in a typical car only 16 percent of the gasoline's energy makes it to the wheels. Then there is the battle over dwindling fossil fuels already taking shape between consumers in the United States, China, and India and suppliers in the Middle East, Canada, Russia, and Venezuela. There is hope, though, that with a long-overdue increase in public and private investment in research and development, a diverse, efficient energy supply is within reach. It could be powered primarily by hydrogen fuel cells, supported by revamping the nuclear-energy infrastructure, utilizing gasified coal, and by reconstituting crops--and not just corn. It could even be blowin' in the wind. The question is: When will we have crisis-free energy? Here is an intelligence report on what the prospects are and where they line up on the horizon 5, 10, or even 20 years from now.

-- OIL --
The real cost of using fossil fuels is not just in the marketplace; it's all the environmental damage it does.

--Severin Borenstein

COST: $60-$70 a barrel in autumn 2005; analysts expect prices to rise further. Unmonetized costs include anywhere from $1-$15 a barrel for pollution, from $2-$5 a barrel for its contribution to climate change.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Causes environmental degradation where it is extracted, refined, stored, and, of course, spilled. Burning oil releases soot and ash, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides--which cause acid rain and, in humans, asthma and lung disease. CO2 from automobile emissions is the leading cause of global warming and air pollution.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Ninety-nine percent of U.S. transportation fuel is in the form of gasoline, which constitutes 38 percent of total U.S. energy production.

SCALABILITY: Predictions are we will import 68 percent of our oil by 2025--up from 56 percent today. Thirty percent of imports come from the Middle East, which, according to the Department of Energy, is home to 65 percent of the known reserves.

WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE? Extraction of oil will get increasingly difficult and expensive, and probably half of the world's reserves are unreachable.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT? Higher oil prices and advanced technology make obtaining difficult-to-extract oil more technically and economically feasible--for example, refining more of Canada's tar sands into oil. But this process requires massive energy and water, and it soon will account for more than half of Canada's CO2 emissions. One process long used by oil companies to squeeze more oil from wells is pumping CO2 into the earth. Sally Benson, with Larry Myer serving as technical advisor, is testing in Solano County the equipment for monitoring long-term "carbon sequestration"--taking CO2 captured from burning fossil fuels and storing it underground. They're also studying the feasibility of using this technique for recovering natural gas.

-- COAL--
As a species, I don't see us leaving the coal in the ground; it's just too valuable a resource."

--William Nazaroff

COST: For electricity, about 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Earth-scarring open pit mines in the West, mountaintop-removing mining in Appalachia. Burning releases sulfur dioxide (SO2), the main cause of acid rain; nitrogen oxides (NOx), which produce ground-level ozone and brown haze; particulate matter, which causes respiratory and pulmonary damage; mercury; and CO2. A Canadian government study calculates that health and environmental costs combine to quadruple the price of coal-generated electricity.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Over 50 percent of electricity generation nationwide (compared to 90 percent for China); 22 percent of all energy used.

SCALABILITY: The United States has been described as "the Saudi Arabia of coal." At current rates of consumption, it would take 250 years to exhaust the country's deposits.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: One hundred new coal plants are scheduled to come online by 2020. Higher oil and natural gas prices make expensive but less environmentally damaging technologies such as coal gasification more attractive. Coal gasification is also suited for pairing with carbon capture and sequestration technology, although no one can say with certainty how long carbon will stay sequestered.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: John Cooper heads a Lawrence Livermore Lab team investigating direct carbon conversion fuel cells that would have half the carbon emissions per kilowatt produced.

The last stage of global economy--and there's nothing left after that--will be a sort of liquefied natural gas global economy.

--Tad Patzek

COST: Before Hurricane Katrina hit, 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, but up to 70 percent higher this winter.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, and combined-cycle gas turbines, which account for most new plants brought online, can use gas more efficiently. Drilling for coal-bed methane has contaminated groundwater supplies, and methane released into the atmosphere is far more damaging than CO2 emissions.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Nationwide, 19 percent; in California, more than 40 percent.

SCALABILITY: Unlikely there are any more major natural gas deposits in the United States. Still, U.S. natural gas-fueled power plants are projected to increase 40 percent by 2025.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman advocates liquefied natural gas (LNG) development. LNG could increase the amount of natural gas by 10 to 15 percent at most over the next decade. Imports from Canada and Russia are also likely to increase.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: Timothy Kneafsey is studying the properties of methane hydrates, sometimes held out as the "gas of the future." Estimates are that there is 100 times as much energy frozen in methane hydrates, found in places like Alaska and Canada, as there is in natural gas deposits. A Japanese team is studying the potential of an ocean-floor deposit. A sobering aspect: Minor shifts in pressure or temperature can release the methane from the deposits, which some researchers link to past massive and sudden rises in global temperature.

If it works, it's a very clean energy source. It just produces very concentrated, very dangerous waste--just not much of it. That's the Faustian bargain we have with it.

--Tad Patzek

COST: Once a plant has been paid for, 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Uranium mining has polluted aquifers, and there are possibilities of nuclear accidents and nuclear weapons proliferation. No proven long-term storage site for highly concentrated radioactive waste yet exists. But plant operation produces no carbon pollution.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Energy produced in 103 reactors provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity, but just 8 percent of all energy.

SCALABILITY: Since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents, public opinion has limited the construction of permanent storage facilities for nuclear waste and financing for new plants. But the 2005 Energy Bill authorizes new tax credits, risk insurance, loan guarantees, and a renewal of the insurance liability cap. Potential future limiting factors are sufficient water to cool reactors and limited uranium supplies. >>

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: Expect ground to be broken for new plants by 2010, with units coming online by 2015. But the 2010 target date for opening the national repository for high-level waste at Yucca Mountain is under legal challenge and has been postponed. The new energy bill also calls for recycling nuclear waste, which could drastically reduce the amount of space needed for storage.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: Per Peterson has played a central role in research on safety and cost-effectiveness of new reactor designs. Berkeley nuclear scientists also helped design the passive safety systems of some new-generation reactors. Other Berkeley engineers have studied expanding the amount of waste that could be deposited at Yucca Mountain, as well as a market-based waste-credit system that would encourage utilities to reduce amounts of waste and recycle fuel. One of the big stories of the 21st century is expected to unfold in 2009, when Lawrence Livermore Lab will complete construction of the National Ignition Facility, a building about 10 stories high and containing 192 lasers. Engineers will simultaneously focus the lasers on a single BB-sized target in the first controlled fusion-reaction experiment.

-- HYDRO--
People don't want any more big dams.

--William Nazaroff

COST: 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Can impede river flows, flow of sediments, and fish passage. Alters landscape and water quality and raises issues over watershed protection.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Less than 5 percent of all energy in United States and 7 percent of electricity. Nearly a quarter of electricity in California. Hydro accounts for around 75 percent of electricity generated by renewable sources.

SCALABILITY: Not feasible for the United States to build more large dams in the lower 48 states because of public opposition.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: Policy calls for increasing hydroelectric generation capacity 10 percent by 2010 without constructing new dams but using new technology to improve efficiency.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: The Department of Energy is studying technologies that extract energy from free-flowing water: natural streams, tidal waters, ocean currents, canals, municipal water systems, and effluent streams. South Korea is constructing the world's largest tidal energy project, with China planning an even bigger one.

-- WIND--
The really big wind resources are in the middle of the United States--tornado alley.

--Alex Farrell

COST: 4 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Windmills kill birds, but slower-turning turbines and new designs have lessened that concern.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Less than .1 percent of total, but by the end of 2005 capacity in the United States will have more than tripled in five years.

SCALABILITY: Wind is the fastest-growing new electricity source in the world, though it likely will never provide more than 15 percent of the total U.S. energy supply because more than 2 million wind turbines would be required to meet total current electricity demand. The ultimate pairing for wind is a storage facility like hydrogen fuel cells, so wind-generated energy would be available on demand.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: With the renewal of the wind tax credit in the 2005 Energy Bill, expect strong growth through 2007. Two offshore wind projects are planned along the northeast coast of the United States. Potentially, up to 30 percent increases in efficiency on turbines could occur. Research is under way on smaller, distributed turbines to bring down cost and improve efficiency--and to increase the area where wind turbines can be deployed efficiently.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: Glen Dahlbacka and Joseph Rasson are working with Russian rocket scientists on developing small-scale vertical-axis wind turbines (with blades like an eggbeater's) designed for rooftop use. Robert Van Buskirk has worked in Eritrea to construct wind parks.

-- SOLAR--

It reduces the demand on the grid. It helps cut down peak power. Let's not forget the big picture, which is reduction of CO2 production. --Eicke Weber

COST: 20 to 25 cents per kilowatt hour for photovoltaics; cost for centralized solar thermal is less than half that, and the Department of Energy projects solar thermal costs as low as 6 cents per kilowatt hour by 2010.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: For solar thermal, massive solar arrays in the desert. For photovoltaics, small amounts of toxic heavy metals are used to produce the silicon panels.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: .07 percent, the majority of which is in California.

SCALABILITY: Photovoltaics has grown by 30 percent per year over the past 15 years, and it is projected to grow at 30 to 40 percent worldwide for the next 5 years. It would take 5,000 square miles of collector area to meet U.S. electricity demands.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: The largest solar array in the world is planned for California's Imperial Valley, and San Diego Gas & Electric signed a purchase agreement in September to obtain energy from the facility.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: The two fronts for solar are cost and efficiency. A group led by Eicke Weber has reported success in manipulating impurities in cheaper, low-grade silicon so they don't impede the efficiency of the solar cell. Paul Alivisatos has led work on dissolving semiconductor nanorods into a chemical compound to create an energy reaction. Kin Man Yu and Wladek Walukiewicz have identified two different materials that improve a solar cell's ability to capture a broad spectrum of light.

We have the ability, I believe, to look at these microorganisms and improve on them--alter them and make them very efficient producers of energy for us.

-- Steven Chu

COST: Currently ethanol, the most commonly used biofuel for transpor-tation, costs 50 cents a gallon less than gasoline, thanks to subsidies and taxes on gasoline.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Corn is grown using fossil-fuel fertilizers, and more energy goes into growing corn than converting it into ethanol.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Biofuels contribute less than 1 percent of total energy supply; 2 percent of gasoline is replaced with corn ethanol.

SCALABILITY: The current U.S. corn crop, if devoted entirely to ethanol, would supply about 11 percent of fuel used in cars. A transition to ethanol made from plant cellulose--not just corn stalks but also switch grass--could replace a quarter of U.S. oil needs in a matter of decades.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: There's increased interest in domestically produced ethanol in the wake of the hurricanes.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: Jay Keasling leads researchers studying the molecular machinery in microorganisms that are able to efficiently capture energy stored in cellulose. The goal is to understand how the biology works--and then engineer systems to help humans use the same process to obtain energy from cellulose. Think outside the cornfield: the cellulose itself might come from sawdust or rice straw; the focus is no longer on trying to generate energy to power our cars from food.

We're investing in hydrogen for the long term. If we don't build it into the system, it won't magically appear later on.

-- Daniel Kammen

COST: Depends on the method used to create it (extracting from natural gas and coal, or using electrolysis).

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Zero in its use (it emits only water vapor), but the processes used to generate it differ.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: For electricity, the hope lies in the future; for transportation, it's still negligible.

SCALABILITY: For industrial uses, 50 million tons are produced annually, 9 million in the United States. Current U.S. production could fuel 20 to 30 million cars; hydrogen cars are three times more efficient than gasoline-powered cars. A pipeline network for distribution is feasible in the long run; a modular system for generating it is more achievable in the short run.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: The energy bill authorized $1.2 billion for a nuclear reactor in Idaho to generate hydrogen. Another vision of the future is wind power and carbon-sequestered coal used to generate hydrogen. On the micro scale, fuel cells are already in the works for portable electronics. On the road, DaimlerChrysler, GM, and others have announced plans to roll out hydrogen fuel-cell cars in five years, but a nationwide fueling infrastructure will not be in place by then.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: Research includes work on hydrogen extraction, distribution, reformers (for converting other fuels to hydrogen), and safe and inexpensive storage options. Steve Visco, Craig Jacobson, and Lutgard De Jonghe have developed a solid-oxide fuel cell that promises to generate electricity more cheaply than current fuel cells. By manipulating genetic characteristics of green algae, Tasios Melis is working on photosynthesis as a means of producing hydrogen more efficiently.

We're warming up the world because of our desire to accelerate from 0 to 60 in nine seconds.

-- Art Rosenfeld

COST: Ask a dozen engineers, economists, and scientists, and they'll all say: Efficiency offers the best return on investment for all energy sources. For utilities, investing in efficiency costs half as much as buying another hour of base-load generation and one-sixth the cost of an hour of peak-load generation.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: Efficiency reduces emission of greenhouse gases and environmental devastation; over the past 30 years, by avoiding 50 percent expansion of California's electric system, we have avoided pumping 18 million tons of carbon a year into the atmosphere--equivalent to keeping 12 million vehicles off the road. According to Art Rosenfeld, one of the elder statesmen of energy efficiency, efficiency could get us two-thirds of the way toward eliminating the leading causes of global warming.

CURRENT PERCENTAGE OF ENERGY MIX: Forty-six percent of electricity in California is available thanks to efficiency measures taken in the past 30 years. National per capita consumption has gone up 50 percent, but the United States uses 43 percent less energy and 50 percent less oil per dollar of real GDP than in 1975, mostly because of better technical efficiency.

SCALABILITY: We already know how to build new commercial buildings that use half the energy of current buildings. Fiber-composite autos (lighter and stronger than steel) could improve mileage fivefold. In electricity generation, U.S. power plants throw away more energy as waste heat than Japan uses for everything. But efficiency needs to be coupled with conservation: Having two energy-efficient refrigerators sucks as much electricity as a 20-year-old fridge does.

WHO'S WHAT'S IN THE PIPELINE: The bad news: Funding for research on building efficiency is $30 million, compared to a $100 billion industry. That equals .03 percent, whereas savings in the next two decades on new construction could be $2 trillion to $3 trillion. The good news: In 2004 California set a goal of reducing CO2 emissions below year 2000 levels by 2010. To realize energy savings on that scale, utilities are expected to invest $6 billion, which will provide $10 billion in net benefits to consumers. For autos: In January 2006 a California law is set to take effect requiring new cars to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 percent. In December 2004 automakers sued to stop the law from being enforced. Notably, the new fuel-efficiency standards proposed by the feds in August preempt restrictions on regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

WHO'S WORKING ON WHAT: As a member of the California Energy Commission, Art Rosenfeld, is working on setting efficiency standards for electronic devices operating in "standby" mode (in an average home, they now use as much power as the fridge). The Environmental Energy Technologies Division, directed by Mark Levine, is dedicated to developing technology that uses, converts, and stores energy more efficiently and with less environmental impact. The team has demonstrated realizable gains in heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning; lighting; and systems management. On the policy side, Berkeley economist Severin Borenstein has pursued real-time pricing, which uses market incentives to reduce peak demand by consumers.

Experts tell us to diversify energy sources as we would a stock portfolio. But earning a return in the future means investing now, and the crucial investment is efficiency, because that buys time for everything else.

Steven Boyd Saum is editor-in-chief for The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. His essays, fiction, and reviews have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor,, Kenyon Review, and other publications.
Justin Gerdes and Steven Bodzin contributed to this report. Power Hunting
California Monthly, Nov/Dec 2005

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation