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Energy Problems Need Energy Solutions
Rasoul Sorkhabi

With record rises in the prices of oil, natural gas and gasoline, and no end in sight to these price increases, people are very concerned — and rightly so.

On my birthday this year, I woke up to read in the paper that although high oil prices are a hot topic in Washington, “no one has an easy solution, and none of the proposals suggested so far is going to bring prices down much or soon.” Are we really helpless against the aggravating energy problems and rising oil prices?

My physics teacher was my favorite teacher in high school not only because I enjoyed physics, but also because whenever I was stumped by a problem, he would say: “Think it over! Every problem in physics has a physical solution.” By the same token, energy problems have energy solutions.

Of course, political action, economic policies, legislation, research and development, and public participation are necessary, but all of these should be rooted in real energy solutions, specific targets and an overall vision. This situation calls for a national energy plan beyond partisan politics and with its own systematic procedures and dynamic operations.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Bush, an oil industrialist himself, said that America is “addicted to oil.” Last year The Economist featured “oiloholics” as an international epidemic in its Aug. 24 issue. The United States uses one-quarter of the world’s 85 million barrels of oil produced each day, and thus bears a heavier responsibility for solving the global energy problem. But other nations are involved as well.

The case of the populous and ambitious China sheds light on the magnitude of oiloholics and the urgency to address it. Over the past seven years, China’s oil consumption has increased from 4 million to 7 million barrels a day, and its development path is following in the footsteps of the oil-fueled Western economies.

Contrary to some media reports, however, the recent increases in oil prices are not a consequence of “peak oil” — the prediction that the world’s oil production has peaked. Plenty of oil remains to be discovered and produced, but oil is still a valuable natural resource and should be conserved. The international oil market is becoming increasingly overheated.

Since 2000, oil production, consumption and prices have all increased, and (fortunately or unfortunately) none of them seems to have peaked. But drastic increases in demand for oil in recent years due to economic growth in North America, Western Europe and Eastern Asia have created a tight oil supply in the global market.

Given today’s oil-thirsty market and the volatile geopolitics and speculations affecting the oil industry, it is high time to reconsider how much and how long we can rely on this single energy resource for daily life and economic growth. As energy economist Peter Tertzakian eloquently described in his 2006 book, A Thousand Barrels a Second, we are on the verge of an “oil break point” and need to act before it gets worse. This sentiment is not pessimism about an unavoidable catastrophe, but a realistic acknowledgement that we need to enable a secure, sustainable energy future.

A sensible energy policy should plan to heal, not worsen, our “addiction” to oil. This can be achieved by reducing our oil consumption, and diversifying our energy sources to create an “energy-mix” market. Both strategies are necessary.

To reduce our oil consumption, we need to target those areas that make the biggest differences. Transportation is one such crucial area. Americans drive one-third of the world’s 750 million automobiles, and many American cars have low mileage-per-gallon efficiency. About 68 percent of the oil used in the United States goes toward transportation. Expansion of public transport systems (which requires investments) and increasing the fuel-efficiency standards of our vehicles (which requires legislation) would drastically reduce our dependency on imported oil. In both these areas, the government’s role is vital.

Here, we can learn from the Japanese. A person can live in Japan for years without needing to buy a car because of well-developed, frequent and safe electric trains, subways and buses. And Japanese car manufacturers have demonstrated that it is possible to design cars with high fuel standards without losing the market.

Developing fuel alternatives to gasoline is another important area for investments. For example, it currently takes 1.4 units of energy to produce the hydrogen needed to generate 1.0 unit of energy, and producing ethanol from biomass takes 1.7 times as much energy as the finished biofuel would produce. These numbers should not discourage our efforts to make such technologies more energy efficient; they should inspire us to invest more.

Developing technologies for diverse energy sources poses huge challenges, but also exciting and highly rewarding opportunities for companies and countries that develop new energy systems to power our ever-growing energy-based world. Early in the oil industry, the failure rate of drilling (dry holes) was high, and the recovery efficiency of oil from reservoirs was low.

Technology evolves as we engage in it. Currently, hybrid electric cars may be expensive, but so were calculators and personal computers when they emerged.

A public misconception is that petroleum is well-developed and readily available for use, while renewable energy sources are not. Every major energy technology has some ready-to-use and some not-ready-to-use components. Oil shale is a not-ready-to-use component for the petroleum industry; rooftop solar panels are a ready-to-use component for the solar industry. We do not have to wait to utilize other energy sources until we are supposedly running out of oil! Governments have a key role to play in creating both infrastructures and incentives for the emergence of various energy sources available to consumers as they have done for petroleum over the past century.

We can solve our energy problems only if we pursue fundamental energy solutions, and in this venture, our challenges are not totally technological or even financial. How soon the volatile energy costs can be stabilized depends on our priorities and vision. If we react on a seasonal basis — natural gas in the winter and gasoline in the summer — rather than on a sustained level, we may simply perpetuate the energy problems underlying the increasing energy costs.

Finally, as research scientists know, oftentimes the unexpected is more significant than the “expected significance” of research proposals. The same is also true for technology (supposedly an applied science).

When “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled the Titusville oil well in 1859, who could have imagined that the black oil would provide petrochemicals used in artificial hearts today? Likewise, who knows what is in store for us in our attempts to develop the science and technology for future diverse energy sources?


Sorkhabi is a research professor at the Energy & Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. He wrote about the state of Middle Eastern petroleum in the October 2005 Geotimes. Email: rsorkhabi@egi.utah.edu.

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