Future Energy Sources

In 1981 Anne and Paul Ehrlich argued our future energy sources should follow a "soft" path of reliance on conservation and decentralized renewables rather than the "hard" path of centralized generation.

| January/February 1981

067 future energy sources - Fotolia

The future energy sources we choose will have a decisive role in our future quality of life.


If you accept the ecologists' view of the "energy crisis"—that the heart of the problem, at least in overdeveloped countries, is too much use, rather than too little supply—the framework of the debate concerning our possible future energy sources changes fundamentally. Its focus is no longer on how to get rapid short-term increases in supply and long-term superabundance, but instead on how to achieve rapid short-term reductions in demand and a long-term sufficient supply, with a minimum of destructive ecological and social side effects.

Even those who take the "too little" view of the energy situation are beginning to realize that conservation, which dampens demand, is the only feasible solution in the very short term. The fact is, you see, that even the most dramatic possible commitments to more nuclear power plants, synfuels (coal gasification and liquefaction, fuels from oil shales and tar sands), solar power, or what have you will produce little impact on energy supplies for a decade or more.

The need to conserve in the near future is, then, more or less agreed upon. But such necessity is seen as a permanent feature of our energy economy by those with the ecological view. The long-term commitment to conservation is not espoused, of course, by the "too little" crowd. For example, Roy Meader has written in Future Energy Alternatives (Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1979): "When fusion energy becomes available, as the experts confidently expect, it may come suddenly like a blinding flash of light and inspire a worldwide religious revival, singing in the streets, and a veritable orgy of turning on all lights and air conditioners and letting them run till dawn."

But divergent as the different points of view are, we believe that both schools of thought would concur on another point: Whatever energy is mobilized for society—everything else being equal—it should be mobilized in a manner that is least disruptive socially, as well as environmentally.

Safety in Decentralization

In a previous column we argued that the renewables—which are primarily various forms of solar energy—appear to be the most benign alternatives from the standpoint of the health of both human beings and ecosystems. Fusion might be equally (or more) benign, but this cannot be judged at the present time.

One significant advantage of a variety of renewable power sources is that of decentralization. Today's major energy technologies tend to be highly centralized and thus subject to control or disruption by actions taken at "key" points, from nuclear power plants to the oil tanker routes through the Straits of Hormuz. An accident or terrorist action at any such central locale could result in inconvenience, danger, or injury to many people over vast areas.

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