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.
By Anne and Paul Ehrlich
January/February 1981
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Anne and Paul Ehrlich have been active in ecology research and environmental activism since the 1970s.
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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.

On the other hand, home solar water heaters and farm biomass systems are so widely dispersed that no accident or terrorist action is likely to inconvenience or threaten great numbers of people. No special "solar police force" is likely to be required to guard rooftop solar collectors, or—for that matter—square miles of similar units making up solar electric power plants. But Britain already has an extraordinary Nuclear Police Force, and such a potentially freedom-threatening organization is thought by many in the United States to be a necessary price to pay for the "benefits" of nuclear power.

Another enormous advantage in the use of decentralized renewables comes in the area of risk/benefit analysis. As should be evident from our previous columns on energy matters, the costs of different energy technologies are difficult to assess.

For one thing, such results are often hard to predict: Is, for instance, a fossil-fuel-CO2 /climate-induced famine that kills a billion people more likely to happen than a nuclear-power/terrorist-induced atomic war that kills the same number?

For another thing, even where costs can be predicted with certainty, it's often extremely difficult to quantify or compare them. For example, while it's possible to say that acid rains are a serious threat to ecosystems, a quantitative assessment of their overall impact is impossible today and may well remain so permanently. And how is one to compare such ecosystem impact with, say, the risk of deaths, cancers, and mutations in the human population from a possible nuclear reactor meltdown? The apples vs. oranges problem pervades the assessment of costs—both realized and potential—of all energy technologies.

Indeed, the complexities of risk analysis are such that, even when it's done properly—which is certainly not always the case—the results will, at best, merely provide rough guidelines rather than sharp distinctions.

Who Pays?

A major complication, which physicist John Holdren has often pointed out, is that very often the benefits of an energy technology tend to be reaped by one group, while a large fraction of the costs are borne by other people distant in space or time.

Often, the rich power-users live in the clean air upwind from the utility plant, while the poor—whose per-capita energy use is lower—live in the smog downwind. And, as is well known, the lives of native Americans in the Southwest and ranchers in Montana are disrupted by the mining of coal, which primarily benefits people on the coasts. Hardly an equitable arrangement.

Should a climate change be brought on by CO2 in the atmosphere, generated primarily in the rich countries, the worst of the ensuing famines would almost certainly occur in poor nations. The mutations resulting from exposure to radioactivity and mutagenic chemicals released by power plants will cause health problems for centuries to come... and a thousand generations of descendants of those who use electricity generated in nuclear power plants may have to be concerned about the plutonium-laced waste that has been produced by such installations.

Holdren, one of the top experts in the field of energy risk analysis, has developed a two-pronged approach for dealing with these problems.

First, society should try to select energy options that allow the most significant external costs (like pollution) to be "internalized" by conventional means. For example; if the principal social and environmental impacts of a certain energy facility can be—and are—largely ameliorated by an expenditure of money, the costs will be "internal" to the bookkeeping of the utility company and therefore paid by the users of the power.

The second approach is set forth in Holdren's Principle: Energy options should be selected that tend to deposit on the same people who reap the benefits any costs that cannot be internalized monetarily. In other words, those who choose and use a particular energy technology should, as far as possible, pay the external as well as internal costs.

This would, of course, help solve the problem of "how much is enough." After all, if electricity is flowing to your house and the smoke from the generating plant floats into someone else's, you may demand more and more energy until the other person chokes or is buried in soot. But if you receive both the electricity and the pollution, you're likely to become a conservationist at a much earlier stage in the game ... since you can then subjectively measure the pleasures of high-energy living against the physical discomfort of choking and dealing with filth, as well as the mental anguish resulting from the specter of future cancers.

It's clear, even with the imperfect sort of risk analysis now possible, that decentralized renewable energy technologies are the most desirable under Holdren's Principle. More than any others, they place their environmental and social burdens on those who benefit from the energy produced.

Room for Mistakes

Reasoning similar to that presented in this column (and in our last one) has led energy expert Amory Lovins to urge strongly that society choose what he has labeled a "soft energy path"—based primarily on decentralized renewables—for future energy development ... a path that has room for many technologies. Lovins has concluded that there's already a large enough highly centralized, capital-intensive energy-mobilizing system in place, and that attempting to meet society's future needs with more of the same would be a serious error. The soft path, however, departs from—and is rooted in—a hard base.

There's been a great deal of debate regarding the feasibility of Lovins' path. "Hard technology buffs" (especially nuclear power advocates) tend to claim that not "enough" energy will become available from decentralized renewables ... whereas ample supplies can be provided by the "proven" technology of nuclear fission.

We believe that there's a simple way to resolve this argument. With reasonable conservation measures, more than enough fossil fuels are available to maintain industrial society for 50 years ... although a great deal of money will have to be spent on developing the most efficient ways to use them so that environmental impacts are minimized. Without conservation and care, dependence on fossil fuels could be a recipe for disaster.

With conservation and care, though, the continued use of fossil fuels can be a bridge to the future. At the same time, we can give careful attention to the most promising of the new technologies rather than engaging in crash programs that may turn out badly.

In short, the next two decades can be spent following Holdren's principle and exploring Lovins' path.

By the year 2000, the question of feasibility for many, if not most, of these new technologies should be answered. If all the decentralized renewables prove impractical, there will still be time to deploy an appropriate mix of hard technologies. And, by that time, it's possible that many of the technical problems (if not the social ones) associated with centralized solar power generation, synfuels, and/or both fission and fusion will have been solved.

On the other hand, if the hard path is taken now, there may never be a return to a soft one: It's very possible that the capital requirements of, say, going fully nuclear would so tax the world economy that another full-scale alternative could not be attempted if the nuclear route were later perceived to be a disastrous error. And some of the possible side effects of the hard path—notably climate modification and world war—might be irreversible.

The "soft path" strategy will—at the very least—leave our options open. The "hard" route might well foreclose them... and could be an extremely expensive road to a dead end.

The key article by Lovins is "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken" (Foreign Affairs, October 1976). Debates by Lovins and those advocating the "hard path" can be found in The Energy Controversy: Soft Path Questions and Answers, Hugh Nash, editor (Friends of the Earth, 1979). Holdren's Principle was formally enunciated in his "Observations for the California Energy Futures Conference" (Sacramento, May 20, 1978).  


Paul Ehrlich (Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University) and Anne Ehrlich (Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford) are familiar names to ecologists and environmentalists everywhere. As well they should be. Because it was Paul and Anne who—through their writing and research—gave special meaning to the words "population," "resources," and "environment" in the late 1960's. (They also coined the term coevolution, and did a lot to make ecology the household word it is today.) But while most folks are aware of the Ehrlichs' popular writing in the areas of ecology and overpopulation (most of us—for instance—have read Paul's book The Population Bomb), far too few people have any idea of how deeply the Ehrlichs are involved in ecological research (research of the type that tends to be published only in technical journals and college textbooks). That's why it pleases us to be able to present these semi-technical columns by authors/ecologists/educators Anne and Paul Ehrlich.  

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