Fuel shortages and jimmy carter

“You’re hitting your head against a stone wall,” his advisors told him. A revolution and hostage taking in Iran destabilized global oil and energy markets. An accident at Three Mile Island halted the nuclear industry’s momentum. Environmentalists demanded electricity from more expensive alternative energy sources. A persistent recession gutted any economic growth. And Jimmy Carter, an engineer trying to resolve America’s energy issues, was exhausted. In looking back on how it felt to deal with these problems, Carter shook his head - “it was like gnawing on a rock.”

America’s trying energy issues during the late 1970s were very similar to ours today. A nuclear accident shocked the industry. Unrest in the Middle East shook confidence in the global oil market, raising concerns about the nations level of energy security. Political rhetoric supported the production of domestic resources for greater energy independence. The president installed a solar system on top of the White House.

Sound familiar? In his book The Quest, Daniel Yergin offers: “It is almost as though a time chasm has closed, compressing the decades and conjoining the late 1970s with the second decade of the twenty-first century” (Yergin, 529).   

However, on the other side of this “time chasm,” what have we learned as a nation?

We still don’t have a cohesive national energy and environmental policy. Wind, solar and other types of renewable energy have made promising advances, but still cost more than conventional sources and are intermittent. Our existing nuclear power plant fleet has reached once unimagined capacity and efficiency factors, but new nuclear is extraordinarily expensive and difficult to justify without a firm policy to address climate change. Natural gas produced from shale deposits has changed the economic equation of building power plants and substantially reduced our emissions, but is it a safe bet for the long-term given its historic price volatility?

Although we face many of the same issues, globalization and the digital era have fundamentally altered life as we know it since the 1970s. The energy sector is rapidly adapting to these challenges thanks to these amazing advancements, among many others:

  • Information technology is driving the reconfiguration of our aging control rooms, operations centers, seismic instruments, and our grid especially.  
  • Sensors located within our distribution network are providing more rapid and integrated two-way communication.
  • Micro-grids offer exciting new possibilities for distributed generation and bringing power to economically developing nations.
  • Gasification technology has dramatically reduced sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emissions from coal-fired power generation. 
  • Innovators in the nuclear industry are researching and modeling the viability of modular nuclear power units.

These are just a few of the many innovations driving progress in the energy sector. Some utilities and their regulators are ready to embrace these changes, while others are more cautious.

Nevertheless, as our knowledge of climate change and how we can address it deepens, it’s time to examine our country’s energy strategy in order to march toward a low-carbon future.

Unconventional and unpredictable

On April 18th, 1977, Carter painted a grim picture for the U.S. in a national address. Americans needed to prepare to cut back on oil and natural gas consumption drastically to conserve the world’s “rapidly shrinking resources.” He explained the alternative as a “national catastrophe,” and deemed mitigation efforts as the “moral equivalent of war.” People were anxious.

Fast-forward 35 years.

In 2013, the United States will overtake Russia as the world’s top producer of oil and natural gas. Had you told this to Carter’s energy advisors, they would have looked at you like you had just stepped off a shuttle from Neptune.

Unexpected advances in fracking technologies have made harvesting the country’s vast reserves of tight oil and shale gas the new normal, and even more advances in fracking are expected. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions are at or below targets the Waxman-Markey climate change legislation envisioned for the year 2020 – and this decrease was almost completely driven by market-based solutions, not federal regulations.  

Efficient combined-cycle natural gas plants are being developed around the country, and are more often than not dispatched before even the most advanced coal plants.  

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s gas price projections bounce below $5 per million BTU through 2024, and their production estimates for U.S. shale gas reach around 15 trillion cubic feet per year in 2035. Carter and his advisors could never have foreseen this “shale gale,” and the Obama administration has been smart to embrace it. It’s creating thousands of jobs, and it’s a primary reason many regions are pulling out of the recession.  

Taking stock

So what do America’s energy options look like today? The outlook for new coal is uncertain, as the EPA hashes out Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Utilities are very cautious to pursue expensive new nuclear power plants, particularly without a price on carbon to help justify the investment. Oil and natural gas have reached historic levels of production. Wind power had a great year in 2012, but has encountered significant uncertainty in 2013 as its main federal incentive, the Production Tax Credit, is set to expire soon. Solar power is booming; today in the U.S., a solar system is installed every four minutes. Our grid will require further investments if we are to achieve greater levels of energy efficiency.

In July, 1913, Winston Churchill addressed Parliament regarding energy security: “On no one quality, on no one process, on no one country, on no one route, and on no one field must we be dependent…Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone” (Yergin, 267). Variety is the key. Jim Rogers, former CEO of Duke Energy, reinforced this idea in stating there is no silver bullet, but rather “silver buckshot.” Each and every energy source has to play a role in the model of the future, and information technology is increasingly able to patch everything together in a way that works.

But beyond technology, we have to think about why embracing change in the energy sector is important. Climate change is real, it’s a problem, and the sooner we address it, the less expensive it will be in the long run. It’s troubling to think our world could look dramatically different in as little time as half a century. I can imagine a time when BBC’s Planet Earth serves as an artifact for our great grandchildren, showcasing the planet as it once looked and breathed. I’d rather act now to push for a smarter energy future so David Attenborough’s great, great grandchild can narrate a series even more breathtaking.

Yergin, Daniel. The Quest: Energy Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. London: Penguin, 2012. Print.

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