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A History of the Future of Energy

Drake's oil well in Titusvill, PA

Back in 1976, when I was completing my Masters Degree in Management Engineering, I wrote a thesis on the Future of Energy.

At that time, I focused on the primary sources of energy: oil, coal and nuclear energy.

Once of the major questions that I attempted to answer was — is the world running out of oil?

What prompted this question were two factors. First, we were coming off of a period of rising gasoline prices and shortages seen as long lines at the pumps. Second, the media was running stories that the world had only twenty years of oil left, so we better start doing something quickly.

Well, the world hasn't run out of oil. It wasn't running out of oil then, and it's not running out of oil now. The simple fact is — the forecast that we were running out of oil was a forecast made by the oil exploration companies. This was a forecast similar to forecasts that they had been making since the first drilling of commercial oil wells.

The bottom line is that it is damn hard to predict the future — and virtually impossible to predict the future 20 years out.

So, what the oil companies were really saying is based on their available technology at the time, the known extractable deposits of oil would last 20 years at the expected usage rates.

This estimate could not take into account places around the globe that had not been explored, locations that were too severe to justify exploration, and technologies such as fracking that had yet to be discovered.

So, as I predicted in 1976, we were unlikely to run out of oil by 1996 — but in 1996, and probably in 2016, we would be faced with an estimated "only 20 years of oil left in the world."

But now a-days, we see it more as a political, economic and environmental issue — take your choice.

I then took a look at coal — the old standby. Coal was getting a bad wrap — mostly due to the burning of soft coal — hard coal wasn't a problem but soft coal was much cheeper.

Soft coal, bituminous as it is commonly called, contains sulfur. I remember, growing up in New York City in the 1950s, Con Edison was burning bituminous, and during summer months when I wasn't away at camp, I coughed and wheezed. They eventually added air pollution abatement equipment — the air quality improved.

Another problem with bituminous was it was extracted by strip mining — the landscape was decimated. Few of us have been to Paradise, Paradise, Kentucky specifically — although many are familiar with John Prine's song, Paradise. I've been there, and all I can say is, if you returned to the Earth and landed in Paradise, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish it from the lunar surface. So, coal was a no-go.

The third of the mega-energy choices was nuclear energy. This was back in the days when the great fear was that a nuclear energy plant would become an atomic bomb. Hasn't exactly happened yet although we have seen Chernobyl and Fukuyama cause massive issues. Remember "Ban the Bomb?"

At the time, we did wonder about what to do with the radioactive waste. Still do.

Meanwhile, we still have hydraulic dams — although with the droughts in California and the fish kills, they have their downsides. Then there's wind power — when the wind blows and the birds don't die.

Which brings us to solar. I had my year old roof-mounted solar panels cleaned today — not a big deal if you don't mind climbing on a steep roof. But also in todays LA Times is an article about what to do with when it's time to retire your solar panels. The good news is they are mostly glass and aluminum, The bad news is the glass is typically contaminated with lead ± which makes it unsuitable to be recycled.

So, here it is 35 years later and we are still writing the History of the Future of Energy.

~ Al Zagofsky






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