The Dirty Energy Dilemma: What’s Blocking Clean Power in the United States

Benjamin K. Sovacool
A Review by Susan Froetschel

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address signaled new direction for the country’s energy policy: “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” At least for one US official, energy policy poses no dilemma.

Obama may want to harness new energies, but entrenched forces present plenty of obstacles, most social in nature, as elaborated by Benjamin K. Sovacool, author of “The Dirty Energy Dilemma: What’s Blocking Clean Power in the United States.”

Sovacool urges this generation to grasp the opportunity to shape the globe’s energy future, by making careful choices on what kind of power plants to build or fuels to promote. With energy supplying the lifeblood of modern economy, countries cannot allow volatile prices to delay clean-energy research or policy. Political leaders can either cling to the diminishing stock of dirty fuels of the past - or they can encourage new technology that relies on renewable and abundant resources. The dilemma is whether the US will stick with cheap electricity, regardless of costs to the environment, health and quality of life in our communities, or accept the initial cost to find alternatives and new systems of delivery.

A warning’s in order for those who read this book: Expect to feel the frustration of the astronomy community during the early 17th century, after Galileo was accused of heresy for supporting a theory - one proposed more than 70 years earlier - that the earth rotated around the sun, not the other way around.

Upon accepting the author’s premise, readers can’t help but do a complete overhaul of thinking about their dwellings, workplaces and lifestyle. The research requires breaking away from an insistence that there’s no problem in unthinking consumption, expecting uninterrupted electricity from faraway sources, to an individual responsibility that competes to save energy. One can imagine home construction that emphasizes energy savings, meters on all appliances, bikes outnumbering cars on streets, people carrying mini solar packs.

The book focuses on the world’s largest consumer of energy, the US, which with 5 percent of the world’s population, consumes 25 percent of its energy. But rather than set an example to conserve or take the lead in unleashing its technological prowess to develop new forms, the US lags behind other nations in energy innovation. This results in ignoring the conflicts over limited supplies in unstable nations, failing to develop forms that could lead to job growth, relying on a centralized infrastructure that’s vulnerable to disruption, shrugging about health and environmental costs.

Alternative fuels, not only clean and abundant, also help decentralize risks to the grid, prevent price shocks, minimize transportation expenses as well dependence on foreign oil or natural gas, and improve system resilience when outages do occur. “It is far more certain that the sun will shine and the wind blow tomorrow than that saboteurs will blow up a power station or snip a few transmission lines,” Sovacool notes.

However, the alternatives present a direct assault on the business plans of lucrative coal, oil and gas industries, threatening to reduce market share as the industry stands to profit big from dwindling supplies. “The lack of public interest in the electricity sector allows utilities and system operators to maintain control over their system and extract stable profits,” Sovacool writes.

The barriers to alternative energy are institutional, not technological, he suggests. Most politicians and regulators lack the courage to state the obvious: that environmental hazards are concentrated in poor and rural areas; that the bulk of oil, uranium and natural gas reserves are concentrated beyond US borders and in limited supply. One of the most shocking revelations - and this book has plenty - is that the electrical industry accounts for 40 percent of US freshwater withdrawal, even as most states anticipate shortages over the next 10 years.

As a result, the US is ill prepared to handle a demand for electricity expected to double by 2050. Electricity is a necessity in the modern world, labeled by some as the greatest innovation of the last century. But the industry has lulled the public into thinking that there’s only a few ways to create and deliver the product - bypassing solar, wind or geothermal sources in favor of nuclear, coal or liquefied natural gas.

Sovacool reviews the problems with each of these three energy makers: Nuclear waste can be radioactive for years, and the US government has yet to decommission plants or enrichment facilities that have already retired or had accidents; a process for so-called “clean” coal has yet to be invented and storage of sludge waste can contaminate groundwater as Tennessee learned in December 2008; natural gas is subject to severe disruptions, with storage tanks serving as targets for the disgruntled and the bulk of reserves that the US must rely on located abroad, mostly in unstable countries.

If the US commits to any of these three sources, immense costs will shift to future generations, Sovacool warns, as producers pointedly ignore the costs of poor air quality, care of people with respiratory and asthma problems, water shortages or land reclamation. Americans who fret about high taxes, government control and any discomfort including minor disruptions in electricity are poised to pass on a larger set of worries to their children, he charges.

The book offers substantial solutions, emphasizing conservation, energy efficiency and state-of-the-art technology - while analyzing the reasons behind society’s earlier aversion to previous inventions that eventually became accepted.

Disinterest in the issue plays into the hands of fossil-fuel providers. Even a Democratic Congress failed to renew credits for renewables in July 2008 while extending tax credits to nuclear power plants until 2030. The FY 2009 US Department of Energy budget calls for increased R&D funding for fossil fuels, while reducing it for renewables. The US must take a second look at its diverse, rich potential alternative energy sources - winds whipping its plains and coast, sun drenching the west and south, and geothermal heat not far below the earth’s surface.

Widespread ignorance about energy science, mechanics and politics ensures that the topic will remain contentious. Understanding the attributes of fuels, conservation techniques, placement of trees on the west side of homes in colder climes and most windows on the south side in the northern hemisphere - the opposite in the southern hemisphere - could save money and grief for citizens, especially homebuilders, town managers and corporations.

The current system that provides electricity could not survive without supporting politics and policy, Sovacool suggests. Yet alternative sources are gaining ground rapidly throughout the world without the same levels of subsidy and intervention.

Graphs and charts strengthen his argument; his sources are strong, especially when the information comes from the US Department of Energy and companies that hesitated to make alternatives a priority. This reader only wishes that Sovacool would have written more about the global energy landscape, with conflicts already emerging over increasing competition for limited reserves and disregard for neighbors’ air or water.

Grappling with a topic that too many find boring, Sovacool ignites new passion to conserve energy, experiment with alternatives to fossil fuels, while seeking independence from suppliers who resent their customers along with a grid that’s antiquated and burdensome. Obama’s inaugural address offers hope that the time has come for the US to recognize that self-restraint can produce more freedom and happiness than excess, and Sovacool’s book joins a rallying cry that marks the end of an era of so much wasted potential.

The impediments to new energy forms are social and political, based on greed.
© 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization