To become energy secure, America must transition to sustainable energy

One the hardest political challenges any nation faces is to prepare to avoid possible future hard times in the midst of current good times. Today, prudent Americans understand that the time to  begin America’s transition to practical sustainable energy is now while America still has plentiful supplies of affordable fossil fuel energy to make this transition orderly without substantially impacting America’s prosperity.

Fossil fuels enabled America’s growing prosperity

Pre-industrial revolution log cabin built in Ohio in the early 1800s. (Credit: J. M. Snead.)
Pre-industrial revolution log cabin built in Ohio in the early 1800s. (Credit: J. M. Snead.)

America began to industrialize in the early 1800s, creating a prosperous middle class. Industrialization enabled the thermal energy released by the combustion of carbon fuels—initially wood, then coal—to create mechanical power using steam engines. This mechanical power increased the economic output of each hour of human effort, enabling increased personal wealth and a rising standard of living.

When the first European settlers arrived in today’s United States in the early 1600s, the United States had about one million square miles of old growth forests. By the 1830s, about a generation after the cabin in the above photograph was built on the Ohio frontier, America’s increasing population—then only about 15 million—and rising standard of living created a demand for wood fuel that could not be met near cities in a sustainable manner. As it was impractical to try to move wood fuel long distances by wagons or river barges, clear cutting of forests was undertaken to meet the demand. Thus, even though wood fuel was still being used, it had become a non-sustainable energy source. Since roughly the 1830s, the United States’ growing prosperity has depended on non-sustainable energy supplies. However, a scientific understanding of the environmental consequences of these changes would not emerge for another 150 years.

In the 1840s, coal became the replacement fuel for wood. Coal was particularly important for the growth of railroads as tracks could be laid right to the mouth of the coal mines enabling a convenient supply of fuel. By the 1880s, coal had become America’s primary energy source, soon to be augmented by liquid fuels distilled from crude oil (e.g., kerosene for lighting and gasoline for engines) and by natural gas distributed by pipelines.

America’s industrial revolution and dependence on fossil fuels came about through humanity’s instinctual search for a better life. Together, these enabled families to move from the crowded inner cities to establish the single-family home suburban style of living that is characteristic of America.

The photograph below is of the Wright Brothers family home in Dayton, Ohio. (This home is now at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.) Around the time this photograph was taken, the single-family home was connected to one of the nation’s first commercial natural gas supplies providing fuel for lighting and cooking. After nearly a century of the steam-powered industrial revolution, by 1900 a steadily increasing number of Americans were living a modern American lifestyle with natural gas or electric lighting, natural gas cooking, coal heating, and telephones. Radio and automobiles would become common within a generation.

Front of Wright family home, Dayton, Ohio, around 1897. (Credit: Library of Congress, no known restrictions.)

The limits of America’s remaining fossil fuel endowment

Recognizing that America’s continued use of fossil fuels is contributing to the abnormally high and rising atmospheric CO2 concentration, it is simply wrong to ignore this issue while also simplistically assuming that America’s fossil fuel supplies will last so far into the future that no attention now needs to be given to building sustainable energy replacements.

Everyone understands that fossil fuels are non-sustainable. How much of oil, natural gas, and coal remain is determined by how much of the original resource remains and what portion of this can be safely and legally recovered using available technological means. What can be recovered is called the technically recoverable endowment.

In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated how much oil, gas, and coal is technically recoverable. By comparing this to the rate these three fuels were used by Americans in 2015, the remaining life of the technically recoverable endowment can be estimated. Modern cars do a similar calculation to show the driver how many miles can be driven on the gasoline remaining in the car’s tank. The fossil fuel gauges below show the estimated life of the each fuel’s endowment in terms of years.

Guages showing the remaining life of U.S. oil, natural gas, and coal.

At American’s 2015 consumption rates, if America become energy independent for oil, America’s remaining oil endowment will last about 43 years; America’s remaining natural gas endowment will last about 82 years; and, America’s remaining coal endowment will last over 300 years. If coal is also used to replace oil, perhaps using a synthetic oil produced from coal or generating additional electricity for electric cars, the coal endowment’s life falls to about 100 years. The end of fossil fuel use this century in America is now in sight.

While America has been dependent on non-sustainable carbon fuels for its industrial prowess and economic prosperity for nearly 200 years, America must now transition to sustainable energy by the end of this century. The following narrated, thirteen-minute video provides details on the life of America’s fossil fuel endowment and on what it will take to replace fossil fuels.

What does it take to replace fossil fuels?

To replace fossil fuels, electricity must be generated by sustainable means. Generators, such as those at the Hoover Dam, produce electrical power. At full power, the Hoover Dam can generate about two billion watts or two gigawatts (GW) of electrical power.

One of the Hoover Dam's two powerhouses. (Credit: U.S. Government.)
One of the Hoover Dam’s two powerhouses. (Credit: U.S. Government.)

As noted in the above video, the population of the United States will increase to, perhaps, 500 million by 2100. Today, fossil fuels provide 80 percent of the energy Americans use. Thus, by 2100, new sustainable energy sources for about 400 million Americans will be needed to replace fossil fuels. Also as noted in the video, 1-GW of continuous electrical power will meet the annual energy needs of about 100,000 Americans. Thus, 4,000 1-GW power stations—the equivalent of 2,000 Hoover Dams—must be built by 2100 to replace fossil fuels.

Most Americans do not fully appreciate what it will take for America to achieve true energy security and energy Independence using sustainable energy. But, if future Americans are to be energy secure, then America must build the equivalent of roughly 2,000 Hoover Dams this century before our technically recoverable fossil fuel endowment is exhausted. Obviously, this will become a major government and commercial priority.

Acting on President Trump’s call for American energy independence

On June 29, 2017, President Trump announced his America First Energy Plan. In his remarks, he called for American energy independence along with an expansion of American energy production to “provide true energy security to our friends, partners, and allies all across the globe.”

The following three-minute video is an excerpt of his remarks:

 

While President Trump’s remarks focused on economically exploiting America’s technically recoverable fossil fuel endowment, he did not mention sustainable energy. Yet, reasonable Americans understand that true sustainable energy security will only come from transitioning to practical sustainable energy sources.

Thus, for President Trump’s energy policy of achieving energy independence to be realized, his America First Energy Plan must expand to include an orderly transition to sustainable energy to replace diminishing affordable fossil fuels later this century. Without an orderly transition, the energy security of future Americans as well as America’s friends, partners, and allies will end later this century creating a likely political, economic, and military disaster.

It is clear that in these times of plentiful fossil fuels, America must also act to secure tomorrow’s energy independence by undertaking GEO space solar power now.