America's Untapped Energy Resources
The fifth in a weekly series of articles RCP is publishing through Election Day to explore policymakers’ decisions regarding this crucial sector of the economy
Sixty-two years ago, in a speech to the National Association of Science Writers, a U.S. government official named Lewis L. Strauss extolled his vision of America’s energy future.
“Our children,” Strauss told the journalists assembled in New York City, “will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”
Plentiful and cheap power has been mankind’s Holy Grail since the dawn of the Industrial Age. It was mostly coal-generated, at first, soon to be supplemented in the 19th century by petroleum products. The quest continues. Today, we still mine coal and refine crude oil, and pipe natural gas. We harness the wind, the tides, and the rivers while also tapping energy sources ranging in size from the sun to the atom.
“All of the above” is the mantra of U.S. politicians —Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — when discussing future energy sources. With burgeoning energy needs here and around the globe, an eclectic approach makes economic, as well as political sense. Right now, America’s energy mix is as shown in this graphic from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:
Clearly there are trends: Coal is declining, with renewables on the ascent. So where else is this mix headed — and what are the most promising untapped resources of the future? Here are five.
What’s new: This month, five towering turbines emerging from the ocean floor off the coast of Rhode Island’s Block Island will send electric energy via an underground cable to land. The offshore machines will supply enough electricity to power 17,000 homes, a project that heralds a new horizon in America’s renewable energy future.
Pros: Although the project, constructed by a firm called Deepwater Wind, is tiny compared to similar enterprises in Northern Europe, it is an immediate benefit to residents of Block Island, who pay some of the highest electrical rates in the country. Moreover, it shows the rest of the country that harnessing this source of energy can be done.
In the United States, with its vast coastlines, this was always more of a political problem than a technological one. Despite massive investments, a planned offshore windfarm in Nantucket Sound called Cape Wind was derailed by the opposition of wealthy local landowners, including liberals on record as supporting alternative energy. Meanwhile, however, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced a clean energy standard that anticipates 50 percent of the state’s power will come from renewables by 2030. That implies a heavy investment in wind power.
Cons: It is not a predictable level of power. Sometimes the wind simply does not blow. “Wind and solar electricity are volatile,” notes Salisbury University economics professor Dan Ervin. “The level of electricity can change from zero to full capacity and back to zero in a short time period (five minutes or less).”
Wind energy proponents don’t deny this, but their proposed remedies, which include curtailing energy usage at peak times, could entail the remote shutoff of such amenities as hot-water heaters or air-conditioning and heating systems—not measures Americans would appreciate.
Technological challenge: Although they are three miles from Block Island, the new turbines are in fairly shallow water. But the windiest offshore areas present more formidable underwater terrain.
“The turbines at Block Island are 90 feet deep,” Jeffrey Grybowski, Deepwater Wind’s CEO, noted in an interview with environmental writer Heather Smith. “If you go fifteen miles off the Pacific coast you are thousands of feet deep. Hawaii is basically the tip of a mountaintop.”
“So the solution you would need to go to the Pacific is a structure that floats,” Grybowski added. “There are no commercial floating wind farms in the world today – just a handful of R&D projects. The technology just isn’t quite ready.”
Offshore Atlantic Ocean Oil and Gas
What’s new: The belief that rich oil and gas deposits lie in waters of the Atlantic’s Outer Continental Shelf is an old one—the government leased the first tracts there in 1976—but what is new is the ability to extract it profitably.
In 2014, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management upped its estimates drastically, reporting that some 4.7 billion barrels of oil and 37.6 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas was waiting to be tapped of the Atlantic Coast. That turns out to be only the start of the argument.
Pros: When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory contemplates his state’s 300 miles of coastline, he says he imagines windmills (to supplement inland solar farms), but the energy source that really brightens his pilot light are the vast oil and gas deposits in the Outer Continental Shelf. McCrory is not alone. When they saw a 2013 consultant’s report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the governors of Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia concurred.
The highlights of that report, done by Quest Offshore, estimated that offshore drilling for oil and gas could generate some 280,000 new jobs for the local economy while adding the equivalent of 1.3 million barrels of oil per day to America’s domestic energy generation.
Cons: Those four governors, McCrory, Nathan Deal of Georgia, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe, are a bipartisan group. But so is the local opposition in coastal communities, a phenomenon that has long been present on the West Coast. In addition, opposition to offshore exploration, let alone drilling, is becoming a Democratic Party tenet.
Last week, 73 Democratic (and one coastal-district Republican) members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama urging him to use executive authority to “fully withdraw” the U.S. from future offshore drilling endeavors. Furthermore, the lawmakers contended that the president has the authority to make such a unilateral decision permanent; i.e., it cannot be reversed by a future Congress or presidents.
Obama didn’t go that far -- the legal reasoning is dubious -- but the administration has reversed field on allowing Atlantic offshore leasing to go forward. The upshot is that political opposition to offshore drilling has jelled at a time when plentiful shale deposits are already challenging the economic feasibility of launching new underwater projects.
Technological challenge: Although most of the offshore oil rigs in U.S. waters are in the Gulf of Mexico, the first ones were in the Pacific, just off the coast of Summerland, California, in Santa Barbara County. In 1896, a 300-foot-long pier was built, with an oil rig at the end of it.
By the turn of the century, the Summerland oil field would host 14 piers and some 400 wells. In California’s offshore heyday, 1,300 rigs were located off that coast, a boom that crested in 1969 with the Santa Barbara oil spill that prompted the state’s legislature to ban new state-controlled leases.
At a time when “Deepwater Horizon” is playing in movie theaters, the tricky aspect of offshore drilling remains: extract the crude oil without spilling it.
What’s new: Solar has long been considered -- and not only by oil patch wildcatters -- the epitome of tree-huggers’ collective fantasies. Among Republicans, the mere mention of the word triggers a Pavlovian response: “Solyndra.” This reaction is understandable, given the Obama administration’s $528 million debacle -- that’s the size of the bag taxpayers were left holding when the California-based solar company when bankrupt after taking half a billion dollars in federal government assistance.
Except that a funny thing happened after Solyndra went belly up: The technology of solar panels kept improving, and the price of installing them declined precipitously. Solar, pardon the pun, is hot. The International Energy Agency asserts that by 2050 the sun could be the world’s largest supplier of energy.
Pros: Solar was always a feel-good technology. Now, with a worldwide glut of solar panels, improved technology, and competitive pricing, it can be a rational business investment. Solar is a booming, albeit niche, business in Bellingham, Wash. Located 100 miles north of Seattle on the state’s rainy and often cloudy coast, success there shows that solar can thrive almost anywhere.
Bellingham businessman Kerry Byford, co-owner of Irongate Machines, installed a solar system that he calculates will save his machine shop some $12,000 a year in electricity costs. When he initially considered going solar a few years ago, Byford was told that it would take 14 years to recoup his capital investment. That has been reduced to five years, which makes it feasible.
Cons: The main problem with solar is the same as with wind: The sun does not always shine. Storing power for peak times is expensive and it will also require costly alterations to the current energy grid.
“Solar is better than wind for providing electricity when electricity is used,” Daniel Simmons of the Institute for Energy Research said recently. “But during much of the year … peak electricity demand comes after dark … [when] solar production [is] zero.”
Technological challenge: The biggest tasks ahead are: (a) developing commercial solar cells, usually made from silicon, that convert sunlight into electricity more efficiently; and (b) storing solar-generated electricity more efficiently.
The second challenge is the more immediate issue. Because solar photovoltaic cells generate electricity only when the sun’s rays hit them, solar can only become a dominant energy source when scientists learn to store it inexpensively.
What’s new: Western Europe is phasing out its nuclear power plants, while only three of Japan’s 54 reactors have come back on line in the five years since the Fukushima disaster. California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., is also wary of reactors located near fault lines or coastal areas; it announced plans to close its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant within the next decade – PG&E’s last nuclear facility.
But all is not lost in this sector. After taking a brief respite after Fukushima, China continues to construct nuclear power plants at a steady pace. Here at home, Tennessee’s Watts Bar Unit 2, the first nuclear reactor constructed to completion in the U.S. in 20 years, began operating at full power this past weekend.
Pros: One of the enduring mysteries of the debate over climate change is why the most prominent individuals and organizations sounding the alarm over global warming had never embraced—and in many cases, actively opposed—nuclear energy. Put simply, harnessing the atom is a “clean” energy: It does not produce carbon emissions. And its supply is nearly inexhaustible.
Cons: What it does produce, however, is nuclear waste, highly radioactive and long-lasting spent fuel rods that politicians do not want in their congressional districts or even their state. (See: Harry Reid, Yucca Mountain.)
The other issue is the cost. This was the energy source Lewis Strauss was referring to when he predicted that Americans would have power too plentiful and cheap to bother metering. The ensuing decades have taught us differently: Nuclear plants are expensive to build, at least if you want to do it safely. Watts Bar 2, for example took $4.7 billion and nine years to construct. It’s going to produce a lot of energy for the Tennessee Valley Authority, but at those prices, it had better.
Technological challenge: Preventing meltdowns is the issue that concerns authorities, and the place-names where the cores of nuclear reactors have overheated are well-known: Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island. For energy experts, however, the key scientific hurdle for nuclear is those spent fuel rods.
For decades, U.S. plants have been burying nuclear waste deep underground, which is an unsatisfactory stop-gap solution. Possible breakthroughs are on the horizon, the most intriguing of which involves recycling the waste.
One of them entails using Californium, an element discovered at the University of California, Berkeley in 1950, as a bonding agent with radioactive waste in ways that allow it to be purified and rendered re-usable. Another approach, also still in the experimental stage, involves a theory called molten salt reactors, which would be designed to use uranium that has been dissolved in liquid salt. The idea here is that the reactor burns more slowly than traditional breeder reactors, making it easier to prevent a meltdown, and also utilizing nuclear materials currently classified as spent fuel.
What’s new: For most people, closer to home than nuclear waste is food, plant, animal, and human waste. Can it be converted into energy? Some enterprising individuals, businesses, and governments are already doing it.
Remember the “Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor” featured in Hollywood’s “Back to the Future” movies? The year is 2015, and Emmett “Doc” Brown tosses a banana peel, and pours the contents of a beer can—and then tosses the can itself -- into the coffee-maker-sized nuclear reactor to power the “flux capacitor” that makes time travel possible.
We’re not there yet, but a Seattle microbrewery has partnered with a local start-up named Impact Bioenergy to convert spent yeasts and grains it was flushing down the drain into electricity. Bigger projects are being launched all over the country. The city of Grand Junction, Colo., is using a process called anaerobic digestion at its wastewater treatment plant to convert human waste into renewable natural gas, which it uses in a fleet of city-owned vehicles, including garbage trucks and transit buses. At an aircraft factory in Oswego, N.Y., Lockheed Martin produces 250 kilowatts of power by burning discarded wood chips.
Pros: A United Nations report estimates that if every toilet in the world converted human waste to energy, its value would approach $10 billion. That makes it sound as though conversion kits should be a no-brainer, especially in the parts of the world with no waste-treatment facilities at all. It’s hard to even think of human waste as a “clean” source of energy, but in terms of reducing hazardous emissions that’s exactly what it is.
Cons: Let’s just say it: This energy source is not glamorous and strikes many people, including investors, as disgusting. The end result is that has been difficult to get banks and venture capitalists to pony up the money to build the necessary infrastructure required for converting household human waste into Renewable Natural Gas, or RNG. As Jeremy Kranowitz, executive director at Sustainable America, memorably told The Guardian, “People don’t really want to finance shit.”
Technological challenge: Not surprisingly, given how scarce land is in Europe and how many people live in China, Europe leads the way in converting farm waste to bio-gas, while China is most aggressively pursuing the conversion of human waste. Toyota is starting to use human sludge to fuel its hydrogen fuel-cell car. The ultimate goal, however, is to convert household toilets into energy producers that would power the homes where the waste is generated.
“Our ultimate goal,” says South Korean professor Jaeweon Cho, who has pioneered a waterless toilet, “[is] to establish an ecosystem that supports technology innovation and drives economic diversification where human waste literally has a financial value.”