The Energy Net

Abalone Editorials
Let's Have an Energy Debate
Energy Impacts
Fire to Fusion
$50 Billion for Diablo
Nuclear Terrorism


Fire to Fusion Resource Index

What is energy? From fire to fusion, energy is the primal force that drives our universe. Without it, our modern world could not exist. Whether it is a match that produces one British Thermal Unit (BTU) of energy or the power of the sun, energy is the pulse that animates the universe we inhabit.

Most of us tend to take the role of electricity or gas for granted. However, when the car runs out of gas in the middle of the freeway or the lights go out, the impacts to our daily life can be dramatic. The recent energy crisis in California has resulted in a couple of hours without power, yet the greater implications of dramatic price increases and future blackouts has put energy policy on the front page of newspapers around the world.

The changes in our energy use from year to year are essentially unnoticeable. Yet if we compare this country's energy use at the time of the civil war with today, we find that our technological progress has shifted us from a agricultural society to an urban service economy. Back then 80% of all productive output in this country came from the muscles of animals or people. Today muscle power makes up less than 1% of our output!

Energy Consumption in the United States, 1775-1999 (Source EIA)

Energy consumption patterns worldwide are one of the clearest ways to see how various countries are progressing. The U.S. is the largest consumer of energy in the world, using nearly a quarter of all energy produced world-wide, or 97,000,000,000,000,000 (quadrillion) BTU's. America's march towards modernization in the last 50 years dramatically shows that our consumption of energy has increased four fold.

U.S. Energy Consumption by Sector 1949-1999 (Source EIA)

The harnessing of carbon based fuels, such as coal, oil or natural gas has revolutionized human existence. The benefits have changed the way we live today. However, our growing reliance on non-renewable energy sources is also linked to every major environmental issue that is endangering the Earth's fragile eco-systems and ultimately all life. If Earth's human population all used the same amount of energy we currently do in America, the world's current consumption of 400 quadrillion BTU's of power annually would skyrocket 20 fold to nearly 8,000 quadrillion BTU's.

Such a dramatic increase in energy consumption is not sustainable. Yet Most countries in the world are pushing to develop the same kind of lifestyle as us. The non-renewable fossil fuel reserves we still have left will not support such a dramatic increase, nor could the Earth's environment.

Oil's Role in Shaping America

The driving force behind America's technological rennaisance is energy and at its heart is oil. For over 100 years we have used oil as the foundation of our society's growth. The largest economic infrastructure in the U.S. has been the Oil-Car-Steel-Road Construction industries, with cheap and abundant oil being the primary enabling player at the table.

In the 1950's a geologist named M.K. Hubbert developed a model to predict future oil availability. He predicted at that time that the U.S. would peak in 1970. Like a big bathtub, we are now seeing less and less good quality oil, which costs more to extract. Cheap american oil is going away and won't come back.

The writing is on the wall! We either need to start preparing for another fuel to replace oil or redesign our communities so we don't need to use oil for routine needs like driving to work.

It took over 100 years to build our transporation infrastructure. We need to start planning for the future as if our lives depended on it!

U.S. Oil Production 1949-1999 (Source EIA)

At a time when access to cheap oil has dwindled, our demand for more gas for driving cars has increased dramatically during the 1990's as programs to increase efficiency were stopped in congress. In fact, California's campaign to introduce alternative fuel vehicles on the state's highways was literally wiped out due to a major campaign by the oil - car industries. As a result our reliance on imported oil has sored. This reliance has many impacts on society, but most important are the economic and security based concerns.

U.S. Oil Imports 1949-1999 (Source EIA)







The oil crisis of the 1970's awoke us to our addictive complacency. The impacts on society were dramatic. With each crisis in the middle east, all sectors of American society were affected due to increased energy costs. A massive campaign to reduce energy use was set in motion. The Department of Energy was created with the purpose of monitoring energy development and helping to foster energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

The public response filled our streets with more efficient cars from Japan and Europe. This in turn forced Detroit to increase efficiency on their new cars. The popular demand for Amory Lovin's Soft Path was a rallying cry for changing the way we utilize energy.

As a result of the programs to increase energy efficiency, America was witnessing something never before seen in U.S. energy usage, a reduction in the amount of energy being used by the general public. In fact, conservation measures saved more energy than was created from all other sources between 1973 to 1987 and at a far cheaper price.

U.S. Energy Efficiency 1973-1986 (Source EIA)

Depending on where you lived in the country, states like California and the northeast were able to move forward with their energy conservation programs. As a result, These areas of the country have helped to reduce energy usage and become role models.

State Energy Consumption 1997 (Source: EIA)

An interesting note that Texas, with a third the population uses nearly 50% more energy than California. In the graph below, California is 48th in per capita energy usage. The states with the largest per capita users of energy in the country also seem to be the most conservative. Maybe we are talking about a lack of education here!

Per Capita Consumption by State 1997 (Source: EIA)

Even though energy efficiency and renewable energy programs have been popular with the public, energy companies have used their lobbying power to limit government funding for these resources.

After the initial thrust to finance these new programs using federal subsidies, most programs were cut back. Every year there were major funding battles as conservatives fought to kill Research and Development or renewable energy funding. By looking at the below chart, it is clear that energy funding has been cut back as a priority during the last 20 years. Each presidential administration placed its own fingerprint on the battle over energy funding with Congress.

Department of Energy R&D Funding 1978-1999(Source: EIA)

In California, a new federal program that let independent power producers generate new power sources that the state's utilities had to buy was initiated. During the late 1980's this program generated more than enough electricity for the state's long term needs. However, conservatives and the energy industry launched a counter assault on these programs.

Fossil fuel and Nuclear funding has been the primary benefactors of federal funds for the last 40 years. Even though energy efficiency is the cheapest source of new power. The energy industry clearly has no motivation to promote energy efficiency when it can make more money as the primary middleman in the oil deal. Its only logical at the industry and the Bush administration will work to foster its own interests. When it comes to the bottom line, watch where the money goes.

The funding war over efficiency and renewable programs continues as President Bush continues his agenda to reduce funding for programs, scrapping the global warming protocols, and plans to rescind new energy standards.

Using the newly elected president as a foil, energy companies have been playing in wait for the market based showdown in California that their agenda has created. Using the same tactic that the U.S. senate used in 1992-94, where more filibusters were used in one term than all previous sessions, the industry and their allies in government have been intentionally playing chicken with America's energy policy.

The new energy crisis is supposed to be REAL this time. Well, actually its the same crisis as the one in 1973: we're addicted to oil and we are running out of supplies. The dealer is in the white house and he's talking the same kind of talk you can hear in the back alley where any other drug deal is going down. How do we corner the market, and who is in the way?

Keep an eye on the deals coming down. Look for a big show, its already started in California where threats of economic downturn are on the evening news more than any serious coverage. Wouldn't it be nice to have a serious townhall forum rather than the small time shows that play out a bit of this or a bit of that aspect.

The media has framed California's energy crisis with an intent to foster a helpless state of cycnicism in the general public. There are no ANGRY calls to investigate the details of what happened when the lead wolf (former governor Wilson) got into the henhouse (the public's pocketbook) is nowhere on the radar. The driving forces that shaped California's energy policy between 1980 and the current time are all to easily forgotten for good reason. Here's a few details that got lost.

America's Addiction to Oil

The largest industrial complex in the world is the car - oil - road empire that brings us the latest advertisements on TV. Car commericials make it possible for us to watch a few local TV channels for free. TV and those who speak for this medium before us continue to frame issue as what is hip or what is not.

We have found ways to hide the unsuccessful relationship we have with the environment. It is okay to drive by beautiful scenes of nature, letting the spirit of youth and adventure appear boundless. This advertizing captures the need to score status points and remain free of the impacts our lifestyle has on the ecology and other societies around the globe.

Our Great American TV dream, unfortunately is on live, world-wide now. The same metaphors of normalcy is being peddled to Africans, Asians and South Americans. And they are all pretty much sold on the package deal. Unfortunately for all of us world-wide, not everyone can live that dream.

Is this why the U.S. continues to spend 10 times more money on its military than the rest of the world combined? The dream isn't quite ready for prime time, even though we are acting as if it were!

Can we expect the U.S. to shake its big stick at OPEC and other oil producing countries? So far, the Bush administration is backing itself into the usual international traps with the rest of the world. Mr. Bush will have to swallow his own medicine, just like he has forced California to do when asking OPEC to reduce oil prices.

U.S. society was able to shake off the oil crisis of the '70's but this time the crisis, when it comes, will be substantially different. We will not be able to afford another balance of trade deficit with the Middle East, especially since we are now the largest debtor nation in the world. Nor can we afford to shell out $50 billion a year to keep the Persian Gulf open like 1987. This hidden cost to taxpayers increased the real cost of oil by over $100 per barrel.

The rapidly dwindling number" of new U.S. sources of oil that are economically viable has not been lost on energy producers. A hidden struggle has ensued between proponents for the electrification of our transportation system led by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) on one side and the oil industry on the other, that wants liquid fuels such as various mixed methanol fuel formulas. This hidden debate will have dramatic effects on the direction our country's energy policy will take. The implications of centralized electrification of our transportation can be seen in PG&E's investment plans for new electrical generation.

When Forbes magazine stated that nuclear power was the largest single economic catastrophe in U.S. history, the public considered the nuclear option dead in 1984. Yet proponents of nuclear power developed a sophisticated plan in 1983 to revivie it. Funding for alternative energy by the Reagan administration was slashed up to 90% during his time in office. While billions of dollars of subsidies for nuclear power were spent ($16 billion in 1984). The ultimate goal of the industry's plan is to kill viable alternatives to nuclear. Then when the oil crisis finally surfaces, reassert nuclear power as the best option. This is just what the industry did when the Greenhouse issue hit the public.

The problem with their grand plan though is flawed with two major problems. The issue of what to do with nuclear waste and its effects on those living near waste sites has finally reached the public awareness. The massive scandal that has rocked the Department of Energy's handlinkg of nuclear weapons waste has seriously undermined their credibility. Yet the fear of another Chernobyl is the Achilles heel of nuclear power. West German studies have indicated that there is a 70% chance of another core accident like Chernobyl every 5 to 10 years. The industry has been forced to lower its absurd projections of an accident once every 10,000 reactor years. In fact World Watch Institute pointed out that serious accidents might occur about every 2,000 reactor years of operation. Another Chernobyl would decimate the credibility of nuclear proponents. ACTION AND ENERGY AWARNESS

Solutions to the rapidly approaching energy crisis do exist. Countering the misinformation that alternatives to the hard path mean going back to the caves, as the nuclear industry claim would happen, is the first step. Today we have excellant information that if gotten to the public would give us a chance to head off the nuclear industry's insane plans.

Whatever happens in the next 10 years, we are in for massigve changes. If we can assert the issues of energy efficiency and alternatives back into the picture, we can directly affect the major environmental issues that we face from ozone depletion, the Greenhouse Effect, acid rain, urban sprawl and toxics pollution. One key will be the growing garbage crisis. The time to organize and act is rapidly approaching. We can save our Earth, so let's get started. (Originally written in 1988, with webdesign and upgrade in 2002)

SOURCES: World Watch Inst., Rocky Mountain Inst., Carrying Capacity Inc., Safe Energy Communications Council, Dept. of Energy, and Ca. Energy Commission.