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Power-Hungry America: Where Will We Get the Energy

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This TNR archive piece is available online for the first time as part of a conversation about America's energy future, sponsored by Southern Company.  

In 1970, this magazine ran an article that warned the U.S. to carefully plan out its energy mix, arguing for a strategically diverse energy base and against the massive importation of foreign fuels. At the time—three years before the OPEC oil embargo—planning America's energy future was not a top policy priority. Today, politicians from both parties regularly call for energy independence and an "all of the above" energy strategy.

This summer's power brown-out reminds us that our energy affluence is subject to some restrictions. It should also drive home the fact that the energy provid­ing our heat, light and power is largely gained by chem­ical destruction of nonrenewable resources. Lights go on, toasters pop, cars run and homes are heated be­cause somewhere fossil fuels are taken from the ground and then made to release their primordial energy through combustion.

A hundred years ago the U.S. economy was wood-powered. 73 percent of its energy came from burning endless cords of wood. Gradually hard, black coal took over and by the turn of the century it was our prime fuel. At mid-century, coal was over­taken by petroleum and demoted a few years later to third rung on the fuel ladder by natural gas. Sometime in the 1980s coal will be outranked by uranium, if nu­clear power expands its unsteady grip on the electric energy market.

A very recent accounting of the U.S. energy budget showed the following percentage of energy sources:

Petroleum            43.2 percent

Natural gas          32.1 percent

Coal                    20.5 percent

Hydropower         4.0 percent

Uranium              0.2 percent

This breakdown reflects a profound change in the power structure of the economy, and for a number of reasons it is becoming increasingly urgent that the United States undertake the most serious development of a national energy policy. The nature of the fuel mix in the year 2000 will be of critical importance to the nation and should not be arrived at by indirection.

The art of projecting technological requirements may be likened to a feat of archery. One sets down on a century-wide chart the past 70-year record (logarithmic graph paper is essential because of the exponential character of the 20th century's technology), and the archer then lines up his arrow shaft with the progres­sion of historical points. The arrow is sent upward on a straight line course and some celestial observer notes where it crosses the terminus of the century. If this sounds somewhat zany, it really is not because most of the points on the chart fall on a straight line. They reveal man's monotonously ravenous appetite for power in all forms. The only real variation in the chart is a pronounced dip at the time of the Great Depres­sion in the 1930s. Incidentally, kilowatts and the Gross National Product march in lock step over the course of the past 70 years.

Our hypothetical energy arrow flies out of the twen­tieth century at a point corresponding to the consump­tion of 30 billion barrels of oil per year. That's a nice round figure of 100 barrels of petroleum for everyone of the 300 million Americans who will celebrate the ad­vent of the twenty-first century. It's an equivalent fig­ure, of course, because the energy mix by the year 2000 will include natural gas, uranium and coal as the basic fuels. To assess the future fuel mix we can look at the arrow flight of each fuel from 1900 on.

Petroleum merits first attention because of its num­ber one rank today. At the turn of the century, the U.S. consumed about 40 million barrels of crude oil or about half a barrel per capita per year. Oil then pro­vided about four percent of the nation's energy. By way of contrast, wood-burning released five times as much heat in the year 1900. The 8000 horseless car­riages on the road then made small demands on the gas-lit era's oil. But in 1913 more than a million motor cars were registered, and the number reached 10 mil­lion within nine more years. America became a nation on wheels and petroleum production soared, topping the billion barrel per year mark in 1929.

Production of crude oil reached two billion barrels at mid-century and twelve years later hit the three billion barrel level. The author's sighting along this his­torical profile targets a 12 billion barrel annual con­sumption by the year 2000. Such a century-long gulp­ing down of oil products will add up to a total of over 300 billion barrels of petroleum! Stacked end on end, these barrels would stretch from the earth to the sun and back again.

Oil burning at this rate would mean that the last three years of the century would witness the same con­sumption of petroleum as that for almost the first half century. Postulating such an oil burn-up raises a whole series of questions. Is the estimate a wild one? Does the U.S. need this much energy? Where will the oil come from? What about pollution?

To answer the first question, one can say that the es­timate of the total energy required by the year 2000—30 billion barrels of oil equivalent—is far from wild. Some energy projectionists put the value even higher. The 12 billion barrel figure is precisely that recently cited by Hollis Dole, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Mineral Resources Development. It would mean tapping oil for 40 percent of the U.S. energy output.

Asking whether the United States needs energy to the equivalent of 30 billion barrels per year is rather novel. "We are committed to economic growth," Sec­retary Dole said on May 5, "to the production and use of steadily increasing amounts of energy which can be turned into goods and services to meet the rising needs of the next three decades." Yet he admits: "We are strangling on polluted water and suffocating in pol­luted air, and are in danger of being engulfed by a tidal wave of garbage and junk cars—all directly the product of our so-called affluence made possible by stupendous expenditures of energy."

Curtailment of petroleum consumption would inev­itably impose restrictions on the nation's mobility. But other factors already point in the direction of reducing motor fuel burn-up, namely, pollution controls, horse­power limits and the inability of the average American to drive more than one car at a time. But a trend from surface to air travel can boost transportation fuel re­quirements. On the other hand, a switch from the in­ternal combustion engine to electric propulsion could drastically alter the fuel picture 30 years hence.

A consumption of 12 billion barrels of crude oil per year would require that America become a major importer of foreign petroleum. Men in the oil business do not talk about the year 2000; they confine themselves to 15 year time spans, and they are quite gloomy about meeting the intermediate 1975 goal of six billion bar­rels out of domestic production. Many experts believe that four billion barrels is the best that U.S. wells will produce then. The Prudhoe Bay discoveries in Alaska may double the 50 billion barrel proved reserve the U.S. expects to have in 1985, but potential is one thing and proving it out is quite another. A recent Chase Manhattan Bank study estimates that it will cost the oil industry $150 billion over the next 15 years to find and develop 105 billion barrels of oil and 560 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Because we have viewed petroleum as a prime stra­tegic material, we have endeavored to meet our oil needs from domestic sources. To this end—and for conservation measures as well—we have adopted a policy of trying to maintain a high ratio of proved re­serves to production (an R/P ratio). This R/P ratio has dipped below 10 but as demand increases it will be increasingly hard to maintain the balance of reserves to production without heavy reliance on oil imports.

Oil and natural gas are energy twins, often being found associated in the ground. But natural gas is much more sulfur-free and is thus a clean-burning fuel much in demand in American households. The historic growth of natural gas production has been a spectacular climb up America's energy slope of the twentieth century. This year's burn-up of the valuable fuel will exceed 21 trillion cubic feet. Our hypotheti­cal archer's arrow would intersect the twenty-first cen­tury at a point corresponding to the annual consump­tion of 170 trillion cubic feet. This is highly fanciful and the energy arrow must indeed stop climbing and fall short of such a projection. Less than a year ago the U.S. Bureau of Natural Gas took a worried look and warned that, "evidence is mounting that the supply of natural gas is diminishing to critical levels in relation to demand." The present estimate of proved gas reserves, 275 trillion cubic feet, is really not a colossal figure when one considers the rate of increase in consump­tion each year. In fact the Gas Board foresees "the dis­tinct possibility that overall production deficiencies will be experienced during 1973."

There's plenty of gas in Alaska, Africa and South America but it's far from the lucrative energy mar­kets of our northeastern states. Furthermore, being a gas, it has to be liquefied, a fairly expensive procedure, and stored at cryogenic temperatures—a cool minus 259ºF. American oil companies are gearing up to ex­ploit the LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) tanker route. A Marathon-Phillips petroleum group is already selling Alaskan LNG to Japan, using Swedish-built cryogenic tankers of 440,000 barrel capacity. This corresponds to a volume of over one billion cubic feet of natural gas. El Paso Natural Gas plans a fleet of ten giant LNG tankers and will begin buying Algerian gas in 1973. These supercold carriers are going to be the hottest marine development of the future; they certainly will be if one blows up.

U.S. experts are rather gloomy about finding huge new gas fields in continental areas. For one thing, only one in six exploratory wells is successful, and even the good holes are paying off less richly than they did in the past. Several million drill-holes have been bored in our 48 states, whereas the Alaskan surface is only slightly perforated. Alaskan finds will probably greatly extend gas reserves, but it's a long haul to the gas market of Chicago, for example. A 3000 mile pipeline will be required and a conservative estimate of transmission costs puts the delivered gas some 40 percent higher than pipeline gas from Texas.

Why not buy Canadian natural gas and save the long distance transmission charges? The answer is that we already buy almost half of Canada's gas pro­duction, but these imports only amount to three percent of U.S. total consumption. Canada has a tough-minded conservation policy aimed at avoiding costly depletion of its resources. It has a National Energy Board that must approve gas export licenses and its policy is no secret—Canadian needs must be served first. Canada's Minister of Energy, Mines and Re­sources, J. J. Greene, addressing the Independent Pe­troleum Association at Denver on May 12, minced no words: "I feel it would be wrong for your industry and your policy makers if they were so tempted to look to Canadian supplies as a panacea for the ills of the American natural gas industry."

Still, Canada's energy czar promised a Canadian ex­port volume of 1.6 trillion cubic feet by 1990—enough to supply somewhat more than five percent of our es­timated gas needs. This figure, he added, might be tripled if Canada's petroleum industry is favored with the proper U.S. incentives, including assurance of a stable export market for oil and other oil products. Canada is displaying a sign: Resources For Sale at a Price.

There are two other resources we can tap for a sup­ply of gas, but they are rather tightly held. An almost unlimited supply of gas can be acquired by gasifying coal. Bituminous coal is three-fourths carbon and one-twentieth hydrogen, while pipeline gas is three-fourths carbon and one-fourth hydrogen. Converting coal to useful gas is therefore basically a matter of adding hydrogen or subtracting carbon when processing coal. Many technical processes are known for this chemical conversion, but not much priority has been given to coal gasification until very recently. The technology of coal conversion still awaits large scale testing.

Nature has locked up a gas reserve of immense vol­ume in the porous rock of gas reservoirs in Colorado and adjoining northern states. But the geologic forma­tions need to be fractured to release the gas on a commercial basis. To this end the Atomic Energy Commis­sion and industry have collaborated to stimulate gas production by nuclear explosives. Controversy has at­tended this experimentation and the economics of the nuclear stimulation must be established. In Colorado another source of gas exists in the Green River oil shales which contain kerogen, a solid hydrocarbon ca­pable of yielding over 6000 trillion cubic feet of gas. When the Department of the Interior offered leases for oil shale property in 1968 the bidding was lackluster, presumably because of industry's Alaskan involvement.

One basic mission of those formulating a national energy policy must be assignment of high priority to assuring an adequate future supply of natural gas. How­ever the demand for this attractive fuel outstrips the available supplies, and it appears judicious to project a modest doubling of consumption in the next 30 years. Here is one case where a basic fuel curve of the twen­tieth century departs from its historic pattern and bends over.

By the year 2000 we will still be burning coal—the dirtiest fuel—largely to generate electricity. But less than a sixth of the U.S. total energy will be gained from coal and, conceivably, the constraints imposed by maintaining environmental quality might cut back the consumption of coal.

It is something of an oddity that of all the fuels, uranium is the most precisely predicted for its future, despite its insignificance in the energy picture for seven-tenths of the century. Since uranium will be employed to generate electricity, it is appropriate to describe its growth in kilowatt-hours, the conventional energy unit applied to electric power. It is also instructive to look back and trace the evolution of electric power.

Seventy years ago, coal-fired steam plants spun the rotors of low-power generators in a highly inefficient operation that sufficed to feed power into city systems, plants and the few American homes wired for electricity. All in all, the electric power at the turn of the century amounted to an annual consumption of 50 kilo­watt-hours per capita. That's enough electricity to keep a 100 watt bulb burning for three weeks. By the mid-twenties electric power production had skyrocketed 25-fold, then it slowed down as the economy sagged, and thereafter it resumed its upward course. Total electric power consumption this year is expected to ex­ceed 1500 billion kilowatt-hours.

Today's electric power is generated almost exclu­sively by over a thousand electric utilities. Over 3000 plants feed power into America's electric network. Half of the power output comes from coal-fired plants. The trend has been to build larger and larger single plants of more efficient design. For example, a one million kilowatt electric plant burns up about 9000 tons of coal each day. Seven decades ago the same power output would have consumed 70,000 tons of coal per day. However, the advantages of more efficient coal-burning have been outweighed by sheer quantities of the solid fuel consumed. Some 300 million tons of coal will be fed to steam-electric plants this year, cre­ating a formidable pollution hazard because of the high sulfur content of most bituminous fuel and be­cause the coal power plants are generally sited near or in cities.

U.S. reserves of low sulfur coal are quite limited, and it is neither easy nor cheap to remove sulfur from the higher coal. Looking ahead, I would predict a growth in the use of coal for generating power, moderating in a decade and not exceeding an annual consumption of double the present rate. However, a breakthrough in the technology of sulfur removal from coal could change this estimate, as could a failure of nuclear power to achieve its set goals.

Hydropower, so important earlier in the century's electric power history, will probably supply less than five percent of the nation's electricity by the year 2000. This means that 95 percent of our power will be derived from nonrenewable resources, primarily from fossil fuels. It also means that power will continue to be produced through the generation of heat, and that all power plants will have to dispose of their waste heat. This necessity creates the thermal pollution hazard about which so much controversy has centered in the site location of new power installations.

A recent government study of generating plants to be built by 1990 shows that about 500 plants of more than 500,000 kilowatt capacity will be built. 60 per­cent of these will be fossil-fueled, but these include most of the lower-powered plants. Nuclear power be­comes more efficient in jumbo-size versions. Almost a hundred A-plants of more than two million kilowatt capacity are planned for the next two decades, and nuclear engineers talk enthusiastically about going to much larger power ratings. Unlike coal-fired plants that discharge some of their waste heat up stacks, nu­clear plants have no such vent for their unused heat. All the latter must be gotten rid of by cooling water, and this means that nuclear-electric plants constitute a challenge to environmental safeguarding, especially in the huge plants that will turn out ten times the power of most coal-steam units built only a decade ago.

Nuclear power is rising very sharply as a source of the nation's electricity and could overtake coal-fired electric generation sometime in the mid-eighties. Nu­clear plants are giving the utilities cause for concern over their value, and fossil fuels are proving hard to beat economically. However, if the nuclear-electric industry survives its prolonged gestation, then at the century's end, uranium should be the mainstay of our electric energy industry. This assumes that the nuclear technology does not come a cropper; a severe accident involving substantial radioactive contamination of a community would undoubtedly impose great restraints on the development of this new power source. It is for this reason that I have advocated controlled siting of A-plants so that they are remote from metropolitan populations, and that population adjoining the plant site be restricted.

The Atomic Energy Commission does employ a se­ries of safeguards to assure nuclear safety, but a new class of power plant will be necessary in the 1980s if atomic electricity is to secure an economic advantage over coal anticipated at that time. As the use of urani­um for producing power increases, the plants will consume the relatively cheap ($10 per pound) uranium. But then, unless a new species of power plant can be proved out, the nuclear industry will be forced to use higher-priced nuclear fuel and utilities may find it at­tractive to switch back to coal. At first glance the en­ergy comparison of the two fuels would seem to weigh heavily in favor of uranium. A single pound of uranium is the energy equivalent of 2,300,000 pounds of coal. This is, however, a very misleading statistic, since it assumes that all the atoms in a pound of uranium are

split and release their energy. In nuclear plants of pres­ent design only one to two percent of the fuel's en­ergy is used. The reason is that a pound of uranium contains only one-tenth ounce of useful fuel, a species known as U-235; all the rest is U-238. The latter is convertible into a useful nuclear fuel, plutonium, but the nuclear design of today's A-plants converts less U-238 to plutonium than it burns up of its U-235 con­tent. AEC experts are hopeful that a power-breeder can be operated in the next decade to produce more fuel than it burns, i.e. to breed.

The advent of the power-breeder will allow utiliza­tion of the majority of the uranium energy, thus ex­tending the value of today's uranium resources. At the same time it will allow more expensive uranium to be used without an economic penalty. The power-breeder is under development and has been for many years, but no one knows when it will be operational or how it will perform. Its most critical component, its heated core, is to be cooled by a liquid metal, sodium, whereas most power designs today are water or gas cooled. I believe that this new class of nuclear-electric generator makes it mandatory that the power-breeders be re­motely sited and that the immediate area around the A-site be strictly limited in population.

Utilities like to be close to their customers in order to avoid excessive transmission charges. A prudent en­ergy policy would attach high priority to development of an efficient long-lines mode of power transfer and also a reasonable underground means of transmitting large blocks of power. As things stand, we can look forward to half a million miles of power lines march­ing across the countryside in 1990, claiming a total of over seven million acres. The trend toward larger power installations will accentuate the long line transmission of power. Moreover, as more nuclear plants use up the best cooling water in the country, it will be neces­sary to bring in the electric power from more remote regions where cooling water is available.

One consequence of the emergence of very high power electric plants may be the coalescence of utili­ties into groupings of super-utilities controlling the flow of power over huge sections of the nation. Indeed this power complex may be manipulated by what Sen­ator Lee Metcalf last month called the "galloping oligopoly in the energy industries." Oil companies, for example, have been acquiring interest in major coal companies and have also reached out into the nuclear fuel field. One wonders what kind of competitive spirit will be manifest in the year 2000, if most of the fuel sources are in the hands of a vast energy cartel.

A notable trend over the past decades has been the increasing electrification of energy. Probably 45 percent of all US energy in the year 2000 will go into produc­tion of electricity. Our turn-of-the-century electric power will be two thousand times greater than that of 1900. Each person will then be consuming over 25,000 kilowatt-hours of electric energy per year. Ours would be an incandescent society if the energy were focused into the average American home. Of course, it's dis­tributed mainly to industry and commerce.

But even our appetite for kilowatts must abate; the growth curve must begin to turn over and assume a less precipitous rate of climb. The huge drain on our fossil fuels and the pollution woes attending their com­bustion inevitably point to reliance on nuclear fuels. Uranium has its drawbacks and it has taken 30 years for the splitting of the atom to provide even a slight flow of electric power into the nation's economy. A much more ideal energy source may be found in a process diametrically opposed to atom-splitting, name­ly, nuclear fusion or the synthesis of very light atoms to form a single heavier one.

A single gallon of ordinary water contains enough hydrogen to release fusion energy equal to five barrels of petroleum. Furthermore, this source of power can be made highly controllable, like switching on and off an electric bulb, so that plant siting should be possible near dense populations. Light-element power is however the Tantalus of our energy resources, because its technology is not predictable. Most experts agree that its future is shrouded by the technological unknowns of many years to come. We can hope that we will strike it rich in nuclear technology, but we cannot count on it.

When we enter the twenty-first century we will still be burning up fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate for the loan's share of our energy. Hopefully, we will have learned from the past not to ravage the earth in exploiting our fossil fuel resources. Additionally, we may hope that our prodigious combustion of coal and oil, symbolized in pollutant form by the smokestack and the tailpipe, will not further insult our ecology and that we who survive the next 30 years will not be coughing our way into the next century.

Our society can no longer tolerate a laissez-faire at­titude toward energy. Prudent policy requires that we consider not just the physical problems of reserves, conservation and pollution; we need to inquire into the legitimacy of our future energy demands. Most of all, we need to view the energy problem on a national and global basis, welding together an analysis to show how research and development may more suitably solve energy problems on a long time base. In a sense we have to emulate the Dutch who take a half-century look at land reclamation.

The failure to adopt a wise national energy policy may find the United States eventually becoming like Japan—a major importer of fuel to drive its economy. Our fuel reserves, bounded by Canada, Mexico and two oceans, are finite—as is the capacity of our air and water to absorb insult from combustion products. Our energy affluence is not at an end, but it is clearly approaching a crossroad unmarked by signposts, except one—CAUTION.

RALPH E. LAPP is author of The Weapons Culture. His article, "Correcting Our Defense Posture," appeared in The New Republic, March 28, 1970.