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It’s All One World for Energy Concerns

• July 09, 2009 • 6:55 PM

A recent energy policy summit concluded what the Group of 8 powers are learning: The Third World may require help reducing heat-trapping gases.

Global warming, as its name suggests, will require a global response and global solutions, according to experts convened by Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, but those global solutions don’t negate the need for local tailoring.

For example, greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries have exceeded those from developed countries since 2006, said Jonathan Wiener, Duke University professor of law and environmental and public policy. One likely reason is “leakage” — an unintended consequence of cutting emissions in the developed world.

Tighter regulations in Europe may push manufacturing to China, Wiener said. But lighter regulations in China can allow greater emissions for the same amount of manufacturing, which means “leakage can exceed 100 percent.”

Since greenhouse gases mix across the globe, he explained, “no matter where they’re emitted or where they’re abated, they have a globally mixed effect. This puts a premium on international agreement.”

Participants in Indiana University’s “Search for Wise Energy Policy” in Washington, D.C., didn’t actually find one. (One panelist suggested it be called a “quest,” rather than a search, in recognition of its Quixotic nature.) Participants didn’t vote on a policy or attempt to arrive at a formal consensus, but some general themes were sounded.

For example, developed countries need to help developing countries use energy cleanly and efficiently, because poor nations must consume more energy to pull themselves out of poverty. Meanwhile, affluent countries’ economies will suffer if they attack global warming without new technologies.

Global energy use cannot be cut in the foreseeable future, because a third of the world’s population currently lacks access to any energy at all, said Margo Thorning, senior vice president and chief economist at the American Council for Capital Formation. Poor nations’ most-critical problems can’t be solved without increasing their energy use, she said.

If it doesn’t increase efficiency, even the United States will need 23 percent more electricity by 2030, said Carnegie Institution President Richard Meserve.

Affluent countries face a dilemma in promoting development of technologies to control emissions, said Charles Weiss, professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. (His new book, written with William B. Bonvillian, is titled Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution.)

“We want intellectual property protection to encourage our companies to do research and development,” he explained, “but we want other companies to adopt this technology.”

Governments need to rethink protections so they can promote both innovation and technology transfer to developing countries, Weiss said.

Panelists identified an assortment of potential new energy sources.

Underground heat could become a larger energy source if water could be injected deep into the earth to be heated, then returned to the surface to generate electricity, Weiss said. Less expensive drilling technology needs to be developed, however, he added.

The United States has a “vast” supply of unconventional energy resources, said Jim Bartis, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. and former U.S. Department of Energy executive. Among them are heavy oil (which is more dense than regular oil), tar sands (a thick petroleum mixed with clay, sand and water), oil shale (rocks that release oil when heated), coal converted to liquid fuel and biomass (such as plants and garbage).

The United States’ oil shale deposits are the equivalent of triple Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves, Bartis said, but serious environmental challenges must be overcome. One promising idea calls for heating shale in the ground and capturing the vapor without the pollution of mining, he said, but that technology has not been developed.

Technology does exist to reduce coal’s emission of greenhouse gases, Bartis said, but uncertain costs have contributed to no “clean-coal” power plants having been built.

The world is on the verge of a “nuclear renaissance,” said Meserve, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Currently, 44 nuclear power plants are under construction around the world, and many developing countries want to access nuclear power, he said. Companies in the United States have filed applications to construct 26 nuclear plants, more than three decades after the last U.S. permit was issued.

Cost and politics are the primary barriers to constructing new plants in the United States, Meserve said. Plants currently operate safely and securely, he said, and nuclear waste can be stored safely under ground.

Existing nuclear plants produce cheaper electricity than coal-fired plants, he said, but that’s partly because their construction costs have been amortized. Building a new plant today would cost $3 billion to $6 billion, which he described as a “bet-your-company” investment.

The nuclear power infrastructure also must be reconstituted, a decade and a half after the last plant went on line, he said. “You need to rebuild the network of suppliers” and address the fact that “a large number of schools shut down their nuclear engineering departments.”

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Tom Price
Tom Price is a Washington-based freelance writer who focuses on public affairs, business, technology and education. Previously he was a correspondent in the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau and chief politics writer for the Cox papers in Dayton. He is author or co-author of five books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Rolling Stone, CQ Researcher and other publications.

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