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Commentary: Energy and sustainability

The following is adapted from a presentation earlier this summer by Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University, to the Shanghai Forum.

I think everyone can agree that the challenges we face in providing abundant energy at an affordable cost without adverse consequences on the environment is one of the largest, and arguably, most expensive challenges we face as a global community.

For two years, I had the opportunity to serve on the National Research Council Committee on America's Energy Future. This committee was convened in the Bush administration and considered the challenges that are faced by the United States.

The United States relies on fossil fuels for more than 85 percent of our energy needs. The combustion from fossil fuels inevitably produces carbon dioxide, and the United States produces 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. Fifty percent of U.S. electricity comes from the combustion of coal, which is a very large source of carbon dioxide. We're almost completely dependent on petroleum for transportation. And even though we are making progress in energy per capita, we still are less efficient than the European Union or Japan.

The United States is working with a fundamentally old infrastructure that has not been modernized. Indeed, the investment needed in the transmission and distribution system will be on the order of $500 billion. And that improvement is necessary to enable the widespread use of renewable and intermittent sources of electricity such as photovoltaics and wind energy.

So, our Committee on America's Energy Future came to the observation that a large transformation is needed in how we generate and consume energy. And dealing with this problem will require international cooperation, as we must have a level playing field economically.

As we look to the global energy future and think about the transformation in the end result, we're looking to a system that will be sustainable; that will support long-term economic prosperity; that will promote energy security -- reliable sources of energy for all countries, and certainly, a future that includes a reduction of the adverse affects on the environment from the production and use of energy. In essence, this is the goal statement for the future.

If you look at the United States, and then look at the world in terms of its energy resources, we're essentially the same. The world and the United States are both about 85 percent dependent on fossil fuels.

Coal worldwide is a ubiquitous source of energy, and if we find a way to capture and store carbon dioxide, coal will be an energy resource that will be valuable as it is today, but without the adverse consequence on the global environment.

Our Committee on America's Energy Future indicated that we should try to do a large-scale demonstration of capture and storage of carbon dioxide and to do so at utility plant scale. We are still not underway with that technological demonstration.

China, in fact, is ahead. China is on a path to explore the technological feasibility of capturing carbon dioxide at a very large scale from a coal refinery power plant. The reason I feel so strongly about the importance of this technological demonstration is that if we're unable to do that, the options that remain are rather limited.

Clearly, it's scientifically possible to capture and store carbon dioxide, but can we do it at the scale of an electric utility and multiply that many-fold? It's a staggering challenge: Dealing with the 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide produced in the United States is a formidable challenge indeed. Will geological storage even work, and can we rely on it?

What about photobiological approaches? For example, the use of algae ponds at the utility scale? It's estimated today that if we wanted to capture the carbon dioxide and photobiologically reduce it with algae at a typical coal-fired power plant, we'd use 6,000 acres of land. So this is a big-scale problem. We know algae consume carbon dioxide. But can we accelerate the pace of that process synthetically?

The other option -- aside from solar approaches -- of course, would be nuclear. I believe that it represents a near-term option for the United States and I understand that here in China ground has been broken to build 20 new nuclear power plants.

The world's total power, if you will, is about 15 terawatts. But when we look to the year 2050, forty years from now, the world will need probably 30 terawatts. Thirty terawatts.

Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that all of the extra power that's needed for the world comes from nuclear power. This would mean that there would be built 15,000 one-gigawatt power plants somewhere in the world in a 40-year time frame. This would mean that every day, for the next 40 years, we would bring online one new gigawatt nuclear power plant. A country as large and strong as China has 20 on the drawing board. I visited with the Secretary of Energy Steve Chu of the United States (recently) in St. Louis and he said he hoped that we would be able to start six new nuclear power plants sometime soon.

In the United States, no nuclear power plants have been started in decades. But the nuclear power plants that exist have produced electricity reliably and at low cost. We do need to come to grips with the storage of radioactive waste, but people look at that problem from a scientific and technological perspective and say "That's probably easier than dealing with the 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide."

But look at the price tag of developing nuclear power to meet the world's extra needs by 2050. In rough terms, in the United States, to build one of these plants is $10 billion. This means the total price tag would be $150 trillion over 40 years -- a huge investment. And this is the scale that we need to be thinking about as we consider the energy needs for the future.

Let's take a look at the potential for solar energy. Theoretically, over 100,000 terawatts of solar energy is available. Natural plant photosynthesis is associated with about 90 terawatts. The question is, can we convert solar energy at good efficiency and competitive cost? That challenge has not yet been met and is largely a scientific and technological challenge. And there are other, secondary, but very important challenges that we face with solar energy.

Solar energy is obviously a night-and-day challenge. And sometimes the sun doesn't shine and we go into cloud cover. So extensive use of photovoltaics will require storage technologies that add very significantly to the total cost of the energy system. There, too, advances in energy storage technologies may emerge, but that's one area for fundamental research and development. The energy options before us will certainly include an important place for fossil fuels. Indeed, the Committee on America's Energy Future says that for at least the next quarter century or more, the United States will continue to be heavily dependent on petroleum and other fossil fuels.

As everyone appreciates, we must come to grips with the environmental challenges we face and begin work to implement the other options, such as renewables and nuclear. And in the long run, the world will most likely be powered in a sustainable fashion using solar energy.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.