Skip to main content

Experts Foresee Bumpy Transition from Fossil Fuels, Even with Promising Energy Alternatives

Fossil fuels provide about 80% of the world’s energy and, despite dire predictions since the early 20th century, supplies will not run out any time soon, according to speakers at a AAAS discussion on meeting global energy demand.

“Oil is good for 50 years at current consumption rates, [and] could be extended longer as you go to more difficult resources,” said Steven E. Koonin, under secretary for science at the U.S. Department of Energy. “Coal—there are hundreds of years.”

But that should be little cause for comfort. As the discussion—the first in a series on “Science and Society: Global Challenges”—made clear, there are economic, geopolitical and environmental factors that greatly complicate the world’s energy outlook.


Steven E. Koonin

Koonin said there are two separate energy problems involving fossil fuels. On the transportation front, imported oil from volatile regions such as the Middle East has prompted continuing concern about energy security. For stationary facilities that generate heat and power, the major issue is greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.


David Goldston

In both cases, there are compelling reasons to switch from fossil fuels that have nothing to do with fears of running short of supply, said David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Goldston, a former chief of staff for the House Committee on Science, said it is time for policy-makers and consumers alike “to behave like adults” and make the choice to pursue new energy sources before the real crisis arrives.

The panelists agreed, however, that fossil fuels will be with us from some time to come. Michael Parker, environmental adviser for ExxonMobil Production Company, said that while the mix of energy resources may change over time, “fossil fuels will be the prime driver of our economy from an energy standpoint for many, many years to come.”

The 4 October panel discussion was sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, the American Chemical Society, and the Georgetown University Program on Science in the Public Interest.

Richard Harris, a National Public Radio science reporter who moderated the discussion, pressed the panelists on how long we can stay “on the fossil fuel train.”

“This is a really hard problem,” Goldston said, noting that most of the advantages for switching are societal rather than individual. There are policy tools to help spur change, he said, and new technologies on the horizon. But the public’s will to embrace change remains a question mark.

Koonin said it is much easier to get people to act where there are tangible, energy-security and price concerns. When oil goes to $140 a barrel, as it did in 2008, “People responded,” Koonin said. Talk of global climate disruption due to greenhouse gas emissions does not have the same immediacy. “It is much easier to easier to get a broad consensus in the government on the energy security problem than it is on the greenhouse gas problem,” he said.

Both Goldston and Koonin said there are steps that can be taken now to start weaning the nation off fossil fuels. Goldston noted that the Obama administration has announced tougher fuel economy standards for vehicles (35.5 miles per gallon by model year 2016) and legislation introduced in Congress would improve efficiency standards for household appliances. There are other measures, such as incentives for utilities to improve efficiency in the use of power, that also can be pursued in the near-term, Goldston said.

Koonin agreed that to address energy challenges in the next two decades, “you go to war with the army you’ve got.” He said there are approaches and technologies that are ready now. Among them:

  • The administration is likely to continue to raise fuel efficiency standards for vehicles as it discusses standards for 2025.
  • It is feasible to gradually electrify the transportation fleet through use of hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids and eventually cars that are fully powered by electric batteries.
  • It is possible to build an internal combustion engine that is 40% more efficient than existing engines, but the estimated additional cost of $5000 per car must be brought down.
  • The government can encourage development of advanced liquid hydrocarbons, including biofuels from woody plants and algae.
  • For heat and power generation, stress conservation and efficiency.
  • Also in the power-generation sector, putting a price on carbon emissions will encourage use of natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal when burned; growth of nuclear energy can add generating capacity; and growth in wind power could account for perhaps 20% of electricity within 20 years.
  • Small hydropower plants, with the United States having enough potential sites for as much as 76 gigawatts of new capacity, or the equivalent of about 76 average-sized nuclear power plants.

Michael Parker

Parker of ExxonMobil said there is no “silver bullet” in our energy future. He said the better phrase is “silver buckshot,” a suite of approaches for improved production and consumption of energy. There has been a renewed interest in natural gas as a fuel for power plants, Parker said, since they emit only about half as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as coal-fired plants.

Even four years ago, Parker said, non-conventional sources of natural gas from shale formations in the West were considered uneconomical. Now, such gas fields are being developed with drilling methods that substantially reduce the amount of land that is disturbed, he said. As more natural gas is produced, Parker said, it frees up oil for other applications.

“There are a lot of things going on right now that are really interesting and, I think, make the future look good,” Parker said. Among the technologies that may become more economically viable in the future, he said, are photovoltaics for direct degeneration of power from sunlight and use of algae to produce biofuels.

Harris, who noted federal projections that world energy use will grow by 49% between 2007 and 2035, asked the panelists whether improved efficiency standards will offer much help. Goldston said efficiency improvements in the use of power can have real impact. He cited an estimate that efficiency gains could provide as much power by 2030 as the projected increase in demand.

Koonin said the ultimate goal, however, should be conservation of resources and use of less energy overall. Energy efficiency improvements can sometimes have untoward consequences, he said. During the 19th century, the improvement in the efficiency of steam engines led to wider demand for steam engines. Similarly, the remarkably improved efficiency of computer chips has spurred much more use of chips in a wider array of applications.

Parker cautioned against imposing mandates for one energy source or another. He said the marketplace sorts things out, with choices made on the basis of cost. Even in Houston, with its sprawling complex of highways, commuters began to use mass transit and high-occupancy vehicle lanes when the cost of gas started to skyrocket. As prices have gone back down, he said, “we’re reverting to our bad habits.” (Koonin noted that if everyone in Texas simply drove at the speed limit, there would be a 12% saving in the use of gasoline in the state.)

“Putting the market on a pedestal is fine,” Goldston said, “but the question is: What constitutes letting the market play out?” He argued that external factors, such as public policy decisions to build roads or mass transit, are inevitably involved. “This notion that somehow the market is just going to take care of it, and that doesn’t involve any kind of decision-making, leads you to short-sighted results,” he said.


Richard Harris

Harris pointed out that much of the 49% increase in energy demand by 2035 will come in the developing world. How to get the developing world to do the right thing?

“We can and should partner with them on technologies,” Koonin said, and help demonstrate new technologies in the developing world. The United States has established a U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, for example. Koonin said there also is a need for a global agreement—elusive so far—on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “It has been difficult so far to achieve any consensus on that,” he acknowledged.

But developing nations are starting to take a lead on some crucial technologies. Parker noted that China has made a strong commitment toward developing methods to capture and store carbon dioxide. “They are really trying to position themselves to be the technology provider of choice,” he said. “They have their eyes very much on being a global provider” of carbon capture and storage technologies that could drive a multi-billion dollar world market.

Parker also cautioned against lecturing the developing world about energy use. “You have literally most of the rest of the world aspiring to our standard of living, and it’s difficult for us to say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’” he said. The question is how to achieve rising standards of living “in a way that makes sense,” he added. “There are technologies out there [but] you have to let those technologies come into play as they’re driven by the marketplace. You don’t want to go out and do something that costs three times as much as a cheaper alternative on the first pass.”

Koonin said use of small modular nuclear reactors, gas-fired generators, and energy efficiency measures can have a significant impact on living standards in much of the developing world without adding substantially to the global burden of greenhouse gas emissions. The picture is more complicated for India, China, and Brazil because of the amount of energy use in those populous nations. But for some of the smaller, less developed nations, Koonin said, “you can do an awful lot for not very much.”

Closer to home, Goldston said he is not discouraged by the slow pace of legislative action on energy and climate change issues. He noted that the House passed a climate bill last year after such bills had not even reached a committee vote during his years on the Hill. Indeed, in 2005, when the Senate offered a mild resolution in the energy bill acknowledging that climate change is an issue to be addressed, House negotiators promptly rejected it.

“We’re just going to have to continue to work on how to do this in terms of bringing the public further along,” Goldston said, to understand that climate and energy are serious issues. There are steps that can be taken to start the United States down a different energy path, Goldston said, and in doing so Congress should “avoid making everything a proxy debate about the larger climate issue.”


Learn more about the “Science and Society: Global Challenges” lecture series this fall at AAAS.

Related Scientific Disciplines