SUSTAINABLE ENERGY-1: The economic dimension

April 2, 2007
In discussions about world energy systems, sustainable development properly has become the central topic.

In discussions about world energy systems, sustainable development properly has become the central topic. While the subject is a vital concern, however, the phrase itself can mean nearly anything. Phrases that mean nearly anything too readily become tools of propaganda.

Well-meaning groups have defined “sustainable development” in many and mostly constructive ways. The classic statement came from former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who said sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Little improvement is needed.

‘Not hydrocarbon’

Applied to energy, however, Brundtland’s statement too readily comes to mean “not hydrocarbon.” In popular judgment, an energy form is unsustainable if it comes from a depleting resource or alters the environment when produced or used, especially if it emits carbon dioxide. So if it’s oil, gas, or coal, it’s unsustainable. Anything else is sustainable and therefore preferable. This reasoning, motivated by a wholesome yearning for sustainability, explains the frantic political favor now bestowed around the world on renewable and other alternative energy forms. It also sometimes conflicts with good sense.

Both the lack of sustainability ascribed to fossil energy and the sustainability attributed to everything else tend to be exaggerated. The ambiguity allows propagandists to bend the concept to suit political and commercial agendas.

For example, hydrogen enthusiasts contrast the virtually limitless supply of their favorite energy carrier with the finite nature of fossil energy resources. Yet depletion isn’t the only limit applicable to energy forms. Hydrogen itself has a daunting constraint: the need to detach it from other atoms and to use large amounts of energy to do the job. Similarly, the supply of plant wastes that might someday be feedstock for ethanol can seem limitless, too. But accumulating the material into concentrations useful for energy-intensive processing requires external work comparable to what nature already has performed for fossil energy. If fossil forms are unsustainable because they come from depleting resources, alternatives that require more energy to make usable than they yield are no less so.

Just as all energy forms have limits that in some way compromise sustainability, all energy sources affect the environment when produced and converted into work. The allure of hydrogen-to cite that example again-is that its combustion or use in a fuel cell yields only water. But the same can’t be said of the energy required to liberate hydrogen from carbon or oxygen. And nearly every energy form that substitutes for CO2-emitting fossil energy has oil, gas, or coal burning somewhere in its background.

Sustainability distortions typically fail to account fully for the economic imperatives of meeting current and future needs of people. A fuel cell that propels a passenger vehicle seems more sustainable than a gasoline engine when the analysis considers only vehicle emissions. But if hydrogen for the fuel cell costs more than gasoline and represents more energy used in processing than reaches the vehicle, the fuel cell is in no way sustainable. It can’t compete. To be sustainable, an energy form has to be affordable to use and profitable to produce-preferably without subsidies, which are to sustainable energy what bribes are to responsive government.

Macro sustainability

Furthermore, the economic dimension of sustainability applies at the macro level. Developed economies usually pollute less overall than undeveloped ones do; economies that use fossil energy develop faster than those that do not. Ideas about sustainability must accommodate the proposition that people who drive to work in automobiles tend not to be people who must burn dung in their homes to cook and stay warm. Both economic systems pollute; the mobile one supports life better. Sustainable energy thus might be said to meet present needs efficiently while bequeathing future generations economic progress, social stability, and technical advance-everything any generation should need to solve its problems, environmental and otherwise.

Lately, the global energy system has taken some unsustainable turns, about which more will be written here next week.