The powers that be

Aug. 30, 2010
Seattle geologist and writer Scott L. Montgomery has authored a book under the above title from which many on the planet could learn a lot about energy.

Seattle geologist and writer Scott L. Montgomery has authored a book under the above title from which many on the planet could learn a lot about energy.

The book, as Montgomery puts it, tells "a great deal about the nature and direction of our global energy system, in nontechnical language."

In various chapters Montgomery delves into crude oil, natural gas, coal, "peak oil," nuclear power, renewables, hydrogen, fusion energy, geopolitics and technology, and climate change.

"My task, as I understand it, is not to soothe a romanticism that may be living before its time. There are many reasons why oil is such a potent liquid and renewable resources—which, by the way, have made spectacular progress—can't run society today, just as there are reasons to wish that they could."

A premature demise

There are no clear alternatives to oil on a massive, global scale, but many people continue to speak of the end of the fossil fuel era, Montgomery wrote.

"Energy always means the use of some substance—fossil fuels, flowing water or air, enriched uranium, sunlight, volcanic fluids. It entails, first of all, specific resources. Resources, however, bring with them the issues of availability, cost, impact, and sustainability…we worry that the energy materials on which our society has been built cannot last a great deal longer at the rate we are using them. And still the global reach of fossil fuel dependence has not yet peaked; many parts of the world are rushing towards it."

It is mostly less-developed societies doing the rushing, but the developed ones are big users, too, Montgomery noted.

"The US, with no less than a quarter of world petroleum demand, is simply too big a consumer, too dependent on oil itself…to cut itself off in a decade or two from the world's major energy suppliers, such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Kuwait."

Advanced societies have more energy options than ever, which afford more responsibility of choice. More responsibility, Montgomery reasoned, means "faith in the idea that human beings can make their own destiny…. The leaders of developed societies are struggling with this epochal reality."

The future of energy

The fossil fuel era is far from ending, Montgomery wrote.

"The developing world, with 75% of humanity, is only at the threshold of major petroleum demand. If China were to strive to match the US in per capita use, it would require as much oil as the entire world does today."

Montgomery sees fossil fuels carrying the bulk of the load for the foreseeable future.

"Oil, gas, and coal run our world dominantly, globally, and unquestionably, and will continue to do so for decades. They will not merely remain indispensable; they will expand.

"Together, fossil sources account for eight out of every ten btus humanity employs and form the nexus of a system representing tens of trillions of dollars and 150 years of investment, innovation, employment, empowerment, and cultural adaptation."

This system is not going away any time soon, Montgomery forecast.

"We understand that, despite its providence to this point in so many aspects of life, our energy system also has profound flaws and decided limits that are embedded in chemistry, geology, and geography, as well as politics, economics, and behavior. We know this system is temporary. It will not last in its current form," he concluded.

"The fossil fuel era will not come to a sudden or crashing end…it will continue for many years, merging into a new order, propelled not by some miracle yet unknown, but by science and technology guided by vision and ideas, an inevitable energy revolution the result of human capital supported by the society it serves."

Nevertheless, a decided evolution is in progress.

"Thirty years ago," he wrote, "our energy landscape did not look too remarkably different from what it does now. Three or four decades ahead, it almost certainly will."

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