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Perspective

Fortnightly Magazine - March 1 1996

decade, because the system is so massive and the drivers are relative mild.

Challenges: Expect No Sudden Shifts

The biggest possible challenge to the relatively stable situation described above is the possibility of global warming. Because the scientific phenomenon is unbelievably complex, many scientists do not expect real clarity for five to 10 years. If the problem is real, the political complexities may make the science look easy. Renewables as we know them today cannot make a big contribution to emissions control because of their inherently high costs. More efficient end-use technologies could clearly help, but would require a decade or two to reduce emissions by 10 to 20 percent. And that's after a government mandate, which will be a long time coming. Real change in greenhouse gas emissions would also require the United States to turn to its only available, reasonably economical, carbon-dioxide-free energy source (em nuclear power. That won't happen quickly, in part because nuclear power opponents will not reverse their positions easily.

The United States will not be the world's primary source of greenhouse gas emissions either; real progress will require the rest of the world to change. Other developed countries could agree and could afford to make the required massive changes, but less-developed countries will not be able to bear the related costs. Since developed countries are unlikely to foot the bill for their less fortunate counterparts, global progress will remain incredibly difficult. All in all, expect "no measurable change" in the U.S. energy system due to a possible greenhouse gas problem for quite some time, surely not in the next decade or so.

The U.S energy system appears to have reached a plateau where a number of technologies and fuels are likely to remain dominant for a decade or more into the future. This situation is dictated by economics, environmental considerations, convenience, reliability, regulation, and public policy. Unless we have a major shock of some sort, the competitive market will probably continue to dominate energy decisionmaking, and we can expect only modest evolutionary changes in the U.S. energy system for a decade, maybe longer.

On a finer scale, our energy system will continue to provide tremendous business and technological opportunities. A system so immense can make small changes very profitable. Change masters will continue to improve the fortunes of existing companies and develop new energy enterprises. It may not be a revolutionary time in energy, but it will be exciting nonetheless. t

Dr. Hirsch has been involved in energy R&D for roughly 30 years (em in fission, fusion, renewables, geothermal, downstream petroleum, synthetic fuels, upstream oil and gas, and broad-scale electric power in government, industry, and the nonprofit sector. He is a member of the Energy and Environmental Systems Board of the National Research Council and was involved in a wide range of Council energy technology review panels. He is currently president of The Energy Technology Collaborative, Inc. in Washington, DC, a competitive-edge R&D brokerage for electric utilities.

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