The current controversy over Social Security has this odd quality to it: The American public is being called to action now over a projected shortfall in the year 2042. That's a full 37 years in the future. Consider the reaction to another political hot potato, the rising cost of oil and our total dependence upon it. The recent spike in oil prices has galvanized the pundits, but the average American continues to pump gas without much concern for either the record price or what the future might bring. As an interesting mental exercise, consider what price a gallon of gas would have to reach before you made a decision to switch to a fuel-efficient or electric vehicle. Gas can cost as much as $6 per gallon in Europe, but that hasn't sparked an energy revolution over there.
As with projections of the future viability of Social Security, the future of oil is based on calculations of probabilities. We may discover a lot more oil. Some amazing technological breakthrough may eventually transform our relationship to energy.
But we know that oil is a finite resource, and even if it were not, the burning of fuel has a built-in cost in terms of environmental problems such as global warming. Will oil sustain our lifestyle into the year 2042? It remains an interesting question for debate and analysis, but those worries have not stimulated any moon-shot initiatives to transfer advanced industrial society to a sustainable-energy system. That transformation would require the capital, technology development and long-term planning of a manned mission to Mars, but a proposal for achieving it is not even on the table.
Technology has moved down the road toward solar-power systems, fuel cells, synthetic fuels, electric vehicles and many other means of generating and channeling energy. But much of that remains showcase demos. Some people do live in solar homes that consume no fossil fuels or drive electric vehicles, but not enough to make a dent in our demand for oil.
The free-market view is simply that these technologies will be seriously developed when the price of oil gets high enough. The oil crisis of the late '70s stimulated funding that led to breakthroughs in solar-cell design. But the momentum behind the development of alternative energy sources evaporated when the price of oil plunged. Maybe the end of cheap oil will finally push us into a new energy era.
There is a precedent of sorts for the spontaneous, market-driven rise of a new energy model in the conversion from the 19th-century coal economy to the oil-based industry of the 20th century. It wasn't planned or even anticipated. But, tellingly, we still are dependent on coal, even with the added benefits of nuclear and hydroelectric power.
Solar cells, an outgrowth of semiconductor technology, are my favorite renewable-energy technology. No moving parts, no chemical by-products, no waste heat or noise. There seems to be an enduring interest in the technology, whether or not it will solve any major problems for society. And there is a thriving market out there for solar-power systems as a recreational item, for remote industrial applications or simply as a means of cutting residential power bills. Portable solar systems are even being marketed as a consumer electronics accessory charge up your digital camera, PDA and laptop when you are away from the grid. But none of this addresses the core issue of our dependence on fossil fuel.
We now know how nature has solved the energy question. Photosynthesis rests on a clever little molecular machine that converts photon energy into mechanical vibrations that assemble sugars, the fuel for all cellular processes. Maybe someone in a lab somewhere is busy inventing the photon-driven synthetic-fuel technology of the future.
On the other side of the energy equation, industry is slowly becoming more efficient, thanks in large part to the computer revolution coupled with advances in materials science. Embedded computer control is reducing the total mass of machines and making fuel-burning engines more efficient. Hybrid cars couldn't exist without embedded computer control. Robotics, information technology and just-in-time inventory control are having a similar impact on manufacturing. And the Internet reduces the need to transport people to centralized workplaces. Those trends will continue because their advantages show up immediately on the bottom line.
In the absence of a national plan, we will just have to hope that the two trends industrial efficiency and renewable-energy technology will meet at some point down the road, hopefully before the world runs out of oil. At least the electronics industry is on the right side of the trends, producing more for less at an exponential rate while creating technology that might in the end rescue advanced in-dustrial society from its addiction to oil.
By Chappell Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org), managing editor of technology for EE Times.