Our Energy Future: “The Terrawatt Challenge”

As we consider our energy future, figuring out a path through the stormy seas of Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas, and, not least, Global Warming, there are ways to capture our challenges, to think about the problems ahead that are (at least to me) compelling.

Richard E. Smalley’s The Terrawatt Challenge (pdf) is one of those.

Smalley, in just six short (okay, dense, single space) pages lays out the challenges and potential paths forward toward “future global energy prosperity”. Interesting, very interesting, even compelling material.

But, perhaps the most important part of this discussion is captured in just a few, short paragraphs.

Energy:  Not “Any Old Issue”

Energy is not just “any old issue.” Most
people, in fact, understand its importance
very well. I have often asked people in the audience to name the most critical problems we will have to confront as we go through this century. In every case, after a bit of discussion, the audiences have agreed that energy is the single most important issue we face.”

Clearly, those engaged in Energize America believe this to be true, that this is “the single most important issue we face”. However, whether in this forum or elsewhere, all too often we feel we are fighting our way upstream, captured as somehow ‘just another’ issue area, one that can get in line (perhaps) to be dealt with behind so many other things.  

How does Smalley explain why it is preeminent?

Why is energy always preeminent? When we look at a prioritized list of the top 10 problems, with energy at the top, we can see how energy is the key to solving all of the rest of the problems—from water to population.

Now, by the way, I am not calling on you to agree to this prioritize list.  Think, however, when looking at these issues, of them as a circle. Which “one” fits most clearly as a central item, core to all the rest?

  1. Energy
  1. Water
  1. Food
  1. Environment
  1. Poverty
  1. Terrorism and war
  1. Disease
  1. Education
  1. Democracy
  1. Population

Written in 2004, are there any major items here that shouldn’t be?  What is missing that can’t be fit under one of these categories? (For example, would competent / accountable governance fit under Democracy?)  Does your “list” with additional items get much longer?

In any event, what is Smalley’s argument?

Take the second problem on the list, for example: water. Already billions of people around our planet live without reliable access to clean water for drinking and agriculture. As population continues to build and the depletion of existing aquifers worsens, we will need to find vast new sources of clean water. Luckily, our planet has huge resources of water, but most has salt in it, and it is often thousands of miles away from where we need it. We can solve this problem with energy: desalinate the water and pump it vast distances. But without cheap energy, there is no acceptable answer.

Without abundant fresh water, how are we going to provide the food for our burgeoning worldwide population? Without cheap energy, how are we going to produce the fertilizer, till the soil, harvest the crops, process them, package
them, and deliver them to markets?

The interaction: water is a crisis, cheap energy helps solve that crisis, expensive energy leaves it unsolved.

That is, it seems to me, the key point of this listing:  name a problem that is not easier to solve if we (the globe) have our act together re energy with clean, relatively expensive, universally available energy (coupled with efficient use)?  

And, name a problem that is not worsened if we continue down the BAU (business as usual) case, with an ever more expensive, ever dirtier, inefficient, and inequitably distributed energy system.

Let me be clear, I do not think that other issues are ‘unimportant’ and don’t merit fixing (let us talk about national health care, global warming, education, etc…) nor, do I think, would Smalley assert that other things ‘don’t’ matter.  The point is that, well, can we get these other things right if we do energy ‘wrong’? Can we have a society (American or global) that works well in the coming decades if we continue recklessly down an expensive, polluting, inefficient energy path?  What do we need to do to set the conditions for a better future?  To me and Smalley, we must get energy right to be able to get anything else right for the longterm.

As Smalley notes:

Energy likewise plays the dominant role in determining the quality of our environment, the prevention of disease, and so on, down the entire list of global concerns.

Now, Smalley’s perspective is both quite equitable:

In short, energy is the single most important factor that impacts the prosperity of any society. In today’s world, with about six and a half billion people, only about one and a half billion of us enjoy modern energy at the level to which we in this audience are accustomed. It is impossible to imagine bringing the lower half of the economic ladder of human civilization— about three billion people—up to a modern lifestyle without abundant, lowcost, clean energy.

“Abundant” … “lowcost” … “clean” … Now that is a vision of an energy future that I, for one, can embrace.

The Terrawatt Challenge (pdf) is RECOMMENDED reading (extracts from the article).  Note that Richard E. Smalley is the 1996 Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a University Professor and professor of chemistry and physics at Rice University.  There is a lot of substance in The Terrawatt Challenge (pdf)that goes beyond (and supports) the centrality of energy. He discusses (and supports strongly) solar power as a core technological response to our energy challenge. (And, well, perhaps the greatest weakness is the underestimation of just how much is already in hand to radically change America’s and the world’s path on energy … if we would simply take the path of energy efficiency, renewable energy, etc …)

 Other interesting/related reading in my inbox are two (overlapping) pieces by Nathan S. Lewis:


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