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Expert says big energy picture must balance security, sustainability, and supply

Carl Bauer
Carl Bauer

The world has no choice but to build more energy-producing plants--and find new sources of energy--but the build out process will not happen overnight, a government expert recently told an MIT audience.

A worldwide boost in demand for energy, coupled with environmental concerns, will force a huge U.S. increase inthe number of nuclear power plants--but it will take more than two decades to come to fruition, according to Carl O. Bauer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

Bauer's Feb. 26 colloquium, "Energy Supply and Demand, Economics and Greenhouse Gas Management: Are They Related?" was sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative. The discussion focused on the intertwined aspects of security, sustainability, supply and the environment in relation to the world's energy production.

Bauer said blackouts in California, Texas and New England by 2016 are just some of the challenges facing decision makers as they tackle America's energy future.

"I happen to believe we're right on the cusp of a huge energy build out because we have no choice," Bauer said. But, he added, the lack of U.S. nuclear plant construction in recent decades has led engineers to turn to other fields, and construction companies to commit resources to building plants overseas.

In facing the U.S. energy challenge, decision makers, he said, must juggle three "co-dependent" entities: the economic sustainability of energy sources; energy supply and security; and the effect of solutions on the environment and climate change. But "too often we divorce the circles and make a decision in policy that we can't live with," he said.

Coal, natural gas and oil use will remain largely unchanged in the United States over the next two decades, projections show, while the use of renewables is likely to increase from 6 to 9 percent of the total. Nuclear is slated to remain constant at 8 percent because old plants will shut down and new plants can't come on line fast enough to make a big dent in usage patterns by 2030.

And while U.S. energy use is expected to increase by 25 percent in that time frame, worldwide energy demand is expected to leap 50 percent, further straining resources.

"Do we think the oil supply can grow by 50 percent? The challenge for increasing the oil supply is increasingly onerous, and many believe peaking will happen in this decade," Bauer said. We will become increasingly dependent on coal and natural gas, which have their own supply and production problems, he said.

A state-by-state North American Electric Reliability Corp. long-term reliability assessment questioned states' capacity to generate electricity for the hottest days of summer in coming years.

Besides possible peak-usage brownouts and blackouts, the shortfall could bump up electricity prices in states neighboring high-demand regions by 30 to 40 percent.

While alternatives such as wind look promising, even the country's windiest states--such as North Dakota and South Dakota--don't have enough consistently windy days to meet high demand. Nights--when demand is down for air conditioning--tend to be windiest.

Managing public electricity use--limiting use during peak times or setting allowances--could become a reality.

If so, Bauer predicted that Americans might be in for some unfamiliar discomfort.

"How much are we willing to sweat or shiver?" he said. "How much are we going to allow someone to manage our own use through a meter on our house to control the flow of electricity and shut us down if demand goes too high?"

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 5, 2008 (download PDF).

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