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Taking The Measure Of Energy Options

With a stiff dose of realism, book explores the complexity and enormity of globalenergy challenges

by Nancy B. Jackson
July 18, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 29

Credit: Nancy B. Jackson
Book cover: A Cubic Mile of Oil
Credit: Nancy B. Jackson

It is impossible to be a chemical scientist or engineer these days without an acuteawareness of the challenges that face this world when it comes to energy. One of themajor themes of the 2011 International Year of Chemistry (IYC) is energy andsustainability.

All the IYC events that I have attended—the United Nations Educational, Scientific& Cultural Organization IYC opening and the official IYC events in the U.S., SouthAfrica, Israel, the Philippines, Jordan, and Brazil—have expressed the urgency ofour growing energy needs and climate-change challenges, and more pointedly, theresponsibilities (as well as capabilities) of chemical scientists to address thesechallenges. The severe weather experienced in the middle and southern sections of theU.S. recently and the terrible drought and wildfires we are experiencing in my hometownof Albuquerque—whether connected with global climate change or not—add apersonal anxiety to the urgency of the energy problem.

In light of all this, how refreshing it is to read a logical, nonpolitical plan toaddress the energy challenges before us. In “ A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global EnergyCrisis,” authors Hewitt D. Crane, Edwin M. Kinderman, and RipudamanMalhotra lay out the challenges, opportunities, and complex realities of energytechnologies. They are, respectively, one of the founders of the independent think tankSRI International, an R&D management expert, and an organic chemist. The authors saythey wrote the book to inform readers about the technological and economic issues ofenergy so that rational, useful policy decisions can be made, understanding thatdeveloping new energy technologies to replace fossil fuels will take many decades.

Credit: Shutterstock
The world uses a cubic mile of oil (CMO) each year; by 2050, that figure willinevitably increase.
Oil rig
Credit: Shutterstock
The world uses a cubic mile of oil (CMO) each year; by 2050, that figure willinevitably increase.

The book assumes that we will need sustainable, low-carbon energy sources to dominateour global energy use by the year 2050 and explains the options and challenges in eachsource of energy from fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas, tar sands, etc.) to nuclearenergy to many renewables (solar, wind, tidal, etc.). The authors believe we need tomake policy choices now to make sure that we have energy options in the future. However,the book does not discuss specific policies nor does it debate global warming. Itfocuses on energy technology, its challenges, and its possibilities.

All studies of global energy require the discussion of large, almost incomprehensible,units of energy. To make the concept more intuitive, the authors refer to a cubic mileof oil (CMO), which roughly equates to the world’s annual consumption of crudeoil. The world’s total annual energy consumption from all sources is 3.0 CMO, andby 2050, they write, the world will need between 6 and 9 CMO of energy per year toprovide for human needs. Although a CMO (which equals 153 quadrillion Btu) may be a morevisual unit of energy, I had trouble imagining it. Even when I climbed the SandiaMountain foothills next to my house in Albuquerque and looked at the mountain peakrising just about a mile above the plains, a cubic mile of oil still seemedunimaginable.

But the book nonetheless succeeds on many levels. The preface was my favorite part. As aformer energy researcher, I have been frustrated by the promotion of energy technologyideas that I know will have little or no impact on the gigantic nature of the globalenergy problem. The authors make clear that they understand the enormity of the energyproblem and thus consider only technologies and solutions that have a possibility ofworking.

The realistic and helpful nature of their suggestions for energy technologies echoes ahighly acclaimed National Academies study, “America’s Energy Future:Technology and Transformation,” published in 2009. Although the authors of“A Cubic Mile of Oil” had no input into the National Academies study, thediscussion of energy technologies in their book serves to explain the policyrecommendations of the committee. What’s more, the correlation between the bookand the National Academies study suggests that a meeting of the minds does exist amongexperts regarding the potential of various energy technologies.

The authors go on to explain that they wrote the book to assist others in accuratelyevaluating potential energy technology schemes. Having seen too many energy technologiesproposed and funded that are neither thermodynamically efficient nor a realisticpossibility for one reason or another, I find their goal to be worth more than a cubicmile of oil. That is, they succeed in accurately explaining the complexity and enormityof global energy challenges and the requirements for developing realistic energytechnology alternatives. “A Cubic Mile of Oil” is an excellent book foranyone who wants to learn enough about energy technology to be able to take the nextstep and make energy policy decisions.

The book has many useful graphics that effectively display its subject matter. These area valuable resource for anyone interested in understanding or communicating energyoptions to other people. Although the book is for lay readers, it has enough technicaldepth and insight to also be of value to more knowledgeable readers.

That the authors do not advocate for any particular policy direction or specific energytechnology is a rare and refreshing characteristic for a book of this type. They avoidscare tactics and threats of disaster. Their plain, technical analysis of energy optionsleaves the reader unusually optimistic about how we can address the energy challengesthat will face us in the next 40 years. Finding a book that explains the true hard factsabout energy is unusual enough; finding one that leaves the reader with a sense thatthere are reasonable options for our energy future is both rare and valuable.



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