Economist writer says energy revolution must be embraced |

Economist writer says energy revolution must be embraced

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Americans are fooling themselves if they think they can relax about oil supplies due to the apparent stability in the Middle East, according to a renowned journalist.

And those who believe tapping domestic supplies will ease the country’s dependence on OPEC nations aren’t facing reality, claimed Vijay Vaitheeswaran, the global environment and energy correspondent for The Economist.

Even conservationists ” as well intentioned as they are ” “are missing a trick,” he said.

Vaitheeswaran said the best hope for America, and the world, to avoid poisoning itself and ending its addiction to fossil fuels is to embrace and promote an approaching energy revolution based on hydrogen fuel cells.

Vaitheeswaran lays his case out in a new book called “Power to the People: How the Coming Energy Revolution will Transform an Industry, Change Our Lives, and Maybe Even Save the Planet.”

He will present his findings Friday at 6 p.m. at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. The speech is free and open to the public.

Vaitheeswaran makes a convincing case that America is asking the wrong questions when examining problems such as dependence on foreign oil, global climate change and updating its electrical grid infrastructure.

Danger in Middle East

People who think the Middle East is now a stable supply of oil ” something he labels the “relax” view ” don’t realize how vulnerable we are to the whims of that region, he said. Two-thirds of the world’s known oil reserves are held in five Persian Gulf countries. Those countries aren’t extracting their supplies as fast as other countries, so their concentration of world supply will increase, he said.

Despite the United States’ decisive action to oust Saddam Hussein and stabilize Iraq, there is still a high level of vulnerability in the area. If a regime opposed to American policies gained control of one of the five big oil-producing countries, even a temporary disruption of oil supplies or severe price hike could cripple the world economy, Vaitheeswaran said.

He was equally critical of the “keep pumping” view that supports President Bush’s assertion that domestic oil supplies need to be tapped to ease foreign dependence. The Bush administration has unsuccessfully attempted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to increased oil drilling. Bush successfully eased regulations on gas and oil exploration throughout public lands in the West.

Vaitheeswaran noted that America consumes 25 percent of the world’s oil yet sits on only 3 percent of proven reserves. Tapping the domestic supplies would provide only brief relief from the binge on foreign oil, he said.

Conservation flaw

But Vaitheeswaran asserts that not even the environmental movement, which he labels the “ride your bike” view, hasn’t got it quite right when it comes to energy issues. He said that concepts like wearing a warmer sweater and turning the thermostat down and riding your bike to work rather than using your car may be laudable, but they don’t reach far enough.

“We can’t conserve our way out of the problem. It’s too big,” said Vaitheeswaran.

He said a recent “green” marketing campaign that claimed driving an inefficient SUV was providing support to Osama bin Laden is catchy but not exactly visionary.

“My argument is the SUV isn’t the problem,” Vaitheeswaran said. “The problem is the internal combustion engine.”

Unlike the doom-and-gloom outlook that pervades much environmental writing, Vaitheeswaran is optimistic that the developed world is slowly but steadily taking the steps to correct the “needlessly filthy and inefficient way we use energy.”

Reasons for optimism

His reasons for optimism included the growing popular appeal of the environmental movement and the surge of technological innovations. The issue isn’t “if” the revolution will hit, but “when,” he indicated.

When it does, Vaitheeswaran said, it will render obsolete the standard automobile engine as well as the 1950-era U.S. energy grid.

“The problem is that change comes slowly in the energy realm,” he wrote in the introduction of his book. “Old ways of thinking have encouraged monopolies, shielded polluters, and stifled innovation. That has burdened the rich world with an energy system locked into outmoded technologies ” such as America’s many coal plants ” that are dirty and inefficient.”

The use of fuel cells in computers and cell phones is right around the corner. Soon there will be “micropower plants” that will serve buildings and neighborhoods. Buses and fleets of vehicles used by companies such as FedEx and UPS will be the first to use hydrogen fuel cell vehicles because they can refuel them easily at central sites, Vaitheeswaran said.

It will take a while to convert private vehicles to clean-burning, energy-efficient hydrogen fuel cells simply because the development of an infrastructure to refuel them will take time, Vaitheeswaran explained. But within a decade those types of vehicles will be used, he said.

The energy revolution will be accelerated by the massive blackout that plagued the East and Midwest last year, according to Vaitheeswaran. It drove home the need for a decentralized grid that’s modeled after the Internet. Smaller, plentiful power sources will be located near power users rather than a few large power sources serving users from afar.

Vaitheeswaran believes the world’s answers for many of its problems are at its fingertips. It just depends on how quickly we embrace them.

“Once you get away from the false trails that lead to gloom and doom and despair, you can make the necessary policy changes,” he said.

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