Monday, September 26, 2011

Getting past the blessing (curse) of vast fossil fuel reserves

Saudi Arabia--#1 oil exporting nation and wants to export solar energy as well
As an enthusiastic supporter of clean energy technology, I try to keep aware of the ongoing ebb and flow of renewable energy development in the US. In a previous post, I talked about how the US is both blessed and cursed by our vast fossil fuel reserves. Saudi Arabia is also blessed with vast fossil fuel reserves yet they seem to looking to the future more so than we are in the US.  They recently announced a $100 billion spending plan for renewable energy development.  Unlike in US where we see no societal benefit to significant clean energy infrastructure projects, the Saudis seem aware of the fact that finite energy wealth does not have the same long term economic benefits of sustainable energy sources. With respect to oil in particular, drill baby drill as a national energy plan makes much more sense in Saudi Arabia than here, but they are heading in the direction of innovation versus continued dependance on legacy technologies.

The US Southwest has vast solar potential but we have little national will to develop it
Clean energy has been plagued by up and down cycles for decades and today is no different.  With the new construction downturn, credit market paralysis, double-dip economic recession fears, outrage over misapplied federal stimulus dollars with Solyndra, and a political shift away from clean energy initiatives, it looks like renewable energy is in decline here. All these issues hurt wind & solar in the US in the short term, but I think the real headwinds for clean energy come from more structural and systemic issues.
Masdar City in Abu Dhabi -- a zero carbon, zero waste, car-free city in development
 We sit on vast reserves of coal, natgas, and even oil to a lesser degree but we haven't woken up to the truth that these won't last forever.  The global nature of the energy markets drive the price and availability of these resources no matter what fuel we consider or where that fuel happens to lie.  We are blessed and cursed with our abundance today because it has both created a fantastic quality of life for most Americans while it has also spoiled us to the virtues of thrift and frugality.

Saudi Arabia along with China, India, Abu Dhabi and a host of other developing nations with less plentiful energy inheritances are planning for the future and making concrete investments today.  Just as past wars have been started and decided over access to energy, the future of global events will be tied to control of energy resources.  By ceding the initiative to other countries, we risk future irrelevance in international affairs and will become dependent on the goodwill of those who have no goodwill towards us.  While we shouldn't be committing to any specific technology as the only long term solution, we need to be developing them all with the resources that we have today.  It is in our national interest to regain this initiative.

A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.
— George Patton