Energy Resources and Our Future (Part II)

Is the push for renewable energy in the United States a new phenomenon — or is it a long-standing debate?

May 2, 2007

Is the push for renewable energy in the United States a new phenomenon — or is it a long-standing debate?

As the United States comes to terms with high oil prices and global warming, the debate over alternative energy sources is heating up. But this debate is nothing new. In this Globalist Document, we present a speech U.S. Admiral Hyman Rickover gave on the need for the United States to develop renewable fuels — all the way back in 1957.

For more than 100 years, we have stoked ever-growing numbers of machines with coal — and for 50 years we have pumped gas and oil into our factories, cars, trucks, tractors, ships, planes and homes without giving a thought to the future.

Occasionally, the voice of a Cassandra has been raised only to be quickly silenced when a lucky discovery revised estimates of our oil reserves upward, or a new coalfield was found in some remote spot. Fewer such lucky discoveries can be expected in the future, especially in industrialized countries where extensive mapping of resources has been done.

Yet, the popularizers of scientific news would have us believe that there is no cause for anxiety, that reserves will last thousands of years and that before they run out science will have produced miracles.

Our past history and security have given us the sentimental belief that the things we fear will never really happen — that everything turns out right in the end. But, prudent men will reject these tranquilizers and prefer to face the facts so that they can plan intelligently for the needs of their posterity.

Looking into the future, from the mid-20th century, we cannot feel overly confident that present high standards of living will of a certainty continue through the next century and beyond. Fossil fuel costs will soon definitely begin to rise as the best and most accessible reserves are exhausted, and more effort will be required to obtain the same energy from remaining reserves.

It is likely also that liquid fuel synthesized from coal will be more expensive. Can we feel certain that, when economically recoverable fossil fuels are gone, science will have learned how to maintain a high standard of living on renewable energy sources?

I believe it would be wise to assume that the principal renewable fuel sources which we can expect to tap before fossil reserves run out will supply only 7-15% of future energy needs.

The five most important of these renewable sources are wood fuel, farm wastes, wind, water power and solar heat. Wood fuel and farm wastes are dubious as substitutes because of growing food requirements to be anticipated. Land is more likely to be used for food production than for tree crops. Farm wastes may be more urgently needed to fertilize the soil than to be used to fuel machines.

Wind and water power can furnish only a very small percentage of our energy needs. Moreover, as with solar energy, expensive structures would be required, making use of land and metals which will also be in short supply.

Nor would anything we know today justify putting too much reliance on solar energy, though it will probably prove feasible for home heating in favorable localities and for cooking in hot countries which lack wood, such as India.

More promising is the outlook for nuclear fuels. These are not, properly speaking, renewable energy sources, at least not in the present state of technology, but their capacity to “breed” and the very high energy output from small quantities of fissionable material — as well as the fact that such materials are relatively abundant — do seem to put nuclear fuels into a separate category from exhaustible fossil fuels.

The disposal of radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants is, however, a problem which must be solved before there can be any widespread use of nuclear power.

Another limit in the use of nuclear power is that we do not know today how to employ it otherwise than in large units to produce electricity or to supply heating.

Because of its inherent characteristics, nuclear fuel cannot be used directly in small machines, such as cars, trucks or tractors. It is doubtful that it could in the foreseeable future furnish economical fuel for civilian airplanes or ships, except very large ones.

Rather than nuclear locomotives, it might prove advantageous to move trains by electricity produced in nuclear central stations. We are only at the beginning of nuclear technology, so it is difficult to predict what we may expect.

Transportation — the lifeblood of all technically advanced civilizations — seems to be assured, once we have borne the initial high cost of electrifying railroads and replacing buses with streetcars or interurban electric trains.

But, unless science can perform the miracle of synthesizing automobile fuel from some energy source as yet unknown, or unless trolley wires power electric automobiles on all streets and highways, it will be wise to face up to the possibility of the ultimate disappearance of automobiles, trucks, buses and tractors.

Before all the oil is gone and hydrogenation of coal for synthetic liquid fuels has come to an end, the cost of automotive fuel may have risen to a point where private cars will be too expensive to run and public transportation again becomes a profitable business.

Today, the automobile is the most uneconomical user of energy. Its efficiency is 5%, compared with 23% for the diesel-electric railway. It is the most ravenous devourer of fossil fuels, accounting for over half of the total oil consumption in this country. And the oil we use in the United States in one year took nature about 14 million years to create.

Curiously, the automobile, which is the greatest single cause of the rapid exhaustion of oil reserves, may eventually be the first fuel consumer to suffer. Reduction in automotive use would necessitate an extraordinarily costly reorganization of the pattern of living in industrialized nations, particularly in the United States. It would seem prudent to bear this in mind in future planning of cities and industrial locations.

Life in crowded communities cannot be the same as life on the frontier. We are no longer free — as was the pioneer — to work for our own immediate needs regardless of the future. We are no longer as independent of men and of government as were Americans two or three generations ago.

An ever larger share of what we earn must go to solve problems caused by crowded living — bigger governments, bigger city, state and federal budgets to pay for more public services. Merely to supply us with enough water and to carry away our waste products becomes more difficult and expensive daily.

More laws and law enforcement agencies are needed to regulate human relations in urban industrial communities and on crowded highways than in the America of Thomas Jefferson. Certainly no one likes taxes, but we must become reconciled to larger taxes in the larger America of tomorrow.

I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendents — those who will ring out the Fossil Fuel Age. Our greatest responsibility, as parents and as citizens, is to give America’s youngsters the best possible education.

We need the best teachers and enough of them to prepare our young people for a future immeasurably more complex than the present, and calling for ever larger numbers of competent and highly trained men and women.

This means that we must not delay building more schools, colleges and playgrounds. It means that we must reconcile ourselves to continuing higher taxes to build up and maintain at decent salaries a greatly enlarged corps of much better-trained teachers, even at the cost of denying ourselves such momentary pleasures as buying a bigger new car, or a TV set or household gadget.

We should find — I believe — that these small self-denials would be far more than offset by the benefits they would buy for tomorrow’s America. We might even — if we wanted — give a break to these youngsters by cutting fuel and metal consumption a little here and there so as to provide a safer margin for the necessary adjustments which eventually must be made in a world without fossil fuels.

Editor’s Note: This Globalist Document is adapted from a speech given by Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover to the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association on May 14, 1957.

You can read Part I of this feature here.