Energy After September 11:By Seth Dunn, Research Associate
The tragic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the subsequent military response, have raised thorny questions about U.S. energy policy. How does oil import dependence factor into the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia-a major grievance of radical Islamic fundamentalists? How might continued heavy reliance on imported Middle Eastern petroleum complicate American efforts to eradicate terrorism from the region? Are nuclear power plants potential targets of future terrorist attacks?
While there are no easy answers to questions such as these, it is clear that the existing energy and power infrastructure in the United States exhibits several vulnerabilities. These include the risk of disruption of oil supply from politically volatile regions, the danger of electricity outages if power plants are targeted, and the risk of exposure to nuclear plant accidents.
The good news is that two long-term trends underway in the world's electricity and energy systems-toward micropower and hydrogen-can help to lessen these vulnerabilities.
Micropower, or distributed generation, limits the risk of disrupted power supplies. Terrorists would have great difficulty targeting hundreds of dispersed fuel cells or solar panels in office basements and backyards and on rooftops. Hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, is increasingly viewed by industry as the ultimate energy carrier.
The enabling technology for hydrogen is the fuel cell, which combines hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity and water. Fuel cells are now being vigorously developed as successors to batteries, power plants, and the internal combustion engine. Derived first from natural gas and later from renewable energy, hydrogen promises a clean, domestic source of energy that can lessen oil dependence.
Although the trend toward micropower and hydrogen was underway prior to September 11, these events-and the difficulties encountered in responding to them-illustrate the consequences of not engaging in a more concerted public policy effort to accelerate the introduction of these promising energy solutions. Indeed, they strengthen the case for an Apollo-scale effort to develop an infrastructure for producing, delivering, and using hydrogen. While there are costs in building a hydrogen economy, they must be weighed against the risk of continuing to rely on oil imports from the Middle East-which holds more than 65 percent of the world's proven petroleum reserves.
In addition to improving energy security, a micropower-hydrogen energy system could bring energy services to the 1.8 billion poor people around the world who lack access to modern energy-a common source of social unrest in many parts. It could also alleviate urban air pollution problems and lay the groundwork for a low-carbon, climate-benign energy economy. And a micropower-hydrogen energy system presents enormous economic opportunities for forward-looking companies and countries that see the strategic advantage of switching to new energy sources-as did Winston Churchill, when he switched the British navy from coal to oil during the First World War.
Links to Worldwatch resources on alternative energy:
Worldwatch Paper 157: Hydrogen Futures -- Toward A Sustainable Energy System - August 2001
The Hydrogen Experiment - World Watch Magazine, Novemeber/December 2000
Worldwatch Paper 151: Micropower - The Next Electrical Era - July 2000
State of the World 2001 - Chapter 5, Decarbonizing the Energy Economy
Vital Signs 2001 - Part One: Key Indicators: Energy Trends
Links to Worldwatch press releases on alternative energy:
Hydrogen Rising in Energy Policy Debate - News Release, August 02, 2001
The Choice: An Energy Strategy for the 21st Century - News Release, May 17, 2001
20th Century Power System Incompatible with Digital Economy - News Release - July 15, 2000
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