When you want something you go shopping, and that means effort and enjoyment (depending on the type of person you are!). It means comparing, discriminating, choosing and finally paying before you enjoy what you have bought. In that process, there are a few important questions:
Do we really need it (like food or heating in winter)?
How much does it cost?
Is it available?
How long will it last?
Can we afford it?
When we go shopping for energy as a global family, it should be no different.
Do we really need it? - Well, yes, because of the way we have constructed the modern world. We would die (or many of us) if we suddenly did not have access to energy.
That is not, however, an argument for not cutting back on energy use. The truth is we are addicted to it and need to dry out. But for the moment, yes, we really need the energy fix!
How much does it cost? - The true cost is the economic cost plus the environmental cost. Different energy sources have different costs, and that is where we would be responsible to compare.
- Plutonium is frighteningly costly.
- Coal is costlier than all other fossil fuels when the full force of its health effects are taken into account (in this blog here and here ).
- Tar sands are environmentally more costly than oil; an issue of the day.
- Oil is costlier than natural gas, and too precious to waste on burning.
- Natural gas is costlier than shale gas (marginally).
- Perhaps shale gas is environmentally more costly than wind energy (but perhaps not when one accounts for the associated radioactive waste problem, which is shared by some solar and tidal sources too).
Is it available? - Well, it depends if you are lucky enough to have it under your back-yard. Lucky? Well that is a matter of your view.
- For plutonium, everyone is a NIMBY.
- For coal everyone should be, and the same goes for tar sands!
- Oil should be avoided as an energy source because it should be conserved in order to make things from it.
- Natural gas is available, and increasingly shale gas will be a bridge to alternative energy sources.
- Wind, solar and tidal energy is not presently available - but will be if we can bridge to it in a reasonable way.
- Fusion is not available, but might one day if we can hold our breath long enough!
- For plutonium: Frighteningly long.
- For coal: Really enough for 500 years, but at what cost.
- Tar sands: As long as it takes to prop-up the Canadian economy.
- For oil: Perhaps several hundred years but at increasing economic cost for all items made from it.
- Natural gas shale gas: Perhaps several hundred years, which shoild be sufficient to convert to other energy sources and/or reduce energy demands through efficiencies and lifestyle changes.
- Wind, solar and tidal energy: Forever, providing rare earth elements can be efficiently recycled.
- Fusion: Again forever!
Can the environment afford it - No!
Can we afford not to and live - No!
When we go shopping we make pragmatic decisions with an eye on our pocket and an eye on our future. That is what we need to do when shopping for energy.