Publication Details

Title: Introduction-the compelling tangle of energy and American society
Format: Chapter
Publication Date: December 2007
Description: Shortly after the United States had seemingly weathered the energy crisis caused by the 1973 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo, Senator Gaylord Nelson (1979, p. 2) began a hearing on energy policy by commenting that energy itself is not an end but a means. "We must therefore constantly ask," he continued, "to what end? What kind of society are we trying to evolve when we make choices about energy technologies?" Such a comment underscores a central theme of this book: namely, the seamless integration of energy and American society. Senator Nelson's questions sound even more provocative today, as the country consumes significantly more energy to secure a wider range of services now than it did in 1979. After all, what is more ubiquitous in modern society than energy? It powers our vehicles, lights our workplaces, produces food, enables the manufacturing and distribution of products, cools and warms our homes. Energy is, according to Nobel prize wining economist E.F. Schumacher "not just another commodity, but the precondition of all commodities, a basic factor equal with air, water, and earth" (Kirk, 1977, pp. 1-2). Thus, energy is something used, directly and indirectly, by every person in American culture. As an example of its omnipresence, consider one of the most widely consumed forms of energy - electricity. In 2002 the U.S. electricity industry possessed over $700 billion of embedded investment, making it the largest investment sector of the American economy (representing 10% of total U.S. capital expenditure). Annual sales of electricity for the same year were approximately $300 billion, close to 4% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). To generate this revenue, the electric utility industry consumed almost 40% of the country's energy and nearly 5% of its gross national product (Lovins et al., 2002, pp. 69-71; Masters, 2004, p. 107). On top of this complexity, the electric utility industry is regulated by 53 federal, state, and city public service commissions and more than 44,000 different state and local codes. During fiscal year 2003, 242 investor owned utilities operated about 75% of the country's total electrical capacity in addition to more than 3,187 private utilities, 900 cooperatives, 2,012 public utilities, 400 power marketers, 2,168 nonutility generating entities, and nine federal utilities. These organizations distributed their electricity through roughly 500,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines and an ever greater number of distribution lines (Palast et al., 2003). When grappling with these complex issues, the bulk of studies concerning energy and American society tend to focus on either assessing individual technologies or forecasting energy futures. Regarding the first approach, technology assessment, most of the recent policy briefs and books that address energy in America attack the problem within technologically and disciplinarily narrow boundaries. The Edison Electric Institute (EEI) and Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) tend to center purely on the economics of electricity supply and demand, while reports from groups like the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the Natural Resources Defense Council emphasize the environmental dimensions of energy consumption. The National Academies of Science and Union of Concerned Scientists have produced insightful analysis of the security and infrastructure challenges facing the energy sector, while groups like the Alliance to Save Energy and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy remain principally concerned with conservation and energy efficiency. Those that analyze particular types of energy supply - such as the Nuclear Energy Institute, American Wind Energy Association, the American Solar Energy Society, or the Combined Heat and Power Association - often confine their analyses to a limited range of technologies, rarely exploring how such technologies operate in society as a whole. This "stove piping" approach also carries over into the design and pursuit of the nation's energy research and development (R&D) - in all layers of government, academe, and industry. Integrative concepts that combine systems and cut across technologies, disciplines, and sectors of the economy are difficult to pursue. Developing sweeping novel concepts is an inter-disciplinary, complex undertaking that requires new partnerships and alliances and a broad understanding of technologies and markets. At the same time, the combination of concepts into more efficiently functioning systems could have large and positive implications for energy futures. For example, in a recent review of the U.S. climate change R&D portfolio, the lack of focus on integrated technologies was seen as a critical gap (Brown et al. 2006). Several illustrations of merged suites of technologies that have received limited attention include: • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs): Integration of plug-in HEVs with the electric grid for both recharging and discharging power and to support utility peak-shaving could dramatically reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles if recharging is done principally with low-carbon forms of electricity such as nuclear or renewable resources. • Systems engineered urban planning and design: Land use can be designed to reduce travel requirements and foster the co-location of activities with common needs for energy, water, and other resources, resulting in greatly diminished requirements for transportation fuels; greenhouse gas emissions could be further reduced through the co-location of energy sources and carbon sinks. • Systems approach to integrated waste management: The energy used in waste management and the utilization of methane from landfill gases can be optimized through systems that involve product tagging and sorting to maximize energy recovery from waste, reuse and recycling as well as distributed waste processing (e.g., in homes, businesses, and industry) for conversion to power and fuels. • Water-energy nexus: Water and energy are inextricably bound together in today's society, and any future technologies that address one will likely impact the other. Ultimately, society needs more efficient use of energy to support water distribution and treatment, and more efficient use of water to support energy supply; these cross-linkages have gone largely unexamined. Thus, the need for new and creative approaches assessing the intersection of energy systems and society at large are almost as urgently needed as they are unlikely to occur in contemporary discussions about energy policy in the United States. The second popular approach taken by analysts concerned with energy and society is to perform technological forecasts. Reports from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and International Energy Agency (IEA) typically focus on estimating generation capacities, projecting fuel costs, and predicting the environmental impacts of particular energy technologies. For example, the paragon of excellence among these types of reports, the EIA's Annual Energy Outlook (EIA, 2005b), predicts the current and future technical potential for energy technologies, but does not anticipate expected policy changes or provide policy recommendations. As Amory Lovins (2005), director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, recently told senators, "the Annual Energy Outlook is not fate; it is not a mandate that one must fulfill; and it absolutely does not illuminate the true range of national choice." R. Neal Elliott (2005, p. 84) adds that "the EIA needs updated modeling capability to reflect adequately [the new] market realities facing the American electric utility sector." In other words, energy forecasts often assume the existing configuration of the industry, and thus restricts their consideration to a very narrow range of alternatives. For instance, such forecasting tools typically focus on averages and do not explore the underlying compositions that constitute such data, thereby overlooking the wide variations of submarkets and trends that can be hidden through the process of compiling statistics. Historian Theodore Porter (1995) notes that the process of such quantification has many flaws, including (but not limited to) the choice of samples, preservation of samples, control of reagents, methods of measurement, custody of samples, methods of recording data, training personnel, controlling bias, and the formation of categories. Sociologist Nikolas Rose (1991) adds that political judgments are implicit in the choice of what to measure, how to measure it, how often to measure it, and how to interpret the results. For example, in characterizing energy resources, the EIA uses categories of fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, and renewable resources. The omission of energy efficiency from this mix reinforces the perception that a megawatt saved (i.e., a "negawatt") is not as valuable as a megawatt generated. Quantification is no less arbitrary and subjective, in the end, than any other human activity. Yet, as a culture, we choose to lend "numbers" (and the reports that they constitute) immense power.
Ivan Allen College Contributors:
Citation: Energy and American Society - Thirteen Myths. 1 - 21. DOI 10.1007/1-4020-5564-1_1.
Related Departments:
  • Center for Urban Innovation
  • Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory
  • School of Public Policy