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The Coming Energy Crisis?

By Christine Van Roosen, Photography by Patrick O’Connor

Jack Siegel ’68 has led, analyzed, regulated, and advised energy and environmental policy and practices worldwide for more than three decades. Starting his career at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during a period of intense focus on the environment, he led efforts to regulate and enforce the Clean Air Act of 1970. He joined the Department of Energy (DOE) in the late 1970s and for 18 years served in a number of positions, including deputy assistant secretary for coal technology and acting assistant secretary for fossil energy. He is credited with making DOE’s Clean Coal Technology program a success. Since 1994, Siegel has been a principal with Energy Resources International Inc. in Washington, D.C., which provides tailored consulting and strategic advice to domestic and international clients in power generation, current and emerging fuel technologies, infrastructure, markets and restructuring, air emissions, and regulatory and legislative issues. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Challenges, Opportunities, and Possibilities for Cooperation in the Energy Futures of China and the United States and has served on the National Academies of Science Energy and Environment Committee, among others. He is the recipient of the Presidential Award for Superior Achievement (1992) and the Secretary of Energy’s Gold Medal for Outstanding Performance (1994). This spring, he talked with Transformations about a variety of national and global energy and environmental issues.

You’ve fulfilled leadership roles for government, regulatory, and private organizations worldwide. What insights have you gained from these experiences?

I’ve learned the importance of teamwork and open communication—with the people who work for me and other organizations and countries. It’s imperative that everyone is fully aware of what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re going to get there. My WPI education prepared me not just to think through issues in a logical manner, but to work effectively with people. Lots of good ideas come from others; you can build on those ideas to come up with a better product or a better way of doing things.

I’m one of the lucky people who got involved in issues of national and international significance at their early stages. For example, I joined the EPA when environmental concerns were first being recognized and there was a real interest nationwide in dealing with them. I joined the DOE just after the first OPEC oil embargo and was there throughout several energy crises when the public demanded quick action to resolve the energy supply and price issues. It’s been exciting to work with colleagues throughout the world in trying to address these common problems.

What are the leading energy and environmental issues facing the United States?

The most challenging energy issues are oil availability and the price of liquid fuels for transportation applications. These issues have been there throughout my years in government. Most people hoped there would always be ample supplies and prices would stay low, but instead we’re starting to see the ramifications of not developing good alternatives, such as more efficient engines or engines that utilize other fuels, and not looking for alternative supplies of liquid fuels.

The biggest environmental issue is climate change. Politi-cians are moving toward requirements to control carbon dioxide. While a number of other countries have formally recognized this problem and have agreed to international treaties to require reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases, the United States isn’t quite there yet. Greenhouse gas emission reduction is difficult to deal with; the options are limited, and the costs are high. Removing carbon dioxide before combustion products leave the stack is a difficult thing to do. Sequestering the carbon dioxide so it can’t be released back into the atmosphere is another big technical and economic challenge.

What about coal mining in the United States?

We are the world’s second largest coal producer and consumer. Most people don’t realize that one-half of the country’s electricity is derived from combusting coal. Coal mine productivity has gone way up, keeping coal prices relatively flat, even though consumption and production have risen significantly over time.

As our country’s population continues to grow, will our ability to generate electric power keep up, or can we look forward to more brownouts?

I don’t think we’ve seen the end of brownouts. As the economy grows, we’ll need more electric power, but we haven’t built many new base load power plants. We are building natural gas-fired plants to meet peak loads, but they aren’t used until the demand is great. And natural gas prices are high right now and they’re going to stay high, so electricity from those units will be expensive.

Base load power in the United States is produced by nuclear, coal, and some natural gas plants. Coal plants produce about 50 percent of the electricity in the United States; nuclear, about 20 percent. Recently, with the rise in oil and gas prices, a lot of new coal plants have been announced and interest in nuclear fuel has increased. But no coal or nuclear plants are currently being built in the United States. Siting plants and getting regulatory approval are key issues; it’s anybody’s guess as to how long it will take to get plants online once approved. So, as electricity demand rises and supplies remain constant, something will have to give.

So, we have an aging infrastructure?

Yes. The power plants and the transmission systems that get the power from the plants to the end users are overwhelmed and outdated. Part of this is related to the difficult process for getting approval to build a transmission line in the United States. If we have a long hot spell—and it’s bound to happen—there will be brownouts. California, which was plagued by electricity brownouts and blackouts in 2001, is poised for more problems in the future since droughts in the northwest United States have limited the hydroelectric power supplied to the state. Very little new electricity capacity has been added. As the economy grows, electricity demand will as well. These issues appear to position California for the types of power shortages experienced in 2001, but it won’t be the only region of the country to face electric power shortages in the future.

China is an important energy hot spot. How will its voracious energy consumption affect its environment?

It could be horrible. It’s already very bad. China is a coal-based economy. It does have a good renewable energy program and commitments to install considerable quantities of renewable energy systems. China is one of the few countries in the world constructing nuclear power plants. It has had a very aggressive energy program and is also experimenting with clean coal technologies. But since coal is China’s only significant domestic energy resource, it will continue to be used. Even if it’s burned cleanly and efficiently and even with pollution control equipment and stringent standards for sulfur dioxide emission, using so much coal will cause environmental problems.

But China’s biggest problem, in my opinion, is transportation. It went from mostly bicycles 15 years ago to five million automobiles on the road today; the projection is 50 million cars by 2010 and 100 million by 2020. The nation’s roads aren’t designed to handle the traffic and the vehicles aren’t very efficient, resulting in serious pollution problems.

“We’ve reached the point a lot of people felt we wouldn’t reach for another 20 to 30 years simply because the developing economies are growing faster than anyone expected.”

What about India? Is it experiencing similar problems?

India’s heading in the same direction. It didn’t develop economically as quickly as China, but its population is growing a lot faster. I don’t know if India is there yet, but it’s going to be the most populated country in the world in the near future. That means more cars, more energy consumption, and more pollution.

Will increasingly affluent nations such as China and India eventually consume as much energy per capita as industrialized nations?

Energy consumption in most developing countries is pretty much in line with the gross domestic product (GDP): when the GDP grows 1 percent, energy consumption grows 1 percent. China is increasing its consumption dramatically, but energy efficiency was an important priority in China from the beginning. For every percentage of increase in GDP, energy consumption has increased only by 0.5 percent. Whether other countries follow that model and whether China can continue to keep consumption in check remains to be seen.

Globally, it sounds as if we’re at an energy “tipping point.”

We’ve reached the point a lot of people felt we wouldn’t reach for perhaps another 20 to 30 years simply because the developing economies are growing faster than anyone expected and world oil supply is being questioned. In addition, we’re finding that no one has a handle on how much oil exists in the Middle East, the world’s major oil supplier—that it may not, in fact, be as much as the OPEC countries have maintained. So world oil demand continues to increase while concerns exist about the availability of supply.

Another issue associated with oil is refining capacity. The oil produced worldwide is getting increasingly heavy. Over time, the world’s production of light crude oil has declined as a percent of oil produced. Since no new refining capacity has been added in a long time, and now that crude is heavier, existing refineries are operating much less efficiently. New refineries would be expensive to build and hard to site.

We have all seen how this has affected energy prices recently. In addition, some believe that we may soon witness an even more serious problem—shortages of supply in some regions of the world.

What positive gains have been made in the United States and the world in regard to energy?

We’re saving billions of dollars annually by using energy-efficient lighting, especially in hotels and large commercial buildings. The hybrid vehicle is a wonderful step toward a more efficient transportation sector, and some auto manufacturers are recognizing the strong consumer interest in these. There have been great innovations in oil and gas exploration and drilling technology; 3D and 4D seismic technologies ensure that fewer dry wells are drilled, thus reducing costs. Horizontal drilling technology is now used in the commercial marketplace and has dramatically improved the amount of oil and gas that can be produced from a given well.

Great advances have been made in wind energy technology; in many nations, wind is close to competitive with conventional energy sources. There have been advances in solar technology and clean coal technologies, and there are many other promising technologies making their way to the commercial marketplace. Even though fuel cells have a long way to go before they’re going to be viable, major automobile manufacturers are actively involved in fuel cell technology and research. There have been many positive accomplishments made and, I’m sure, there will continue to be more. Hopefully, these and other innovations will at least temper the bleak energy picture that I’ve painted. We’re still hoping that the energy “silver bullet” will emerge soon.

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Last modified: Aug 23, 2005, 23:08 EDT
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