Physics and Society Jul '97 - Letters

Volume 26, Number 3 July 1997


The letters are dedicated to free expression on societal topics of interest to the physics community. As a forum for all physicists we welcome all views, but of course the Forum on Physics and Society does not necessarily endorse any particular view found in these pages. Readers are most heartily invited to respond to letters, comments, or others items in Physics & Society. Letters should not be longer than 500 words.

Renewable Technologies vs Renewable Populations

The article: "Looking Forward: The Status of Renewable Technologies" is quite revealing and disturbing.

The four quotations from the National Energy Policy Plan say nothing about the main cause of the worlds growing energy problems, i.e. growth of U.S. and world populations. As long as these population growths continue and per capita demand continues to grow, it is difficult to see how renewable technologies can be developed on the needed scale and timetable so that "Electricity and the services it provides will be available to almost everyone on the planet."

To get an idea of how difficult this will be, please examine the statement quoted from the World Bank, which predicts that in the next 30 to 40 years the developing countries will need "5 million megawatts of new [electric] generating capacity . . . this corresponds to a $5 to $10 trillion market, exclusive of associated infrastructure costs." Now let's do the simplest possible arithmetic. Let us take the population of the developing countries as being 4 x 109 and let's use the upper cost of $ 1013 so that this amount should include at least some of the associated "infrastructure costs." Now divide the cost by the population. The result is $2000 to $3000 dollars per person in the underdeveloped world! Even spread over a period of years, this is a large per capita cost for people, many of whom are now struggling to exist. This is the order of $100 per person per year for every man, woman, and child in the developing world and this is just the cost of the required capital construction of the electric generating facilities. To this must be added the cost of fuel and other operating costs and costs of distribution of the electricity. These all add up to approximately what we pay now in the U.S. for our electricity.

The article talks of photovoltaic systems with lifetimes of "over 30 years" and of wind energy systems with lifetimes of "at least 20 years." No mention is made of the net energy. So someone has to ask, "How long does it take for a photovoltaic system or a wind energy system to 'produce' as much energy as was required to manufacture the system?" In particular, can these systems pay back the energy costs of their manufacture in their expected lifetimes with enough energy left over to make the enterprise worthwhile?

It is frightening that the people in Washington fail to address population growth in the U.S. and in the world as the fundamental problem in the area of energy.

It is especially frightening that the focus of the "leaders" in Washington is one that treats struggling and starving people as "markets," and whose interest in renewable energy is based on the belief that "renewable energy can mean big business and high profits in the longer term.

Albert A. Bartlett
Department of Physics
University of Colorado
Boulder,Colorado 80309-0390