Physics of Sustainable Energy II: Using Energy Efficiently and Producing it Renewably

Edited by David Hafemeister, Daniel Kammen, Barbara G. Levi, and Peter Schwartz, AIP Conference Proceedings, University of California, Berkeley, 5-6 March 2011, (American Institute of Physics, Melville, NY, 2011)

Reviewed by Paul P. Craig

The modern energy era began with the oil crisis and embargo of October, 1973. Within a few years US electricity growth rates dropped from the post-WWII rate of about 8%/yr to about 2%/yr, and total US energy use growth rate dropped from 2%/yr to almost zero, where it remains today.

A few physicists leaped on this new bandwagon and shifted their careers. In my own case I left Brookhaven Laboratory for Washington where I discovered opportunities that changed my life. I found myself working for the President's Science Advisor providing advice on energy R&D to the Office of Management and Budget, and starting energy programs at universities and national laboratories. Washington was and is a great place for a career shift, a place where one gains access to the nation's and the world's best experts, and makes lifelong friends. It's hard for anyone to resist a phone message or an e-mail saying "Washington's calling."

My Washington experience made it easy to move to academia, where I spent the rest of my active career teaching energy and environmental policy at UC Davis. My shift to energy roughly divides my lifetime to date in half. It was a good decision!

Only a handful of physicists shifted in the early days– but a very meaningful handful. Space permits mentioning only a few. Two became Presidential Science Advisors: Jack Gibbons and John Holdren. Art Rosenfeld started the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory energy program. Bob Budnitz was head of research at the NRC during the heady days of Three-Mile Island. Dave Hafemeister decided to devote his career to energy and arms control. Lee Schipper, John Holdren's first graduate student, shifted from astrophysics to energy and became a global transportation guru.

The first APS energy study took place in 1973 [1]. It remains the "go-to" review of the fundamental physics principles underlying energy technology. Several of the authors remain active today, including Art Rosenfeld and Rob Socolow. Since 1973 APS has sponsored many physics-and-society studies, conferences, and APS meeting sessions.

Energy technologies are massive, all-pervading, and expensive. It takes a long time – a half century or more – for new technologies to have significant impact. The field of energy efficiency is following the same slow trajectory as other energy technologies. Now about 40 years old, energy efficiency is finally becoming institutionalized. Energy efficiency has been by far the largest contributor to savings in the US energy system during these four decades, with no limits in sight: Art Rosenfeld argues that since 1973, efficiency has lead to a current savings of $1 trillion per year over what costs would have been had pre-1973 trends continued. Solar and wind energy have been around for over a century, and are being reinvented in that technologies to utilize them have changed significantly. It's too early to know their ultimate market impact, and there have been major setbacks.

In March, 2008, a short course on the physics of sustainable energy was held at UC-Berkeley; the proceedings were reviewed in the July, 2009 edition of P&S. The volume under review here, "Physics of Sustainable Energy II," includes articles from a second such conference, which was held in March, 2011. This volume is an excellent roadmap for young scientists seeking exciting careers solving the nation's and the world's huge energy and carbon problems. The book is divided into sections focusing on policy, environmental effects, transportation, buildings, and renewable energy. I wish I had space to review them all.

The first section applauds Art Rosenfeld, the father of modern energy efficiency. Art describes his early work and how it gradually gained influence. Former California Public Utilities Commission commissioner Dian Grueneich discusses how California today is leading the world toward new energy technology.

The environmental section emphasizes issues surrounding global climate change. Ben Santer's testimony to Congress concisely summarizes the science and key controversies. The transportation section shows how hard it will be to move beyond oil. Promising technologies exist, but remain elusive even after decades of research. The buildings section includes a wonderful analysis from Texas A&M of lower limits of energy use in commercial buildings. The result? A feasible building would use less than 1% of the energy used by typical current US office building. This "physics style" analysis compellingly shows the enormous promise for energy reduction.

I was fascinated by a solar energy paper by Ben Bierman of Solyndra Corporation. He writes: "As of this writing in May, 2011, Solyndra has consolidated operations in a new, 800,000 square foot manufacturing facility" in Fremont, CA. Despite the technology looking great, only a few months later in August 2011 the company declared bankruptcy and laid off all employees. This proved embarrassing to the DoE, which had heavily subsidized Solyndra. Solyndra is as good an example as one can imagine to demonstrate the huge risk of energy investments. One of the big sources of risk is that your own good ideas may not be enough. Competitors have good ideas too. It's easy to get bypassed.

The government has proven adept at supporting basic research, but often stumbles when attempting to choose winners and losers. The many unanticipated successes from government-supported basic research investment should make us all proud. Government should stick to what is essential and to what it does well.

Bob Budnitz's nuclear safety contribution to this volume expresses optimism about the nuclear industry. He makes a compelling case that the safety of US reactors has increased greatly. Having worked on high level nuclear waste and Yucca Mountain, and knowing Bob well, I wouldn't personally mind living next to a US reactor. But I'm not the public. Bob seems off base in his assessment of the Fukushima accident. In a "note inserted later" (after the conference) he writes: "The Fukushima accident did not result in a 'large release' by the common definition of such…" I expect the Japanese who lost their homes and were relocated due to contamination wouldn't agree.

Fukushima will haunt the nuclear industry for decades [2]. Physicists thinking of making careers in energy should recognize that such careers almost inevitably will intersect with public policy and the sometimes strange and implausible views of the public.

During the heyday of the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s and 60s, dreamy-eyed forecasts of nuclear power penetration abounded. Today the US operates about 100 aged reactors that provide about 20% of US electricity. Will the future see this number go up or down? It's impossible to know. Can the industry compete with wind, solar and efficiency? The nuclear industry has managed in the past to reduce its risk and lower investor costs through heavy use of government subsidies. Government subsidies do and no doubt will continue to tilt energy playing fields.

The conference proceedings include extensive appendices with key data and conversion factors. I especially like the energy flow chart on page 470. It represents a real step forward, replacing a long-used but massively misleading chart still produced by LLNL which divides energy into 'useful' and 'waste' [3].

Over the years, I have held lots of opinions on what the future would hold. My track record is abysmal–but so too is everyone else's! The history of energy forecasts is littered with amazing failures. Today US energy use is far below what anyone thought plausible in 1975 [4]. The last pre-embargo government forecast, from about 1970, got the year-2000 energy wrong by a factor of two (nearly 200 quads/yr forecast versus about 100 actual). Currently much focus is on carbon emissions, but, to the consternation of the climate change community and the frustration of forecasters, global carbon emissions are rising faster than just about everyone thought.

Energy efficiency is at last becoming institutionalized. Efficiency and renewables are 'gifts that keep on giving'. I rejoice in having played a small role in the beginnings of the current energy transition. The turnout at the Berkeley conference and the competence and energy of the participants shows that young physicists appreciate the career opportunities [5]. They will push the field to new highs. The sky is the limit, and the need is without limit.


1. AIP Technical Aspects of the More Efficient Utilization of Energy, edited by W. Carnahan et al, American Institute of Physics Conference Series, Vol. 25 (1975).
2. NRC Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Report on the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident, 12 July 2011.
3. The 2010 chart asserts that rejected energy is 56.13 quads out of 98.0 quads total.
4. Craig, P. P, Ashok Gadgil and Jonathan Koomey. "What Can history Teach Us? A Retrospective Examination of Long-Term Energy Forecasts for the United States." Ann Rev Energy 27:83-118 (2002).
5. The UC Davis Energy Institute maintains a list of current jobs.

Paul P. Craig

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.