Policy Issues and Technology Choices

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One cannot readily have an open discussion on environmental policy without opening the subject of energy policy. Energy policy emphasizes carbon in its reduced chemical state, environmental policy deals with oxidized states of carbon—but in each case, we are dealing with the same element—carbon. Since most of the worlds energy resources are hydrocarbon based, these two carbon forms are tightly interwoven and will be for some time. Our current approach to energy policy usually focuses on energy independence, sometimes independence from specific sources of oil, sometimes independence from any source that is not functionally renewable. Navigating the landmarks for a path forward can be almost mind numbing. Consider the debate over the energy balance of ethanol from corn. Depending upon the method of data analysis, energy balances may range from as low as 0.61 (it takes more energy to produce the ethanol than is found in the ethanol) to 1.65 (suggesting that this is a sure bet for developing a sustainable energy strategy). Both extremes can't be correct. Nor is it likely that the environmental benefits (or harm) are as easily quantified as both the promoters and detractors claim. On the environmental side of the equation, we don't have convincing evidence that the increase in N2O emissions from crop production and changes in hydrological cycle are balanced by the uptake of CO2 by growing specific crops in the first place.

One part of energy policy that is often left unanswered is who would put all of this new technology together? At stake are billions of dollars in research that would be funneled into hundreds of billions of dollars in demonstrations, and finally trillions of dollars of capital investments. This at a time when the most experienced demographic component of the population is within 5-10 years of retirement. Whether it be boiler makers, welders, pipefitters, machine tool operators—the population is in rapid decline for the most important trade skills needed to make all this happen. The capacity to construct and fabricate high technology mega-scale projects is quickly eroding, and little is being done to capture the loss of experience and skill sets. Special attention needs to be given to how such a great undertaking would be achieved, and who will be doing the real heavy lifting.

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