Why Today’s Power Crisis?
ALL power has a source. A horse, for example, derives its power from the chemical energy stored in the vegetation it eats. Vegetation is the source of muscle power, both of animals and humans.
Until the present century man relied heavily upon muscle power to accomplish his work, using either his own muscles or those of animals. Also, men burned vegetation—wood—releasing its energy for use. As recently as 1870 energy from wood provided most of man’s power needs, running early steam engines, riverboats and railroad locomotives.
Use of Fossil Fuels
As industry grew, however, man needed more power to drive newly invented machines. Fossil fuels laid away in the earth ages ago were utilized. Coal was dug up and used in increasing volume. By 1910 it was the energy source for three quarters of man’s power needs.
In about 1859 man began using, on a large scale, another fossil fuel, drilling a successful oil well that year. A principal use of oil today is to provide power for automobiles and other forms of transportation. The United States alone now uses, on the average, about 646 million gallons of oil (petroleum) a day!
More recently, particularly since World War II, the earth’s stores of natural gas have been trapped. A network of about 800,000 miles of underground gas pipelines has been built in the United States, four times the length of the nation’s oil pipelines. Gas that a housewife cooks with may have traveled nonstop from gas fields many hundreds of miles away.
Today more than 95 percent of the energy needs of the United States is supplied by these fossil fuels. In 1970, oil provided about 43 percent, natural gas about 33 percent, and coal some 20 percent of the country’s total energy needs. The rest of the power was supplied principally by hydroelectric facilities. This dependence on fossil fuels is at the root of the power crisis.
The New York Times, March 19, 1972, explained: “The crunch is being felt because our energy resources—coal, oil and natural gas—are beginning to run out and the demand of the rest of the world for these resources is increasing more rapidly than that of the United States.”
What would happen if these energy sources were suddenly gone? Man’s present industrialized way of life would die! Automobiles, buses, trains and airplanes would stop. Most lights, television, refrigerators and other electrical appliances would cease to function. This is the basis of the crisis.
But are fossil fuels really “beginning to run out”? Some have considered them practically limitless—at least good for thousands of years. What has happened?
Demands for power have grown faster than anticipated. Fossil fuels have been consumed at a fantastic rate. Each day, on the average, the world takes from the earth about 2,000 million gallons of oil! In 1970 the world figure increased 9.5 percent over the year before. If that rate continued, oil use would more than double in ten years. Western Europe’s oil consumption actually tripled in the last ten years. Regarding the astounding demand for fossil fuels, last October’s Science Digest said:
“Rapid depletion of the world stock of these vital raw materials becomes grimly dramatic when you realize that as of 1968, half of the oil which man used throughout history he produced during the preceding 12 years. Indeed, most of the world’s consumption of fossil fuels has taken place in the last quarter century.”
Such a rate of consumption has a snowballing effect, picking up incredible speed. For example, electrical power consumption has been more than doubling every ten years in the United States. This means, as Scientific American, September 1971, observes: “During the next 10 years the U.S. will generate as much electricity as it has generated since the beginning of the electrical era.” The consequences of a doubling rate of consumption every ten years is staggering.
Although no one knows how much coal, oil and gas are stored in the earth, for the sake of illustration let us assume that 5 percent of the total supply has thus far been consumed. This means that at a rate of doubling consumption every ten years, all of earth’s fossil fuels would be used up in some forty years!
“Beginning to Run Out”
The rate at which earth’s fossil fuels are being consumed is frightening to many. Some experts say that their depletion is ‘only a little more than a generation away.’ In a 1969 report to the United States president, the National Academy of Sciences predicted: “It will take only another 50 years or so to use up the great bulk of the world’s initial supply of recoverable petroleum liquids and natural gas.”
However, this prediction of three years ago may well be highly optimistic. Already the natural gas supply is running out. In a staff report this February, the Federal Power Commission noted that the shortage beginning last year “has marked a historic turning point—the end of natural gas industry growth uninhibited by supply questions.” The report concluded: “The burden of alleviating the deficiency will fall upon other fuels.”
Yet oil, too, is in short supply in the United States. Already more than a quarter of the country’s oil is imported—about 164 million gallons every day, on the average. But according to a recent Department of the Interior report, these imports will have to be more than doubled by 1980.
Dependence on Foreign Oil
Although oil discoveries have been made in Alaska, the bulk of earth’s known remaining oil resources is in other lands, particularly the Middle East. Thus United States Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Hollis M. Dole, says “this country is going to have to go where the oil is—Africa and the Mideast—to make up its fuel deficit.”
Yet a growing dependence on Middle East oil only accentuates the power crisis, as the New York Times, December 7, 1971, indicated:
“The State Public Service Commission has asserted that ‘current political realities,’ including ‘continued smoldering of Arab-Israeli conflict,’ have made the state’s electric utilities increasingly vulnerable to interruption of their residual oil fuel supply. Nearly all such oil is imported.”
Reports the Miami Herald: “Middle East oil is so important that the United States is willing to run the risk of nuclear confrontation to protect it.” Yes, nations today would risk war to get the oil that is necessary to keep industry going, cars moving, television sets operating and lights burning.
Yet why cannot coal instead of oil be relied upon as the principal energy source? The United States reportedly still has vast quantities of coal.
Plenty of Usable Coal?
The problem is, most coal is too full of sulfur to meet present environmental standards. Laws in an increasing number of cities will not permit coal with a sulfur content of more than 1 percent to be burned. That is why more and more communities are replacing coal in power generating plants with the less polluting fuels, oil and natural gas. Contrary to what some persons seem to think, man simply does not have the know-how to remove sulfur pollutants from coal or oil. President Nixon in his June 4, 1971, energy message explained:
“A major bottleneck in our clean energy program is the fact that we cannot now burn coal or oil without discharging its sulfur content into the air. We need new technology which will make it possible to remove the sulfur before it is emitted to the air.”
True, there is coal available that possesses little sulfur. But it is very likely to be near the earth’s surface, and is thus obtainable only by strip-mining methods. And strip-mining so ruins the land that laws have been proposed to outlaw it.
Coal deep in the earth, on the other hand, is difficult and expensive to get at, and is likely to have a high sulfur content. Thus T. F. Bradshaw, president of Atlantic Richfield Company, observed: “Coal, as a matter of fact—at least in the short run—is likely to be in short supply in spite of these large reserves.”
Man faces a real dilemma. Today’s industrialized society needs vast quantities of power to operate. Yet fuel supplies are running out, particularly those that cause least pollution. If available fuels are used, people are slowly poisoned by the pollution. But if they are not used, modern industrialized society slowly dies for lack of power.
Apparently humans will make dangerous choices to maintain their present industrialized, power-consuming way of life. Thus, while acknowledging the seriousness of the fossil-fuel shortage, S. David Freeman, former energy adviser to President Nixon, observed:
“The exhaustion of energy resources is not itself apt to be the crux of the problem. . . . The quantities of carbon monoxide, small particulate matter and other potential pollutants projected over the next two decades are so large as to suggest the possibility of fundamental changes in our environment.”
Obviously a change is needed, and it must come soon. The present means of power generation needs replacement. This is generally recognized. In fact, the replacement choice has apparently already been made—it is nuclear power. The United States is practically committed to it.
But is nuclear power safe? Is it a wise choice? How is electricity generated from nuclear energy? Such questions we will leave to a following issue to discuss.
[Picture on page 17]
OUR MAJOR POWER SOURCES ARE GONE!
NOTHING WORKS ANYMORE!
Could the present crisis lead to this?