America in 2015 finds itself almost in a new energy reality. It recently became the world’s second-largest extractor of crude oil, and since 2010 has been the leading producer of natural gas, whose abundant and inexpensive supply has been accelerating the retreat from coal as a national source of electric power.
Some see this as the beginning of an even bigger transition, one in which America’s dominant status as a producer of hydrocarbons ends its allies’ dependence on Russian gas and makes OPEC terminally irrelevant, while its entrepreneurial drive helps it quickly advance to harness renewables and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
All of this sounds too good to be true — and it is. Indefensible claims of imminent transformative breakthroughs are an unfortunately chronic ingredient of American energy debates.
When American leaders talk about energy transitions, they tend to sell them as something that can be accomplished in a matter of years. Al Gore, perhaps the country’s most prominent climate activist, proposed to “re-power” America, making its electricity carbon-free, within 10 years, calling the goal “achievable, affordable and transformative.” That was in 2008, when fossil fuels produced 71 percent of American electricity; last year 67 percent still came from burning fossil fuels.
President Barack Obama, who has a strong rhetorical dislike of oil — although kerosene distilled from it fuels the 747 that carries him to play golf in Hawaii — promised in his 2011 State of the Union message that the country would have 1 million electric cars by 2015. That goal was abandoned by the Department of Energy just two years later.
For years, even decades, we have been on the verge of mass deployment of (take your pick) fast breeder reactors, of coal-fired electricity generating plants that capture and sequester all of their CO2, of fuel cell-powered cars running on hydrogen, if not a complete hydrogen economy. We’ve been promised electric cars that will not only cost nothing to run but will also power houses while sitting in garages; or microorganisms genetically engineered to ooze gasoline.
The reality of energy transitions is very different. Too many modern observers have become misled by the example of electronics, in which advances have followed Moore’s law — the now 50-year-old prediction that the number of components on a microchip will double every 18 months. This has allowed exceptionally rapid progress. But the fundamental physical realities that determine progress of energy systems do not behave that way: they are improving steadily, but far more slowly. Moore’s law implies an exponential growth rate of 46 percent a year. The analogues in energy are not even close: Since 1900, the efficiency of electricity generation in large power plants has been rising by less than 2 percent a year, advances in lighting have boosted its efficiency by less than 3 percent a year, and the energy cost of steel, our civilization’s most essential metal, has been falling by less than 2 percent a year.