Technology Won’t Save Us

Too many science fiction books, movies, comic books, Landing on the Moon, the Manhattan Project, and Happy Endings have  created an unspoken certainty that a hero will arrive before aliens can destroy the Earth and that alternative energy will allow us to continue devouring the planet with hardly a hiccup.

But consider these energy predictions that didn’t come true:

1945. Oak Ridge National Laboratory nuclear physicists Weinberg and Soodak predict that nuclear breeders will be man’s ultimate energy source; a decade later, the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission predict it would be “too cheap to meter

1973. “Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving.” Richard Nixon

1978. “Through modeling of supply and demand for over 200 US utilities it was projected that, by the year 2000, almost 60% of US cars could be electrified, and that only 17% of the recharging power would come from petroleum.

1979. An influential Harvard Business School study projects that by 2000, the US could satisfy 20% of its energy needs through solar

1980. Physicist Bent Sorenson predicts that 49% of America’s energy could come from renewable sources by the year 2005

1994. Hypercar Center established, whose lightweight material and design would yield 200 mpg cars with a 95% decline in pollution

1994. InterTechnology Corporation predicts that solar energy would supply 36% of America’s industrial process heat by 2000

1995. Energy consultant and physicist Alfred Cavallo projects that wind could have a capacity factor of 60%, which when combined with compressed air storage, would rise to 70 – 95%3

1999. US Department of Energy hopes to sequester 1 billion tonnes of carbon per year by 2025

2000. Fuel cell companies announce 250-kilowatt production plants that can fit into a conference room and produce energy at 10 cents per kilowatt hour, with the goal of 6 cents by 2003

2008. “Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative.” Al Gore

2009. Gene scientist Craig Venter announces plans to develop next-generation biofuels from algae in a partnership with Exxon Mobil

How have things turned out?

There are no commercial nuclear breeders on anyone’s horizon; global nuclear capacity is only 20% of the Atomic Energy Agency’s 1970 forecast; the Hypercar is nowhere to be seen; solar and wind make up a miniscule portion of US electricity generation; wind capacity factors range from 20%-30%; the US is reliant for 50% of its oil from foreign sources; 70% of US electricity generation comes from coal and natural gas; fuel cells haven’t worked as expected; hybrids are 2% of US car sales; “clean coal” is mostly a blueprint; and Venter announced that his team failed to find naturally occurring algae that can be converted into commercial-scale biofuel (they will now work with synthetic strains instead).

Cembalest, Michael. 21 Nov 2011. Eye on the Market: The quixotic search for energy solutions. J. P. Morgan

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