We Don’t Have to Choose Between Fossil Fuels and Green Energy

In a new book, Michael Levi argues that betting on a single energy path will only lead to failure

There's room for both fossil fuels and renewable sources in the United States' energy diet (© Richard Schultz / Corbis)

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One of the big reasons I wrote this book was to try and reconcile the need to deal with climate change with the different developments that are happening. It seemed to me that we as a country were having a lot of trouble figuring out how this fossil fuel boom fit or didn’t fit into a serious need to deal with climate change. You had one world that thought seriously about oil and gas but didn’t really know much about climate change and another world that thought seriously about climate change but didn’t know much about oil and gas. If this oil and gas boom is a big part of our energy scene, we need to really understand how the two pieces fit together or else we can’t think seriously about how to deal with climate change.

In the book, you point out that cars and trucks account for more than two-thirds of our oil consumption. What are the nuances—the pros and cons—of biofuels [a potential alternative to petroleum] that the public should know?

Biofuels take a lot of land. They can have all sorts of environmental consequences at a local level that people don’t want. At the same time, if you pursue them properly they can be helpful for reducing reliance on oil and lessening net greenhouse gas emissions. One of the challenges we see with biofuels, and the same is true for all sorts of other technologies, is we have to figure out a way to square our local environmental concerns with the need to deal with our global problems. 

Is it naïve to think that with new clean energy we won’t have the security risks that we have had with oil?

I don’t think it is naïve. I think oil is special. We have no rapid substitutes. When the price of oil spikes, you can’t switch to something else, and oil happens to be concentrated in a lot of parts of the world that are highly volatile. People have warned that we’ll just be substituting risks associated with oil for other risks because we will be using lithium in our batteries or neodymium in our magnets for clean energy technologies. I think those are different. In particular, even if someone cuts off your source of special materials and you can’t make solar panels, that doesn’t mean that you stop generating electricity. It just means that you don’t install new solar panels for a while.

Do you think that wind and solar energy have the potential to compete with fossil fuels?

I think that wind and solar energy have the potential to eventually compete with fossil fuels, if fossil fuels have to pay the full price for whatever damage they do to the environment. I think there are isolated cases where wind and particularly solar may be there today, once you factor in the environmental damage that comes from fossil fuels. But I don’t think they are ready to compete at large scale. 

How should the government get involved in renewable energy?

I think in the long run you want to see polluters pay for the pollution that they cause. That will help renewable energy and other zero-carbon technologies compete more effectively. But, I also see a role for government in helping promote innovation in these technologies, to help make them viable options once you’ve got that price on carbon in there. That can involve laboratory research, particularly in storage, so that we can use intermittent renewable sources whenever the power is most valuable. But, it also involves support of one form or another for early deployment of some of these technologies so that companies can bring down costs through trying different approaches and so that people can develop innovative ways to finance and build these different energy technologies.

You push for a diversified energy portfolio.


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