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

Michael Levi will tell you that there are two energy revolutions unfolding in the United States, one focused on fossil fuels and the other on alternative energy.

“We’ve seen oil production grow last year by the largest one-year increment since the beginning of the oil industry. Natural gas production hit a record high,” he says. “At the same time, renewable energy production has more than doubled in the last four or so years. Prices for renewable technologies have plummeted.”

So, which energy path should the country pursue?

In his new book, The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, Levi advises us to drop this long-held attitude that we have to choose between the two. “Options are always good,” he says. The senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the best way to secure a bright future is to advance both old and new forms of energy.

In your opinion, how divided is the United States when it comes to what energy path we should take?

Our representatives in Washington are certainly sharply divided in their views on which of these trends we should back and which ones we should try to stop—with a big block only excited about fossil fuels and another wanting to bet pretty much everything on cutting consumption and promoting new energy sources.

I think if you go out in the country at large, there is considerably more nuance. There are certainly pitched battles over individual projects and people with strong views, but you are more likely to find people who when presented with what is really going on that see the merits in a variety of different developments.

These lines were drawn decades ago. How did this debate take root?

I still find it amazing to reflect on how much of the current debate and how much of the way we think about energy today were formed 40 years ago in the aftermath of the first energy crisis and the first Earth Day. In a 1970s world, where modern globalization was just beginning, the Cold War was still raging and technology was fundamentally different, people really drew lines with one side fighting for what people call the “hard path”--more fossil fuel production and more nuclear power--and another camp pushing for what they call a “soft path,” more efficiency and alternative sources of energy. Both agreed that you had to pick, we couldn’t do both and that it was a stark choice.

After the 1970s, neither side really won, but they both managed to deflate the other’s biggest ambitions. By the end of the 1980s, you didn’t have expanded offshore drilling but you also had fuel economy standards for cars and trucks that had been eviscerated and a slashing of government support for clean energy technology.

You believe that these two energy revolutions should happen simultaneously, and that the United States should foster both old (fossil fuels) and new (alternative) energy sources.

In the right way. So long as prices are high, we should be taking advantage of the opportunity to produce more oil, if we do it responsibly. But, at the same time, we should be cutting the amount of oil that we consume. We should be exploiting the opportunity to produce natural gas, use that to help the economy and cut greenhouse gases by shifting away from coal. But, at the same time, we need to be promoting zero-carbon energy sources so that we can genuinely tackle our climate problem over time.

When I look out at this world, I ask a few basic questions. First, is there any one [energy] source out there that will solve all of our problems? The answer is no. The second is: If we pursue one of these sources, does it mean that we can’t pursue one of the others? The answer is no. And the third is: Is there something about pursuing any one of these sources that fundamentally conflicts with how we think about what’s appropriate in American society and what we think is right when it comes to the relationship with government and society? Again, I think the answer is no. So, if everything shakes out that way, that says to me that there are opportunities in each of these areas and we should be pursuing them.

Can you give an example or two of how we might embrace both?

If we could get long-distance infrastructure in place while still making sure to take good care in protecting the local environment, that would benefit clean energy supporters--because you could move solar power from sunny places to cities where people need electricity--and fossil fuel producers, because you could move oil and gas from where they are produced to places where they can be processed. 

Another place where both sides could gain is if we adopted regulations that encouraged the simultaneous build-out of renewable energy and natural gas to fill in when the renewable energy doesn’t deliver.

What is it going to take to get other people to think this way?

Fundamentally, people need to be willing to focus on the upsides rather than the downsides. Any strategy that pursues gains on all fronts is going to have downsides. Pursuit of oil and gas development entails local environmental risks. More oil production is not helpful for climate change. Renewable energy costs more than other sources of fuel, and the most efficient cars and trucks also are expensive to pursue. So, if you focus on any one of these pieces by itself, you don’t pursue it in moderation and you fixate on the downsides, you will come to the conclusion that none of this is worth doing anything about. What you need to do is put it all together and see that when you pursue all of these, you have big net gains for the economy, for security and for the environment. 

Currently, the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere—a common measure of climate change—sits at 400 parts per million, the highest level in at least 3 million years. What do you think is an attainable goal? 

As a matter of practical economics and technology, keeping ourselves below 450 parts per million in the atmosphere is an attainable goal. As a matter of politics and international cooperation, I am far from sure that it is.

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.

I think it is important is to make sure that we promote a range of zero-carbon options so that we don’t have to make a bet on any one of the technologies being sufficient to deal with our climate challenges. I’d like us to have a viable set of renewable energy options. I would like us to try to have a viable nuclear option. I’d like us to try to have a cost-effective carbon capture option. I don’t know which of those, if any, will be successfully developed at a decent price, but to me that is all the more reason to try and promote progress on all of the different fronts.

Options are always good. They don’t save you from making choices. You still need to get the bad options out, but options are good. The more opportunities you have, the more you can do to match your actions with your goals.

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