The meltdown in Japan and our energy future

Tuesday March 22, 2011

Two parents -- identified by the caption -- have their backs to the camera, 10 feet away. The father is standing and the mother crouching, both looking into what looks like a tangled pile of debris, but which we are told is a vehicle at a driving school in Miyagi Prefecture. The body of their daughter, killed by the tsunami, is trapped inside. I can only imagine the grief on their faces and in their hearts.

This photo stays with me more than another other image coming out of the compounded disasters of the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown. In fact, I can’t get this whole disaster out of my mind, even as it moves off the front pages of the news. In addition to lingering concerns about radioactive fallout, the disaster provides an instructive lens with which to look at the energy solutions we currently rely on, and where they’re headed.

Worldwide, 5.8 percent of energy was produced by nuclear power in the most recently available figures (from 2008, published by the International Energy Agency, or IEA, in "Key World Energy Statistics"). The bulk of energy was produced by oil (33.2 percent), coal (27.0 percent) and gas (21.1 percent). Together, 81.3 percent of our total energy consumption came from these nonrenewable -- that is, non-replaceable -- fuel sources.

Whether availability of these sources, or at least oil, has peaked, is a matter of some debate that I’ll save for another day. I will note in passing that worldwide oil discoveries peaked in 1964 and have declined sharply since then. We can’t burn it if we haven’t discovered it.

For all the hopeful talk about renewables, they still qualify as "Other" in the IEA pie charts. That’s right: solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, and geothermal all lump together at 0.7 percent of global energy supply.

Hydropower, the biggest renewable energy source, stands at 2.2 percent, but has enormous development costs, environmental impacts, and not a lot of large-scale growth potential. Burning of biomass, biofuels, and similar sources, is also a complicated story. This group comes in at 10.0 percent of total supply, but not all of that is renewable. IEA says that doesn’t have a firm grip on how much of that 10 percent comes from biofuels versus landfill waste (much of which is plastics and other oil-based garbage). Burning of biomass and biofuels is a complex environmental story with many downsides as well as upsides.

We also need to note that worldwide energy consumption has been growing at 2 percent per year from 1973 to 2008. That means there is a doubling every 35 years. We need solar, wind, geothermal, not to mention oil, gas, coal and nuclear to all have strong annual growth rates just to meet projected demands. We’ll need even more phenomenal growth in renewables to keep up with demand while also phasing out of carbon.

Now, back to Japan. Both nationally and internationally, growth in nuclear power generation has been stagnant for decades. Prior to the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi, nuclear was going through a bit of a rebirth despite a strong headwind from people questioning its safety and the feasibility of safe long-term storage. I think it’s safe to say that that headwind will now be a gale worthy of the peak of Mt. Washington.

Wherever you stand on controversial energy issues of the day, I think you would have to admit we are in a pickle. If you don’t believe in peak oil, do you believe that fossil fuel consumption can increase indefinitely, which is what we currently require of it? Can it do so without causing disastrous global climate change and more mistakes like Deepwater Horizon?

Wherever you stand on nuclear power, do you see us adding hundreds of plants over the next couple decades to meet worldwide demand?

If you place your hope in renewables, how do you grapple with the low "density" of these sources? According to the book "Power Hungry" by Robert Bryce, solar photovoltaic installations require eight times as much land as a nuclear plant. Wind power requires 45 times as much land, and corn-based ethanol requires 1,150 times as much land. If we work hard now, we are probably decades away from having enough renewable capacity on a national basis to seriously compete for a big slice of the pie with the kind of steady "baseload" systems fueled now by gas and coal. Hope is not a plan, as they way in the military.

It may be tempting to think about energy in the abstract -- simply something we use to do the things we really want to do, like getting to work, getting to school, staying warm, making things, growing things, powering life-support systems, and downloading movies.

Japan provides a picture of what it’s like to suddenly run short of power in a modern society with all its conveniences. There, we see rolling blackouts, empty shelves, halted trains with commuters unable to get to work, and evacuees sleeping on floors in community centers to stay warm.

Japan’s energy picture is part of our economic picture, too. It took just days for GM to shut down a Louisiana pickup truck plant due to lack of parts from Japan. Consumers looking for new iPads have found supplies limited. Farmers looking to sell beef in Japan have found that containers can’t be unloaded because refrigeration isn’t guaranteed in warehouses and stores. Without energy, Japan’s economy is at a standstill, and ours will be affected, perhaps deeply if you look at how we finance our debt.

Few people anticipated a 9.0-magnitute earthquake on this fault line, or a tsunami of this magnitude. The family in Miyagi probably never foresaw what was coming. On the other hand, we can see from easily available information that major imbalances in our economic and energy futures that could be very disruptive to many lives. I hope that all of us will be in a position to face these issues squarely and resourcefully.

Looking back 200 years, our recipe for economic growth has been to expand availability of cheap energy supplies. How we stay powered up over the next 10, 20, 30 and 100 years is going to be a compelling story that I will be paying close attention to and covering in this column, usually with more hands-on topics than today.

If you have feedback on the column, or questions or comments about energy solutions in your life, please e-mail I will answer your questions in future columns. Please send your good wishes to my colleague Alex Wilson, who is generously lending me this space while he is on sabbatical. You can follow his upcoming bike trip at Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions. You can learn more at You can reach Tristan at


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