By Donald W. Lyons
There is simply no way to raise our standard of living without reducing energy costs. The more expensive energy is, the less we can afford and the less well-off we will be. We need heat, light and power to advance the quality of our lives and the lives of our children.
In technologically advanced countries like the United States, we rely on coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear, wind and solar. They combine to provide us with economical energy that meets our needs. The technological advancement of all of these sources, including improvements in energy efficiency, deserves support.
Engineers and scientists, including those at West Virginia University and other West Virginia research organizations, are working to reduce the cost of every energy source. All citizens should, and most do, encourage and support this research.
Unfortunately, there are groups and organizations that are promoting a war on coal, oil and natural gas. Their efforts are misguided. It makes no sense to accept some energy sources and reject others. A “war on fossil fuels” makes no sense. If anything, it will drive up energy costs.
Most people, within their lifetime, have become aware of advancements in energy research. These innovations reduced energy costs. Especially in recent years, we have seen very significant advancements in wind and solar power and major improvements in energy efficiency. This progress, along with improved technologies for coal, oil and natural gas, now allow us to power as many new microelectronic devices as we wish at affordable cost. And they enable us to drive more efficient cars, SUVs and pickups, and keep our homes at comfortable temperatures during both summer and winter.
Through research, the cost of energy from wind and solar power has dropped, but it’s still not competitive with fossil fuels for most applications. The technology is not available to economically produce enough energy from renewables to supply the bulk of our needs. Therefore, we can’t afford to turn our backs on coal, oil and natural gas. To do so would lead to energy shortages and higher prices. We need more low-cost energy, not less.
Fortunately, we are continuing to see many technological breakthroughs in energy production. Coal mining is less costly thanks to robotics. Economically viable oil and natural gas are being found in abundance in new places, including West Virginia. But it’s also clear that we need more pipelines to get this oil and gas to market.
Research on small modular nuclear reactors is looking very promising, especially if it leads to the development of safe, low-cost reactors that reuse nuclear fuel.
The technology to produce larger and more efficient wind turbines is advancing, although we need new electricity distribution lines to get the power to market.
Advancements in solar cell technology promise improved efficiency and lower cost. And battery technology is advancing, so perhaps someday there will be economical storage of electricity from intermittent generation sources for use when we need it.
We are also benefiting from gains in energy efficiency. For example, we have cars getting twice the fuel mileage compared to earlier models and light bulbs that use one-fifth as much electricity than bulbs did years ago.
It may seem that developments in renewable energy are coming very fast, but in fact it will be a very long time before they will be cost effective. For most of our needs, we will continue to rely on conventional energy sources.
For that reason, a war against coal, oil and natural gas is nonsensical. Fossil fuels are still an essential part of our daily lives. Instead of rejecting some, we need a concerted effort to reduce the cost of all energy sources.
Donald W. Lyons is a professor emeritus at WVU’s College of Engineering. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.