The Impossible Dream of Energy Independence

Energy Analyst Robert Bryce Explains Why Trying to Make All Our Own Power is a Foolish Idea

In his forthcoming book Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” (PublicAffairs) Robert Bryce, managing editor of Energy Tribune and author of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron, grapples with what he detects as a growing belief, both among policy elites and the public, in “energy independence.”

That’s the notion that America should disengage from world energy markets and seek self-sufficiency in energy production. To Bryce, this is not only impossible, but dangerous to even attempt. As he writes in the book’s introduction, the quest for energy independence “means protectionism and isolationism, both of which are in opposition to America’s long-term interests.”

Some of the myths of energy independence Bryce takes aim at are summed up in this January Washington Post op-ed. They include the false belief that U.S. energy autarky can curb terrorism; that government investment in “alternative fuels” can end our use of foreign oil; that we can starve evil petro-regimes of money by refusing to buy their oil; and that less reliance on foreign energy sources can make our energy supply more secure.

Like any decision to isolate ourselves from the free international market, the search for energy independence would, Bryce demonstrates, lead us to waste our money and, yes, our energy doing things more expensively than they can be done by taking advantage of the international division of labor and flow of capital.

reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty, author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (PublicAffairs), interviewed Bryce by phone last week.

reason: While “energy independence” has soared to fresh public prominence in this era of soaring gas prices and Mideast wars, it’s not a new idea, is it?

Robert Bryce: The first president to promote the idea was [Richard] Nixon in the wake of the oil embargo in 1973. In his State of the Union address in 1974, Nixon said that he was aiming for energy independence by the end of the decade. He hoped that by 1980 the U.S. would not be importing any oil. And every president since Nixon, in one way or another, has espoused a similar idea. But if you look back at the data, the U.S. was a net crude oil importer [as early as] 1913 and ever since we’ve been a net crude importer with a handful of years [as exceptions]. It’s remarkable how much the rhetoric about “energy independence” has had no connection with reality.

reason: What do its proponents think we can get out of energy independence?

Bryce: The main talking points for those who promote energy independence are, one, that if we were just more tech-savvy we can develop lots of new jobs, and that would be great—we can build windmills, solar panels, whatever nifty new whizbang tech is going to replace oil, and that will stimulate the economy.

Second, they love biofuels. We can just grow the fuels we need to replace imported oil and it will be great for farmers and the rural economy. Third, [energy independence proponents] conflate oil and terrorism. Those arguments really came to the fore since the 9/11 attacks. We buy imported oil, some of our suppliers are Islamic petro-states, some Islamic petro-states send some dollars to support radical Islam, therefore oil equals terrorism and “energy independence” is anti-terror.

The idea is that if we could isolate the oil-exporting countries that in theory support terror we’d cut off its lifeline. The connections of Saudi Arabia to the 9/11 terror attacks are real, I’m not denying that. But you cannot, given the complexity and enormous size and interconnectedness of the global crude oil market, separate one actor from another.

S. Fred Singer [of the Science and Environmental Policy Project] came up with the best analogy. He described the global oil market like a big bathtub. All the oil production is dumped into one bathtub and all consumers have straws sucking oil out. [For all economic purposes] it’s like we’re all sucking from the same common pool. To say you are not gonna buy Saudi oil, or Algerian oil—it’s crazy. For example, the U.S. hasn’t purchased a dime of Iranian oil—except for a small amount in the early ‘90s, but for the most part no Iranian oil since 1979. And that hasn’t stopped Iran from supporting Hezbollah.

reason: Can increased energy efficiency help us achieve the goal of “energy independence”?

Bryce: To answer that, you need to understand the “Jevons paradox.” In 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons published a book, The Coal Question, which projected that Britain was on the precipice of disaster because it was running out of coal. Sound familiar? But it still hasn’t happened. Jevons’ discovery was that energy efficiency doesn’t decrease demand—it increases it.

We’re told that if we just push more efficient technologies like fluorescent light bulbs and drive Priuses that energy use will decline. It’s just not true. There’s a graphic in my book that shows the decline in the number of BTUs consumed per dollar of GDP [from 19,000 BTUs consumed per dollar of GDP in 1950, to a projected 9,000 BTUs in 2010], but energy consumption continued to grow.

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  • ||

    "The only energy source with zero carbon emissions in electric power is nuclear."

    Hardly. Ever hear of hydro electricity? Or wind or solar (despite their intermittancy)?

    The truth is nuclear is not carbon-free in the mining of uranium nor in the construction of the generating station (the same applies to the others as well). Surprising mistakes for an energy expert.

  • Taktix®||

    More of a victim of sloppy writing.

    The only non-renewable energy source with zero emissions in electric power production is nuclear.

    There, fixed.

  • ||

    an incurable problem for both solar and wind is intermittency.

    It's a problem, but it's not an incurable problem. All it takes for a solar-thermal system to overcome intermittency is for there to be enough of the heat-transfer medium (molten salt seems to be the best candidate right now). If your system takes a couple days to come up to working temperature, then it also takes a couple days to cool off to the point that it stops producing power in useful quantities. Keep making it bigger, and the square-cube law is on your side.

    -jcr

  • Tym||

    an incurable problem for both solar and wind is intermittency.

    Combine wind power and/or solar with hydro. When the wind is blowing/sun shining use wind/solar and let the resevoir store water for future power. When there is no wind/sun let water out of the dam and use the hydro.

  • ||

    classwarrior,What about the mining,smelting and manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels?Oh,and the steel,copper and concrete for dams?Think next time.

  • ||

    Combine wind power and/or solar with hydro. When the wind is blowing/sun shining use wind/solar and let the resevoir store water for future power. When there is no wind/sun let water out of the dam and use the hydro.



    It's going to take a very, very large increase in energy production from solar and wind to allow hydro dams to sit idle like that.

  • classwarrior||

    Michael, "the same applies to others as well" refers to exactly that.

  • Taktix®||

    classwarrior,What about the mining,smelting and manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels?Oh,and the steel,copper and concrete for dams?Think next time.

    Yes, there's a difference between a one-time cost (like these dumbass fucking tax rebates) and a rate.

    Sadly, not many people in our government understand that either

  • Taktix®||

    Rest got cut off:

    The only thing right-wingers have against cleaner energy sources is the "it makes carbon to produce the turbine/mill/whatever."

    Yes, but it doesn't produce carbon over a period of time. A one-time shot of heroin will likely not kill you either.

  • ||

    The ethanol scam is the longest running robbery of taxpayers in American history.

    Maybe not the longest running (War on drugs Sanity anyone?) but surely it is a major league ripoff of the citizens. Can we just kill the DOE? Pretty please? That has been a dream of mine since its creation.

  • Russ 2000||

    Ever hear of hydro electricity? Or wind or solar (despite their intermittancy)?

    The intermittancy of wind power means a backup source must exist which means it pretty much can't exist on its own so wind being carbon-free is moot.

    Hydroelectricity is not carbon-free as explained here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroelectricity

  • Shannon Love||

    I came of age in energy crises of '73-83 and I have seen the same wild eyed claims about alternate energy repeated endless. It will all work. It's all very simple. It's all very reliable. The retort to such claims is easy.

    Fine, prove it by doing it. Make a power supply that's up 24/7/365 (except for maintenance) and we can start planning. Otherwise, go away.

    There isn't so much as a hippie commune anywhere exclusively powered by "renewable" sources much less a factory, farm, hospital, transportation or any other kind of facility that our civilization requires. Intermittancy is an fatal flaw. Even hydroelectic plants fail in droughts. We must have power when and were we need it. Period, End of Discussion.

    My great fear is that Catastrophic Global Warming will actually happen but we will be so busy with politically correct, warm and fuzzy toy energy sources that we will never adapt.

  • Shannon Love||

    It isn't like energy is the only vital thing we aren't "independent" in.

    It's not just raw materials. In the last 30 years we've seen serious specialization of labor in manufacturing. Taiwan for example specializes in a lot small batch production in many areas. If it slid into the ocean tomorrow the planetary economy would collapse due to a shortage of things like high grade nuts and bolts.

    More realistically supply chains in every industry, even defense, stretch around the globe, often several times. A severe disruption in energy supplies in one region will cripple the entire world.

    We're all tied together now in many ways. "Independence" is the ideal of another century.

  • ||

    The only thing this "right-winger" (i.e. consider myself a libertarian but think the whole environmental scare thing is bullshit so that makes me a right winger in this regard) has against solar and wind power is IT DOESN'T FREAKING WORK! Not once has it been shown to be cost effective on any but the smallest of scales (i.e. off grid houses) or maybe medium scale (I understand there's a few functioning wind farms). Maybe it'll work someday and that's great. Or if you've got some magic technology that everyone else has missed start a company, make it work and retire a zillonare.

  • ||

    Efficiency can be a great thing for its own sake. It can mean good things for the economy and for people, but it doesn't mean we'll use less energy overall.

    Other natural resources such as water and forest lands have a peak consumption then they decline in use...in other words even though our per capita as well as our total consumption of water has declined since 1980 our per capita GDP has doubled...we use less resources to produce more wealth.

    This idea of Bryce's is nearly as stupid as the neomalthusians...and only looks at one side of the curve.

    In 2002 and 2006 the US oil consumption dropped from the previous year....looking at population projections for the US (slowly turning the curve to decline) and that our consumption of oil is flatening what side of the curve will be looking at in the future?

    The reality is that all this bullshit about running out of energy or that we really need to find more is coming to an end. For the decades ahead we will be heading to the consumption of less and less energy all the while producing more and more wealth.

    I want this on record by the way...no one else is saying it as far as i can see...so i get credit when i am proven right.

  • ||

    The truth is nuclear is not carbon-free in the mining of uranium nor in the construction of the generating station (the same applies to the others as well). Surprising mistakes for an energy expert.

    Don't be an idiot...construction and maintenance of wind turbines, dams and solar panels all have larger per kilowatt carbon foot prints then a Nuclear power plant.

  • ||

    Nuclear power only has a carbon cost while our infrastructure is based on fossil fuels.

    If all our machines ran on electricity (or hydrogen, produced by electricity), then building nuclear plants and mining for uranium would have no carbon costs.

    The reason solar and wind power are so popular with enviornmentalists, is because they are not a viable replacement for coal and oil yet. If we have plenty of low cost energy, then consumer capitalism won't be destroyed and it won't bring about an agrarian socialist revolution that they envision. If someone actually figures out how to make solar and wind power work, then expect the enviornmentalists to start having a problem with it.

  • ||

    If someone actually figures out how to make solar and wind power work, then expect the enviornmentalists to start having a problem with it.

    Wait a goddamned minute there Rex. I'm an "rational environmentalist", and I suspect many others on this site consider themselves to be as well. You are referring to the radical fringe of the movement that gets the most press, and does the least to advance what I believe is a noble cause.

    /offended mode

  • ||

    If someone actually figures out how to make solar and wind power work, then expect the enviornmentalists to start having a problem with it.

    They've already gotten the jump on wind power. It kills birds (although there may be a technical fix for that), and it defaces the landscape.

    Large-scale solar will also deface the landscape, of course.

  • DannyK||

    I think Bryce is grossly underestimating the externalities associated with fossil fuels. I'll leave the financial links between him and Exxon as an exercise for the reader.

  • ||

    "Bryce: I'm not opposed to renewables. I have 3,000 kilowatts of solar panels on the roof of my home". Jeeze, this must be some house. Post a photo of it, please.

  • ||

    There isn't so much as a hippie commune anywhere exclusively powered by "renewable" sources

    Ever been to Amish country?

  • ||

    John V---Bryce said watts--it was my error in transcribing/editing. It has been fixed. (He does say in his book his array produced 3,861 kilowatt-hours his first year, with best months being 400 kilowatt hours.

  • ||

    If someone actually figures out how to make solar and wind power work, then expect the environmentalists to start having a problem with it.

    Usually that is what happens - their irrational stance on nuclear power being evidence of what you argue.

    The problem with the idea of "Energy Independence" is that it stems from a mercantilistic approach to economics, a fallacy. It is as absurd as imposing a "garment independence" at my own home, i.e. make my own clothes.

  • ||

    The other fallacy posted is that as oil prices rise, oil producers will be pushed to smaller fields and harder-to-get-at supplies, but that they will always increase.

    No they won't, dude. Once it takes more than $1 of energy to get $1 worth of energy-containing oil, it's just not economically efficient. Ok, you might be willing to pay a potential surplus because the oil is a liquid, transferrable form, but there's obviously some upper limit. I can't see oil companies paying out $100 worth of energy to get $1 worth of oil, no matter how "convenient" that oil is.

  • ||

    THE raison d'etre for energy independence is to fuck the Saudi government and their support for the extremist Wahibi (sp?) offshoot of Islam.

  • ||

    Let's not forget that energy independence doesn't only mean renewables. I think it would be good for the US to start drilling in ANWAR and to do more drilling in the Gulf.

    Whether it's able to make us "independent" is actually beside the point. It's a production of wealth that the US could use right now.

  • ||

    "I consider myself a liberal mugged by the laws of thermodynamics"

    That's got a certain ring to it...

  • ||

    I hear this talk of x independence, where x could be any one of energy, crops, cars etc etc and shake my head. The fact that it isn't possible, much less even desirable doesn't stop congress(wo)men from supporting this pillaging of taxpayers. It's fantastic for lobbyists and vested interests, however. Corn farmers must be just about wetting themselves with delight at the thought of gouging more money out of the average American citizen. I despair at the lack of rational though, to say nothing of knowledge of basic economics, buy elected officials.

    I mean, why is there even a DoE in the first place? Agencies like the FDA and EPA I can understand, but why does there even need to be a national energy policy? Surely local conditions in each place would dictate what type of energy generation is appropriate. Some places will favour coal, some hydro, some wind and wave and all because the economics work out OK for that location.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Also, when people talk about energy independence,. they speak as if we all would switch to one alternative overnight.

    When discussing alternatives, we should be discussing this in terms of incremental substitution .

  • ||

    No they won't, dude. Once it takes more than $1 of energy to get $1 worth of energy-containing oil, it's just not economically efficient. Ok, you might be willing to pay a potential surplus because the oil is a liquid, transferrable form, but there's obviously some upper limit. I can't see oil companies paying out $100 worth of energy to get $1 worth of oil, no matter how "convenient" that oil is.

    No, because the price of oil will rise to cover the cost of obtaining the oil. You'll never see $100 worth of energy spent on $1 worth of oil. That $1 worth of oil will be $100+profit margin worth of oil, as long as somebody wants the oil badly enough to pay the cost of harvesting it...

    There are already alternative energy sources - oil can be produced from oil shale, it just isn't economical to do it.

    If the price of oil goes up much higher, that dynamic changes, and producers will start focusing on that method.

  • ||

    One problem is that in most oil producing countries the State owns the oil resources and manages them according to political rather than economic criteria. Production declines. Socialism 101. The question is whether market forces will solve that problem, or whether we will need to send the Marines into, say, Venezuela and give that pig faced scoundrel Hugo Chavez the hanging he deserves.

    I can hear the squeals of the pansy left resounding to high heaven at the very idea. But since when have effeminacy and cowardice have been sound guides to policy?

  • ||

    I am more concerned with energy independence from our corporate overlords aka Utilities.

    suggested reading:
    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/06/amish_love_solar_technology.php

  • ||

    Below is one of the strangest paragraphs ever published
    in Reason and I've been a reader since day one.
    Someone hasn't heard of battery storage?
    Buildings consume roughly 75% of all electricity
    in the nation, they can be retrofitted to consume zero
    energy and produce leftovers to sell. Thousands
    of buildings around the world are already so fitted,
    soon it'll be hundreds of thousands. They generate
    power, store it, sell it to others, and while they're
    at it, they charge up their hybrids to reduce or
    eliminate petroleum usage.

    The paragraph in queston:
    "Bryce: I'm not opposed to renewables. I have 3,000 watts of solar panels on the roof of my home. I understand the economics of renewables. But an incurable problem for both solar and wind is intermittency. The sun doesn't shine at night. I like to have lights and TV at night. Unless we come up with some incredibly efficient method of storing large amounts of electricity, it's not a viable source because we can't store it."

  • ||

    No one has mentioned distributed energy systems, sophisticated computer systems that manage energy from many sources, including solar, wind, micro-turbines running on farm waste methanol, and more conventional sources. To say that solar doesn't work at night, and wind turbines don't work when there's no wind is not the whole truth. When your house sees sun, it generates enough power for your home, and hopefully you can sell the excess to the grid. You consume whatever power is available on the grid, with no concern as to where it actually comes from.

    A system like this would make our power infrastructure more resilient against attack, and allow us to produce and distribute electricity in the most efficient manner possible.

  • Sovietologist||

    I think that Bryce's wording of "efficient" should be read as "cost-effective." Battery storage of utility electricity dates back to the 1880s, but has never been cheap enough to be really practical. Despite recent innovations, batteries still aren't economical for storing utility-scale volumes of power- even to the extent needed to smooth out the output from intermittent generation, much less run large areas of the country for short periods of time.

  • ||

    perhaps the biggest problem with conventional wind energy is finding enough technicians crazy enough to climb those slim towers.

  • ||

    Reading this piece causes me, as happens from time to time, to wonder from what perspectives the Founders created a federal government with limited and specifically enumerated powers.

    Was it mainly to protect the citizens of this country from the accretion of authority by a power-hungry political class? Or was it to protect the citizens from the bungling of a government comprised of utter morons?

    The idiotic energy independence act would suggest the latter.

  • Russ 2000||

    When your house sees sun, it generates enough power for your home, and hopefully you can sell the excess to the grid. You consume whatever power is available on the grid, with no concern as to where it actually comes from.

    No concern? If you're using power that your internal system isn't generating, or more power than you sold back to the grid, you're going to be billed. Sounds like a BIG concern to me.

  • Ronny Bar-Gadda||

    Dear Sir,

    Mr. Bryce's thesis is totally absurd. Energy independence is definitely not only possible but very probable. Our company has invented and is developing a revolutionary technology that converts water vapor to hydrogen cheaply and efficiently. This self contained process only needs heat and water of which this planet has a great abundance of both resources. Our web site, www.genesys-hydrogen.com has a video presentation that reviews our capabilities in greater detail. Our video is also on YouTube. It is unfortunate that non-technologists and naysayers are given media time with the absurd notion that they are a fount of wisdom.

  • ||

    The 2 primary interests being served by U.S. military presence in the middle east are Big Oil Companies and Military Industrial Complex. It's not so much that the money Americans spend on gasoline, etc. is indirectly funding terrorism as it is that our presence - and our foreign policy that necessitates a MILITARY presence in the region - creates the resentment and hatred that fuel anti-US terrorism. Therefore, energy independence, or at least a strong step in that direction, COULD be a reason to remove the military from the middle east were the foreign policy to shift towards non-interventionism and no entangling alliances. Ron Paul 2008

  • Russ 2000||

    This self contained process only needs heat and water of which this planet has a great abundance of both resources.

    Hope the breakthrough happens!

    Without getting into a massive debate of the pros and cons of geothermal, the problem with geothermal-type systems versus fossil fuel systems is the massive up-front costs for the geothermal systems. I call this the Prius Dilemma.

    No one argues that the operational costs of a Prius aren't cheaper than a conventional engine; it's the premium price one must pay up front that renders a Prius as something short of a bargain. You have to use a Prius for 12 years before overall savings begin. That's why Toyota dealers don't sell Priuses based on overall economic benefit, they sell them based on the feel-good vibe of the car. Personally, I don't see what the feel-good is about spending more money, but to each his own. (And I own a Prius. But I was able to get it cheap which is too long of a story.)

  • Randall Ferguson||

    Yeah so... There is so much of this article I find well ignorant, and you can call me a hippie or whatever. But I am also an analytical Mechanical Engineer working for the Auto industry, and here are some of the realities as I see it. Renewable energy will replace coal, nuclear, and oil... It is just a matter of time new thin film solar panels are already reaching the cost barrier that makes them cheaper then coal $1 per KW and I don't care what it's initial carbon footprint is, over the life of the panel it will be much less then that of any fossil fuel powered electrical system, and lets not forget that Nuclear Power has Nuclear Waste which is around effectively FOREVER it may be carbon free but it is NOT environmentally friendly in any way. The question of energy intermittency is relevant but it is sunny in different parts of the US at different times and peak loads are during the day, not at night, I mean how much power does your house use at midnight? not that much is the point! Also if we convert to electric cars we can transfer some of that electricity back to the grid during night periods to stabilize the grid. I would also say that wind blows both during the day and the night, and we can use these systems with large batteries sometimes they even pump water behind a dam to give it more power at a later time

    Then this person says that energy efficient systems do not lower energy use. Maybe in the one limited case he depicted. But what about simple systems like heating and cooling your house? Or your refridgerator? If you have better insulation which makes it easier to heat and cool your house you do not heat it up more or cool it down more because you know you are saving money. You leave the thermostat set to 72 and let the system do it's thing. Energy savings in that case are intact!

    Energy independence won't ever be 100% we will get some energy from other countries but wouldn't it be better to be a net energy exporter then a net energy importer? After all everything in this society drives from energy of some form.

    Also liquid fuels give us better range, and more power per unit weight so they won't go away however I will note hydrogen can be made with electricity, which could be manufactured using renewable energy sources.

    As far as E85 goes the author overlooks an entire section of biofuels called cellulosic biofuels from switchgrass which have a much better net carbon footprint then corn and in general will be the best route, instead of corn.

    Overall I am dissappointed in this interview, or maybe I should say the interviewee as this person is clearly not up to date on the current status of alternative energy systems. Reason you disappoint me I thought this was a good place to find bi-partisan information but this is not bi-partisan, this is simply ignorant.

  • ||

    Mr. Bryce does not give convincing reasons why the quest for energy independence would lead to isolationism and protectionism. Developing a domestic grid for electric cars would not require setting up trade barriers, it would just reduce the demand for foreign oil, increase domestic employment, and reduce the trade deficit. It's time to start thinking beyond internal combustion engine and fossil fuel box.

  • Steve Verdon||

    The truth is nuclear is not carbon-free in the mining of uranium nor in the construction of the generating station (the same applies to the others as well). Surprising mistakes for an energy expert.



    The exact same thing can be said for hydro, solar, and wind. However, once these installations are in place, then all of them have very low carbon emissions. In terms of nuclear, you might get the most output for whatever carbon you do create. Zero emissions requirement is about as smart as any zero-tolerance policy, which is to say brain dead stupid.

  • Russ 2000||

    it would just reduce the demand for foreign oil...

    ... and increase the demand for electricy which then increases the demand for natural gas, wind, solar, hydro, nuke, and geothermal electricity. And at 10x current prices, generating electricity via coal and oil would STILL be cheaper.

    I'm all for alternate energy sources, but until the prices get close to fossil fuels they are still luxury items.

  • ||

    "... and increase the demand for electricy which then increases the demand for natural gas, wind, solar, hydro, nuke, and geothermal electricity."

    Some EV proponents say it wouldn't. They are saying there is off-hours standby generators on at night idling away otherwise wasted capacity. Enough capacity to power electric private vehicles. Also the prices of fossil electrical energy are not static; the price of water which is the medium of that generation isn't static either. Both will increase in price, while solar and wind are dropping prices.

  • Anonymoose.||

    sometimes they even pump water behind a dam to give it more power at a later time

    You're a mechanical engineer and you don't recognize a perpetual motion machine when you type one?

  • ||

    Anonymoose meeds a demonstration on what was actually meant. The following is about German experiments with linking Wind, Solar and Biogas.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR8gEMpzos4

    Unmentioned in the title,but shown in the video is the use of water reservoirs to store excess wind energy. No perpetual motion machines involved

  • ||

    Technology always has a way of finding a solution. The question is one of time and need. There is a good posibility that nuclear fusion via the boron 11 and proton reaction could be used to provide our electrical needs and improved batteries could solve our transportation needs. Werner von Braun had it right, it's not whether or not we can do something about our problems but do we have the will.

  • Nike Dunk Low||

    is good

  • sacs birkin hermes||

    behind a dam to give it more power at a later time

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