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Green Week: Energy for Tomorrow
Where Are We Now? Solutions for the Future

Dennis Dimick and Tim Appenzeller
Editors, National Geographic
Wednesday, April 22, 2009 12:00 PM

What energy challenges are we facing? How can we meet the rising demand without harming the planet? What are some viable solutions for the near and long-term future? In a special energy issue of National Geographic, executive editors Dennis Dimick and Tim Appenzeller, explore these questions, discuss alternative energy resources and look at how these challenges and decisions will impact our lives. The online chat took place at 12 p.m. ET on April 22.

Dennis Dimick is National Geographic magazine's executive editor for the environment. He holds degrees in agriculture from Oregon State and agricultural journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and regularly presents a slide show lecture on the collision between energy and climate.

Tim Appenzeller is executive editor at National Geographic magazine. Before starting at the magazine in 2004, he spent more than 20 years as an editor and writer for such publications as Time-Life Books, Scientific American, The Sciences, Science and U.S. News & World Report. His National Geographic article "The Case of the Missing Carbon" won the Walter Sullivan award for excellence in science journalism in 2005, and his June 2007 cover story on global warming, "The Big Thaw," was recognized for best explanatory reporting by the Society for Environmental Journalists.

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Rockville, Md.: When we work to prevent a warmer future, are we missing anything? Is there a chance that an ice age may return and be caused by factors outside our atmosphere - like interstellar gas or changes in orbits? If so, would we want a green house effect?

I have the feeling we are making a big bet on just one number - the warmer future.

Science should have an answer for every possible future.

Tim Appenzeller: Well, we know the timing of the orbital changes that trigger ice ages, and we know that they take tens of thousands of years to develop. There's virtually no chance that one will take hold in the next few decades. Whereas we know we are warming the planet right now, and it's a virtual certainty that the warming will continue and accelerate unless we change our energy system drastically. So that's the future we need to prepare for.

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Hoboken, N.J.: Good Afternoon - Some legislators in Washington believe a comprehensive energy plan needs to steer clear of any references to climate change. Energy and the environment seem to be a chicken and egg problem - forever linked. Do you agree or disagree and if you disagree, what is the foundation of their arguments?

Dennis Dimick: Good question. I agree. Energy and climate are interconnected, two halves of the same discussion. If you want to address the climate question -- to try and reduce the rising temperatures we see -- you need to find ways to get carbon emissions out of the energy system.

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Bethesda, Md.: Do you have any tips of things we can do at home to help save energy that are beyond the obvious (replacing lightbulbs, unplugging unused appliances or device chargers, new windows, efficient appliances, etc.)

Dennis Dimick: Well you name a lot of the good ones. I guess once you do these, then how you move around is good to look at. How much driving alone, is it possible to use mass transit, assuming the mass transit is there to use. (That's often a big "if.") Bigger improvements comes as you make bigger decisions. If you are going to refurb or buy a house, the efficiency of the heating systems, insulation in the house can be looked at. There are now tax credits for installing energy efficient furnaces. Also, if you are in a position to move to or live in a place where you don't need to use a car this can help.

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Sandwich, Mass.: Transportation is our largest consumer of oil and thus our largest emitter of carbon. Does it seem we are putting too much hope in car manufacturers to help solve the problem? Are they up to the challenge?

Dennis Dimick: Transportation is a big emitter of carbon, you are right. Actually the carbon emissions produced by electricity generation are also a huge contributor to greenhouse pollution. For example about half of our electricity comes from coal, and this produces significant carbon emissions too. As to transportation, buying and driving cars that get better fuel efficiency can only help, and driving less and using mass transit more can help too.

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Freising, Germany: What is the current status of research into biofuels created by algae? Is the realization of industrial level production within sight and could this technology, installed in coal fired power plants for instance, actually be used one day to remove CO2 from the atmosphere?

Dennis Dimick: As far as I know the research is small scale. We address this in our energy special issue and also discussed it in an article on biofuels in October 2007. Algae biofuels setups are being placed near coal plants and the algae is being fertilized with the CO2 from the power plant smokestacks. The big question, like with most of the alternative energies, is scale. Can this scale up to produce a significant amount liquid fuels that can replace petroleum?

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Washington, D.C.: So how much of Obama's energy policies will really help the environment and our future? Or is it all smoke and mirrors?

Tim Appenzeller: Obama's energy policies could help enormously, if they lead to real action, either by Congress or the regulatory agencies. For instance, the only way to move the energy system away from carbon-intensive fuels is to put a price on carbon, which Obama's cap-and-trade scheme for emissions would do.

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Princeton, N.J.: The picture of the turbaned man selling gasoline out of jars was amazing, as were many of the other photos. Serious kudos to the photographers.

Dennis Dimick: Thanks very much. That fellow was sitting in a potentially pretty volatile place with all those glass jars of gasoline around him.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Is there anywhere in the energy crisis (can you call it a crisis?) where you see the U.S. is succeeding or do we still have a long way to go? Also, what do you see as our biggest barrier from accomplishing our goals: government, people, other nations?

Tim Appenzeller: There are a few bright spots--the rapid growth in wind and solar power, for instance. But the overall picture, of rising carbon emissions and growing dependence on finite energy sources like oil, isn't encouraging. (The economic crisis has helped for the moment, bringing down carbon emissions and oil consumption, but that's not the kind of help we want!) There's no one barrier to change; it's the whole system we've grown up with, of growth and prosperity based on lavish use of fossil fuels, that has to change. Government, the public, business, other countries--we're all invested in it.

Dennis Dimick: One place where there is a bright spot in the U.S. is California. Their per capita use of electricity is about 70 percent of the national average. We can learn from what they have done thru regulations and incentives to lower electric use per person yet still live a good life.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Since it is clear that nuclear energy can make the largest impact in reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere, what do you think can be done to bring more nuclear plants online sooner rather than later? Reductions in carbon emissions by implementing wind power, solar, and geothermal are all most welcome. Nuclear scales the best for a truly large impact.

Dennis Dimick: Nuclear already produces 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and in countries like France it produces about 80 percent. You are right that nuclear does produce "greenhouse gas" free electricity once the plant is built and is fueled. Issues still exist regarding storage of waste and security. One of the key challenges now for nuclear is cost of building plants.

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New York, N.Y.: How close are we to making new technologies commercially viable - solar power, wind power, micropower, etc? Where do we stand on these technologies' ability to sell back into the grid?

Tim Appenzeller: Pretty close, in the case of wind. Wind power was competitive with electricity from natural gas a couple of years ago, when gas prices were high. But right now, wind and especially solar need government help to grow--tax credit or other incentives. But many people think that they deserve the help, because of their other advantages.

In many places people who generate power from small wind turbines or solar arrays can already sell back to the grid. But the grid is definitely a barrier for large-scale solar and wind power, because both often have to be generated far from where the power is needed, and the long-distance transmission capacity doesn't exist. Also, both wind and solar are intermittent, depending on whether the sun shines or the wind blows. That puts an extra strain on the grid.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think the so-called smart meter technology that's being designed for consumers to monitor their energy consumption will make a difference? When will this technology be widespread?

Dennis Dimick: I think it is a great idea. If I knew how much energy I was using at any time, or if I knew that by waiting until midnight to wash my clothes I could do it for half the electricity price I would do that. Smart meters also open the door to being able to sell power back to the grid if you have solar panels or a windmill. It is going to take a while for the power grid to be upgraded, and it depends also on local power utilities. Please ask your power company.

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Burke, Va.: Hello. Do you feel that companies that allow toxic waste to contaminate should have a payment system in place to encourage them to clean up their act as a course of good business? It seems that only those who place short term profit over the benefits of health and the environment that would argue against Renewable Energy Portfolio (RPS), Cap-and-Trade and other equitable systems to discourage pollution and the destruction of our natural resources, while encouraging investment in Renewable Energy. From both an economic and national security prospective, isn't it in our best interests to do all we can to transition from a fossil fuel to Renewable Energy based Economy?

Dennis Dimick: You have many good ideas here. The idea that the polluter pays is a good one. But we do need to keep in mind that as far as energy goes, the coal, oil, and gas we use to power our lives, we are the polluters because we demand and use the energy. So if we can also create positive incentives as you say for renewable energy, and to conserve and be more efficient, these can surely help.

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Rockville, Md.: "There's virtually no chance that one will take hold in the next few decades."

Thanks for the answer. But how can we be so sure that we do not even plan for the possibility? The military has "contingency plans" and they have one for every possible operation.

In my opinion warmer is a problem but an ice age would kill us all. And it is not just changes in orbits. How about a cloud of gas that cuts the sun by 10 percent?

Tim Appenzeller: Well, we have to focus on planning for what's most likely. And that's a hot future (virtually certain), not a cold one (very, very unlikely).

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Tallahassee, Fla.: As you point out, carbon emissions from power generating plants are a huge contributor to climate change. So what do you think about the potential for electric cars and other items rechargeable with electric power? Will they help or harm the environment? Thank you for your thoughts.

Tim Appenzeller: No doubt about it, coal-burning power plants are a huge contributor to climate change. But here's the thing: you can generate electricity in many ways that are cleaner than coal--natural gas, wind, solar, nuclear. So an electric car can be as clean as the source of the electricity that powers it. Whereas a gas-powered car is always going to put out carbon emissions.

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Boston, Mass.: Electric cars may be the next big thing, but what if the electricity generators to power them are fueled by coal? How is that really helping?

Dennis Dimick: Good question. You can also look at it in terms of not using oil. The coal plants are already installed and they are running at night, when you would be charging your car battery. So it is possible to reduce carbon emissions by not using the oil and taking advantage of electricity that is already being generated. But as you point out the best bet would be to generate the electricity from alternative sources like wind or solar.

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Anonymous: I think we are arguing about an issue that is a mute point. Climate change is happening, for what ever cause, and we have good ideas on how to change the effects of it or reduce the severity of climate change so we must do something that does not hurt our economic position in the business world , make a difference and improve our lives and those of our children by reducing auto emissions that are causing alarming rates of asthma/respiratory problems.Thank you for your take on this.

Tim Appenzeller: A lot of the argument for or against policies that would address climate change hinges on just the issue you raise: how much will those policies hurt the economy? A tax on carbon emissions would certainly cause some economic pain. But on the hand, maybe carbon regulation would also open some economic opportunities, by giving a leg up to industries like wind power, solar cells, batteries and electric cars, that could provide jobs and export to other countries.

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Burke, Va.: Recent articles in National Geographic, Science, and other issues report that improving the fuel efficiency in our biggest gas guzzlers is the single most effective way to reduce the amount of gas we use, and likewise, the amount of CO2 emitted as a result of driving. What national policies would you recommend to support this measure?

Dennis Dimick: I think improved fuel efficiency of our vehicles is a good thing. If we can get more miles for each gallon of fuel we burn this means we are only going to reduce our need for foreign oil imports. Right now we import 60 percent of the oil we burn in the U.S.

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Anonymous : Regarding the question if there really is such a thing as Clean Coal , the idea of piping CO2 from coal burning power plants deep into the Earth , I keep hearing the answer as we don't know yet and that it will take time to know ? Don't we have sophisticated enough computer programming to use one to get an idea about whether we are on the right track? Thank you

Tim Appenzeller: We know how to pump CO2 into the earth and store it, and we know how to capture some CO2 from the exhaust of a power plant. What we haven't done is put those two steps together, and do it on a massive scale. ow much will it cost to capture most of the CO2 from a big power plan? How will that affect reliability? How well can different kinds of geologic formations trap large amounts of CO2, and for how long? We can't just rely on computer models; we need to run big, real-world tests.

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Miami, Fla.: Hi. I'm a college student who is thinking about buying a new computer. Are there computers that have proven to be greener than others?

Tim Appenzeller: Some companies claim their computers are green, and I'm sure there are some good ways to check those claims on the internet. One thing to keep in mind is that "green" doesn't just mean energy consumption, but also whether the company pledges to take back the computer at the end of its life and properly recycle toxic components.

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Culpeper, Va.: Now that we have heard what we can do to be more green at home... What can be done on a local level to plan for a more environmentally sustainable future. Any trends in Green Planning that are less obvious than conservation?

Dennis Dimick: The New Urbanism movement has been studying about how we use land and how we get around. Can we create more appealing public spaces that people will want to use, how can we create urban environments that are not dependent on cars. We used to have train systems in this country to move people around, many cities had trolleys. New Urbanists are looking backwards towards the way we used to build cities to see what we can learn as we create new spaces.

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Anchorage, Ala.: The problem with many renewable energy sources is in transmission. Unlike liquid fuels, solar and wind power can't be shipped through a pipeline. They need to be converted to electricity and moved through power lines, which creates limitations. The logical solution is some sort of improved battery technology, which would allow us to store energy at the source and move it to power plants anywhere in the world. What is the state of battery technology and battery research?

Tim Appenzeller: Battery technology is coming along--the new lithium ion batteries for electric cars can store amazing amounts of energy--but mostly people talk about other ways of capturing solar and wind power. One idea is compressed air storage: when you have extra power from solar or wind, you use it to compress air in an underground cavity. Then, when the wind stops blowing or it's night, you release the air to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Or you balance out the lulls in solar and wind with gas-fired power plants, which can be cycled on and off quickly.

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Hastings, Neb.: Is any consideration being given to electric rates at all in this process? I cannot afford the skyrocketing predictions for rates that I am hearing about.

Dennis Dimick: Some of the political discussions have included tax credits or rebates to rate payers. I have sometimes heard "cap and trade" also referred to as "cap and credit." You raise a very important point, in that alternatives are going to be more expensive in many places, how get to price parity or at least make it so end users are not being penalized.

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Burke, Va.: Hello, in regards to our statement regarding the intermittent nature of wind energy, this article clearly shows how wind energy will reduce the strain on the Grid by requiring less fossil fuel plants: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2008/10/addressing-the-variability-factor-can-wind-power-reliably-be-part-of-the-electricity-mix-53784

Are you familiar with how fossil fuel and nuclear advocates try to use intermittent energy of wind and solar as an excuse not to invest in them?

Dennis Dimick: The intermittancy of current wind and solar is an issue. Wind installations in the Pacific Northwest are tied into the grid near hydro dams, so the intermittancy can be evened out. A big part of this is improving the grid, so it can be smarter at arbitrating between the ups and downs inherent in wind and solar. Also large utilities invested in solar and wind have installed natural gas electric plants which, though fossil-fuel based, are the least polluting of all fossil sources. The gas plants can turn on and off quickly and can help even out the power supply coming from the overall installation.

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Arlington, Va.: The deep-pocketed coal and oil industries have armies of lobbyists working on keeping their interests in front of lawmakers. Does this make it more difficult to make real change happen? Is there any way to do an end run around them? Or has the problem finally become large enough that the government is finally taking alternative energy seriously? Also how important is upgrading the electricity "grid" going to be? We know where wind and solar for example have the greatest potential but I am under the impression that moving that power to where it is needed is the big challenge.

Dennis Dimick: You raise good points, and this is why we published our special newsstand issue on energy. Our goal is to help people cut through the rhetoric on all sides, to help them understand the issues and what is at stake here. The administration appears to be taking this seriously, the real question is whether any legislation will come out that can address carbon emissions in a way that keep the economy moving, and also helps incentivize efficiency and renewables in a way that can make a difference. Also moving power from where the sun and wind are to where the people are is all part of the need to rejuvenate the power grid.

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Oak Hill, Va.: Love your selective use of questions -- those that do not fit your arguments and present issues questioning your premises do not get used. The Minnesota study on ethanol subsidies and scientists questioning LCFS in CA aren't of interest I guess....

Tim Appenzeller: What's the question?

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Mashpee, Mass.: "The Economist" noted this week about Mexico's push to be a leader on reducing carbon emissions. How important is it for governments of low carbon emitting countries to speak out regarding the energy/climate change issue? Will it help push larger emitters to do more?

Dennis Dimick: Very important. The world needs leaders on this issue. If we all wait for others to take the lead on reducing carbon emissions nothing will get accomplished. Leading by example is what we need more of.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you considered doing an article on algae? I ask because, once you get past the snickers, you realize two crucial facts: algae is a more efficient source of fuel than biofuels such as ethanol and oil, and algae is easier to obtain than growing a crop or drilling into the ground. I know the research is early and not complete, but it seems to me there is a possible good solution to our energy supply, and we should be exploring it more.

Tim Appenzeller: The algae research is really exciting, especially the idea that you could use algae to capture CO2 from power plant exhaust and turn it into biodiesel. But it's early days, as you say. We did cover the reserach in a story we did on biofuels, in October 2007. But it's probably too early for us to do a full story on algae alone.

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District of Columbia.: Are there global groups that are working together to help different countries understand what their citizens can do to reduce energy consumption? Are those countries really sharing ideas?

Dennis Dimick: Good questions. One organization I know of that has been doing a lot of work in helping people worldwide understand how to cut energy use is the McKinsey Global Institute. They have been studying how to improve energy productivity.

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Dennis Dimick: Thanks everybody for your questions. Goodbye.

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