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Overcoming The Hurdles To New Sources Of Energy

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Aired 7/7/10

What are the hurdles to changing to new types of fuel and energy? Who should bear the costs for finding and developing alternative energy sources? As part of our monthly series on ethics in science and technology, we'll explore the benefits and costs for society of alternative energy sources.

The next Ethics Center Forum: "Will We Be Ready When the Petroleum Runs Out?" is Wednesday, July 07, at 5:30 p.m. at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're all seeing the devastating environmental effects of our reliance on fossil fuels gushing up onto Gulf coast beaches this summer. And we've gotten a crash course in what happens when a private oil corporation is responsible for fixing the problem and cleaning it up. Even though experts have been telling us for years that oil is a finite resource and will eventually run out, our commitment to developing alternative energy sources has been slow. So, who should be sparking research, development and implementation? And who should reap the profits when these new energy sources take off? As part of our monthly series on Ethics in Science and Technology, we’ll discuss if we will be ready when the oil runs out. I’d like to introduce my guests. Michael Kalichman is co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. Michael, welcome back.

MICHAEL KALICHMAN (Co-director, Center for Ethics in Science and Technology): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Stephen Mayfield is director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. Good morning, Stephen, welcome.

STEPHEN MAYFIELD (Director, San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology): Good morning, Maureen. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. Is developing alternative energy too important to be left to the private sector? Or is real world business experience what it takes to find energy alternatives that work? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Michael Kalichman, we don’t usually think of alternative energy as an ethical issue. So what made you choose this subject for your ethics forum?

KALICHMAN: Well, quite frankly it was the Gulf accident oil spill that caused us to think about where some of the questions might be. And in looking at that, we realized that oil, no matter how long you think it’s going to last, is going to become scarcer and scarcer. And as it becomes more difficult to find and to refine that oil, the costs are going to grow. So as we move down that path, it’s going to become not just difficult as we see now where we have the challenges in the Gulf but the cost worldwide. And there – the costs of all types of concerns and they range from the economic costs to the environmental costs. The immediate environmental costs are the ones we’re talking about now. The long range environmental costs of, for example, global warming and greenhouse gases and how they affect us are all issues. So the ethical challenge is to anticipate what’s going to happen, it’s not to wait until things get worse and worse but to ask what are we going to do? If we don’t prepare now, we’re going to be in big trouble down the line, far bigger trouble than we can imagine at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when we – Is the term alternative energy synonymous with renewable energy?

KALICHMAN: It’s certainly not my field so I don’t want to say that it is but that’s certainly – I mean, renewable energy would be one alternative, is my view. Maybe we should have Steve answer that one.

CAVANAUGH: I’ll ask you, Stephen.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, so I think alternative energy, at least for me, simply means energies that we’re not presently using, at least not at – in the large amounts. So that’s basically how can we replace fossil fuels? How can we replace petroleum or coal?

CAVANAUGH: So let me ask you both, as – kind of go down the line. When we need a replacement for oil how far along are we with various technologies? Let’s think about solar.

MAYFIELD: Okay, well, I guess that…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, that’s…

MAYFIELD: Well, I guess we’ll pitch that in my court. So people always ask me, are any one of these technologies going to beat the other, the alternative energy? And the truth of the matter is that we use so much fossil fuel right now that we need all of these to work fantastically. We need solar, we need wind, we need biofuels. We’re probably going to need nuclear. We’re certainly going to need, you know, every – you know, all forces to the front and as successful as we can be.

CAVANAUGH: So, Michael, is one of the ethical issues regarding alternative energy the idea that we have not necessarily been as fast as we could in trying to get these technologies up to speed to replace an energy source we know is being depleted?

KALICHMAN: I think one of the challenges is consistent with that. We need as a society to decide how important it is to move in these directions. This is not something that is a nicety or an extra. The fact is that we look at everything in our lives and how dependent it is on energy, everything from the buildings we live in to the way we move from place to place to the food that we eat. All of those things depend on energy, which is dwindling. It’s a finite resource and we’ve seen the consequences of that. And yet, the amount of effort we put in nationally and privately to try and find alternatives has so far been pretty modest compared to the risks that we’re facing.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Michael Kalichman. He’s co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. And Dr. Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. And we’re taking your calls about alternative energies and whether or not we have time left to fully develop them before the oil runs out. 1-888-895-5727 is our number. And, Stephen, I know that your expertise is in biofuel. Tell us a little bit about algae biotechnology and where we are in that development.

MAYFIELD: So right now we’re still in the research phase very much, but the Obama administration has put a significant amount of money, about $300 million last year, into building what’s called biorefineries. So these are the facilities that will look very much like commercial facilities. They’ll be the size of a commercial facility, they’ll have the production level of a commercial facility, what they won’t have is the economics. So we won’t be making gasoline and diesel and jet when these are up and running about 18 months from now. We won’t be making it at economic, we won’t be making it at $3.00 a gallon. It’ll be something above that. But these facilities will look very much like what a full blown commercial facility will look like. And the point of these is for us to get them up, get them to scale, see how they work, see what things work well in them, see what things don’t work so well, so that we can make modifications and improve them. That is the way that industry is always built. A great example of this is the sugar cane ethanol down in Brazil. That was actually started about 25 years ago and it really took them almost 15 years to get that to economic viability. Now, as many people know, that’s one of the major fuel sources out of Brazil. They can sell their sugar cane- based ethanol very competitive, actually less than petroleum. So that’s been a very successful industry, and we need to do the same thing up here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when we look at the alternative energy sources that come to mind, solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels, there has been a problem with the idea of net energy…

MAYFIELD: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …and biofuels. How much – Explain what net energy means.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, so we call this a lifecycle analysis and what that means is you have to measure all of the energy you’re putting in versus the energy you get out. So the classic example of this, I think, that many people know about is corn ethanol. So if we just say economically is that viable? Yes, it is. We actually produce about 8 billion gallons of corn ethanol every year in this country and we manage to sell that and on good years we make money, on bad years we don’t. But if we look at how much petroleum we actually have to put into that, so that’s the fertilizer to grow the corn, that’s driving the tractors to harvest it, that’s transporting it to the distilleries, that’s actually boiling the ethanol off, which we have to do, so if we add up all that energy in, it turns out to be we actually put more energy into that than we get out of it. Why is that economically viable? Well, because we subsidize both petroleum and agriculture in this country right now at a high enough level that the economics of that work out. But that’s not sustainable because it’s – actually requires more energy in than we get out. If we look at some of the other sources out there, so cellulosic ethanol, is one that I’m sure people have heard about, this is turning cellulose, sort of waste cellulose into ethanol.

CAVANAUGH: Right, garbage.

MAYFIELD: Garbage, yeah, some people – We don’t say that in the renewable energy industry. Or if we look at algae biofuels, those look much better. So those look like it takes about one-third of the energy in for the energy we get out so we would call that a 70% reduction in CO2 or 70% improvement on it. We think we can improve that even better over the next couple of years.

CAVANAUGH: And what kind of volumes of actually – actual energy do we get out of that? You know, when you see all this oil that’s pumping into the Gulf…

MAYFIELD: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …just millions and millions of gallons of this stuff, how much can you get, let’s say, out of an algae farm?

MAYFIELD: Well, the first thing we have to look at is how much do we use in this country. It’s staggering numbers. So we burn through about 300 billion gallons of petroleum every year. About 140 billion gallons of gasoline, 50 billion gallons of diesel. That’s a big number. We can get about 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year out of algae. That – Right now, we’re at about 3,000 but we think we can push that to 5,000 in the next couple of years. So the quick math on that tells you that something around 60 million acres would supply 100% of our energy needs. Now that sounds like an enormous number, 60 million acres is a little alarming. But, in fact, in this country we have about 95 million acres of corn, about 60 million acres of soybean and about 40 million acres of wheat, so we’re on that scale. It’s – That’s the agricultural scale in this country. So we can do it.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call now from Perry calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Perry. Welcome to These Days.

PERRY (Caller, San Diego): Hello. How you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Fine.

PERRY: All right, well, what I see happening is during our recent gas crunch where gas was almost $5.00 a gallon recently, that’s when there was a lot more talk about alternative fuels, and then there’s been less buzz about the process after gas prices dropped back down again. And this makes sense. As our petrochemical supplies diminish over time, they’re going to become more expensive and there’s going to be a breaking point where the alternative fuels become viable on a cost basis. I think it’s very difficult to try and push technology ahead of it being financially viable. I think it’s a natural progression that will happen in its own time.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Perry. You know, Michael, haven’t we been hearing that, though, for the last 20, 30 years, that as soon as alternative energies become economically competitive with fossil fuels that we’ll see this burst in alternative energy production? And it hasn’t really happened yet.

KALICHMAN: Yeah, so it’s sort of – The problem is the cart and the horse and figuring out where you are in this progression, which comes first. What we’ve seen historically is that if gas prices move up just a little bit at a time, people tend not to notice as much. When there’s that big bolus of an increase, people notice and then they start worrying about the future and where we’re going. And the reality is, you know, that we look at those gas prices and I’m sure you’ve discussed this on your program, we look at how horrific they are and they’re a fraction of what they are in some other areas of the world and they’re a fraction of what we pay for a lot of other things. We actually are paying incredibly little right now for gas. So these fluctuations we’re seeing, even though they might be dramatic because they’re a big percent change, are minor, a drop in the bucket compared to where we’re going to be when we get to the point where the only oil that’s available is oil that you have to go through extraordinary measures to get, such as deep oil drilling. There is no simple end point to all of this. We can’t – you can’t – you shouldn’t and can’t really say we have 40 years of oil left because there’s a progression as you move closer and closer. There will probably always be some oil left, it’s just a question of how hard are you willing to work for it, and how much are you willing to pay for it? So the question we’re raising today—and I’m not trying to say that this is the answer—but the question we’re raising today…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

KALICHMAN: …is where are we in that progression? How much of an effort should we be making now to be prepared for what comes down the line.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Jennifer is calling us from Poway. By the way, we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Jennifer, good morning.

JENNIFER (Caller, Poway): Good morning. I thought your question was intriguing about whether it should remain in a private sector or I don’t know how you would phrase it but if the government should…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

JENNIFER: …promote it more. The last caller was saying that there’s a natural progression towards alternative fuels and things like that. I’ve been investing in hydrogen fuel cells for the last six years and each company – I mean, it’s a expensive – it’s an expensive industry to research and to develop. But when a patent gets developed and a patent starts to work, it’s bought by another company and then it disappears. And I would think that it – there’s also people that are depending upon these kind of fuels failing. For example, the oil industry.

CAVANAUGH: I…

JENNIFER: It’s just a theory but what do you think?

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that. And I’ll put it out there, and a question, if I may, Jennifer, can the market solve the problem and get us to the point of developing, really developing, alternative energies?

JENNIFER: You can.

MAYFIELD: Well, yeah, let…

JENNIFER: Alternative…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Jennifer.

MAYFIELD: Let me comment just a little. I want to make two points here. So, first, energy is so important in our lives that it is irresponsible for us to leave this up to somebody else. This is everything we do. This is the cars we drive, this is the lights in our building, this is the food we eat. Agriculture in this country runs on petroleum. We take petroleum, we turn that into fertilizer and that’s what creates all of our food. So to leave this into someone’s hands is not a good idea. But having said that, it’s also the largest business in the world. It’s about $1 trillion in this country. It dwarfs medicine. It’s tenfold bigger than all of medicine, all of healthcare. So because of that, there are going to be—and there are— significant commercial interests in this. So I think both of those had better be used. We better start thinking about this in advance. The previous caller had mentioned that, you know, the economics sort of take care of this. I think part of that is true, and I think as petroleum becomes more scarce and more expensive, biofuels will become more economically viable. But what my job is, as a scientist, and I think what our job as a society is, is to try to plan ahead a little bit on this one. There’s a famous quote that in Congress they have two modes: do nothing, and overreact. But I think that’s actually all human nature. So, you know, as long as I can go and buy gasoline at $3.00 or $4.00 a gallon, I can kind of put up with that so I’m not going to do anything. And then when it hits $6.00 a gallon, I’m going to scream bloody murder. Whose fault was this? How dare it get to this price? Well, in fact, it’ll get to that price if we don’t plan ahead and try to divert that. So what I want to encourage people to do, our politicians but all of us, is start looking at what’s coming down in the future. We know petroleum is running out. Let’s start working now to transition through this so we don’t have to have that point we – where we get to where it’s really ugly, it’s really uncomfortable, and then we overreact.

CAVANAUGH: We know that people have a great deal of problem with the idea of government programs and we’ve heard that for years but at the same time, going back to Jennifer’s question, have there been instances where there have been developments made in alternative energy fields and basically they’ve been sort of subsumed by companies and disappeared because they don’t want that alternative energy to succeed?

KALICHMAN: Uh…

MAYFIELD: I – I’m certain there are examples of that. I don’t think this is how most companies run. I started a bioenergy company that’s here in town called Sapphire Energy and these guys work day and night incredibly hard to try to make this commercially viable. And they’re very protective of their inventions. And the last thing these guys want to do is allow somebody to buy them and sit on them or crush them. Having said that, there’s definitely economic interests of large oil that maybe this stuff doesn’t come along too quick. You know, as the price of oil goes up, every one of these companies is sitting on enormous reserves. And so, you know, at $80.00 a barrel, they’re making a good deal of money. Well, at $150.00 a barrel, they’re making a good deal more, and they didn’t do anything, they simply had that reserve and its value doubled. So there’s some economic incentive maybe for them not to have these things work too well. But on the other hand, those reserves are going to run out and whether that’s 50 years or 90 years, they are going to run out and they know that they have to have something in reserve.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our discussion about if we’ll be ready when the oil runs out, and we’ll continue taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Michael Kalichman. He’s co-director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology. And Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology. And we’re talking about what will be the topic of the Ethics Center Forum tonight: "Will We Be Ready When the Petroleum Runs Out?" We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And you can also go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. There are a lot of people who want to join the conversation so let me go right to the phones and talk to Daniel in Clairemont. Good morning, Daniel. Welcome to These Days.

DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Thank you very much. I just want the public to know that Arnie can drive his biodiesel Hummer but we can’t make our own cars biodiesel because we can’t make our own fuel. And the state has lots of regulations and I was involved in a co-op that was started here in San Diego and we were trying to get biodiesel made and out to the public at an affordable price but because of all the laws and rules and regulations they have, and they want to tax you on it even if you make vegetable oil, purified vegetable oil from recycling it from restaurants and things, they want to tax you on it just like it was a gasoline or a fuel even though you could cook with it again if you wish to. They’re really restricting us of what we can do here.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Daniel, thank you for the call. And I’m wondering, Steve – Stephen, you said everybody should get involved in this and here Daniel’s trying to get involved and he can’t.

MAYFIELD: Yeah, one of the complaints that I’ve heard from many, actually, of the bioenergy companies are that this technology is likely to deploy in another state, in New Mexico or Arizona or someplace else because of the regulatory environment here in California. I think one of the problems we have when we have a state with a population that we do, you know, close to 36 million now, it’s just hard – there’s just a lot of inertia and it’s hard to get things, you know, moved off that – there are a lot of voices that need to be heard, there’s a certain amount of ‘not in my backyard’ attitude here, and I think a really important ethical question that needs to be brought up and actually that Daniel just did bring up with his question is how are we going to, as a society, make those hard decisions sometimes to get off petroleum and convert to something new. So he points out that there are regulations about making biodiesel and where you can use it, and we certainly need to be careful when we’re making that that we don’t spill that and end up causing some environmental harm because of that. But the alternative to that is that we’re going to be drilling wells 5,000 feet down in the bottom of the ocean and when those things blow out, they’re really going to have consequences and we see that. So that’s a debate we need to have. That’s a discussion we need to have, and I would say to him, please be patient, please stay the course, keep pushing on this. Eventually it’s going to happen. This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Joan is calling us. She’s in her car. Good morning, Joan. Welcome to These Days.

JOAN (Caller, Mobile): Hi, good morning. Thank you for taking my call. Love this program. Love the topic especially. I have a question then a comment. I’m kind of curious why we don’t try harder to tap into the sun as a resource for energy. I’m personally not crazy about trying to use, you know, another consumable, you know, whether – I mean, I suppose garbage would be a good one because that seems like a decent way to recycle unless it’s going to cause more pollution. But I personally don’t like the idea of growing crops. I really worry about genetically altering our food. That actually scares the bejeebers out of me, to be honest. So I’m just curious about the sun and, you know, why we don’t work on that, you know, more to try to tap into that as a resource for energy. That just seems like, you know, really good logic to do that because it’s not – you don’t have to grow anything, it’s there…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

JOAN: …it’s accessible.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Joan. Let’s talk about that. Solar energy and Joan says why don’t we – why don’t we exclusively look at solar energy because it’s renewable and because it doesn’t have the kind of consequences of other types of alternative energies, Michael.

KALICHMAN: Well, I mean, first it’s – I think part of her question was why don’t we look at it? In fact, I mean, it’s clear we are looking at it so a lot of people are working on solar energy. You can get solar panels for your home and it’s one option that we have out there. But the point right now is that we – it’s not just that we need a little bit of energy, we need a lot of energy. And I think Steve expressed this very well, that we can’t just turn to any one source. We need to be looking at all of these possibilities and addressing the problems as they come up. If there are problems with genetically modifying organisms, we need to determine what those problems are and address them appropriately. Daniel’s point about worrying about where the state is and that perhaps it isn’t helping us now in moving towards biodiesel, that’s precisely an argument for why it is important for the public, for people like Daniel, to be part of the conversation to address the question and say here are where the challenges are. We’ve made a mistake in the policy that we have now because it’s holding us back. So we’ll need to work on all these areas. And I encourage all of your – the people that are calling in to think about this as an opportunity now to speak up and express their concerns so we can address them.

CAVANAUGH: One – It’s my understanding that one of the major challenges for both solar and wind energy is transmission and storage. Am I right about that? Stephen?

MAYFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly right. So we need to separate – the energy that we use is actually in two forms. One is fuel, that’s liquid and coal, those are solid. And the other is power, and that’s electricity that comes directly through the line. So the problem with anything that creates power is that there’s no storage for that. So the electricity that comes, we can put that into batteries but battery technology isn’t there yet. So it’s a combination of those two things. We certainly need to have renewable power, renewable electricity, and we also need to have renewable fuel, things that will power our cars, fly our airplanes, etcetera. And we need both of those.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Paul’s calling us from Chula Vista. Good morning, Paul. Welcome to These Days.

PAUL (Caller, Chula Vista): Hi. Good morning, Maureen. How are you this morning?

CAVANAUGH: Just fine. Thank you.

PAUL: Great. Love the topic, and I have a quick com – two quick questions. One question is at a TED conference, which is online, there is a guy that talked about the model for energy for automobiles that instead of having you charge up your automobile, that they have stations where they just swap out the batteries, so you can put those up very quickly as you drive up the car, the batteries cost out so you have, in effect, unlimited – the same limitations as you do currently with the distance of electric cars. And the other is we already have natural gas in our homes, lots of us do for our stoves, my understanding is gasoline engines can be converted to natural gas. Why can’t we just fill – do that? Go to a shop, fill it up, or change our engines over to burn on natural gas and then just be able to fill them up at our home immediately rather than having to build out a huge new infrastructure and do all kinds of brand new stuff.

CAVANAUGH: Paul…

PAUL: In other words, I think that the solutions to a lot of this are sitting right under our nose and so the solutions aren’t the problem, something’s keeping us from, you know, having access to these solutions.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call, Paul. I want to go right to Steve calling us from Sorrento Valley. Good morning, Steve. Welcome to These Days.

STEVE (Caller, Sorrento Valley): Good morning. I’d like to point out that although most of our use of oil is in combustion to generate power, we need that oil, we’re going to need it for a long time for creating medicines, for creating plastics, for lubricants, for a lot of things where no collection of solar power, natural gas, wave action, geothermal, etcetera, can substitute. And we’re wasting a precious non-renewable resource by burning it up.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Steve. Any – Stephen, is there any research into the use of biofuels to be able to use that as a substitute for petrochemicals?

MAYFIELD: Oh, absolutely. And the last caller was just spot on.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

MAYFIELD: I think you asked me when I was here a few months ago, well, how low can you get the price of biofuel? And my answer to that was, well, I’m not certain how low I want it to be. Energy is so valuable, I don’t think we should be selling it at $3.00 a gallon because at that price we tend to waste it. And that’s exactly right. So petroleum is what makes plastics, it’s what makes medicine, etcetera. Petroleum is ancient algae oil. That’s all it is. So all we’re doing when we’re making algae biofuels is simply doing that in real time. So anything that can be made from petroleum today can also be made from algae oil. So in my lab, we work on bioplastics, we certainly work on medicines, we work on a lot of different things all derived from algae.

CAVANAUGH: That’s fascinating. Let’s take another call. Elizabeth is calling from Point Loma. Good morning, Elizabeth. Welcome to These Days.

ELIZABETH (Caller, Point Loma): Good morning. I’m glad you just ended that last question on the issue of algae. My major concern is, when we talk about biofuels we talk about corn, soybean and wheat, and these put us – using those crops put is in direct competition with the cost of some of the basic food products. And I’d like to see us getting away from using food products to using something that that we aren’t eating as much. Not that we eat that much algae, right?

CAVANAUGH: I know.

MAYFIELD: You should be. It’s good for you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you…

ELIZABETH: I know it’s good for me and I know it makes my ice cream nice and smooth but…

MAYFIELD: Yes, that’s right.

ELIZABETH: …it is this competition with the food crops that really concerns me when we talk about alternative fuels.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Elizabeth, very much. Let’s take another call. Jennifer’s calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Jennifer. Welcome to These Days.

JENNIFER (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to point out that I’m one of the owners of New Leaf biofuel here in San Diego. We’re a commercial biodiesel manufacturer. We recycle cooking oil from local restaurants here in San Diego and we produce a recyclable biodiesel product that’s sold both commercially at our plant here in Barrio Logan and at the Regional Transportation Center, Pearson Fuels in the B-20 blend. I understand that we don’t have enough biodiesel from recycled products here in San Diego to go around and actually replace diesel but I did want people to know that there is a product available here in San Diego. It has been priced right there with diesel for several years and we just simply don’t have the demand here despite the availability of the product.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the call. I appreciate it. And let’s go to Don calling us in Carlsbad. Good morning, Don. Welcome to These Days.

DON (Caller, Carlsbad): Thank you, and I appreciate the program. I just wanted to share that my opinion, the major ingredient lacking in moving alternative energy forward is political will. Go back to the era of oil embargo in ’73, ’74, President Carter got it. He put us on the path toward energy self-sufficiency. President Nixon got it. President Ford got it. And we reduced our dependency on OPEC oil dramatically. The big thing was transitioning power plants from burning fuel oil into burning domestically produced natural gas and coal. President Reagan didn’t get it. One of the first things he did was to remove the solar panels that President Carter had installed on the White House. Increasingly, I think California is being challenged to maintain the lead in clean tech and renewable energy. Case in point on the November ballot…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DON: …will be Proposition 23, brought to us by oil companies. Sole intent is to undermine AB-32, which is moving our alternative energy future forward.

CAVANAUGH: Don, thank you for the call. I appreciate it. And we will be talking more about that initiative as we get closer to the November vote. You know, gentlemen, we’ve been talking about the role of government and we’ve been talking about the role of private business, and we have a lot more to discuss on that end. But since we’re kind of running out of time here, I wonder if you would both give your thoughts about what role the consumer plays in the development of alternity (sic) energy – alternative energy. What responsibility do we have?

KALICHMAN: Well…

MAYFIELD: Well, let me start with that because I’ll give the science perspective. So one of the things as scientists and as a society that we need to do is sort of anticipate, to look ahead and then demand that this come about. One of the things that surprises me or has surprised me is in this – the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Everyone’s looking for someone to blame but no one is blaming us. And I think it’s really that we’re, to a large part, responsible for this because we demand a cheap oil. Go out and get us oil and get it cheap, right? And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to cut corners on things. And one of the things you’re going to cut corners on are safety issues and that’s why these things resulted. So as consumers, what we have to say is stop demanding cheap oil and start demanding sustainable energy for our future. We need to convince ourselves of that and then we need to convince the policymakers of that.

CAVANAUGH: And Michael.

KALICHMAN: Yeah, I would just complement what Steve said by noting that it’s consumers’ responsibility to be – to educate themselves, to learn more about what the challenges are. We clearly are worried, at least on this discussion today, we’re worried about oil disappearing. It’s going to be some years before oil disappears but between now and then we have other challenges that already are a concern: our dependence on foreign oil, the environmental problems that occur as we dig deep in the oceans. And if appropriate measures aren’t taken, we have risks. Those are very real, so consumers should educate themselves about the risks and finding solutions by using alternative energy sources.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both. I’ve been speaking with Michael Kalichman and Stephen Mayfield. Thank you so much for being here.

MAYFIELD: Thank you, Maureen.

KALICHMAN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know the next Ethics Center Forum: "Will We Be Ready When the Petroleum Runs Out?" is today at 5:30 p.m. at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. You can go to KPBS.org/thesedays for more information. And, please, if you didn’t get a chance to comment during our program, go online and continue the conversation, KPBS.org/thesedays. And stay with us for hour two coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

Comments

Avatar for user 'jphsd'

jphsd | July 7, 2010 at 9:56 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

Our economic success as a civilization has been predicated on access to cheap energy in the form of fossil fuel. In the UK gasoline recently reached $9 a gallon and I haven't seen any shift in R&D to find a cheaper alternative as a result.

My own observation of human nature is that we do not change our behavior until there's no other option but to, despite the fact that by doing something sooner we would have to endure much less pain. It makes sense for a politician to postpone making hard choices until they are no longer in office and it's now someone else's problem.

My other observation is that as a species, when we have to adapt, we are good at it.

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Avatar for user 'TheGuru'

TheGuru | July 7, 2010 at 10:02 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

What about using hemp for fuel?

People have attained 500-1000 gallons per acre.

Hemp doesn't need as much water and no pesticides as corn and other food crops

Hemp would not effect food crops since it is not used for food

Hemp would create jobs since it cannot be grown due to antiquated prohibition laws

Hemp can also be used to replace other petrochemicals such as plastics

Hemp is better for the earth than solar or wind since we don't have to mine rare earth metals AND we wouldn't have to modify our current fuel infrastructure while being carbon neutral.

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Avatar for user 'Matteo411'

Matteo411 | July 7, 2010 at 10:11 a.m. ― 4 years, 2 months ago

The solution is not as simple as waiting for a cure-all renewable energy source that is cheaper than oil and life continues as normal. We have to look at every aspect of our lives and how we use energy. We live on average 16 miles from work and sit alone in our cars on congested freeways, taking anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour to get there.

The problem can be attacked from multiple angles, with incentives for businesses to allow certain days for telecommuting and maybe tax credits or some kind of reward for employees to take public transportation. Infrastructure can definitely be improved to support the most renewable and energy efficient form of transportation we have today: the bicycle.

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