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New PBS Series Focuses On Our Energy History, Looks Ahead To Future

Macro of a solar cell.
Clearly Ambiguous
Macro of a solar cell.
New PBS Series Focuses On Our Energy History, Looks Ahead To Future
How can we make a sustainable energy future if we don't know the history of our energy consumption? We speak to Glaciologist Dr. Richard Alley about the new PBS series "Earth-The Operators' Manual."

How can we make a sustainable energy future if we don't know the history of our energy consumption? We speak to Glaciologist Dr. Richard Alley about the new PBS series "Earth-The Operators' Manual."


Dr. Richard Alley, host of the new PBS Series "Earth-The Operators' Manual", and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.N. climate change committee. He is also the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at The Pennsylvania State University


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to these days on K P B S when people talk about sustainable energy do you know what they're talking about why isn't oil sustainable or gas or coal. We really running out of these energy sources how the heck did that happen the fact is we haven't understood much about managing the said resources that's why there's never been a better time for a guide to earth as kind of operators manual. I'd like to introduce my guest Dr. Richard Alley host of the new series Earth the operators manual a member of the national Academy of Science and the 2007 {CHECK] Dr. Alley welcome to these days.

ALLEY: Good morning Maureen. Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: You're very welcome. Tell us what the focus is of this three part series.

ALLEY: We're look at the big question of energy and environment there's just absolutely no doubt that [CHECK] get from using energy and the question is how can be get to this point that we can [CHECK]

CAVANAUGH: Now one of interesting things about the way you approach this is you kind of give people a history lesson before you talk about the future. Why do you take that approach?


ALLEY: Because personally I like it. I think we learn it better from history you know, the stories of what people acheived how we got here really [CHECK] what to do.

CAVANAUGH: You make a point that America used to get it's energy. We had the energy before we started to use Petroleum based oil. Where did that come from?

ALLEY: Well I live in Pennsylvania and Ben Franklin you maybe recall among money other things was a great multi tasker and he used to sell frankly soap he said if you don't by my wore going to run out of coals then we're going to the balance of payments because we're going to have to and so he was trying to save the environment [CHECK] I think he did pretty well on both.

CAVANAUGH: So but you also mention the fact that he didn't really get to it fast enough because the European settlers did quite a number on the forest of the east coast.

ALLEY: [CHECK] we're no longer in the [CHECK] I will for just a moment I'm going to be in a plain headed out to you [CHECK] at any rate there's no lions left in Pennsylvania we chased them out because basically we cut every tree in the state and there was no trees for them to hide behind.

CAVANAUGH: I see that's how [CHECK] used to get it's energy and in a side way that's how people use to manage the resources of the earth which is the focus of the operators manual that your showing.

ALLEY: Absolutely we take a tour through the history Whale oil it you want to read in a dark night in pen in the winter fire light [CHECK] very good for reading is and people tried candles and tried things that blue up but the rich {CHECK] whale oil and a there's 10 thousand men on ships looking for whales they're up in the Arctic and they're down [CHECK] they're trying to get him and they was running out of it [CHECK].

CAVANAUGH: It's amazing to actually compare the energy that the world uses now as to the amount of energy it used in early 19 hundreds take us through that a little bit Dr. Alley.

ALLEY: A hundred yards of whaling out of now in land 10 thousand men of the peak they collected as much while oil as about one day of US modern imports.

CAVANAUGH: That's just an amazing status. I don't think anybody actually thinks about that. Tell us now they use boss and don't know it took me a minute to actually they use the while oil to power their oil lamps; is that right.

ALLEY: To see at night in winter.

CAVANAUGH: Now in these series other the Operators Manuel you visited camp Pendleton Marine corp base why did you decide to focus on the military energy.

ALLEY: The military huge energy user you try to get a tank to go fast it takes a lot of gas and if you try to keep the computers running so you can see who's trying to shoot you and control things that takes energy and if you are far out in Afghanistan or when it was going on in Iraq you can protect yourself in base but how do you protect the foul convoys trouble with [CHECK] fuel convoys so saving energy is not just about saving the country it's saving your life and so they have been working very hard in figuring out how to generate energy and how to get clean water locally so you don't have to get that [CHECK] about how the military is [CHECK] American talking about the human cost of transporting the fuel and water in the war and one of the ideas the military has adopted odd the report it the army found that inch five hour years more than three thousand service members have is been killed or wounded we've got marines guarding that[CHECK]

CAVANAUGH: And that is a clip from new P B S series Earth the operators manual and the host of that series with me on the line Dr. Richard Alley what we learn from the way the military uses it's energy.

Alley: They're doing great things they're finding things that work their finding things that are sustainable to help the people to avoid the dangers and things that are likely to be translatable into the rest of the world so the great clip of the [CHECk] manner in which marines are known to it do so they take the now L E D they through them on the nor they pick them up and they still work.

CAVANAUGH: Which is very helpful I would imagine in that instance now you talked a little bit earlier just a moment ago about peak whale oil. We talk about peak oil now can you describe for us what that means.

Alley: Yeah so fuel oil coal natural gas are the remains of things that live said in the post alga lives in the ocean that fell to the bottom in places that was hot and not very well mixed. It got buried and oil and coal and natural gas accumulated over a few hundred million years and we're burning them over a few hundred years and a lot of the easy stuff is had ready gone. So some of your at least your more senior listeners like me might remember [CHECK] and up through ground came a bubbling crude that's gone because oil companies know how to find the easy stuff they were not out in the dope water in the gulf of Mexico because they love throwing money away they were out there because they love finding oil. So stick a straw in the ground a find oil and burn it eventually that has to end because it was only so much in the ground and we're good at finding it.

CAVANAUGH: Now I mean this isn't a secret people are known with where foul energy comes from for a long time they realize this is a none re useable why we call it unsustainable what are people doing about it.

ALLEY: Well it's a good question what wore doing in one side people are trying to find the things that promote the things that would be sustainable and people are trying to broaden the choice of fuel so here [CHECK} gas so the easy [CHECK] is going run out had of the other so it we stick up had the coal and crack the shell if the natural gas still a fair amount of fuel left so it will not [CHECK] to the exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Now I don't think everybody is familiar with that term franking if you could explain that.

ALLEY: It's fascinating them the hell is just an old mud rock and it's black and it's black of the organic stuff in it and it spaces in rock are so tiny that the fuel can't get out it can't flow away and so what they do is they drill a hole and they pump something in the to break the rock and make spaces that then the gas can come out through. And boy doing that pump up had the pressure crock you can crack the gas out it.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah every last drop.

ALLEY: There you go.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking doctor Richard Alley the host of P B S Earth the operators manual you know we like to think of the united states as being on the cutting end of everything but actually in your series [CHECK] the places.

ALLEY: Yeah so we dropped in on Brazil. They have bone working on and working on using and particular sugar cane and it turns out that you can get a little more alcohol off of an anchor of lane to put in your car it your doing it were other cane under sun then if you’re doing it with corn so they worked very hard to get to the point that they can run their car on very good at it we had so visit China we looked at worked at their going on a variety of things they're looking at ways you can couch CO D and put it back on it ground very hard on [CHECK] foul is pretty expensive and they're looking for lots of ways to get out from under this.

CAVANAUGH: Something very interesting in Spain you take us too as well.

Alley: Yes their putting up concentrated solar their electricity they're working on storage so they can use the sun at night as well in the day, their using techniques that actually were used by another Pennsylvanian a hundred years ago Frank Shuman[CHECK] doing the same thing now check.

CAVANAUGH: Now you made the argument I believe in this series that there is an air yeah in the south west that if we used it could actually provide enough power in the world.

ALLEY: If we really got serious about locating sun and had a way to it around the son on the deserts of the south west would be enough to run the world [CHECK] more energy the than we use.

CAVANAUGH: So this I guess the million there question are we gonna use it.

ALLEY: That is we will decide eventually we either have to or we have to look at a really different life style which is likely not nearly as [CHECK] wore getting I think all the main thinkers on this say we got to learn how to use the sun.

CAVANAUGH: Earlier in our conversation you men said you were flying out here you you're flying to San Diego tell us why.

ALLEY: Wore going to in at the Fleet science center we meet students present a little of with what's going on and try to hear some things from the good San Diego out there.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of feedback have you gotten about this series people receiving it well?

ALLEY: I think so it's a little early yet because it hasn't come out yet. It's so much of is hot button it's us against you and you and against me against them and let's yell loud and it doesn't have to be and so if you go and say with so what's this about [CHECK] it's the marine trying to save their comrades from being blown up in a it's good here it really is and I think it we some common find we can then start the real discussion of to move forward.

CAVANAUGH: Show of this is take it out and just get it to the practical aspects everybody can?

ALLEY: I hope so because there's a whole lot that we know really well and oh we have an interview with[CHECK] your say you know his words very much better than mine but when things go wrong up round the world you often call the military to go fix them if we change them things [check] you know who your going to ask. To the you can see the writing on the wall. Yeah his job is to plan for these things and so says this is not [CHECK] this is let's get together and so what the future holds what we can do with it to well and want to tell everyone that A.

CAVANAUGH: Host a special presentation of Earth the operators manual it's coming up tomorrow at five P M at the Ruben H space center and most science festival that takes place at petco park on at you're going to be a busy guy.

ALLEY: Looking forward do it.

CAVANAUGH: Also I want to mention the three part series Earth the operators manual premieres April ten right here on K P B S. Thank you so much.

ALLEY: It's a real pressure and good luck to Aztecs.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you if that if you would like to comment please go on line KP B S. Org slash these days stay tune for hour two of these days here on K P B S.