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Charles Ebinger is the Director of the Energy Security Initiative and a Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington D.C. He specializes in international and domestic[…]

A conversation with the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Charles Ebinger: I'm Charles Ebinger and I'm the director of the energy security initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Question: Will human beings be able to engineer a solution to the energy crisis?

Charles Ebinger:  Well I don't think we'll engineer our way out of the energy crisis, but I think if we adopt a series of prudent policies, we may get there.  And by that, I think we need a lot greater attention paid to energy efficiency, which is still... the single best way to deal with the energy situation is not to use it if there's a way to do so.  I'm not talking about you know sitting in the dark; I'm talking about simply better technology that gives you the same bang for the buck. 

But if we focus on energy technology, if we move towards cleaner vehicles in our transportation sector and our electric utility sector, I think you know we can get there, but it's a... it's a hard slog, because while we talk about you know needing to reduce our energy consumption because of concerns about climate change, I always like to remind people that there are roughly 1.6 billion people in the world who have no access to electricity and even more who have no access to commercial energy. And we can't forget those people as we deal with our own part of the problem.

Is it fair for the First World to tell poorer countries to slow development?

Charles Ebinger:  Well it's certainly not only not fair from a human... humane point of view, but I think it's more ominous than that.  I think in the kind of world we live in and modern communications and people who have very little certainly aren't unaware of how those of us that have very much live. And I think at some point we're going to start seeing increased political violence and potential increased risk of terrorism rather than just have people wallow in their misery and kind of die unnoticed by the rest of us.

What are practical ways to help developing countries meet their growing energy needs?

Charles Ebinger: Well some of the developing countries, of course being very poor countries—I'm thinking particularly of maybe some of the central African countries—their problem is they don't have the resources to do what they need to do to adapt to climate change or to take actions to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Many of these countries are suffering from deforestation or growing incursions by the desert, what we call desertification, and increasingly many parts of their countries are uninhabitable.  We're beginning to see climate refugees move across international frontiers in response to these changes.  So I think we need to go in with renewable energy technologies that make sense given the local environment and try to provide a better modicum of life but also to dissuade them from continuing to denude the remaining forests that they have.

  Which renewable energy technologies should we use?

Charles Ebinger:  Well, in many parts of the emerging market countries, I think wind and solar offer probably the two greatest potentials.  Certainly all of North Africa has great solar resources and a lot of the desert regions have pretty consistent winds.  So you want to start with that, and then you need to use those technologies, you know, to help with wells, develop water supplies, and wind- and solar-generated electricity can alleviate those kinds of problems as well. 

Question: How viable are wind and solar energy, both now and in the long term?

Charles Ebinger:  The problems with our existing generation wind and solar technology is that they still remain relatively high cost in comparison to conventional technologies.  Now part of that is of course that we don't necessarily account for the full cost of the conventional technologies. We don't have a price on carbon for example, so we aren't reflecting the full cost to society of using coal, natural gas or petroleum.  But even that set aside, it's still a problem of cost, so there's really no alternative in the near term but to subsidize these newer fuels so that we can eventually get the cost down with greater dissemination of them and have them truly able to compete in the marketplace on their own. 

As you look farther out there are some so-called nanotechnologies in solar that offer the promises of very cheap power.  We have concentrated solar power stations which are already in a handful of locations around the world, but the significance of these plants is that they can be used for base load electricity and peaking as well so they really make solar not an intermittent resource any more, they're all so based on being able to capture the sun rays when the solar units are working and store the power for when the sun isn't there. 

So these types of things, wind is certainly taking off around the world, actually has made many more advances than solar has in terms of its absolute contribution to global energy supply.  And there are tremendous wind resources in many locations of the world, both onshore and increasingly in various parts of the world; we're looking for offshore wind farms.  These are controversial themselves because you know you're talking about many very, very large windmills you know 400 or 500 feet high in the air.  And since they're often in sites that compete with recreational and other uses, they're not free in the sense of not being subject to political debate.

What are other obstacles to the large-scale viability of these technologies?

Charles Ebinger: Well there are other obstacles that certain regulatory jurisdictions for example in the United States will argue that they're responsibility as regulators is to deliver reliable, the cheapest power available to the consumers for which they're responsible for overseeing the rates.  And they will argue that while it may have social benefits, that wind and solar very likely may raise rates in the near term and so you get some regulators that simply aren't as vigorous in championing these newer resources as they might be if they didn't see their mandate as different from a mandate to get as much renewable into the system as possible.

How viable is nuclear power as a solution to the energy crisis?

Charles Ebinger: Well nuclear power has had a difficult history.  Of course, in the '60s and '70s we had a boom in nuclear power around the world.  Everybody hoped, the famous phrase was it was going to be "too cheap to meter."  But then of course we had the accidents at Three-Mile Island in the United States and the very serious accident in Chernobyl in the Ukraine and that really set the industry back dramatically.  We had reached the point until very recently where we had not actually done a new grassroots nuclear reactor for 30 years. 

But now there is talk of a global nuclear renaissance and whether it's as grandiose in the United States as some people would believe, it certainly is going to be worldwide.  The Chinese have 24 reactors under construction and another 100 planned.  The Indians have very vigorous programs for the future; the Russians, there's growing interest in the Middle East in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt.

So we're going to see this.  The big question in my mind is, as we expand nuclear power, we need to make sure we do it in a way that we not only do it safely, obviously, but we also need to be, I think a growing concern of enhanced risks of nuclear weapons proliferation; that the civilian nuclear technology not be misused in any way.  And as we have more of these sensitive facilities potentially for what we call uranium enrichment and reprocessing, which are part of the fuel cycle, what you need for atomic civilian power, but once you have one or both of those technologies, you de facto have the capability of making a weapon.  And I don't think most of us are going to worry if developed countries that are considered highly stable, expand nuclear power, but as we start moving nuclear reactors in to the Middle East and other politically volatile regions of the world, we certainly want to make sure that all the vendors that sell this equipment are as vigilant as possible to make sure that somehow under a dual use item, that's said to be used for one thing, that it can't be used for another.   And it's a very, very serious problem.

Is there such a thing as clean coal?

Charles Ebinger:   Well all I have to say is I hope there is such a thing as clean coal.  And the reason I say that, and of course that means that we can burn coal and completely capture the CO2 and then sequester it.  And it's certainly not an easy thing to do.  But what I keep reminding people is that coal is the world's most abundant energy resources.  You can argue whether it's as abundant as solar or wind, but certainly in terms of conventional resources and what people forget is that coal employs literally tens of thousands of people around the world, not only in our own country but in places like India and China.  It is cheap and so it's very difficult for emerging market countries that are trying to electrify to grow their economies economically. 

It's very difficult for them to simply say, "Well we're going to stop using coal because of concerns about climate change," because not only will they throw thousands of people out of work, but they will not then and probably in the near term, have a readily available alternative to replace the coal generated electricity that's leading to these explosive levels of economic growth. 

So I hope that we put a lot of research and development... There are essentially three major ways that we think about right now to potentially have clean coal.  One involves taking the CO2 out before combustion and two, capturing it after combustion.  But I would like to see us cooperate with the other big coal users in Indonesia and China, India and maybe jointly embark on some research and development projects using these three technologies and not see it as a commercial gain of one country's going to learn how to do it and not other but say under the rubric of the global good that we all do it together and then share the benefits accordingly.

How promising are such emerging energy technologies as fusion and biofuels?

Charles Ebinger:  Fusion is a frustrating technology because we all know that it'll work.  The problem with fusion is we haven't been able to sustain a fusion reaction long enough to generate electricity.  We've known this for 30 to 50 years.  The joke in the fusion energy community is that fusion is always 30 years away and that remains the case today barring any foreseeable new developments.  But there is research going on and one of these days I would hope that somebody has a breakthrough and that would truly be a game-changer because then we really would very likely be able to have energy so cheap that we wouldn't worry about metering it.  But I don't think we can count on that happening. 

So then you look at other alternatives like advanced biofuels.  There clearly is great interest in algae as a transportation fuel to back out petroleum, as well as some other biofuels.  Biofuels are not entirely free in the sense that you certainly want to move towards developing biofuels hopefully that don't compete with food stuffs.  And that's one of the big problems with ethanol in our country and corn.  But there are biofuels like algae and others that don't compete with foodstuffs. 

I've actually been a developer.  I'm vice chairman of a company based in Dubai that does biomass fuels in Europe mainly because we get such generous green tax credits, it's extremely attractive.  But there are different crops that can be used.  We are developing a proprietary technology that it's essentially like a bamboo-type crop.  We call it egrass, but it's essentially similar to a bamboo, virtually grows anywhere in the world that's a temperate climate.  And like bamboo, grows very prolifically and very cheaply.  One of the problems in biofuels, though, is it's very expensive to transport bio fuels to their end use.  So when you develop a biofuels plant, you want as much as possible to have your biofuels plant as close to whatever end use it's going to be used for to cut down on what are otherwise very expensive transportation costs.

What is the scariest energy-related risk we’re currently running?

Charles Ebinger: 
The scariest risk I think that we are running, is if we are wrong about how much time we have to deal with CO2.  Or, if we had a precipitant event that kind of, dire warners of climate you know we say but we'll have the tipping point.  Well, you know we could have the tipping point.  And if we have something like a big hunk of the Greenland ice shelf fall off for example or accelerated release of methane from the tundra in the Arctic, because of course that's straight CO2 emissions. 

And methane remember is much more dangerous than CO2 in terms of its contribution to climate change.  So if we're wrong and the earth really were to accelerate faster than the IPPC says, you know, what if we can't find, not only that we can't live at 450 parts per million BTUs, what if we find we can't live at 350 or 300?  That would be my scariest scenario because then I think, on the other hand that might be what we need to galvanize the world that business as usual cannot continue and maybe everybody would come together. 

My other great fear would be that we, it's far less catastrophic in the long run for the globe, but my other concern would be if we had a catastrophic war in the Middle East and there was a major disruption to petroleum supplies because that would send the price of oil up probably if it were to happen you know while we're still in a global recession, probably send us into depression.  We wouldn't then have the resources we need to make the conversion to the renewable energy future and that would also have very severe implications.

Do you believe there’s a high risk of such a war?

Charles Ebinger:  The only way I rank that a high risk is if we were to have an Israeli attack on Iran; or an Iranian attack on Israel seems less likely.  But I think in that case, everybody would immediately become polarized.  The United States would be in a very difficult position with our historic Israeli ally on the one hand, but probably the entire Arab world united against us, if not formally, at least de facto for their own political survival. nd that would be a very, very serious situation and one that I am increasingly worried about, might occur.  Because I think largely because of the intransigence of the Iranians on their nuclear program, I do not believe they are negotiating in good faith.  And I do believe, whether you agree with it or not, I do believe that Israel sees Iranian... a nuclear armed Iran as an exostential threat and given the current complexion of the Israeli government on the more hard line right wing side of the spectrum, I would not rule it out.

Of all the governments you’ve advised on energy policy, which have been the most and least reasonable?

Charles Ebinger: Oh, I'd like to tell you that I could claim success on more than one hand out of 50 governments. I would say in the long run we probably made some great success in Jordan and Egypt and ironically, even in Pakistan in the energy sector.  Things have fallen apart since then.  The problem though I think is most interesting to say, well why don't governments listen to what even most officials would say was fundamentally sound advice.  The problem is in many of these countries you know, because of the large volumes of poor people energy prices are highly subsidized, in some cases free.  And still in large parts of India, the farmers pay nothing for electricity.  And so of course because there's no value on the good, demand shoots through the roof and then the Indian government can't build enough generation capacity so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it's really the political constraints these countries are under, are very, very serious.  And it's easy for the IMF or the World Bank to come in and say "Oh, you need to rationalize prices and you know get them up to the real cost," but you know we don't, as we were talking earlier, we don't have our prices reflecting the cost of carbon.  And so in some ways, we're not that different.   So I think that's the biggest thing.  They don't see any near-term benefit by making some of these tough reforms even though they recognize that they're on a collision course if they don't do these things.  So they do them at the margin, try to keep the system intact. 

But sadly in a place like Pakistan today, you know most of the major cities have electricity shortages 16, 18 hours a day.  And that's true in many large cities in India or around the world.  In the big cities electricity is you know often only available 3 or 4 hours a day, if at all.  And of course as we mentioned at the start of our talk, there's still huge numbers of people that have no access to electricity at all.  So these are the real dilemmas, so it's easy to talk about Western-style reforms, creating regulatory regimes for transparency and all this, but in the final analysis, governments generally don't embark on policies that may well mean their political demise sooner rather than later. 

Recorded on April 28th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen