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Authors Hazy on Details About Best Fuels for Future



By Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen

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W.W. Norton, 382 pp., $23

IT is high time that someone objectively surveyed conventional and alternative energy resources and technologies, carefully assessing their costs, benefits, and potential for improvement.

Regrettably, that is not what Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen do in ``Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution.''

The authors peer forward 50 years, when today's population will have doubled to 8 billion, and ask what energy resources can keep so many from freezing in the dark and not poison the environment. It's not surprising that a combination of solar power, fuel cells, and hydrogen comes into view, given the ideological blinders that the two Worldwatch Institute researchers don during the process.

The Worldwatch view may be correct. Certainly the respected organization deserves to be heard. But ``Power Surge'' will only satisfy the choir to which it preaches. Those readers whom Worldwatch most needs to convert are likely to home in on passages that are unsubstantiated, simplistic, or self-contradictory, and on the deliberate omissions.

Flavin and Lenssen first set out to demonstrate that the fuels of today - oil, coal, and uranium - ought not be relied on half a century from now. Then they make the case for their favorite alternatives.

To discredit oil, they argue that supply is finite. ``...even the abundant oil fields of the Middle East are beginning to show their age - and their limits,'' the authors write. They fail to mention that today, the world's known reserves of economically recoverable oil are half again greater than at the time of the 1973 oil shock.

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The authors are also gravely troubled that so much of the world's oil lies in the Persian Gulf - ``a tinderbox for decades, but now it faces greater economic and social stresses than ever before.'' Yet the authors show nothing but enthusiasm for the Persian Gulf as a source of exports of natural gas, which they extol as a low-emission ``bridge'' fuel between today and the zero-emission future we all wish for.

Similarly, they denounce government subsidies on fossil fuels. But they do not detail them, nor explain how a subsidy for (bad) oil could be eliminated without harming (good) natural gas. After all, the hydrocarbons are found by the same companies using the same exploration techniques, often mingled in the same wells.

It's especially ironic that, after alleging that oil is running out, Flavin and Lenssen aver that published figures on gas reserves ``are but the tip of the iceberg.'' They do not say where they suspect the rest of the iceberg to be, but energy companies would tell them that the Atlantic coast of the United States is an area of colossal potential for natural gas. Trouble is, drilling has been banned there in the name of environmental protection. Whoops!

The authors insist that technological innovation will eventually make alternative energy more widely feasible. But being disposed against nuclear power, they neglect to discuss the astounding Integral Fast Reactor, now in the final proving stage at Argonne National Laboratory. Not only does fission emit no greenhouse gasses, but the IFR promises to do away with substantially all of the nuclear waste and weapons proliferation problems as well.

Even the portion of ``Power Surge'' that touts clean alternatives is hazy on details. The Worldwatch researchers find rooftop solar to be elegant, but they ought to note that affordable systems are too puny to power a refrigerator.

They also foresee photovoltaic plants sited in deserts, yet somehow having access to water to turn into hydrogen fuel. And what would be the environmental impact of all the oxygen that such an operation would release into the atmosphere? Maybe positive, but the authors don't say.

``Power Surge'' is a valuable opening argument from an organization that has the courage to differ with conventional wisdom on issues vital to the future of humanity. The book would have been more convincing with less bias and more detail. Hopefully, Flavin and Lenssen will attend to that in a revised edition. For the moment, at least, they've raised the right questions.

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