Anandraj Singh, Broadside Correspondent

There are few things hazier in life right now than trying to figure out how we’re going to power the future. Faced with such a daunting task with all the issues, problems, bribes, blackmails, threats and politics that revolve around it, I really wonder how the ministers in charge of energy policies (not just in the U.S., but abroad) get time to sleep at night.

Maybe they get huge piles of money? Either that or they know some very good doctors.

Despite currently being a poor, unemployed student and very much in the midst of papers, it’s still difficult to sleep at night when one truly thinks about the energy situation as it currently stands.

It’s not really the direness of the situation vis-à-vis climate change at all. In fact, while climate change is happening, it’s simply too large and unpredictable to really get too much in a hitch over. At the very least, you know that as long as we continue flopping around without a clue, it’ll happen.

On the other hand, what is far more concerning – and at the same time, amusing – is that very act of flopping around like a fish out of water. A lot of what we hear being tossed around in terms of energy viability and solutions are solar and wind, at least from a layman’s perspective; in many ways, solar and wind have become the poster child for renewable energy sources.

While it is true that these sources are probably among the cleanest and maybe the most abundant in the world, the fact remains that to consider them solutions to the energy crisis – or even as a large part of the solution – is just downright misleading.

I’ll avoid going over the technical details, but what I argue is that solar, wind, geothermal and tidal energy, while efficient, clean and otherwise hassle-free, are simply not available enough in sufficient density and quantities to replace our existing power systems in any economically profitable manner. They exist as supplements: means to fill in the gaps, but little more for the present.

This is especially true given our current level of technology and the materials available to us. Within the next 10 or so years, this situation may have reversed itself – I hope to whoever is listening up there that it does.

However, for the immediate future, barring a sudden “Eureka” moment by an engineer in a garage somewhere, it doesn’t look like it’s going to change fast enough.

Even surpassing technology hurdles may not be enough. Both wind and solar energy suffer from a significant lack of control of how much they generate.

The sky can always go cloudy on us no matter how much we curse it. The wind tends to be even more finicky unless you’re far out at sea.

Tidal and geothermal energies are far more prominent, not just their efficiency and reliability, but their costs as well. However, they too are limited by locations and geological requirements.

With these issues one must question the wisdom of investing billions of dollars into solar and wind renewable energy sources. It’s not questioning the fact that they work – we know that they work – but the only proof we have right now is that they work more on a local scale. The multi-billion dollar risk being taken is whether they’ll work on a national scale.

Considering the needs and power requirements of industry and the new infrastructure needed to construct all those plants and deal with the variability of their output, I have the suspicion that they probably won’t work.

Assuming the worst case scenario – that we can’t use solar or wind on a large scale – what can we use?
Before I can answer that question, we should consider whether we’re looking at this the right way. We’re looking at how to solve our energy problems with the options we have today as opposed to the options we may have 20 to 30 years from now. One of these options has always been nuclear fusion – one of the most promising of the bunch.

Frankly speaking, I’m tempted to cross it off the list simply because of how little progress has been made on it, despite it getting the lion’s share of energy research over the years: an estimated $900 million.

The “official” best hope, according to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is that the reactor of the same name is due to come online in 10-20 year’s time. Even then it is only a very expensive prototype reactor, with commercial fusion based on its design coming in as far away as 30 years.

But these are the official, government endeavors. ITER seems a tad inefficient compared to some of the other ventures going on in efforts to reach “net gain” – the holy grail of fusion research right now that allows you to output more power from a reaction than what you put in.

However, fusion’s main chance may lie in smaller, private ventures pursuing unorthodox ways to get nuclear fusion. Many of these methods are bogus – little more than con men in some cases – but there are some promising ventures out there. Magnetized Target Fusion, currently pioneered by a pair of Canadian engineers who built a prototype in their garage, does show a fair bit of potential to actually work. If it does work, the potential is there to get fusion reactors as early as 2014 – just five years away.

Either way, one of these ventures surely must have a chance to work. This gives us a range of success anywhere from five to 30 years out at the very maximum.

At the least, necessity will force us to have a clean option by then, even if it is something completely unrelated to nuclear physics.

But this raises problems. If we know that anywhere from five to 30 years down the line we’re going to make something far more efficient, clean and viable available to us, what do we want to spend all that money that we have on right now?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the situation as I see it. What the Obama administration needs to realize is that what they are investing in is nothing more than a stopgap solution – one that’s going to have to hold until we can advance far enough to get something far more permanent.

To this extent, people need to realize that a stopgap solution shouldn’t just be finding new sources of energy, although that has to be its primary goal, but also to make far more efficient use of what we already have; in ways that don’t even involve energy generation.

These can range from simple ordinances, to preserving power in the homes, to reworking industrial practices and policies for better efficiency overall. Or it can include finding ways to surpass essential technological limits that are blocking clean cars.

All of these are little things, like solar and wind, which serve to add up to a collective means of cutting carbon dioxide production far better than just switching energy production.

Battery technology, especially, is one of the main stumbling blocks when it comes to trying to get cleaner cars on the road today. This is because it places a large limiter on the distance and performance of most electric cars. Further encouragement of hybrid trucks or buses would greatly help this issue.

What about new generators? Being a simpleton, the only possible solution that comes to mind is nuclear; but the cost of setting up a nuclear reactor far outweighs how much energy and waste it is going to produce. Especially if it’s going to be up only for 10-30 years before being phased out by whatever comes next.

The best method, perhaps, would be finding out where solar and wind works more efficiently.

Then integrating them into the small communities and getting them off the grid, therefore saving power and scaling down energy generation.

These are all but idle speculation of a simpleton; though there are experts out there paid millions of dollars that know these things, it’s hoped that this is what they’re suggesting to Obama right now.

Let’s hope that whichever way Obama’s going to proceed with his energy plan, it takes into account where we may be in 2020 or 2030, as opposed to just when he’s up for re-election in 2012.