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See Inside January 2008

Big and Small Solutions

Meeting U.S. energy challenges requires more than one kind of ambition

With oil nearing $100 a barrel and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations steadily rising, the U.S. must commit seriously to a long-term plan that will improve the nation’s energy security and address climate change threats. To date, national leaders have expended a lot of rhetoric on the importance of those goals, but relative to the country’s magnitude as both a consumer of energy and a producer of carbon dioxide, they have taken few meaningful steps to reach them. The U.S. needs to get off the sidelines and put some skin into the game.

A business-as-usual approach will not work. Over time, economies and policies may spontaneously migrate to more efficient, more environmentally benign energy technologies, but those responses will almost certainly be too slow to stave off massive climate disruptions, which require that greenhouse gas emissions be capped within 50 years. This magazine has long taken the position that the best strategy will probably require calling on every available option: not only solar, wind, nuclear and other sources of power but also cleaner coal and more extensive conservation. Still, if only as an exercise in showing what might be possible, it is sometimes worth contemplating how much a single brace of related technologies can do.

In “A Solar Grand Plan,” beginning on page 64, Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis sketch out how the U.S. could build a solar energy infrastructure that might provide two thirds of its electricity and one third of its total energy by 2050—enough to make the nation independent of overseas oil and to drop carbon dioxide emissions to a bit more than a third of what they are now. The authors do not invoke hypothetical breakthroughs in solar technologies; they rely on existing technology and incremental improvements to it. By their estimate the scheme would require $420 billion in subsidies over 40 years. But that sum could be a bargain in terms of energy and environmental security—as they point out, it is in line with other major expenditures, such as farm supports (and, we might point out, funding for the Iraq War). Whether their analyses are correct and whether such a solar plan is really the best choice available are open to debate, but that is rather the point: it behooves all of us to think boldly about what should be done and not to be intimidated by the problem’s large scope.

Zhong Lin Wang describes a very different approach to obtaining and conserving energy in “Self-Powered Nanotech,” starting on page 82. The systems of tiny piezoelectric elements he and his colleagues are developing could be ideal for powering microscale devices. They can tap into the ambient energy in their surroundings—for instance, future medical appliances might draw power from the rush of blood through veins. Expect such self-powered systems to play a pervasive role in tomorrow’s technology. Wang’s article is a good counterpoint to that of Zweibel, Mason and Fthenakis: to deal with our energy and environmental challenges, we can’t be afraid to think big, but we also should not overlook the small.

John Rennie
Editor in Chief

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