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Energy Path, Hard vs. Soft

Energy path, hard vs. soft

What will energy use patterns in the year 2100 look like? Such long-term predictions are difficult, risky, and perhaps impossible. Could an American citizen in 1860 have predicted what the pattern of today's energy use would be like?

Yet, there are reasons to believe that some dramatic changes in the ways we use energy may be in store over the next century. Most importantly, the world's supplies of nonrenewable energyespecially, coal , oil, and natural gascontinue to decrease. Critics have been warning for a least two decades that time was running out for the fossil fuels and that we could not count on using them as prolifically as we had in the past.

For at least two decades, experts have debated the best way to structure our energy use patterns in the future. The two most common themes have been described (originally by physicist Amory Lovins) as the "hard path" and the "soft path."

Proponents of the hard path argue essentially that we should continue to operate in the future as we have in the past, except more efficiently. They point out that predictions from the 1960s and 1970s that our oil supplies would be depleted by the end of the century have been proved wrong. If anything, our reserves of fossil fuels may actually have increased as economic incentives have encouraged further exploration.

Our energy future, the hard-pathers say, should focus on further incentives to develop conventional energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear power . Such incentives might include tax breaks and subsidies for coal, uranium and petroleum companies. When our supplies of fossil fuels do begin to be depleted, our emphasis should shift to a greater reliance on nuclear power.

An important feature of the hard energy path is the development of huge, centralized coal-fired and nuclear-powered plants for the generation of electricity. One characteristic of most hard energy proposals, in fact, is the emphasis on very large, expensive, centralized systems. For example, one would normally think of solar energy as a part of the soft energy path. But one proposal developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls for a gigantic solar power station to be orbited around the earth. The station could then transmit power via microwaves to centrally-located transmission stations at various points in the earth's surface.

Those who favor a soft energy path have a completely different scenario in mind. Fossil fuels and nuclear power must diminish as sources of energy as soon as possible, they say. In their place, alternative sources of power such as hydropower, geothermal energy , wind energy , and photovoltaic cells must be developed.

In addition, the soft-pathers say, we should encourage conservation to extend coal, oil, and natural gas supplies as long as possible. Also since electricity is one of the most wasteful of all forms of energy, its use should be curtailed.

Most importantly, soft-path proponents maintain energy systems of the future should be designed for small-scale use. The development of more efficient solar cells, for example, would make it possible for individual facilities to generate a significant portion of the energy they need.

Underlying the debate between hard- and soft-pathers is a fundamental question as to how society should operate. On the one hand are those who favor the control of resources in the hands of a relatively small number of large corporations. On the other hand are those who prefer to have that control decentralized to individual communities, neighborhoods, and families. The choice made between these two competing philosophies will probably determine which energy path the United States and the world will ultimately follow.

See also Alternative energy sources; Alternative fuels; Energy and the environment

[David E. Newton ]



Lovins, A. Soft Energy Paths. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1977.

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