Sustainable Energy

The Energy Conundrum

We may be making ourselves comfortable at the cost of rendering the planet uninhabitable.

May 16, 2016

Energy is the solution. It’s also the problem.

What we mean by that will become obvious as you page through the stories in Energy 2016, our collection of the biggest energy stories of the past year.

Why the solution? In the developing world hundreds of millions want a higher standard of living. They want better schools and hospitals, a more reliable base for manufacturing, and a sturdier economy. They yearn for the basic elements of the modern world that technology affords and that westerners take for granted. They can’t do it without more energy.

As our senior editor for energy, Richard Martin, reports in “India’s Energy Crisis," Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants universal access to electricity for his citizens (some 250 million now live with sporadic access to electricity; another 300 million get by without any at all). As Jonathan W. Rosen writes in “Lake Kivu’s Great Gas Gamble,” the country of Rwanda, one of the world’s most surprising economic comeback stories, is being held back by its sketchy energy supply.

And of course it’s also the problem. The “enviable” western lifestyle comes with incredible costs. The more developed economies in North America, Europe, and Asia have powered their way into a world climate crisis. Since the Fukushima disaster (see “Can Japan Recapture Its Solar Power?”), Japan has fallen back on fossil fuels. And now the ambitions of places like Rwanda and India bring new risks—India’s dreams are likely to be impossible without leaning heavily on coal, and the “gamble” of the Lake Kivu story is the potential release of a massive death cloud of carbon dioxide that could kill everyone living alongside the lake. We may be making ourselves comfortable at the cost of rendering the planet uninhabitable.

Read climate scientist Ken Caldeira’s essay “Stop Emissions!” wherein he sets down the moral imperative for acting immediately. Or read editor David Rotman’s “Hot and Violent,” in which he outlines precisely how bad it is likely to get, not simply in terms of rising sea levels but in terms of water shortages, crop failures, and world conflict.

It’s not all gloom. People everywhere are working on the problem. Battery maker Ann Marie Sastry is chipping away at technology that might one day make electric cars cheap and solar and wind power more practical than fossil fuels. Chemist Peidong Yang is among those who hope to hack photosynthesis, the same system that plants use to grow, to make better fuels. And in an expansive annotated interview, Bill Gates, the billionaire and philanthropist, lays down the logical path forward if we hope to turn all those energy problems into solutions.

Enjoy,

Jason Pontin
CEO, Editor in Chief, and Publisher