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As Energy Evolution Looms, Penn Staters Consider Reshaped Communities

on April 11, 2011 8:20 AM

Eventually -- and probably sooner than we care to stomach -- fossil fuel will go away. It'll be used up. Poof.

Or if it's not completely used up, it'll become so scarce, and so expensive, that burning it will become cost-prohibitive for most people. It won't be a viable option.

"We just won't be able to afford it," Penn State associate professor Andy Lau said Sunday evening, speaking at the "Clean Energy Defined" event at University Park.

That forum, along with the debut of "Earth: The Operators' Manual" on PBS Sunday night, snapped into sharp focus the eventual reality of life after coal, petroleum and natural gas.

Petroleum, for one, is likely to last perhaps another 50 years at current usage rates, Lau suggested.

And then what?

Well, then, those energies we like to call "alternative," "renewable" and "sustainable" will not longer be just nice options. They'll become more and more essential, as several "Clean Energy Defined" presentations on Sunday demonstrated.

Wind, solar and water-driven energy sources hold enough long-term promise to power our homes and communities. But we probably won't be able to guzzle energy with reckless abandon, like we do now, the presentations showed.

Lau imagines that we'll have to rethink how we design our communities, dramatically trimming our heavy reliance on cars. Homes may be clustered closer together. More day-to-day needs may be located within easy walking distance. Mass transit may become more essential.

Likewise, we'll likely have to source our food closer to home, so it won't have to travel as far -- and burn as much fuel -- to get to our mouths, Lau said. Right now, just producing our food -- and getting it to our tables -- can consume seven times as much energy as the food itself contains, he said.

And another thing: In Lau's vision of our future, we won't be able to travel long distances as readily and easily as we do now. Again, he said here, it's the money thing. Energy will be more expensive, and those long road trips will become more and more out of reach.

The experts who spoke Sunday at "Clean Energy Defined" -- Lau, Dave Yoxtheimer and Susan W. Stewart -- all agreed that some diverse mixture of energy sources is likely to fuel us in the near future. While no one energy source is entirely clean -- even use of solar energy requires the construction of solar panels -- it appeared that the sun may hold the most long-term promise for human needs.

In fact, if we can capture a single one-hundredth of one percent of the solar energy that reaches Earth, we'll have enough energy to supply all human demands, Penn State geosciences professor Richard Alley explained in the PBS special.

"Humans need energy," he said in the program. "We always have, and we always will."

For as much as ambiguity that still marks our energy future, one thing appears indisputable: We'll need to make do with less.

It's an inescapable theme these days, from long-term energy policy to education funding, government spending and -- often -- household income.

Austerity is the new gluttony. Cultural evolution looks unavoidable.

How we adapt is entirely in our hands.

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