By Gosia Labno
Energy is a vital component of our modern world. But the ways in which we produce and use energy can present challenges. Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago (EPIC) discussed ways of meeting the world’s energy needs while limiting environmental and societal damages at a talk hosted by the Harris Energy Association on October 15. The talk was part of the student-led Association’s quarterly “Energy on Tap” series.
There is a tremendous disparity in the levels of energy consumed around the world, Greenstone noted in his talk. For example, the United States, with a population of 312 million, uses 13,246 kWh of energy per capita. India, with a population that’s about quadruple that of the U.S., uses only 684 kWh of energy per capita. Greenstone emphasized that because of this disparity “increasing access to energy has to be at the front and center of any research agenda.”
But the major challenge, he said, is finding ways of providing energy to the billions of people around the world who have inadequate access, without “filling the planet with greenhouse gas emissions and making people sick.” He gave the example of a person in a developing country using a bicycle to get around. But once that person has the money to use a car, they no doubt will make the switch. The question becomes, how do we get the bicyclist in a car without unleashing dangerous pollution and emissions that contribute to climate change? While there is no obvious answer as of yet, Greenstone and his colleagues are working on finding a solution.
One possible solution is employing cleaner energy sources such as solar and wind. But these are very expensive – two or three times more expensive in fact. Are countries such as India or China going to want to buy expensive energy if developed nations, like the U.S., are not themselves adopting them? Greenstone proposed that a better approach would be to put a price on the cost of energy consumption (i.e., carbon and other pollutants). If it costs money to pollute, fossil fuels would be more expensive and this new market for cheaper energy sources would spur investments in research and development of more efficient technologies.
While there are no easy answers to these vast energy challenges, Greenstone, through his work with EPIC, is working on finding solutions. In addition conducting research, Greenstone plans for the “think and do tank” to mobilize the University of Chicago community and beyond through seminars, lectures and robust communications and policy outreach.