by David Murphy

The next decades will witness a global battle between geologic depletion and technological advancement, as modern society demands ever-increasing quantities of energy from an aging fossil fuel supply and a nascent renewable energy sector.

The fossil fuel industry is already straining to deliver increasing quantities of energy from geologic reservoirs that are old and depleting quickly, or from new ones that are more energy-intensive and expensive to develop Meanwhile, companies and governments alike are rushing to develop renewable energy technologies that can compete on a cost basis with fossil fuels. Renewable energy optimists believe that once these price barriers are defeated (through technological advancement or market manipulation), both our energy concerns and the environmental problems associated with the present-day energy industry will be vastly reduced.

The outcome of this battle can only be analyzed retrospectively, but as we search for oil under the Arctic ice cap and coat the deserts with solar panels, we can anticipate that it will extend across all landscapes thought to be energetically bountiful.

One thing is clear: When it comes to energy, there is no free lunch. It would be foolish to assume that transitioning to renewable energy will solve all of our energy and environmental problems. Transitioning to renewables will certainly diminish ecological impacts in many ways, but it will also have new—and mostly unknown—consequences. For example, both solar and battery technology in their current iterations depend on rare metals and other natural resources that are unevenly distributed around the world. A full-scale switch to renewable energy may merely supplant one dependency for another.

It would be wise to approach our energy future with two related thoughts in mind: first, the precautionary principle, and second, the law of unintended consequences. Using that perspective, this section of the book reviews the major energy resources and their transportation methods. We consider the current status of each resource as well as any other major concerns, environmental and otherwise, that may exist.

Of course the energy economy is constantly in flux; the following overview of the energy landscape can necessarily provide only a snapshot in time. It is intended to offer the reader a foundation of understanding about the current energy mix, building on the “energy literacy” series in part one.

David Murphy, who compiled the tour of the energy landscape that follows, is an assistant professor within the Department of Geography and an associate of the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, and Energy at Northern Illinois University. His research focuses on the role of energy in economic growth, with a specific focus on net energy.