Shirley Ann Jackson won't say politicians are asking the wrong questions when they talk about energy independence. But she says the real issue is energy security, a recognition that energy is a global commodity with global solutions.
Jackson, a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was in Houston last week to speak at Rice University. In an interview with the Chronicle, she discussed the energy issues facing the United States. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: You've called energy security the space race of this millennium, but the presidential candidates are talking about energy independence. What's the difference, and are we talking about the wrong thing?
A: Energy security relates to the idea of having access to adequate supplies of energy at reasonable prices. It really is a recognition that we're part of a global market. The more "independent" we become, the more we can mitigate the global price.
Different countries are going to emphasize different sources of energy. We want to be secure in our use. But if you fly a plane from one country to another, whose source of fuel are you going to use?
It's a question of understanding the broader question. There is not a silver bullet.
Q: What impact have low natural gas prices had on all of this? There's a yin and yang effect here, where producers are hurting but chemical companies have benefited.
A: That's why the question is complicated. In talking about energy security versus energy independence, it depends on the sector of the economy.
A portfolio of energy is very important; a market approach is very important. At the same time, technological advances have allowed companies to go after shale gas and shale oil, to go deeper. These are all important aspects. They make the picture more complex but also more exciting.
Q: You were chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Clinton. What role should nuclear energy play, and how do we get past the public's ambivalence about it?
A: Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of net electricity generated in the United States. Nuclear plants have tended to be large baseline plants, and they play an interesting role in stabilizing the grid. They provide the day in-day out product. The challenge for nuclear power is the disposal of spent fuel. We don't have a real solution. That remains one of the Achilles heels of the nuclear power industry.
The other thing, while there are two nuclear power plants under construction now, they are expensive. The cost can, over time, be amortized because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows the licenses to be extended to 60 years, but the upfront cost is high.
Q: Do we need more nuclear power?
A: People like a simple one-liner, but there is no simple one-liner. We have to use the fossil fuel sources in as benign a way as possible. I am on the board of an oil and gas company (Marathon Oil Corp.), but I am also on the board of a company that has nuclear plants (PSEG, which has nuclear operations, as well as solar power interests). My background is in high-energy physics, which is nuclear energy.
Q: And what about coal? Coal use is dropping nationally amid concerns about greenhouse gases, but can we afford to stop using it altogether?
A: We have enormous coal supplies in this country. A number of companies have employed back-end technologies to clean up their (emissions). It takes a comprehensive approach. When companies are faced with using this technique, it creates more costs. Even without them, the price of natural gas is so low, it creates an impact. That's where the market comes into play.
Q: What do you mean when you talk about the "quiet crisis?" How does that relate to energy?
A: For years, the United States has built itself with talented individuals from abroad. At the same time, many of our young people are not so interested in science and engineering. A number of us who came of age in the post-Sputnik and post-Apollo era are reaching retirement age.
Something like 40 percent of the Ph.D.s in science and engineering we turn out every year are born abroad. But we don't make it so easy to stay here anymore. And the world has changed. Many of the opportunities are now in their home countries.
We also need to look at our domestic talent. Women, underrepresented minorities and boys, too. This is a quiet crisis. People don't pay attention until it creeps up on us. It can't be fixed overnight. It takes decades to fix.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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