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Undersecretary for Science Talks Sustainability at UCSB

Steven Koonin says there are ways to help manage the population boom's effects on finite resources

Steven Koonin, undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy, spoke about sustainability on Thursday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall.

The lecture was sponsored by UCSB’s Institute for Energy Efficiency and the Novim Group.

Koonin, who was greeted by a well-attended hall, oversees $5 billion of research at the federal Office of Science.

Throughout his address, Koonin stressed that as the population grows and develops, resources will become more strained.

He showed a series of charts that showed that as a country increased its gross domestic product, its consumption of energy and even calories dramatically escalated when compared with poorer countries. As the countries on the chart became more developed over time, their consumption patterns crested upward.

“There are no negative slopes on this chart,” he said, adding that the United States represents 4 percent on the world’s population but consumes up to 20 percent.

The world’s population is in the middle of a quadrupuling spanning from 1950 to 2050.

“The Earth is finite,” he said, offering several potential solutions: decoupling development and consumption, finding new or substitute resources, and resetting expectations.

With 80 percent of the world’s current energy supply coming from fossil fuels, Koonin broached the inevitable question: Will we ever run out?

Koonin said he doesn’t think so. He revealed a chart showing that scientists have proven reserves of oil, natural gas and coal lasting into the next 100 years. Reserves that can be reached unconventionally, such as shale gas, are just waiting to be tapped, he said.

In addition, the rest of the world has embraced more nuclear power as a source of energy. 

Even though reserves seem stable, the United States spends $400 billion a day importing oil into the country. When the majority of that product comes from an unstable region of the world, it affects what Koonin called energy security.

His proposed solutions included increasing fuel efficiency, promoting the gradual electrification of the transport system and aggressively working on alternative fuels. He called on the United States to “lead the world” in terms of innovation.

“The world is going to need these technologies,” he said, adding that innovation hubs, which are partnerships between industry, academia and government, are undertaking all kinds of research projects. Koonin said he knew of one that was working on artificial photosynthesis.

America has advantages even as it competes with innovation giants such as China and India, he said. The American “Idea,” the rule of law, a system that encourages innovation and a premium on higher education are all pluses as it tries to compete.

Still, “China is about two generations ahead as they build their electrical grid,” he said.

Koonin also touched on Copenhagen and America’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gases 17 percent by 2020.

He said that 20 percent of America’s power comes from nuclear power, and in order to reach that emissions cut, “we’re going to need a lot more of it.”

During a question and answer session, Koonin was asked about the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. Recapturing unspent energy and reducing the radioactivity of waste left behind was key, and Koonin said that very little research had been done in the United States on nuclear waste storage.

He was also asked about his thoughts on a carbon tax, such as the cap-and-trade policies.

“It’s absolutely essential that we put a price on carbon if we want to reduce emissions,” he said, adding that if companies reduce their emissions that the government should make the trade-offs worth it. “We need to crank up the innovation engine in the country and focus on the right technologies.”

America still has advantages, he said, and “we had better realize them and get moving.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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