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No. 545:
Energy Inventories

Today, we go into debt for energy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, POWER." Matthew Boulton spoke those words in the 18th century. He was talking to Samuel Johnson's biographer, Boswell. It was a fine double entendre. Boulton spoke of the new Watt engines he was building. But he also spoke of their potential for extending human influence.

The production of man-made energy was leaping to levels previously unimagined. And the contemporary poet William Blake wrote, "Energy is pure delight."

We Americans eat 50 billion KW-hours of man-made energy a day. What was once delight has turned into a killing habit of compulsive overeating. Our energy use is also a far costlier habit than we realize.

For example: We pay just over dollar a gallon for gas. But what does that gas really cost? What about the cost of ozone emissions? They reduce our crops by two to six billion dollars each year. You pay that part of fuel costs at the grocery store and in your income tax.

We didn't pay the cost of cleaning up the Straits of Valdez at the gas pumps. Nor do we pay $50 billion in energy subsidies when we fill our cars. Subsidies alone amount to $200 per year for every person in America.

The list goes on. We pay 13 to 80 billion dollars a year for energy-related health care. Respiratory ailments, mine cave-ins, cancer caused by fuel products -- they all eat up tax money as well as lives. Thirteen to eighty billion is a huge range of uncertainty. But if we paid only the lowest estimate directly in the cost of fuel, we'd burn far less of it.

A full accounting would drastically realign the relative costs of the fuels we use. The balance among solar, nuclear and fossil fuels would change utterly. Of course, they all involve hidden environmental costs. They'd all rise to some extent.

But fossil fuels in particular cost many times what we pay for them. If we had to pay true prices at the pumps -- before April 15th -- we might be more inclined to reduce them. We might be better motivated to cut the damage that goes with the costs.

The worst of this "buy now, pay later" policy is that we might be paying far greater interest on the debt than we'd ever consciously agree to. Carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrogen products, and sulfur compounds accumulate faster than we realize. The interest due on that debt could prove too high to pay. It could amount to life itself on the planet we call home.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hubbard, H.M., The Real Cost of Energy. Scientific American, Vol. 264, No. 4, April, 1991, pp. 36-42.