Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
—Robert Frost

Where are America's formal or de facto energy policies leading us? Where might we choose to go instead? How can we find out?

Addressing these questions can reveal deeper questions—and a few answers—that are easy to grasp, yet rich in insight and in international relevance. This paper will seek to explore such basic concepts in energy strategy by outlining and contrasting two energy paths that the United States might follow over the next 50 years—long enough for the full implications of change to start to emerge. The first path resembles present federal policy and is essentially an extrapolation of the recent past. It relies on rapid expansion of centralized high technologies to increase supplies of energy, especially in the form of electricity. The second path combines a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy, rapid development of renewable energy sources matched in scale and in energy quality to end-use needs, and special transitional fossil-fuel technologies. This path, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, diverges radically from incremental past practices to pursue long-term goals.

Both paths, as will be argued, present difficult—but very different—problems. The first path is convincingly familiar, but the economic and sociopolitical problems lying ahead loom large, and eventually, perhaps, insuperable. The second path, though it represents a shift in direction, offers many social, economic and geopolitical advantages, including virtual elimination of nuclear proliferation from the world. It is important to recognize that the two paths are mutually exclusive. Because commitments to the first may foreclose the second, we must soon choose one or the other—before failure to stop nuclear proliferation has foreclosed both.[1]


Most official proposals for future U.S. energy policy embody the twin goals of sustaining growth in energy consumption (assumed to be closely and causally linked to GNP and to social welfare) and of minimizing oil imports. The usual proposed solution is rapid expansion of three sectors: coal (mainly strip-mined, then made into electricity and synthetic fluid fuels); oil and gas (increasingly from Arctic and offshore wells); and nuclear fission (eventually in fast breeder reactors). All domestic resources, even naval oil reserves, are squeezed hard—in a policy which David Brower calls "Strength Through Exhaustion." Conservation, usually induced by price rather than by policy, is conceded to be necessary but it is given a priority more rhetorical than real. "Unconventional" energy supply is relegated to a minor role, its significant contribution postponed until past 2000. Emphasis is overwhelmingly on the short term. Long-term sustainability is vaguely assumed to be ensured by some eventual combination of fission breeders, fusion breeders, and solar electricity. Meanwhile, aggressive subsidies and regulations are used to hold down energy prices well below economic and prevailing international levels so that growth will not be seriously constrained.

Even over the next ten years (1976-85), the supply enterprise typically proposed in such projections is impressive. Oil and gas extraction shift dramatically to offshore and Alaskan sources, with nearly 900 new oil wells offshore of the contiguous 48 states alone. Some 170 new coal mines open, extracting about 200 million tons per year each from eastern underground and strip mines, plus 120 million from western stripping. The nuclear fuel cycle requires over 100 new uranium mines, a new enrichment plant, some 40 fuel fabrication plants, three fuel reprocessing plants. The electrical supply system, more than doubling, draws on some 180 new 800-megawatt coal-fired stations, over one hundred and forty 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors, 60 conventional and over 100 pumped-storage hydroelectric plants, and over 350 gas turbines. Work begins on new industries to make synthetic fuels from coal and oil shale. At peak, just building (not operating) all these new facilities directly requires nearly 100,000 engineers, over 420,000 craftspeople, and over 140,000 laborers. Total indirect labor requirements are twice as great.[2]

This ten-year spurt is only the beginning. The year 2000 finds us with 450 to 800 reactors (including perhaps 80 fast breeders, each loaded with 2.5 metric tons of plutonium), 500 to 800 huge coal-fired power stations, 1,000 to 1,600 new coal mines and some 15 million electric automobiles. Massive electrification-which, according to one expert, is "the most important attempt to modify the infrastructure of industrial society since the railroad"[3]—is largely responsible for the release of waste heat sufficient to warm the entire freshwater runoff of the contiguous 48 states by 34-49°F.[4] Mining coal and uranium, increasingly in the arid West, entails inverting thousands of communities and millions of acres, often with little hope of effective restoration. The commitment to a long-term coal economy many times the scale of today's makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate.[5] Only the exact date of such changes is in question.

The main ingredients of such an energy future are roughly sketched in Figure 1. For the period up to 2000, this sketch is a composite of recent projections published by the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), Federal Energy Administration (FEA), Department of the Interior, Exxon, and Edison Electric Institute. Minor and relatively constant sources, such as hydroelectricity, are omitted; the nuclear component represents nuclear heat, which is roughly three times the resulting nuclear electric output; fuel imports are aggregated with domestic production. Beyond 2000, the usual cutoff date of present projections, the picture has been extrapolated to the year 2025—exactly how is not important here—in order to show its long-term implications more clearly.[6]

An Illustrative, Schematic Future for U.S. Gross Primary Energy Use


An Illustrative, Schematic Future for U.S. Gross Primary Energy Use


The flaws in this type of energy policy have been pointed out by critics in and out of government. For example, despite the intensive electrification—consuming more than half the total fuel input in 2000 and more thereafter—we are still short of gaseous and liquid fuels, acutely so from the 1980s on, because of slow and incomplete substitution of electricity for the two-thirds of fuel use that is now direct. Despite enhanced recovery of resources in the ground, shortages steadily deepen in natural gas—on which plastics and nitrogen fertilizers depend—and, later, in fuel for the transport sector (half our oil now runs cars). Worse, at least half the energy growth never reaches the consumer because it is lost earlier in elaborate conversions in an increasingly inefficient fuel chain dominated by electricity generation (which wastes about two-thirds of the fuel) and coal conversion (which wastes about one-third). Thus in Britain since 1900, primary energy—the input to the fuel chain—has doubled while energy at the point of end use—the car, furnace or machine whose function it fuels—has increased by only a half, or by a third per capita; the other half of the growth went to fuel the fuel industries, which are the largest energy consumers.

Among the most intractable barriers to implementing Figure 1 is its capital cost. In the 1960s, the total investment to increase a consumer's delivered energy supplies by the equivalent of one barrel of oil per day (about 67 kilowatts of heat) was a few thousand of today's dollars—of which, in an oil system, the wellhead investment in the Persian Gulf was and still is only a few hundred dollars. (The rest is transport, refining, marketing and distribution.) The capital intensity of much new coal supply is still in this range. But such cheaply won resources can no longer stretch our domestic production of fluid fuels or electricity; and Figure 1 relies mainly on these, not on coal burned directly, so it must bear the full burden of increased capital intensity.

That burden is formidable. For the North Sea oilfields coming into production soon, the investment in the whole system is roughly $10,000 to deliver an extra barrel per day (constant 1976 dollars throughout); for U.S. frontier (Arctic and offshore) oil and gas in the 1980s it will be generally in the range from $10,000 to $25,000; for synthetic gaseous and liquid fuels made from coal, from $20,000 to $50,000 per daily barrel.

The scale of these capital costs is generally recognized in the industries concerned. What is less widely appreciated—partly because capital costs of electrical capacity are normally calculated per installed (not delivered) kilowatt and partly because whole-system costs are rarely computed—is that capital cost is many times greater for new systems that make electricity than for those that burn fuels directly. For coal-electric capacity ordered today, a reasonable estimate would be about $150,000 for the delivered equivalent of one barrel of oil per day; for nuclear-electric capacity ordered today, about $200,000-$300,000. Thus, the capital cost per delivered kilowatt of electrical energy emerges as roughly 100 times that of the traditional direct-fuel technologies on which our society has been built.[7]

The capital intensity of coal conversion and, even more, of large electrical stations and distribution networks is so great that many analysts, such as the strategic planners of the Shell Group in London, have concluded that no major country outside the Persian Gulf can afford these centralized high technologies on a truly large scale, large enough to run a country. They are looking, in Monte Canfield's phrase, like future technologies whose time has passed.

Relying heavily on such technologies, President Ford's 1976-85 energy program turns out to cost over $1 trillion (in 1976 dollars) in initial investment, of which about 70 to 80 percent would be for new rather than replacement plants.[8] The latter figure corresponds to about three-fourths of cumulative net private domestic investment (NPDI) over the decade (assuming that NPDI remains 7 percent of gross national product and that GNP achieves real growth of 3.5 percent per year despite the adverse effects of the energy program on other investments). In contrast, the energy sector has recently required only one-fourth of NPDI. Diverting to the energy sector not only this hefty share of discretionary investment but also about two-thirds of all the rest would deprive other sectors which have their own cost-escalation problems and their own vocal constituencies. A powerful political response could be expected. And this capital burden is not temporary; further up the curves of Figure 1 it tends to increase, and much of what might have been thought to be increased national wealth must be plowed back into the care and feeding of the energy system. Such long-lead-time, long-payback-time investments might also be highly inflationary.

Of the $1 trillion-plus just cited, three-fourths would be for electrification. About 18 percent of the total investment could be saved just by reducing the assumed average 1976-85 electrical growth rate from 6.5 to 5.5 percent per year.[9] Not surprisingly, the combination of disproportionate and rapidly increasing capital intensity, long lead times, and economic responses is already proving awkward to the electric utility industry, despite the protection of a 20 percent taxpayer subsidy on new power stations.[10] "Probably no industry," observes Bankers Trust Company, "has come closer to the edge of financial disaster." Both here and abroad an effective feedback loop is observable: large capital programs -> poor cash flow -> higher electricity prices -> reduced demand growth -> worse cash flow -> increased bond flotation -> increased debt-to-equity ratio, worse coverage, and less attractive bonds -> poor bond sales -> worse cash flow -> higher electricity prices -> reduced (even negative) demand growth and political pressure on utility regulators -> overcapacity, credit pressure, and higher cost of money -> worse cash flow, etc. This "spiral of impossibility," as Mason Willrich has called it, is exacerbated by most utilities' failure to base historic prices on the long-run cost of new supply: thus some must now tell their customers that the current-dollar cost of a kilowatt-hour will treble by 1985, and that two-thirds of that increase will be capital charges for new plants. Moreover, experience abroad suggests that even a national treasury cannot long afford electrification: a New York State-like position is quickly reached, or too little money is left over to finance the energy uses, or both.


Summarizing a similar situation in Britain, Walter Patterson concludes: "Official statements identify an anticipated 'energy gap' which can be filled only with nuclear electricity; the data do not support any such conclusion, either as regards the 'gap' or as regards the capability of filling it with nuclear electricity." We have sketched one form of the latter argument; let us now consider the former.

Despite the steeply rising capital intensity of new energy supply, forecasts of energy demand made as recently as 1972 by such bodies as the Federal Power Commission and the Department of the Interior wholly ignored both price elasticity of demand and energy conservation. The Chase Manhattan Bank in 1973 saw virtually no scope for conservation save by minor curtailments: the efficiency with which energy produced economic outputs was assumed to be optimal already. In 1976, some analysts still predict economic calamity if the United States does not continue to consume twice the combined energy total for Africa, the rest of North and South America, and Asia except Japan. But what have more careful studies taught us about the scope for doing better with the energy we have? Since we can't keep the bathtub filled because the hot water keeps running out, do we really (as Malcolm MacEwen asks) need a bigger water heater, or could we do better with a cheap, low-technology plug?

There are two ways, divided by a somewhat fuzzy line, to do more with less energy. First, we can plug leaks and use thriftier technologies to produce exactly the same output of goods and services—and bads and nuisances—as before, substituting other resources (capital, design, management, care, etc.) for some of the energy we formerly used. When measures of this type use today's technologies, are advantageous today by conventional economic criteria, and have no significant effect on life-styles, they are called "technical fixes."

In addition, or instead, we can make and use a smaller quantity or a different mix of the outputs themselves, thus to some degree changing (or reflecting ulterior changes in) our life-styles. We might do this because of changes in personal values, rationing by price or otherwise, mandatory curtailments, or gentler inducements. Such "social changes" include car-pooling, smaller cars, mass transit, bicycles, walking, opening windows, dressing to suit the weather, and extensively recycling materials. Technical fixes, on the other hand, include thermal insulation, heat-pumps (devices like air conditioners which move heat around—often in either direction—rather than making it from scratch), more efficient furnaces and car engines, less overlighting and overventilation in commercial buildings, and recuperators for waste heat in industrial processes. Hundreds of technical and semi-technical analyses of both kinds of conservation have been done; in the last two years especially, much analytic progress has been made.

Theoretical analysis suggests that in the long term, technical fixes alone in the United States could probably improve energy efficiency by a factor of at least three or four.[11] A recent review of specific practical measures cogently argues that with only those technical fixes that could be implemented by about the turn of the century, we could nearly double the efficiency with which we use energy.[12] If that is correct, we could have steadily increasing economic activity with approximately constant primary energy use for the next few decades, thus stretching our present energy supplies rather than having to add massively to them. One careful comparison shows that after correcting for differences of climate, hydroelectric capacity, etc., Americans would still use about a third less energy than they do now if they were as efficient as the Swedes (who see much room for improvement in their own efficiency).[13] U.S. per capita energy intensity, too, is about twice that of West Germany in space heating, four times in transport.[14] Much of the difference is attributable to technical fixes.

Some technical fixes are already under way in the United States. Many factories have cut tens of percent off their fuel cost per unit output, often with practically no capital investment. New 1976 cars average 27 percent better mileage than 1974 models. And there is overwhelming evidence that technical fixes are generally much cheaper than increasing energy supply, quicker, safer, of more lasting benefit. They are also better for secure, broadly based employment using existing skills. Most energy conservation measures and the shifts of consumption which they occasion are relatively labor-intensive. Even making more energy-efficient home appliances is about twice as good for jobs as is building power stations: the latter is practically the least labor-intensive major investment in the whole economy.

The capital savings of conservation are particularly impressive. In the terms used above, the investments needed to save the equivalent of an extra barrel of oil per day are often zero to $3,500, generally under $8,000, and at most about $25,000—far less than the amounts needed to increase most kinds of energy supply. Indeed, to use energy efficiently in new buildings, especially commercial ones, the additional capital cost is often negative: savings on heating and cooling equipment more than pay for the other modifications.

To take one major area of potential saving, technical fixes in new buildings can save 50 percent or more in office buildings and 80 percent or more in some new houses.[15] A recent American Institute of Architects study concludes that, by 1990, improved design of new buildings and modification of old ones could save a third of our current total national energy use—and save money too. The payback time would be only half that of the alternative investment in increased energy supply, so the same capital could be used twice over.

A second major area lies in "cogeneration," or the generating of electricity as a by-product of the process steam normally produced in many industries. A Dow study chaired by Paul McCracken reports that by 1985 U.S. industry could meet approximately half its own electricity needs (compared to about a seventh today) by this means. Such cogeneration would save $20-50 billion in investment, save fuel equivalent to 2-3 million barrels of oil per day, obviate the need for more than 50 large reactors, and (with flattened utility rates) yield at least 20 percent pretax return on marginal investment while reducing the price of electricity to consumers.[16] Another measure of the potential is that cogeneration provides about 4 percent of electricity today in the United States but about 29 percent in West Germany. Cogeneration and more efficient use of electricity could together reduce our use of electricity by a third and our central-station generation by 60 percent.[17] Like district heating (distribution of waste heat as hot water via insulated pipes to heat buildings), U.S. cogeneration is held back only by institutional barriers. Yet these are smaller than those that were overcome when the present utility industry was established.

So great is the scope for technical fixes now that we could spend several hundred billion dollars on them initially plus several hundred million dollars per day—and still save money compared with increasing the supply! And we would still have the fuel (without the environmental and geopolitical problems of getting and using it). The barriers to far more efficient use of energy are not technical, nor in any fundamental sense economic. So why do we stand here confronted, as Pogo said, by insurmountable opportunities?

The answer—apart from poor information and ideological antipathy and rigidity—is a wide array of institutional barriers, including more than 3,000 conflicting and often obsolete building codes, an innovation-resistant building industry, lack of mechanisms to ease the transition from kinds of work that we no longer need to kinds we do need, opposition by strong unions to schemes that would transfer jobs from their members to larger numbers of less "skilled" workers, promotional utility rate structures, fee structures giving building engineers a fixed percentage of prices of heating and cooling equipment they install, inappropriate tax and mortgage policies, conflicting signals to consumers, misallocation of conservation's costs and benefits (builders vs. buyers, landlords vs. tenants, etc.), imperfect access to capital markets, fragmentation of government responsibility, etc.

Though economic answers are not always right answers, properly using the markets we have may be the greatest single step we could take toward a sustainable, humane energy future. The sound economic principles we need to apply include flat (even inverted) utility rate structures rather than discounts for large users, pricing energy according to what extra supplies will cost in the long run ("long-run marginal-cost pricing"), removing subsidies, assessing the total costs of energy-using purchases over their whole operating lifetimes ("lifecycle costing"), counting the costs of complete energy systems including all support and distribution systems, properly assessing and charging environmental costs, valuing assets by what it would cost to replace them, discounting appropriately, and encouraging competition through antitrust enforcement (including at least horizontal divestiture of giant energy corporations).

Such practicing of the market principles we preach could go very far to help us use energy efficiently and get it from sustainable sources. But just as clearly, there are things the market cannot do, like reforming building codes or utility practices. And whatever our means, there is room for differences of opinion about how far we can achieve the great theoretical potential for technical fixes. How far might we instead choose, or be driven to, some of the "social changes" mentioned earlier?

There is no definitive answer to this question—though it is arguable that if we are not clever enough to overcome the institutional barriers to implementing technical fixes, we shall certainly not be clever enough to overcome the more familiar but more formidable barriers to increasing energy supplies. My own view of the evidence is, first, that we are adaptable enough to use technical fixes alone to double, in the next few decades, the amount of social benefit we wring from each unit of end-use energy; and second, that value changes which could either replace or supplement those technical changes are also occurring rapidly. If either of these views is right, or if both are partly right, we should be able to double end-use efficiency by the turn of the century or shortly thereafter, with minor or no changes in life-styles or values save increasing comfort for modestly increasing numbers. Then over the period 2010-40, we should be able to shrink per capita primary energy use to perhaps a third or a quarter of today's.[18] (The former would put us at the per capita level of the wasteful, but hardly troglodytic, French.) Even in the case of fourfold shrinkage, the resulting society could be instantly recognizable to a visitor from the 1960s and need in no sense be a pastoralist's utopia—though that option would remain open to those who may desire it.

The long-term mix of technical fixes with structural and value changes in work, leisure, agriculture and industry will require much trial and error. It will take many years to make up our diverse minds about. It will not be easy—merely easier than not doing it. Meanwhile it is easy only to see what not to do.

If one assumes that by resolute technical fixes and modest social innovation we can double our end-use efficiency by shortly after 2000, then we could be twice as affluent as now with today's level of energy use, or as affluent as now while using only half the end-use energy we use today. Or we might be somewhere in between—significantly more affluent (and equitable) than today but with less end-use energy.

Many analysts now regard modest, zero or negative growth in our rate of energy use as a realistic long-term goal. Present annual U.S. primary energy demand is about 75 quadrillion BTU ("quads"), and most official projections for 2000 envisage growth to 130-170 quads. However, recent work at the Institute for Energy Analysis, Oak Ridge, under the direction of Dr. Alvin Weinberg, suggests that standard projections of energy demand are far too high because they do not take account of changes in demographic and economic trends. In June 1976 the Institute considered that with a conservation program far more modest than that contemplated in this article, the likely range of U.S. primary energy demand in the year 2000 would be about 101-126 quads, with the lower end of the range more probable and end-use energy being about 60-65 quads. And, at the further end of the spectrum, projections for 2000 being considered by the "Demand Panel" of a major U.S. National Research Council study, as of mid-1976, ranged as low as about 54 quads of fuels (plus 16 of solar energy).

As the basis for a coherent alternative to the path shown in Figure 1 earlier, a primary energy demand of about 95 quads for 2000 is sketched in Figure 2. Total energy demand would gradually decline thereafter as inefficient buildings, machines, cars and energy systems are slowly modified or replaced. Let us now explore the other ingredients of such a path—starting with the "soft" supply technologies which, spurned in Figure 1 as insignificant, now assume great importance.

An Alternate Illustrative Future for U.S. Gross Primary Energy Use


An Alternate Illustrative Future for U.S. Gross Primary Energy Use


There exists today a body of energy technologies that have certain specific features in common and that offer great technical, economic and political attractions, yet for which there is no generic term. For lack of a more satisfactory term, I shall call them "soft" technologies: a textural description, intended to mean not vague, mushy, speculative or ephemeral, but rather flexible, resilient, sustainable and benign. Energy paths dependent on soft technologies, illustrated in Figure 2, will be called "soft" energy paths, as the "hard" technologies sketched in Section II constitute a "hard" path (in both senses). The distinction between hard and soft energy paths rests not on how much energy is used, but on the technical and sociopolitical structure of the energy system, thus focusing our attention on consequent and crucial political differences.

In Figure 2, then, the social structure is significantly shaped by the rapid deployment of soft technologies. These are defined by five characteristics :

—They rely on renewable energy flows that are always there whether we use them or not, such as sun and wind and vegetation: on energy income, not on depletable energy capital.

—They are diverse, so that energy supply is an aggregate of very many individually modest contributions, each designed for maximum effectiveness in particular circumstances.

—They are flexible and relatively low-technology—which does not mean unsophisticated, but rather, easy to understand and use without esoteric skills, accessible rather than arcane.

—They are matched in scale and in geographic distribution to end-use needs, taking advantage of the free distribution of most natural energy flows.

—They are matched in energy quality to end-use needs: a key feature that deserves immediate explanation.

People do not want electricity or oil, nor such economic abstractions as "residential services," but rather comfortable rooms, light, vehicular motion, food, tables, and other real things. Such end-use needs can be classified by the physical nature of the task to be done. In the United States today, about 58 percent of all energy at the point of end use is required as heat, split roughly equally between temperatures above and below the boiling point of water. (In Western Europe the low-temperature heat alone is often a half of all end-use energy.) Another 38 percent of all U.S. end-use energy provides mechanical motion: 31 percent in vehicles, 3 percent in pipelines, 4 percent in industrial electric motors. The rest, a mere 4 percent of delivered energy, represents all lighting, electronics, telecommunications, electrometallurgy, electrochemistry, arc-welding, electric motors in home appliances and in railways, and similar end uses which now require electricity.

Some 8 percent of all our energy end use, then, requires electricity for purposes other than low-temperature heating and cooling. Yet, since we actually use electricity for many such low-grade purposes, it now meets 13 percent of our end-use needs—and its generation consumes 29 percent of our fossil fuels. A hard energy path would increase this 13 percent figure to 20-40 percent (depending on assumptions) by the year 2000, and far more thereafter. But this is wasteful because the laws of physics require, broadly speaking, that a power station change three units of fuel into two units of almost useless waste heat plus one unit of electricity. This electricity can do more difficult kinds of work than can the original fuel, but unless this extra quality and versatility are used to advantage, the costly process of upgrading the fuel—and losing two-thirds of it—is all for naught.

Plainly we are using premium fuels and electricity for many tasks for which their high energy quality is superfluous, wasteful and expensive, and a hard path would make this inelegant practice even more common. Where we want only to create temperature differences of tens of degrees, we should meet the need with sources whose potential is tens or hundreds of degrees, not with a flame temperature of thousands or a nuclear temperature of millions—like cutting butter with a chainsaw.

For some applications, electricity is appropriate and indispensable: electronics, smelting, subways, most lighting, some kinds of mechanical work, and a few more. But these uses are already oversupplied, and for the other, dominant uses remaining in our energy economy this special form of energy cannot give us our money's worth (in many parts of the United States today it already costs $50-120 per barrel-equivalent). Indeed, in probably no industrial country today can additional supplies of electricity be used to thermodynamic advantage which would justify their high cost in money and fuels.

So limited are the U.S. end uses that really require electricity that by applying careful technical fixes to them we could reduce their 8 percent total to about 5 percent (mainly by reducing commercial overlighting), whereupon we could probably cover all those needs with present U.S. hydroelectric capacity plus the cogeneration capacity available in the mid-to-late 1980s.[19] Thus an affluent industrial economy could advantageously operate with no central power stations at all! In practice we would not necessarily want to go that far, at least not for a long time; but the possibility illustrates how far we are from supplying energy only in the quality needed for the task at hand.

A feature of soft technologies as essential as their fitting end-use needs (for a different reason) is their appropriate scale, which can achieve important types of economies not available to larger, more centralized systems. This is done in five ways, of which the first is reducing and sharing overheads. Roughly half your electricity bill is fixed distribution costs to pay the overheads of a sprawling energy system: transmission lines, transformers, cables, meters and people to read them, planners, headquarters, billing computers, interoffice memos, advertising agencies. For electrical and some fossil-fuel systems, distribution accounts for more than half of total capital cost, and administration for a significant fraction of total operating cost. Local or domestic energy systems can reduce or even eliminate these infrastructure costs. The resulting savings can far outweigh the extra costs of the dispersed maintenance infrastructure that the small systems require, particularly where that infrastructure already exists or can be shared (e.g., plumbers fixing solar heaters as well as sinks).

Small scale brings further savings by virtually eliminating distribution losses, which are cumulative and pervasive in centralized energy systems (particularly those using high-quality energy). Small systems also avoid direct diseconomies of scale, such as the frequent unreliability of large units and the related need to provide instant "spinning reserve" capacity on electrical grids to replace large stations that suddenly fail. Small systems with short lead times greatly reduce exposure to interest, escalation and mistimed demand forecasts—major indirect diseconomies of large scale.

The fifth type of economy available to small systems arises from mass production. Consider, as Henrik Harboe suggests, the 100-odd million cars in this country. In round numbers, each car probably has an average cost of less than $4,000 and a shaft power over 100 kilowatts (134 horsepower). Presumably a good engineer could build a generator and upgrade an automobile engine to a reliable, 35-percent-efficient diesel at no greater total cost, yielding a mass-produced diesel generator unit costing less than $40 per kw. In contrast, the motive capacity in our central power stations-currently totaling about 1/40 as much as in our cars—costs perhaps ten times more per kw, partly because it is not mass-produced. It is not surprising that at least one foreign car maker hopes to go into the wind-machine and heat-pump business. Such a market can be entered incrementally, without the billions of dollars' investment required for, say, liquefying natural gas or gasifying coal. It may require a production philosophy oriented toward technical simplicity, low replacement cost, slow obsolescence, high reliability, high volume and low markup; but these are familiar concepts in mass production. Industrial resistance would presumably melt when—as with pollution-abatement equipment—the scope for profit was perceived.

This is not to say that all energy systems need be at domestic scale. For example, the medium scale of urban neighborhoods and rural villages offers fine prospects for solar collectors—especially for adding collectors to existing buildings of which some (perhaps with large flat roofs) can take excess collector area while others cannot take any. They could be joined via communal heat storage systems, saving on labor cost and on heat losses. The costly craftwork of remodeling existing systems—"backfitting" idiosyncratic houses with individual collectors—could thereby be greatly reduced. Despite these advantages, medium-scale solar technologies are currently receiving little attention apart from a condominium-village project in Vermont sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the 100-dwelling-unit Mejannes-le-Clap project in France.

The schemes that dominate ERDA's solar research budget—such as making electricity from huge collectors in the desert, or from temperature differences in the oceans, or from Brooklyn Bridge-like satellites in outer space—do not satisfy our criteria, for they are ingenious high-technology ways to supply energy in a form and at a scale inappropriate to most end-use needs. Not all solar technologies are soft. Nor, for the same reason, is nuclear fusion a soft technology.[20] But many genuine soft technologies are now available and are now economic. What are some of them?

Solar heating and, imminently, cooling head the list. They are incrementally cheaper than electric heating, and far more inflation-proof, practically anywhere in the world.[21] In the United States (with fairly high average sunlight levels), they are cheaper than present electric heating virtually anywhere, cheaper than oil heat in many parts, and cheaper than gas and coal in some. Even in the least favorable parts of the continental United States, far more sunlight falls on a typical building than is required to heat and cool it without supplement; whether this is considered economic depends on how the accounts are done.[22] The difference in solar input between the most and least favorable parts of the lower 49 states is generally less than two-fold, and in cold regions, the long heating season can improve solar economics.

Ingenious ways of backfitting existing urban and rural buildings (even large commercial ones) or their neighborhoods with efficient and exceedingly reliable solar collectors are being rapidly developed in both the private and public sectors. In some recent projects, the lead time from ordering to operation has been only a few months. Good solar hardware, often modular, is going into pilot or full-scale production over the next few years, and will increasingly be integrated into buildings as a multipurpose structural element, thereby sharing costs. Such firms as Philips, Honeywell, Revere, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and Owens-Illinois, plus many dozens of smaller firms, are applying their talents, with rapid and accelerating effect, to reducing unit costs and improving performance. Some novel types of very simple collectors with far lower costs also show promise in current experiments. Indeed, solar hardware per se is necessary only for backfitting existing buildings. If we build new buildings properly in the first place, they can use "passive" solar collectors—large south windows or glass-covered black south walls—rather than special collectors. If we did this to all new houses in the next 12 years, we would save about as much energy as we expect to recover from the Alaskan North Slope.[23]

Secondly, exciting developments in the conversion of agricultural, forestry and urban wastes to methanol and other liquid and gaseous fuels now offer practical, economically interesting technologies sufficient to run an efficient U.S. transport sector.[24] Some bacterial and enzymatic routes under study look even more promising, but presently proved processes already offer sizable contributions without the inevitable climatic constraints of fossil-fuel combustion. Organic conversion technologies must be sensitively integrated with agriculture and forestry so as not to deplete the soil; most current methods seem suitable in this respect, though they may change the farmer's priorities by making his whole yield of biomass (vegetable matter) salable.

The required scale of organic conversion can be estimated. Each year the U.S. beer and wine industry, for example, microbiologically produces 5 percent as many gallons (not all alcohol, of course) as the U.S. oil industry produces gasoline. Gasoline has 1.5-2 times the fuel value of alcohol per gallon. Thus a conversion industry roughly 10 to 14 times the scale (in gallons of fluid output per year) of our cellars and breweries would produce roughly one-third of the present gasoline requirements of the United States; if one assumes a transport sector with three times today's average efficiency—a reasonable estimate for early in the next century—then the whole of the transport needs could be met by organic conversion. The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable, since it would replace in function half our refinery capacity.

Additional soft technologies include wind-hydraulic systems (especially those with a vertical axis), which already seem likely in many design studies to compete with nuclear power in much of North America and Western Europe. But wind is not restricted to making electricity: it can heat, pump, heat-pump, or compress air. Solar process heat, too, is coming along rapidly as we learn to use the 5,800°C. potential of sunlight (much hotter than a boiler). Finally, high- and low-temperature solar collectors, organic converters, and wind machines can form symbiotic hybrid combinations more attractive than the separate components.

Energy storage is often said to be a major problem of energy-income technologies. But this "problem" is largely an artifact of trying to recentralize, upgrade and redistribute inherently diffuse energy flows. Directly storing sunlight or wind—or, for that matter, electricity from any source—is indeed difficult on a large scale. But it is easy if done on a scale and in an energy quality matched to most end-use needs. Daily, even seasonal, storage of low- and medium-temperature heat at the point of use is straightforward with water tanks, rock beds, or perhaps fusible salts. Neighborhood heat storage is even cheaper. In industry, wind-generated compressed air can easily (and, with due care, safely) be stored to operate machinery: the technology is simple, cheap, reliable and highly developed. (Some cities even used to supply compressed air as a standard utility.) Installing pipes to distribute hot water (or compressed air) tends to be considerably cheaper than installing equivalent electric distribution capacity. Hydroelectricity is stored behind dams, and organic conversion yields readily stored liquid and gaseous fuels. On the whole, therefore, energy storage is much less of a problem in a soft energy economy than in a hard one.

Recent research suggests that a largely or wholly solar economy can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic.[25] Such a conceptual exercise does not require "exotic" methods such as sea-thermal, hot-dry-rock geothermal, cheap (perhaps organic) photovoltaic, or solar-thermal electric systems. If developed, as some probably will be, these technologies could be convenient, but they are in no way essential for an industrial society operating solely on energy income.

Figure 2 shows a plausible and realistic growth pattern, based on several detailed assessments, for soft technologies given aggressive support. The useful output from these technologies would overtake, starting in the 1990s, the output of nuclear electricity shown in even the most sanguine federal estimates. For illustration, Figure 2 shows soft technologies meeting virtually all energy needs in 2025, reflecting a judgment that a completely soft supply mix is practicable in the long run with or without the 2000-25 energy shrinkage shown. Though most technologists who have thought seriously about the matter will concede it conceptually, some may be uneasy about the details. Obviously the sketched curve is not definitive, for although the general direction of the soft path must be shaped soon, the details of the energy economy in 2025 would not be committed in this century. To a large extent, therefore, it is enough to ask yourself whether Figure 1 or 2 seems preferable in the 1975-2000 period.

A simple comparison may help. Roughly half, perhaps more, of the gross primary energy being produced in the hard path in 2025 is lost in conversions. A further appreciable fraction is lost in distribution. Delivered end-use energy is thus not vastly greater than in the soft path, where conversion and distribution losses have been all but eliminated. (What is lost can often be used locally for heating, and is renewable, not depletable.) But the soft path makes each unit of end-use energy perform several times as much social function as it would have done in the hard path; so in a conventional sense, social welfare in the soft path in 2025 is substantially greater than in the hard path at the same date.

Weyerhauser Paper Mills and Reynolds Metal Plant are both located in Longview, on the Columbia River. Intense industrial concentration causes intense pollution 04/1973
Weyerhauser Paper Mills and Reynolds Metal Plant in Longview, Washington, April 1973
The U.S. National Archives


To fuse into a coherent strategy the benefits of energy efficiency and of soft technologies, we need one further ingredient: transitional technologies that use fossil fuels briefly and sparingly to build a bridge to the energy-income economy of 2025, conserving those fuels—especially oil and gas—for petrochemicals (ammonia, plastics, etc.) and leaving as much as possible in the ground for emergency use only.

Some transitional technologies have already been mentioned under the heading of conservation—specifically, cogenerating electricity from existing industrial steam and using existing waste heat for district heating. Given such measures, increased end-use efficiency, and the rapid development of biomass alcohol as a portable liquid fuel, the principal short- and medium-term problem becomes, not a shortage of electricity or of portable liquid fuels, but a shortage of clean sources of heat. It is above all the sophisticated use of coal, chiefly at modest scale, that needs development. Technical measures to permit the highly efficient use of this widely available fuel would be the most valuable transitional technologies.

Neglected for so many years, coal technology is now experiencing a virtual revolution. We are developing supercritical gas extraction, flash hydrogenation, flash pyrolysis, panel-bed filters and similar ways to use coal cleanly at essentially any scale and to cream off valuable liquids and gases as premium fuels before burning the rest. These methods largely avoid the costs, complexity, inflexibility, technical risks, long lead times, large scale, and tar formation of the traditional processes that now dominate our research.

Perhaps the most exciting current development is the so-called fluidized-bed system for burning coal (or virtually any other combustible material). Fluidized beds are simple, versatile devices that add the fuel a little at a time to a much larger mass of small, inert, red-hot particles—sand or ceramic pellets—kept suspended as an agitated fluid by a stream of air continuously blown up through it from below. The efficiency of combustion, of other chemical reactions (such as sulfur removal), and of heat transfer is remarkably high because of the turbulent mixing and large surface area of the particles. Fluidized beds have long been used as chemical reactors and for burning trash, but are now ready to be commercially applied to raising steam and operating turbines. In one system currently available from Stal-Laval Turbin AB of Sweden, eight off-the-shelf 70-megawatt gas turbines powered by fluidized-bed combusters, together with district-heating networks and heat pumps, would heat as many houses as a $1 billion-plus coal gasification plant, but would use only two-fifths as much coal, cost a half to two-thirds as much to build, and burn more cleanly than a normal power station with the best modern scrubbers.[26]

Fluidized-bed boilers and turbines can power giant industrial complexes, especially for cogeneration, and are relatively easy to backfit into old municipal power stations. Scaled down, a fluidized bed can be a tiny household device—clean, strikingly simple and flexible—that can replace an ordinary furnace or grate and can recover combustion heat with an efficiency over 80 percent.[27] At medium scale, such technologies offer versatile boiler backfits and improve heat recovery in flues. With only minor modifications they can burn practically any fuel. It is essential to commercialize all these systems now—not to waste a decade on highly instrumented but noncommercial pilot plants constrained to a narrow, even obsolete design philosophy.[28]

Transitional technologies can be built at appropriate scale so that soft technologies can be plugged into the system later. For example, if district heating uses hot water tanks on a neighborhood scale, those tanks can in the long run be heated by neighborhood solar collectors, wind-driven heat pumps, a factory, a pyrolyzer, a geothermal well, or whatever else becomes locally available—offering flexibility that is not possible at today's excessive scale.

Both transitional and soft technologies are worthwhile industrial investments that can recycle moribund capacity and underused skills, stimulate exports, and give engaging problems to innovative technologists. Though neither glamorous nor militarily useful, these technologies are socially effective—especially in poor countries that need such scale, versatility and simplicity even more than we do.

Properly used, coal, conservation, and soft technologies together can squeeze the "oil and gas" wedge in Figure 2 from both sides—so far that most of the frontier extraction and medium-term imports of oil and gas become unnecessary and our conventional resources are greatly stretched. Coal can fill the real gaps in our fuel economy with only a temporary and modest (less than twofold at peak) expansion of mining, not requiring the enormous infrastructure and social impacts implied by the scale of coal use in Figure 1.

In sum, Figure 2 outlines a prompt redirection of effort at the margin that lets us use fossil fuels intelligently to buy the time we need to change over to living on our energy income. The innovations required, both technical and social, compete directly and immediately with the incremental actions that constitute a hard energy path: fluidized beds vs. large coal gasification plants and coal-electric stations, efficient cars vs. offshore oil, roof insulation vs. Arctic gas, cogeneration vs. nuclear power. These two directions of development are mutually exclusive: the pattern of commitments of resources and time required for the hard energy path and the pervasive infrastructure which it accretes gradually make the soft path less and less attainable. That is, our two sets of choices compete not only in what they accomplish, but also in what they allow us to contemplate later. Figure i obscures this constriction of options, for it peers myopically forward, one power station at a time, extrapolating trend into destiny by self-fulfilling prophecy with no end clearly in sight. Figure 2, in contrast, works backward from a strategic goal, asks what we must do when in order to get there, and thus reveals the potential for a radically different path that would be invisible to anyone working forward in time by incremental ad-hocracy.


Both the soft and the hard paths bring us, each in its own way and at broadly similar rates, to the era beyond oil and gas. But the rates of internal adaptation meanwhile are different. As we have seen, the soft path relies on smaller, far simpler supply systems entailing vastly shorter development and construction time, and on smaller, less sophisticated management systems. Even converting the urban clusters of a whole country to district heating should take only 30-40 years. Furthermore, the soft path relies mainly on small, standard, easy-to-make components and on technical resources dispersed in many organizations of diverse sizes and habits; thus everyone can get into the act, unimpeded by centralized bureaucracies, and can compete for a market share through ingenuity and local adaptation. Besides having much lower and more stable operating costs than the hard path, the soft path appears to have lower initial cost because of its technical simplicity, small unit size, very low overheads, scope for mass production, virtual elimination of distribution losses and of interfuel conversion losses, low exposure to escalation and interest, and prompt incremental construction (so that new capacity is built only when and where it is needed).[29]

The actual costs of whole systems, however, are not the same as perceived costs: solar investments are borne by the householder, electric investments by a utility that can float low-interest bonds and amortize over 30 years. During the transitional era, we should therefore consider ways to broaden householders' access to capital markets. For example, the utility could finance the solar investment (leaving its execution to the householder's discretion), then be repaid in installments corresponding to the householder's saving. The householder would thus minimize his own—and society's—long-term costs. The utility would have to raise several times less capital than it would without such a scheme-for otherwise it would have to build new electric or synthetic-gas capacity at even higher cost—and would turn over its money at least twice as quickly, thus retaining an attractive rate of return on capital. The utility would also avoid social obsolescence and use its existing infrastructure. Such incentives have already led several U.S. gas utilities to use such a capital-transfer scheme to finance roof insulation.

Next, the two paths differ even more in risks than in costs. The hard path entails serious environmental risks, many of which are poorly understood and some of which have probably not yet been thought of. Perhaps the most awkward risk is that late in this century, when it is too late to do much about it, we may well find climatic constraints on coal combustion about to become acute in a few more decades: for it now takes us only that long, not centuries or millennia, to approach such outer limits. The soft path, by minimizing all fossil-fuel combustion, hedges our bets. Its environmental impacts are relatively small, tractable and reversible.[30]

The hard path, further, relies on a very few high technologies whose success is by no means assured. The soft path distributes the technical risk among very many diverse low technologies, most of which are already known to work well. They do need sound engineering—a solar collector or heat pump can be worthless if badly designed—but the engineering is of an altogether different and more forgiving order than the hard path requires, and the cost of failure is much lower both in potential consequences and in number of people affected. The soft path also minimizes the economic risks to capital in case of error, accident or sabotage; the hard path effectively maximizes those risks by relying on vulnerable high-technology devices each costing more than the endowment of Harvard University. Finally, the soft path appears generally more flexible—and thus robust. Its technical diversity, adaptability, and geographic dispersion make it resilient and offer a good prospect of stability under a wide range of conditions, foreseen or not. The hard path, however, is brittle; it must fail, with widespread and serious disruption, if any of its exacting technical and social conditions is not satisfied continuously and indefinitely.


The soft path has novel and important international implications. Just as improvements in end-use efficiency can be used at home (via innovative financing and neighborhood self-help schemes) to lessen first the disproportionate burden of energy waste on the poor, so can soft technologies and reduced pressure on oil markets especially benefit the poor abroad. Soft technologies are ideally suited for rural villagers and urban poor alike, directly helping the more than two billion people who have no electric outlet nor anything to plug into it but who need ways to heat, cook, light and pump. Soft technologies do not carry with them inappropriate cultural patterns or values; they capitalize on poor countries' most abundant resources (including such protein-poor plants as cassava, eminently suited to making fuel alcohols), helping to redress the severe energy imbalance between temperate and tropical regions; they can often be made locally from local materials and do not require a technical elite to maintain them; they resist technological dependence and commercial monopoly; they conform to modern concepts of agriculturally based eco-development from the bottom up, particularly in the rural villages.

Even more crucial, unilateral adoption of a soft energy path by the United States can go a long way to control nuclear proliferation—perhaps to eliminate it entirely. Many nuclear advocates have missed this point: believing that there is no alternative to nuclear power, they say that if the United States does not export nuclear technology, others will, so we might as well get the business and try to use it as a lever to slow the inevitable spread of nuclear weapons to nations and sub-national groups in other regions. Yet the genie is not wholly out of the bottle yet—thousands of reactors are planned for a few decades hence, tens of thousands thereafter—and the cork sits unnoticed in our hands.

Perhaps the most important opportunity available to us stems from the fact that for at least the next five or ten years, while nuclear dependence and commitments are still reversible, all countries will continue to rely on the United States for the technical, the economic, and especially the political support they need to justify their own nuclear programs. Technical and economic dependence is intricate and pervasive; political dependence is far more important but has been almost ignored, so we do not yet realize the power of the American example in an essentially imitative world where public and private divisions over nuclear policy are already deep and grow deeper daily.

The fact is that in almost all countries the domestic political base to support nuclear power is not solid but shaky. However great their nuclear ambitions, other countries must still borrow that political support from the United States. Few are succeeding. Nuclear expansion is all but halted by grass-roots opposition in Japan and the Netherlands; has been severely impeded in West Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria; has been slowed and may soon be stopped in Sweden; has been rejected in Norway and (so far) Australia and New Zealand, as well as in two Canadian Provinces; faces an uncertain prospect in Denmark and many American states; has been widely questioned in Britain, Canada and the U.S.S.R.[31]; and has been opposed in Spain, Brazil, India, Thailand and elsewhere.

Consider the impact of three prompt, clear U.S. statements:

—The United States will phase out its nuclear power program[32] and its support of others' nuclear power programs.

—The United States will redirect those resources into the tasks of a soft energy path and will freely help any other interested countries to do the same, seeking to adapt the same broad principles to others' needs and to learn from shared experience.

—The United States will start to treat nonproliferation, control of civilian fission technology, and strategic arms reduction as interrelated parts of the same problem with intertwined solutions.

I believe that such a universal, nondiscriminatory package of policies would be politically irresistible to North and South, East and West alike. It would offer perhaps our best chance of transcending the hypocrisy that has stalled arms control: by no longer artificially divorcing civilian from military nuclear technology, we would recognize officially the real driving forces behind proliferation; and we would no longer exhort others not to acquire bombs while claiming that we ourselves feel more secure with bombs than without them.

Nobody can be certain that such a package of policies, going far beyond a mere moratorium, would work. The question has received far too little thought, and political judgments differ. My own, based on the past nine years' residence in the midst of the European nuclear debate, is that nuclear power could not flourish there if the United States did not want it to.[33] In giving up the export market that our own reactor designs have dominated, we would be demonstrating a desire for peace, not profit, thus allaying legitimate European commercial suspicions. Those who believe such a move would be seized upon gleefully by, say, French exporters are seriously misjudging French nuclear politics. Skeptics, too, have yet to present a more promising alternative—a credible set of technical and political measures for meticulously restricting to peaceful purposes extremely large amounts of bomb materials which, once generated, will persist for the foreseeable lifetime of our species.

I am confident that the United States can still turn off the technology that it originated and deployed. By rebottling that genie we could move to energy and foreign policies that our grandchildren can live with. No more important step could be taken toward revitalizing the American dream.


Perhaps the most profound difference between the soft and hard paths is their domestic sociopolitical impact. Both paths, like any 50-year energy path, entail significant social change. But the kinds of social change needed for a hard path are apt to be much less pleasant, less plausible, less compatible with social diversity and personal freedom of choice, and less consistent with traditional values than are the social changes that could make a soft path work.

It is often said that, on the contrary, a soft path must be repressive; and coercive paths to energy conservation and soft technologies can indeed be imagined. But coercion is not necessary and its use would signal a major failure of imagination, given the many policy instruments available to achieve a given technical end. Why use penal legislation to encourage roof insulation when tax incentives and education (leading to the sophisticated public understanding now being achieved in Canada and parts of Europe) will do? Policy tools need not harm life-styles or liberties if chosen with reasonable sensitivity.

In contrast to the soft path's dependence on pluralistic consumer choice in deploying a myriad of small devices and refinements, the hard path depends on difficult, large-scale projects requiring a major social commitment under centralized management. We have noted in Section II the extraordinary capital intensity of centralized, electrified high technologies. Their similarly heavy demands on other scarce resources—skills, labor, materials, special sites—likewise cannot be met by market allocation, but require compulsory diversion from whatever priorities are backed by the weakest constituencies. Quasi-warpowers legislation to this end has already been seriously proposed. The hard path, sometimes portrayed as the bastion of free enterprise and free markets, would instead be a world of subsidies, $100-billion bailouts, oligopolies, regulations, nationalization, eminent domain, corporate statism.

Such dirigiste autarchy is the first of many distortions of the political fabric. While soft technologies can match any settlement pattern, their diversity reflecting our own pluralism, centralized energy sources encourage industrial clustering and urbanization. While soft technologies give everyone the costs and benefits of the energy system he chooses, centralized systems allocate benefits to surburbanites and social costs to politically weaker rural agrarians. Siting big energy systems pits central authority against local autonomy in an increasingly divisive and wasteful form of centrifugal politics that is already proving one of the most potent constraints on expansion.

In an electrical world, your lifeline comes not from an understandable neighborhood technology run by people you know who are at your own social level, but rather from an alien, remote, and perhaps humiliatingly uncontrollable technology run by a faraway, bureaucratized, technical elite who have probably never heard of you. Decisions about who shall have how much energy at what price also become centralized—a politically dangerous trend because it divides those who use energy from those who supply and regulate it.

The scale and complexity of centralized grids not only make them politically inaccessible to the poor and weak, but also increase the likelihood and size of malfunctions, mistakes and deliberate disruptions. A small fault or a few discontented people become able to turn off a country. Even a single rifleman can probably black out a typical city instantaneously. Societies may therefore be tempted to discourage disruption through stringent controls akin to a garrison state. In times of social stress, when grids become a likely target for dissidents, the sector may be paramilitarized and further isolated from grass-roots politics.

If the technology used, like nuclear power, is subject to technical surprises and unique psychological handicaps, prudence or public clamor may require generic shutdowns in case of an unexpected type of malfunction: one may have to choose between turning off a country and persisting in potentially unsafe operation. Indeed, though many in the $100-billion quasi-civilian nuclear industry agree that it could be politically destroyed if a major accident occurred soon, few have considered the economic or political implications of putting at risk such a large fraction of societal capital. How far would governments go to protect against a threat—even a purely political threat—a basket full of such delicate, costly and essential eggs? Already in individual nuclear plants, the cost of a shutdown—often many dollars a second—weighs heavily, perhaps too heavily, in operating and safety decisions.

Any demanding high technology tends to develop influential and dedicated constituencies of those who link its commercial success with both the public welfare and their own. Such sincerely held beliefs, peer pressures, and the harsh demands that the work itself places on time and energy all tend to discourage such people from acquiring a similarly thorough knowledge of alternative policies and the need to discuss them. Moreover, the money and talent invested in an electrical program tend to give it disproportionate influence in the counsels of government, often directly through staff-swapping between policy- and mission-oriented agencies. This incestuous position, now well developed in most industrial countries, distorts both social and energy priorities in a lasting way that resists political remedy.

For all these reasons, if nuclear power were clean, safe, economic, assured of ample fuel, and socially benign per se, it would still be unattractive because of the political implications of the kind of energy economy it would lock us into. But fission technology also has unique sociopolitical side-effects arising from the impact of human fallibility and malice on the persistently toxic and explosive materials in the fuel cycle. For example, discouraging nuclear violence and coercion requires some abrogation of civil liberties[34]; guarding long-lived wastes against geological or social contingencies implies some form of hierarchical social rigidity or homogeneity to insulate the technological priesthood from social turbulence; and making political decisions about nuclear hazards which are compulsory, remote from social experience, disputed, unknown, or unknowable, may tempt governments to bypass democratic decision in favor of elitist technocracy.[35]

Even now, the inability of our political institutions to cope with nuclear hazard is straining both their competence and their perceived legitimacy. There is no scientific basis for calculating the likelihood or the maximum long-term effects of nuclear mishaps, or for guaranteeing that those effects will not exceed a particular level; we know only that all precautions are, for fundamental reasons, inherently imperfect in essentially unknown degree. Reducing that imperfection would require much social engineering whose success would be speculative. Technical success in reducing the hazards would not reduce, and might enhance, the need for such social engineering. The most attractive political feature of soft technologies and conservation—the alternatives that will let us avoid these decisions and their high political costs—may be that, like motherhood, everyone is in favor of them.


Civilization in this country, according to some, would be inconceivable if we used only, say, half as much electricity as now. But that is what we did use in 1963, when we were at least half as civilized as now. What would life be like at the per capita levels of primary energy that we had in 1910 (about the present British level) but with doubled efficiency of energy use and with the important but not very energy-intensive amenities we lacked in 1910, such as telecommunications and modern medicine? Could it not be at least as agreeable as life today? Since the energy needed today to produce a unit of GNP varies more than 100-fold depending on what good or service is being produced, and since GNP in turn hardly measures social welfare, why must energy and welfare march forever in lockstep? Such questions today can be neither answered nor ignored.

Underlying energy choices are real but tacit choices of personal values. Those that make a high-energy society work are all too apparent. Those that could sustain life-styles of elegant frugality are not new; they are in the attic and could be dusted off and recycled. Such values as thrift, simplicity, diversity, neighborliness, humility and craftsmanship—perhaps most closely preserved in politically conservative communities—are already, as we see from the ballot box and the census, embodied in a substantial social movement, camouflaged by its very pervasiveness. Offered the choice freely and equitably, many people would choose, as Herman Daly puts it, "growth in things that really count rather than in things that are merely countable": choose not to transform, in Duane Elgin's phrase, "a rational concern for material well-being into an obsessive concern for unconscionable levels of material consumption."

Indeed, we are learning that many of the things we had taken to be the benefits of affluence are really remedial costs, incurred in the pursuit of benefits that might be obtainable in other ways without those costs. Thus much of our prized personal mobility is really involuntary traffic made necessary by the settlement patterns which cars create. Is that traffic a cost or a benefit?

Pricked by such doubts, our inflated craving for consumer ephemerals is giving way to a search for both personal and public purpose, to reexamination of the legitimacy of the industrial ethic. In the new age of scarcity, our ingenious strivings to substitute abstract (therefore limitless) wants for concrete (therefore reasonably bounded) needs no longer seem so virtuous. But where we used to accept unquestioningly the facile (and often self-serving) argument that traditional economic growth and distributional equity are inseparable, new moral and humane stirrings now are nudging us. We can now ask whether we are not already so wealthy that further growth, far from being essential to addressing our equity problems, is instead an excuse not to mobilize the compassion and commitment that could solve the same problems with or without the growth.

Finally, as national purpose and trust in institutions diminish, governments, striving to halt the drift, seek ever more outward control. We are becoming more uneasily aware of the nascent risk of what a Stanford Research Institute group has called ". . . 'friendly fascism'—a managed society which rules by a faceless and widely dispersed complex of warfare-welfare-industrial-communications-police bureaucracies with a technocratic ideology." In the sphere of politics as of personal values, could many strands of observable social change be converging on a profound cultural transformation whose implications we can only vaguely sense: one in which energy policy, as an integrating principle, could be catalytic?[36]

It is not my purpose here to resolve such questions—only to stress their relevance. Though fuzzy and unscientific, they are the beginning and end of any energy policy. Making values explicit is essential to preserving a society in which diversity of values can flourish.

Some people suppose that a soft energy path entails mainly social problems, a hard path mainly technical problems, so that since in the past we have been better at solving the technical problems, that is the kind we should prefer to incur now. But the hard path, too, involves difficult social problems. We can no longer escape them; we must choose which kinds of social problems we want. The most important, difficult, and neglected questions of energy strategy are not mainly technical or economic but rather social and ethical. They will pose a supreme challenge to the adaptability of democratic institutions and to the vitality of our spiritual life.


These choices may seem abstract, but they are sharp, imminent and practical. We stand at a crossroads: without decisive action our options will slip away. Delay in energy conservation lets wasteful use run on so far that the logistical problems of catching up become insuperable. Delay in widely deploying diverse soft technologies pushes them so far into the future that there is no longer a credible fossil-fuel bridge to them: they must be well under way before the worst part of the oil-and-gas decline. Delay in building the fossil-fuel bridge makes it too tenuous: what the sophisticated coal technologies can give us, in particular, will no longer mesh with our pattern of transitional needs as oil and gas dwindle.

Yet these kinds of delay are exactly what we can expect if we continue to devote so much money, time, skill, fuel and political will to the hard technologies that are so demanding of them. Enterprises like nuclear power are not only unnecessary but a positive encumbrance for they prevent us, through logistical competition and cultural incompatibility, from pursuing the tasks of a soft path at a high enough priority to make them work together properly. A hard path can make the attainment of a soft path prohibitively difficult, both by starving its components into garbled and incoherent fragments and by changing social structures and values in a way that makes the innovations of a soft path more painful to envisage and to achieve. As a nation, therefore, we must choose one path before they diverge much further. Indeed, one of the infinite variations on a soft path seems inevitable, either smoothly by choice now or disruptively by necessity later; and I fear that if we do not soon make the choice, growing tensions between rich and poor countries may destroy the conditions that now make smooth attainment of a soft path possible.

These conditions will not be repeated. Some people think we can use oil and gas to bridge to a coal and fission economy, then use that later, if we wish, to bridge to similarly costly technologies in the hazy future. But what if the bridge we are now on is the last one? Our past major transitions in energy supply were smooth because we subsidized them with cheap fossil fuels. Now our new energy supplies are ten or a hundred times more capital-intensive and will stay that way. If our future capital is generated by economic activity fueled by synthetic gas at $25 a barrel-equivalent, nuclear electricity at $60-120 a barrel-equivalent, and the like, and if the energy sector itself requires much of that capital just to maintain itself, will capital still be as cheap and plentiful as it is now, or will we have fallen into a "capital trap"? Wherever we make our present transition to, once we arrive we may be stuck there for a long time. Thus if neither the soft nor the hard path were preferable on cost or other grounds, we would still be wise to use our remaining cheap fossil fuels—sparingly—to finance a transition as nearly as possible straight to our ultimate energy-income sources. We shall not have another chance to get there.


1 In this essay the proportions assigned to the components of the two paths are only indicative and illustrative. More exact computations, now being done by several groups in the United States and abroad (notably the interim [autumn 1976] and forthcoming final [1976-1977] reports of the energy study of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, Mass.), involve a level of technical detail which, though an essential next step, may deflect attention from fundamental concepts. This article will accordingly seek technical realism without rigorous precision or completeness. Its aim is to try to bring some modest synthesis to the enormous flux and ferment of current energy thinking around the world. Much of the credit (though none of the final responsibility) must go to the many energy strategists whose insight and excitement they have generously shared and whose ideas I have shamelessly recycled without explicit citation. Only the limitations of space keep me from acknowledging by name the 70-odd contributors, in many countries, who come especially to mind.

2 The foregoing data are from M. Carasso et al., The Energy Supply Planning Model, PB-245 382 and PB-245 383, National Technical Information Service (Springfield, Va.), Bechtel Corp. report to the National Science Foundation (NSF), August 1975. The figures assume the production goals of the 1975 State of the Union Message. Indirect labor requirements are calculated by C. W. Bullard and D. A. Pilati, CAC Document 178 (September 1975), Center for Advanced Computation, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

3 I. C. Bupp and R. Treitel, "The Economics of Nuclear Power: De Omnibus Dubitandum," 1976 (available from Professor Bupp, Harvard Business School).

4 Computation concerning waste heat and projections to 2000 are based on data in the 1975 Energy Research and Development Administration Plan (ERDA-48).

5 B. Bolin, "Energy and Climate," Secretariat for Future Studies (Fack, S-103 10 Stockholm); S. H. Schneider and R. D. Dennett, Ambio 4, 2:65-74 (1975); S. H. Schneider, The Genesis Strategy, New York: Plenum, 1976; W. W. Kellogg and S. H. Schneider, Science 186:1163-72 (1974).

6 Figure 1 shows only nonagricultural energy. Yet the sunlight participating in photosynthesis in our harvested crops is comparable to our total use of nonagricultural energy, while the sunlight falling on all U.S. croplands and grazing lands is about 25 times the nonagricultural energy. By any measure, sunlight is the largest single energy input to the U.S. economy today.

7 The capital costs for frontier fluids and for electrical systems can be readily calculated from the data base of the Bechtel model (footnote 2 above). The electrical examples are worked out in my "Scale, Centralization and Electrification in Energy Systems," Future Strategies of Energy Development symposium, Oak Ridge Associated Universities, October 20-21, 1976.

8 The Bechtel model, using 1974 dollars and assuming ordering in early 1974, estimates direct construction costs totaling $559 billion, including work that is in progress but not yet commissioned in 1985. Interest, design and administration-but not land, nor escalation beyond the GNP inflation rate-bring the total to $743 billion. Including the cost of land, and correcting to a 1976 ordering date and 1976 dollars, is estimated by M. Carasso to yield over $1 trillion.

9 M. Carasso et al., op. cit.

10 E. Kahn et al., "Investment Planning in the Energy Sector," LBL-4479, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif., March 1, 1976.

11 American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings No. 25, Efficient Use of Energy, New York: AIP, 1975; summarized in Physics Today, August 1975.

12 M. Ross and R. H. Williams, "Assessing the Potential for Fuel Conservation," forthcoming in Technology Review; see also L. Schipper, Annual Review of Energy 1: 455-518 (1976).

13 L. Schipper and A. J. Lichtenberg, "Efficient Energy Use and Well-Being: The Swedish Example," LBL-4430 and ERG-76-09, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, April 1976.

14 R. L. Goen and R. K. White, "Comparison of Energy Consumption Between West Germany and the United States," Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, Calif., June 1975.

15 A. D. Little, Inc., "An Impact Assessment of ASHRAE Standard 90-75," report to FEA, C-78309, December 1975; J. E. Snell et al. (National Bureau of Standards), "Energy Conservation in Office Buildings: Some United States Examples," International CIB Symposium on Energy Conservation in the Built Environment (Building Research Establishment, Garston, Watford, England), April 1976; Owens-Corning-Fiberglas, "The Arkansas Story," 1975.

16 P. W. McCracken et al., Industrial Energy Center Study, Dow Chemical Co. et al., report to NSF, PB-243 824, National Technical Information Service (Springfield, Va.), June 1975. Extensive cogeneration studies for FEA are in progress at Thermo-Electron Corp., Waltham, Mass. A pathfinding June 1976 study by R. H. Williams (Center for Environmental Studies, Princeton University) for the N.J. Cabinet Energy Committee argues that the Dow report substantially underestimates cogeneration potential.

17 Ross and Williams, op. cit.

18 A calculation for Canada supports this view: A.B. Lovins, Conserver Society Notes, (Science Council of Canada, Ottowa), May/June 1976, pp. 3-16. Technical fixes already approved in principle by the Canadian Cabinet should hold approximately constant until 1990 the energy required for the transport, commercial and house-heating sectors; sustaining similar measures to 2025 is estimated to shrink per capita primary energy to about half today's level. Plausible social changes are estimated to yield a further halving. The Canadian and U.S. energy systems have rather similar structures. 

19 The scale of potential conservation in this area is given in Ross and Williams, op. cit.; the scale of potential cogeneration capacity is from McCracken et al., op. cit.

20 Assuming (which is still not certain) that controlled nuclear fusion works, it will almost certainly be more difficult, complex and costly-though safer and perhaps more permanently fueled-than fast breeder reactors. See W. D. Metz, Science 192:1320-23 (1976), 193:38-40, 76 (1976), and 193:307-309 (1976). But for three reasons we ought not to pursue fusion. First, it generally produces copious fast neutrons that can and probably would be used to make bomb materials. Second, if it turns out to be rather "dirty," as most fusion experts expect, we shall probably use it anyway, whereas if it is clean, we shall so overuse it that the resulting heat release will alter global climate: we should prefer energy sources that give us enough for our needs while denying us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we might do mischief to the earth or to each other. Third, fusion is a clever way to do something we don't really want to do, namely to find yet another complex, costly, large-scale, centralized, high-technology way to make electricity—all of which goes in the wrong direction.

21 Partly or wholly solar heating is attractive and is being demonstrated even in cloudy countries approaching the latitude of Anchorage, such as Denmark and the Netherlands (International CIB Symposium, op. cit.) and Britain (Solar Energy: A U.K. Assessment, International Solar Energy Society, London, May 1976).

22 Solar heating cost is traditionally computed microeconomically for a consumer whose alternative fuels are not priced at long-run marginal cost. Another method would be to compare the total cost (capital and life-cycle) of the solar system with the total cost of the other complete systems that would otherwise have to be used in the long run to heat the same space. On that basis, 100 percent solar heating, even with twice the capital cost of two-thirds or three-fourths solar heating, is almost always advantageous.

23 R. W. Bliss, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1976, pp. 32-40. 

24 A. D. Poole and R. H. Williams, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1976, pp. 48-58.

25 For examples, see the Canadian computations in A. B. Lovins, Conserver Society Notes, op. cit.; Bent Sørensen's Danish estimates in Science 189:225-60 (1975); and the estimates by the Union of Concerned Scientists, footnote 1 above.

26 The system and its conceptual framework are described in several papers by H. Harboe, Managing Director, Stal-Laval (G.B.) Ltd., London: "District Heating and Power Generation," November 14, 1975; "Advances in Coal Combustion and Its Applications," February 20, 1976; "Pressurized Fluidized Bed Combustion with Special Reference to Open Gas Turbines" (with C. W. Maude), May 1976. See also K. D. Kiang et al., "Fluidized-Bed Combustion of Coals," GFERC/IC-75/2 (CONF-750586), ERDA, May 1975.

27 Small devices were pioneered by the late Professor Douglas Elliott. His associated firm, Fluidfire Development, Ltd. (Netherton, Dudley, W. Midlands, England), has sold many dozens of units for industrial heat treatment or heat recuperation. Field tests of domestic packaged fluidized-bed boilers are in progress in the Netherlands and planned in Montana.

28 Already Linköping, Sweden, is evaluating bids from several confident vendors for a 15-megawatt fluidized-bed boiler to add to its district heating system. New reviews at the Institute for Energy Analysis and elsewhere confirm fluidized beds' promise of rapid benefits without massive research programs.

29 Estimates of the total capital cost of "soft" systems are necessarily less well developed than those for the "hard" systems. For 100-percent solar space heating, one of the high-priority soft technologies, mid-1980s estimates are about $50,000-$60,000 (1976 dollars) of investment per daily oil-barrel-equivalent in the United States, $100,000 in Scandinavia. All solar cost estimates, however, depend sensitively on collector and building design, both under rapid development. In most new buildings, passive solar systems with negligible or negative marginal capital costs should suffice. For biomass conversion, the 1974 FEA Solar Task Force estimated capital costs of $10,000-$30,000 per daily barrel equivalent-toward the lower part of this range for most agricultural projects. Currently available wind-electric systems require total-system investment as high as about $200,000 per delivered daily barrel, with much improvement in store. As for transitional technologies, the Stal-Laval fluidized-bed gas-turbine system, complete with district-heating network and heat-pumps (coefficient of performance = 2), would cost about $30,000 per delivered daily barrel equivalent. See Lovins, op. cit., footnote 7.

30 See A. B. Lovins, "Long-Term Constraints on Human Activity," Environmental Conservation 3, 1:3-14 (1976) (Geneva); "Some Limits to Energy Conversion," Limits to Growth 1975 Conference (The Woodlands, Texas), October 20, 1975 (to be published in conference papers). The environmental and social impacts of solar technologies are being assessed in a study coordinated by J. W. Benson (ERDA Solar Division), to be completed autumn 1976.

31 Recent private reports indicate the Soviet scientific community is deeply split over the wisdom of nuclear expansion. See also Nucleonics Week, May 13, 1976, pp. 12-13. 

32 Current overcapacity, capacity under construction, and the potential for rapid conservation and cogeneration make this a relatively painless course, whether nuclear generation is merely frozen or phased out altogether. For an illustration (the case of California), see R. Doctor et al., Sierra Club Bulletin, May 1976, pp. 4ff. I believe the same is true abroad. See Introduction to Non-Nuclear Futures by A. B. Lovins and J. H. Price, Cambridge, Mass.: FOE/Ballinger, 1975. 

33 See Nucleonics Week, May 6, 1976, p. 7, and I. C. Bupp and J.-C. Derian, "Nuclear Reactor Safety: The Twilight of Probability," December 1975. Bupp, after a detailed study of European nuclear politics, shares this assessment.

34 R. Ayres, 10 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Spring 1975, pp. 369-443; J. H. Barton, "Intensified Nuclear Safeguards and Civil Liberties," report to USNRC, Stanford Law School, October 21, 1975.  

35 H. P. Green, 43 George Washington Law Review, March 1975, pp. 791-807.

36 W. W. Harman, An Incomplete Guide to the Future, Stanford Alumni Association, 1976.

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  • AMORY B. LOVINS, a consultant physicist, is British Representative of Friends of the Earth, Inc. His latest books are World Energy Strategies: Facts, Issues, and Options and (with Dr. J. H. Price) Non-Nuclear Futures: The Case for an Ethical Energy Strategy.
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