Fossil Fuel Switch

Fossil Fuel Switch

How much would it cost to quit fossil fuels cold turkey? A new study puts a price tag on it.


A fossil-fuel phaseout plan. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Many plans to eliminate fossil fuels depend on developing new energy technologies. But we don't have to wait for that, according to chemical engineer Reuel Shinnar of the City University of New York. He and Francesco Citro recently published a thirty-year plan to replace 70 percent of our fossil fuels, using only current technologies like storable solar power, safer nuclear plants, and methanol from crop waste.

Reuel Shinnar:

Because as a researcher, I have always believed that if you have to solve a problem, you have to use what you have. And to my surprise, I found we have it.

He says the switch would cost about 200 billion dollars a year. It's not pocket change, but it's less than half the current defense budget and doesn't factor in savings from reducing fossil fuel imports, pollution, and global warming. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Fossil fuels pollute the environment and contribute to global warming. Our dependence on oil keeps us politically and militarily entangled in the Middle East, which many people feel contributes to terrorism. Fossil fuels are also finite: Earth has only so much of each kind, and sooner or later we're going to run out.

Yet today, 85 percent of the United States' energy still comes from fossil fuels. So why don't we stop using them? There are many reasons. One of them is habit: we're simply used to using them and it's hard to make a radical change. Another is infrastructure: our energy plants, cars, planes, and other technologies are set up to run on fossil fuels. (For example, just think how many gas stations there are in the country.) Generally speaking, it's also cheaper in the short term to use fossil fuels than to switch to some other technology. Finally, the fossil fuel industry has a lot of political power and it undoubtedly influences national energy policy.

Often, when politicians do introduce initiatives to replace fossil fuels, much of the money goes to developing new energy technologies. In contrast, Shinnar and Citro decided to find out what we could do with the technology and power grid that we already have. They focused on several potential sources:

  • Concentrated solar thermal power: This is a technology that allows solar energy to be stored. The authors suggest exploiting this technology much more in order to meet the nation's energy needs.
  • Nuclear energy: Nuclear power is controversial for many reasons, including the challenge of disposing of toxic waste, and the potential vulnerability of nuclear power plants to devastating accidents or terrorist attacks. However, nuclear energy does provide a lot of power, doesn't pollute the air, and doesn't rely on fossil fuels. The authors note that new nuclear plants could be built according to safer designs that have recently been developed.
  • Geothermal and hydroelectric plants: These technologies harness the power of hot water or steam from beneath the surface of the earth, or running water, respectively. The output from these sources is limited.
  • Wind: Wind provides clean, renewable energy, but its output is limited and it generally cannot be stored.
  • Solar cells: Conventional solar panels that do not store energy.
  • Biomass: Organic waste, such as dead trees, wood chips, and grass clippings, which can be used to generate various fuels, including ethanol, methanol, and burnable gas.

Using these sources, the authors concluded that we can actually replace 98 percent of our fossil fuels with either electricity from alternative sources or alternative fuels from biomass. The 70 percent goal is just a goal that they set. Their specific suggestions include retrofitting existing coal and steam plants with concentrated solar thermal power cells, switching to hybrid cars with rechargeable batteries, and converting agricultural waste to methanol and ethanol using alternative sources of electricity. Shinnar and Citro also advocate switching from fossil fuels gradually over a 30-year-period, rather than trying to change everything all at once. The key difference between their plan and other long-term plans is that it could start right now.

As for the price tag, $170 to $200 billion per year for 30 years sounds steep. But to put that in perspective, compare that to some estimated costs for the 2007 federal budget: $537 billion for defense; $687 billion for health and human services, $622 billion for Social Security. Also, as the report says, the $170 to $200 billion figure is just a gross total; it doesn't deduct savings that would result from the switch. It's difficult to calculate exactly what those savings would be, but Shinnar argues that the switch would pay for itself and then some. Still, the idea of adding such a large line-item to the federal budget is a very tough sell politically—so whether or not changes like these are implemented depends on a lot more than just science. Now try and answer these questions:


  1. What was the goal of Shinnar and Citro's study?
  2. What sources of alternative energy do they propose as replacements for fossil fuels?
  3. Why do you think they offered an estimate for replacing 70 percent of fossil fuels, when it's possible to replace 98 percent?
  4. What challenges might scientists like Shinnar and Citro face in trying to estimate the cost of such a broad proposal? How and why might other scientists' cost estimates differ?
  5. Do you think the proposal is worth it? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the October 20, 2006 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: the truth about star naming, a practical plan for getting rid of fossil fuels, imitating gecko feet, worms in your diet, and why we have a bias against foreigners.

For Educators

The National Geographic Xpeditions lesson The Great Energy Debate explores the controversial issues surrounding the energy debate in the United States.

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