WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 16, 2012) -- It's a question everyone's heard more than once, paper or plastic? If the right response is the environmentally responsible one, which would it be?
The answer is actually canvas.
The point Michael Webber, Ph.D., made during his lecture May 10, at Robinson Auditorium was when it comes to energy, not everything is easily answerable or easily solved. For that matter, there's both good and bad in many of the choices made both personally and as a nation with the largest consumers of energy on the planet.
Webber visited West Point from the University of Texas at Austin where he's teaching the next generation of energy leaders as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the Center of International Energy and Environmental Policy.
"In the case of paper or plastic, the answer is never that simple, and this is the example I use on how I think about energy," Webber said. "As we contemplate our energy options, we in the U.S. have to balance three different priorities."
The first is economic prosperity -- a good supply at the right price; the second is national security -- an energy policy that does not foster anti-American agendas; and third -- energy choices that do not compromise the environment.
The choices that satisfy all three goals are fairly minimal.
"The majority of options can satisfy one or two of those goals, but not all three. That's the challenge for us," Webber said.
Webber used coal as his first example, a fuel source in which there is an abundant supply in the U.S. at an affordable price. The trade-off is the environment. For the most part, nuclear energy is cheap, clean and available, plus the technological opportunities are attractive. The trade-off is long-term waste storage problems and the risk of weapons proliferation and public safety issues.
Oil is king in the U.S., as it is in the rest of the world, Webber said, though the world uses a little less petroleum and a little more coal and renewable energy.
"So the good news is we share the world's challenges with energy, which means we have opportunities for partnerships to solve it," Webber said. "The difference being, we consume a fifth of the world's energy even though we're three percent of the world's population."
If the bad news is the U.S. consumes 20 percent of the world's energy, what's worse is we generate 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent of the world's trash.
Webber offered his best guess on future trends and shifts in energy. He said energy will get smarter, cleaner and it will be self-fueled for transportation. What it will take to get there is energy efficiency, conservation, reducing waste, better markets and policy and fuel switching.
Trends for natural gas look positive, he said, but it also has water quality risks -- contamination -- if used improperly. It could also negatively affect air quality -- leaks.
His prediction is that within two decades, natural gas will overtake petroleum as America's dominant energy source.
There are also great opportunities, he said, in turning waste streams into energy, like waste water, agricultural and municipal solid waste, unrecycled plastics and food waste. Webber said more must be done to harvest waste heat.
There is plenty of room for innovation, but he said future technology takes longer to deploy than one would imagine. According to Apple, three million iPad 3 tablets were sold in the four days following its March 16 release.
Webber said it takes three decades in the energy world to get even a one percent market share. Webber made these comparisons not to be discouraging, but rather to present a realistic portrait of today's energy technologies. Silver bullets and breakthroughs are rare, he said, and the last one produced the atomic bomb.
The initial response to Webber's appearance on stage was raucous, and even the visiting professor was taken aback by such fanfare. It helped that his audience was largely from the Class of 2015, which is only days away from the conclusion of their first year at West Point.
Applause and cheers aside, the cadets enrolled in the core chemistry course said they were impressed by what Webber had to say.
"I knew energy was going to be crucial in the next few decades, but I was surprised by his solution," Class of 2015 Cadet Jeffrey Powers said. "Mostly what I hear from the media or various online sources is that solar power is the only way to go for the foreseeable future, whereas Dr. Webber was pushing strongly for natural gas. It was a view that I had not been exposed to previously."
The idea that the future is all doom and gloom toward energy is not accurate, Powers learned.
"If we get more people educated on the entire problem and all of the solutions (instead of just the ones that are seen and discussed frequently in our culture), then not only can the U.S. remove its dependence on foreign oil, but also become a major exporter of natural gas, which would boost our economy significantly," he said.
Webber concluded his lecture in front of a giant projection of the old "I want you" Uncle Sam poster, asking cadets to rise to the challenge of joining the next generation of energy leadership.
"We really need you. We need new energy leadership. The way I see it, this is your generation's Cold War," Webber said. "It's going to take decades to solve this, but in 30 years, 40 years, we're going to look back and say, 'Those cadets did it. They figured it out for us.' That's what we need from you, and I hope you take the call to rise to the challenge."