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Cornell expert advocates energy conservation first

"Energy conservation and efficiency is the only strategy that is good across the board," said Cornell geologist Richard Allmendinger '75, lecturing on solutions to the world's closely related climate and energy problems June 11 in Snee Hall during Reunion Weekend. With more than half of U.S. energy lost to inefficiencies across all energy sectors, he noted that conservation and efficiency have a big upside without some of the negative consequences that other fixes pose to climate or fresh water.

Saving energy will require personal discipline to invest in hybrid cars or unplug appliances when not in use, for example, said Allmendinger, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, during his talk, "Energy and Climate: Flip Sides of the Same Coin." To get people to reduce their use of energy may require governments to make such potentially unpopular political decisions as artificially raising the price of gasoline, which "would be the best thing we could do" to spur people to use energy more efficiently, he said.

The world's geologists and energy companies must work in the short term to find more conventional sources of oil and natural gas, because nontraditional fossil fuel sources, including tar sands, shale hydrofracturing and gas hydrates, are harder to extract and often have further negative environmental consequences, he said. Also, the world cannot transition quickly enough to green technologies to meet skyrocketing energy needs, he added.

Allmendinger advocated for capturing carbon dioxide with existing technologies and then burying it (or sequestering it) deep underground, despite the fact such implementation would require a "huge" scale of deployment and use a great deal of energy, he said.

In the meantime, governments and companies should intensively develop such non-carbon-based energy technologies as solar, cleaner nuclear power, wind and geothermal, so they are ready for wide-scale use as early as 2040, he recommended.

Allmendinger outlined four fundamental issues -- energy, climate change, fresh water availability and soil degradation -- as potential sources of conflict that will be difficult to resolve this century. Many of these issues are closely interrelated, he said. For example, the energy industry uses large amounts of fresh water, as can be seen with local Marcellus Shale hydrofracturing, a process that requires vast amounts of chemically treated water to extract natural gas from shale.

The world's population, which is 6.8 billion today from 2.3 billion in 1953, when Allmendinger was born, with projections of 9.4 billion by 2050, is "the fundamental driver" behind energy, climate and other impending 21st century issues, said Allmendinger. Ironically, he noted, "we know technologically how to control population growth," and mentioned, for example, that education of women in developing countries leads to lower birth rates, but because of strong cultural barriers against such control, we put energy into developing new technologies to counter the problems that rising populations create.

His far-reaching talk also touched on such topics as peak oil discovery and production; the impossibility of meeting the world's 2050 energy needs without drastic innovation and policy changes; the details of Marcellus Shale gas hydrofracturing; coal, which is still available but environmentally hazardous; and past, current and future climate changes.

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John Carberry