The Darkness at the End of the Tunnel

Atlanta's rapid

Without intelligent management of energy technology, U.S. energy needs will not be met.

Written by Glen P. Robinson Jr.
We are sitting on a time bomb. Except for a short-lived scare in the early 1970s, the United States does not have an energy problem. At least that's what the American public thinks. Why should we be concerned when gasoline, natural gas and electricity are so readily available at modest costs? Especially when compared with food, housing or even a night at the ball game.

Our national energy strategy has been set by free-market forces; that is, use the cheapest, most convenient and readily available fuel. And that, unfortunately, is foreign oil.

In the long term, we are going to run out of our conventional sources of fuels--oil, gas and coal--at some point in time. No one agrees on when this will occur, but we are burning these resources much faster than they are being regenerated. The rate of consumption will be ever increasing as Third World nations become more developed. At the same time, we are seriously warming the earth and polluting the environment.

The short-term problem is the possibility of a chaotic condition which might shut off the world's most abundant sources of fuel from the Middle East. I dread to think of a small group of extremist radicals causing a series of nuclear explosions at Mid-East oil facilities.

Where do we stand today? We are importing more oil now than ever before. The Department of Energy predicts, apparently without concern that 75 percent of our oil will be imported by the year 2010. Our hope for energy independence by nuclear power has been dashed for now. The cost of generating electricity will continue to accelerate as we rightfully demand cleaner air. Explorations and recovery of our declining oil and gas reserves will become more costly as we have to drill deeper. The question is: How much oil and gas reserve do we have? A recent "Nova" program predicted that at the present rate of consumption and price levels, we will run out of natural gas in 35 years, and out of oil a little later.

Does anybody really know? Does anybody care?

There appears to be no new source or significant new supply of energy or fuel in the near future. There is one option, however, that I think is significant, attractive and totally non-polluting, though not very popular. It's conservation.

Conservation is not popular because it connotes sacrifice. But that does not have to be. Many electric utilities, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest, are investing in conservation instead of new generating capacity. Rather than build a new generating plant that may cost $1,000 for each kilowatt of capacity, they subsidize a customer to replace inefficient electrical devices, such as air conditioners, with higher-efficiency units that will save one kW of load for an incremental cost of, say, $500.

This is truly new energy. It provides the same benefit to the customer and frees up one kW in capacity that can then be sold to another customer, and it does not add to pollution. Multiply this by a million customers and you effectively have the benefit of a new large nuclear generating plant without having to build it or pay to operate it.

There is a political obstacle to be overcome because rate structures are commonly based on the rate of return on investment. The larger the investment, the larger the profits. Few utilities have rate structures that provide incentives for conservation.

Energy efficiency can have a significant and beneficial impact on many specific industries, and also further our technological development. Some examples follow.


Transportation accounts for 27 percent of our total energy consumption and two-thirds of our domestic and foreign oil supply. The federal government has taken steps to increase efficiency and decrease pollution from cars. It's not very popular, though, since the American public is hooked on big and fast- accelerating cars, and that habit is hard to break.

Rapid transit systems should have caused a major reduction in gasoline consumption and air pollution, but they have been a great disappointment so far. The more multi-lane expressways we build, the more we are encouraged to use cars. The more taxes we collect on gasoline, the more roads we build. Breaking the cycle is a challenge for our public and social scientists, who must find some way to make rapid transit more acceptable.

We can reduce oil consumption and air pollution in the transportation sector in a number of ways:

Solar Energy

There is very little activity in solar energy today, and that is a big disappointment because the sun is the unlimited source of all energy. The excuse is that fossil fuels are still cheap and available, and solar systems are so expensive that there is no economic incentive either for the consumer or manufacturer. This is the same reason synthetic fuels from biomass or coal liquification have not yet become successful.

Passive solar systems that don't have any moving parts, circulating fluids, or rotating mirrors have been very successful. Architects have done a good job in designing buildings to take advantage of the sun.

There has been some improvement in the efficiency and cost effectiveness of solar cells, but they are still much too expensive to play any major role in meeting our energy needs except in special applications such as small-power production in remote locations. I feel certain that there will be a day when the cost of solar cells is competitive with the rising cost of conventional fuels, and that solar energy will play an important role in energy production. Unfortunately, the Japanese will be the major players since they are doing the majority of the research in this area today.


This growing technology offers the greatest benefit immediately available today. It's like getting two units of energy for the price of one. Unfortunately, it has some difficult political problems that impede its growth.

Only about one-third of the total energy consumed by typical electric generating plants gets to the consumer in the form of electricity. A small amount is lost in the transmission lines, and the majority is wasted to the atmosphere as heat. It makes sense for consumers who use a lot of heat or hot water to generate their own electricity and get heat for free. Most electric utilities fight this fiercely since it takes away their core business. The gas companies are pushing it since it gives them a very attractive load 12 months of the year. This is truly a political and social problem.

Waste Heat Recovery

Bill Tedder We have only scratched the surface in generating new energy by recovering and recycling waste heat. This is done by simple heat exchangers and heat pipes in situations where a low-temperature heat is needed, or by heat pumps when a higher temperature is required. The heat pump uses a small amount of energy to operate a refrigeration cycle to remove heat from a waste stream of water or air by cooling it, and then upgrades this heat to heat a fresh stream of air or water to a higher temperature.

Our company has supplied thousands of heat-recovery heat pumps to facilities that require large amounts of hot water along with air conditioning or chilled water. These include hospitals, nursing homes, hotels and motels, food processing plants and textile plants. The heat recovered from the cooling process of the heat pump heats domestic hot water competitively with fossil fuel water heaters, but the air conditioning benefit is free. Or conversely, the heat pump provides air conditioning at essentially the same cost as a conventional air conditioner, but the hot water is free.

Many people think that conservation will only free from five to 10 percent of our energy needs, that it will be expensive to implement, and that it will provide an inconvenience such as lowering the room temperature in winter or increasing it in summer. Experts maintain that a well-executed conservation plan can save from 20 percent to 44 percent in our total energy consumption without any public inconvenience. I lean toward the higher figure. I consider cogeneration and waste heat recovery as conservation methods, and they have proven to reduce energy loads by 50 percent or more.

Refuse-Derived Fuel

Refuse-derived fuel, i.e., municipal waste, is a two-for-one technology, but, unfortunately, it is highly controversial. It can play a major role by incinerating a large amount of municipal waste while generating significant amounts of heat and/or electricity. It is popular in Europe and has been used successfully in a number of major U.S. cities where there has been strong political leadership. The technology is here. The political and social battles are yet to be fought.

A successful energy program will require the coordination and management of new and existing technologies relating to the utilization, conversion and conservation of energy; it will require developing new technologies for pollution control and waste disposal. Most important, it will require the creative and active involvement of our social and political scientists, particularly in the area of public policy and attitudes.

About The Author

Glen Robinson Glen Robinson, Phys '48, MS Phys '50, is chairman of the Georgia Tech Research Corp., and a trustee and chairman of the Evaluation Committee of the Georgia Tech Foundation.

In 1978, he founded E-Tech, a manufacturer of heat-pump water heaters. The company merged with Marvair Co. in 1986 to form Crispaire Corp., which Robinson presently serves as chairman.

While a student at Tech, he worked as an associate research physicist at the Engineering Experiment Station, now the Georgia Tech Research Institute. In 1950, he joined Oak Ridge National Laboratory as an associate physicist.

In 1952 he helped found Scientific-Atlanta Inc., and served as president until 1972 and as chairman until 1978.