What are the biggest obstacles/challenges facing the energy industry?

Answer by Ryan Carlyle:

The public's complete and utter lack of energy literacy.

Take farming. Imagine a child who doesn't know that meat comes from animals, or that manure can be used as a fertilizer. That's roughly the level of ignorance that almost everyone has about energy — such as how electricity gets to their house, or how gasoline gets into their tank. Maybe they get the rough idea, but it's very much at the "food comes from farms" level. There's no real understanding of the processes, limitations, economics, or practical application of it.

Energy is a fundamental requirement for civilization at any level beyond substinence farming. It is every bit as important to humanity as agriculture. This is a subject that should be taught in high school (if not sooner). Here are some facts that everyone should understand, but remarkably few do:

  • Very elementary thermodynamics: There is no free energy. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, merely converted from one type to another. All energy conversions involve some amount of waste and eventually all energy becomes heat.
  • Most energy globally is used for transport, heating, cooling, and making stuff (industry). Those three dwarf everything else.
  • Electricity must be generated at the exact instant it's used, kept in a precise balance for every second of every day. Storage is difficult and lossy (see first bullet).
  • Oil mostly comes from prehistoric algae (not dinosaurs) and is found in microscopic voids in porous rocks (not underground lakes).

I could keep going, but it would take a lot more than a single Quora answer to cover everything.

But why is this a challenge? Because democracies have trouble developing effective policies when:

  • Voters don't understand the issues
  • Politicians exploit the issues for partisan gain
  • The experts are consistently cast as "biased insiders" and discredited

It's embarrassing and a little tragic, because we end up just making awful decisions.

Unfortunately, the conventional energy sector (coal, oil, gas, nuclear, electricity transmission, etc) has done a terrible job of PR management for the last fifty years. We take basic infrastructure like power and water for granted to such an extreme level that access to them is considered a basic human right — and yet we despise the heavily-regulated companies that provide them.

Think about that for a second. We have nothing but hate for the companies tasked with providing the most essential services of civilization!

I think power linesmen do as risky and important of a job as firemen, but we hate the power company and love the fire department. Services we rarely need are glorified but ones we can't live without are ignored. It's the sort of mental juxtaposition that should crumble instantly upon examination, but no one ever bothers to examine it. People just don't know enough about energy.

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