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Morning Forum of Los Altos speaker sheds light on alternative energy sources


Kathryn Tomaino/Special to the Town Crier
“The developed world must discover how developing countries can produce wealth without relying on cheap oil and coal,” speaker Severin Borenstein told a Morning Forum audience. “Safe, cheaper alternative energy solutions must be made available, without asking these poorer countries to pay more for energy.” 

An expert on energy sources energized the Morning Forum of Los Altos audience with his April 7 presentation on “Exciting Progress and Harsh Realities in the Race to Low Carbon Energy.”

Severin Borenstein, Ph.D., E.T. Grether Professor of Business Administration and Public Policy at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, has written prolifically and advised many government agencies and private industries on the economic impact of various energy sources.

Energy produced by fossil fuel is a major source of greenhouse gas, Borenstein said. In the past, developed countries like the U.S. and Europe consumed the majority of fossil fuel. Now, these countries are decreasing their production of greenhouse gases. In the past five years, renewable energy costs have gotten much cheaper, he noted, with solar energy becoming nearly as inexpensive to use as fossil fuel. There have been great advances in solar, wind and storage technologies, he said.

At present, developing countries like China and India produce the majority of greenhouse gases in the world, Borenstein said. While cheap conventional sources of energy (oil and coal) allow the developing world to improve its standard of living, they are bad for the environment, he added.

“The developed world must discover how developing countries can produce wealth without relying on cheap oil and coal,” Borenstein said. “Safe, cheaper alternative energy solutions must be made available, without asking these poorer countries to pay more for energy. While the developed world could massively decrease its fossil fuel usage without fundamentally changing the way it lives, that’s not the case with the developing world.”

Borenstein emphasized that “as cheaper alternative energies that produce less greenhouse gases are made available, the demand for oil will lessen.” Additionally, he said, fossil fuels have become less expensive to produce. As demand lessens, and production becomes cheaper, oil becomes cheaper. Cheaper oil means oil consumption will increase.

It is very difficult to find cheap, practical alternative energies, according to Borenstein. Biofuel vehicles haven’t made the progress we’d hoped, he added, and nuclear energy is cheap in theory but expensive in practice – the latest nuclear plants in Europe and China were much more expensive to build than expected. Borenstein expressed a lack of confidence that the U.S. will meet the goal of a safer, cleaner environment as quickly as it’s needed. But, he stressed, it is imperative that we try.

“The developed countries must support research in alternative energies and educate the world about alternative energies,” he said.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. New members are invited to join. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.

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