The Search for Alternative Energy Written by Trevor Lythgoe
In the news on a typical day, amongst all the crime and ʻgloom and doomʼyou are sure to hear about global warming and the search for an alternativeenergy source at least once. It has even been the topic of hot debate inPresidential elections, most particularly in debate over the United Statesʼdependence on fossil fuels. Currently fossil fuels make up about 78.4% of totalU.S. energy consumption (Annual Energy Outlook 2010, 11 April 2011) andaccount for more than 56% of the increase in greenhouse gases in theatmosphere. (Global Warming Statistics, IPCC, 12 April 2011) This increase ingreenhouse gas has led to the ʻwarming of the globeʼ by 1.33 ± .32°F (0.74 ±.18°C). This may not seem like much, but when you consider that this happenedover the last hundred years and that it is projected to go up 2 to 11°F in the nextone hundred years, you can see how, if left unchecked, this could have thedevastating effect of making life on Earth a thing of the past. Not only is the globeslowly warming under our fossil fuel inferno, but the United States is addicted toforeign fossil fuels. In 2009 the U.S. Government spent $268.73 billion on fossilfuel imports because we consumed almost 30% more fossil fuel than weproduced. In terms of oil alone, the US imported 62.5% of what it consumed(Annual Energy Review, 2010.) Our voracious appetite for personaltransportation is evidenced by 72% of total petroleum based energy going tomoving our 842 vehicles per 1000 people in the United States, the number onelargest vehicle per capita rate in the world.
According to the Annual Energy Review (AER), in 2009 38.3% of ourenergy consumed went to generating electrical power, 27% to transportation,18.8% to industrial needs, and a meager 10.6% to residential and commercial. Ofthe total energy consumed by the US, 35% comes from petroleum, 23.4% fromnatural gas, 19.7% from coal, 8.3% from nuclear electric power, and 7.7% fromrenewable energy.Table courtesy of Annual Energy Review, 2009 It is theorized by many sources that the fossil fuels will ʻrun outʼ sometimein the next 50 years. Currently most estimates fall near the year 2035. It is thattarget date that drives the search for alternative energy from renewable sources.Given the dire forecast for our childrenʼs future, the question arises, ʻWhat canwe do about this ʻenergy crisisʼ?ʼ U.S. energy consumption seemed to peakabout 2005-2008 and has seen a slow but steady decline since then, and 2009
saw the first major reduction in oil purchase from 11 million barrels per day toabout 9 million barrels per day. This may be due to the fact that the U.S.experienced an economic recession in 2008 and the proverbial belt wastightened and budgets were cut. It might also be that citizens are realizing theycan have an impact on the environment around them. During a ʻsoap boxʼ at MIT in March, Sadoway, an Environmental Energyinstructor at MIT, surmised that there is no single source of energy that canreplace the demand for fossil fuels at a similar cost in the immediate future. Whilethere are many plausible sources of energy on our planet, the cost to utilizethese ʻother than fossil fuelsʼ is nearly absurd. One reason for the steep cost foralternative ʻgreenʼ fuels is the lack of funding for research and development. Types of Average Energy Cost per kWh Wind $0.08 Solar $0.25 Fuel Cells (Batteries) Variable depending on type Hydroelectric $0.06 Nuclear $0.15 Biofuels $0.06-0.15 Natural Gas $0.035 Coal $0.05 Average US Commercial Rate $0.10
In comparison to current fossil fuel cost per kWh, hydroelectric is the nextcheapest, followed by wind power, both of which are very dependent on locationand are difficult to use ʻjust anywhere.ʼ Further, wind energy is completelydependent on the weather and is particularly cheap to produce in the first place. While its generation is clean and remarkably efficient, hydroelectric energycan only be found near a water source. This poses a rather difficult problem inbuilding dams at all great water sources. The greatest hurdle for hydroelectricpower is the impact they have on the surrounding ecosystem. Similar problems exist with nuclear and biofuel power. There is aninherent fear in the word ʻnuclearʼ that scares many people away from the idea ofit becoming a safe alternative to fossil fuels. That fear label is not completelywithout merit. Nuclear power has the most potential to go wrong. After all, we areessentially harnessing the power of the sun on a very small and controlled scale.There is also the very real possibility of the nuclear power and research beingused for nuclear armament. These factors lead to higher startup costs and difficulty in getting them into a mass production market where revenue could be made and reinvested intoresearch and development of cheaper, more efficient and economically viablesolutions to our energy needs. In short, it will be very difficult to find an alternativein the next 25 years to what has been established in the last 100. As stated bythe American innovation council: “The United States does not have a realistic,technically robust, long-term energy strategy. Without such a strategy, there is no
coherent way to assess energy, environmental or climate policy, nor is there acoordinated framework for developing new technologies. The result of thisneglect is reflected in our nationʼs history—with oil-driven recessions, tradedeficits, national security problems, increasing CO2 emissions, and a deficit inenergy innovation.” We as Americans can no longer afford to do nothing. We canno longer afford to do as little as we have been in the past. We must step upcommitment to the cause and find an alternative source of energy to the fossilfuels we are consuming at staggering rates. If we fail in this endeavor, ourchildren may not have a future.
Resources:American Innovation Council, http://www.americanenergyinnovation.org/recommendation-1/ Retrieved on (2011, 15 Apr).Annual Energy Outlook 2010 http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/pdf/0383(2010).pdf Retrieved on (2011, 11 Apr).Annual Energy Review 2009 http://www.eia.doe.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/pdf/aer.pdf Retrieved on (2011, 10 Apr).Bloom Helps Drive Fuel Cell Adoption. (2011, Mar 23). http://www.journalofcommerce.com/article/id43525 Retrieved on (2011, Apr 12).Global Warming Statistics 2010, http://www.theglobalwarmingstatistics.org/the- global-warming-statistics. Retrieved on (2011, Apr 11).Johnson, G. (2011, Mar 31) Are Solar Power Incentives A Nasty Regressive Tax On The Poor/Misinformed? Retrieved Apr 12, 2011, from http://blogs.forbes.com/gordonjohnson/2011/03/31/are-solar-power- incentives-a-nasty-regressive-tax-on-the-poormisinformed/Kadak, A., Macfarlane, A., Reis, V. (2011, Feb 24) The Future of Nuclear Energy. MIT World Environment/Energy – Audio [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/environment-energy-audio/id382420941 (2011, Apr 11).
Sadoway, D. (2010, March 25). Fuel Cells and Portable Power Solutions. MIT World Environment/Energy – Audio [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from http://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/environment-energy-audio/id382420941 (2011, Apr 11).