A sobering look into the future, part 2 | PostIndependent.com

A sobering look into the future, part 2

Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
As I See It

The explosive growth in both population and technology that has taken place since 1890, when the world’s population was just 1.5 billion, has been made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) in ever increasing quantities.

Fossil fuels currently provide more than 80 percent of global energy requirements. These sources of cheap energy, on which our economy and way of life have become so dependent, are not inexhaustible.

Of these, coal is the most abundant and is estimated to last for another 200 years. But coal has the drawback of being the dirtiest fossil fuel in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide its combustion releases into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

Forty percent of the world’s electrical power (45 percent in the United States) is generated by burning coal. Increasing numbers of coal-fired power plants are being converted to natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

Natural gas supplies are currently quite plentiful, but they are still finite, and will be depleted at an ever-increasing rate as the demand for electricity increases and the conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas continues. Current predictions are that natural gas reserves may approach depletion by the end of this century.

That brings us to petroleum, which supplies 30 percent of global energy use (35 percent for the United States). There is disagreement as to the timing of “peak petroleum,” the year after which petroleum production begins its inevitable decline. Some say we are at that point right now, others claim we have already passed peak petroleum production, but most agree the date is not far off.

It can be argued that we have not yet found all the potential petroleum and other fossil fuel reserves that may exist, but the search to date has been thorough enough to tell us it is unlikely any really significant reserves remain undiscovered.

So where are we going to get the cheap energy that the world will need to keep going?

It is pretty well acknowledged that all of the popular renewable energy sources – solar, wind, hydro and geothermal combined – are unlikely to be capable of meeting more than a quarter of the world’s energy needs.

That leaves atomic energy, currently fueled by uranium, but its use is questioned because of the hazards associated with uranium reactors and the problem of how to safely dispose of the waste from the process. Furthermore, uranium is a finite resource which will ultimately be exhausted, even with the use of breeder reactors, which could extend the life of uranium as a source of energy by 50 percent or more.

There is also interest in the use of atomic reactors using thorium, which has several advantages: thorium eliminates the “meltdown” hazard associated with uranium; the waste disposal problem is reduced due to a much shorter radioactivity half-life; it is more abundant than uranium; and unlike uranium, thorium does not require concentrating. As a result, thorium-fueled power could have great potential if a number of technical problems can be solved. Just one ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal.

However, we have to face the fact that although there are other sources of energy that can be used to generate electricity, none of them can do what only petroleum does so well – give us a source of portable energy. Only portable energy can power airplanes and the fleets of trucks that are an essential link in the delivery of food and other products in the quantity needed to supply the essential needs of the millions of people living in urban centers.

Railroads can be electrified for the long-distance hauling, which will greatly increase the demand for electrical energy. But at both ends, trucks, dependent on portable energy, will still be needed to transport goods from the points of production to the railheads and from the rail terminals to the consumers.

More to come: the even more serious survival issues – food and water.

– Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.

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