E-challenges, Part 2: Energy
Perhaps the greatest challenge in our future is the search for a source of energy to take the place of oil as the Petroleum Age draws to a close.
A comprehensive overview of our current energy sources and how we use them is a necessary prerequisite to developing a rational energy plan. Oil supplies 40 percent of our total energy use, coal 23 percent, gas 22 percent, nuclear 8 percent, and renewable energy (hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, and ethanol) 7 percent. How do we apply these energy sources to our needs? Roughly 45 percent of our total energy supply is used to generate electricity, 30 percent for transportation, and 25 percent for heating. And what are the allocations by energy source? For petroleum, 70 percent is used for transportation, 19 percent for heating, and only 3 percent for generating electricity. For coal, 92 percent is burned for electric power and 8 percent for heating. For gas, 70 percent is used for heating and 20 percent for generating electricity. Nearly all nuclear and renewable power (excepting ethanol, which goes for transportation) is used to produce electricity.
The next thing we need to evaluate is how we should be using our power sources in the future ” what is their highest and best use? Oil, which supplies 40 percent of our energy needs, has several disadvantages: it is a declining resource increasingly dependent in uncertain political regimes, and is also a major source of carbon dioxide. Coal, although plentiful, produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than either oil or gas: therefore our use of coal should be curtailed, unless an economically-feasible means of capturing and sequestering CO2 can be found. The best use for gas, which produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than either coal or oil, is for heating, and as a finite resource, should be reserved for that purpose.
So we need to seek replacements for coal and gas, which produce 52 and 14 percent of our electrical power, respectively; and oil, on which we are almost totally dependent for transportation. What are the answers? The obvious answers are a combination of nuclear and renewable, preferably non-polluting resources ” wind and solar. We should abandon the government’s damaging political ethanol program, which actually increases CO2 discharges and has seriously impacted world food supplies. Canada’s catastrophic tar-sands project, which is destroying hundreds, even thousands of square miles of boreal forest, should be curtailed as soon as possible. We should be concentrating our research efforts on non-polluting renewable energy programs instead of on the development of oil shale, which has major energy and environmental impacts, and is just another fossil fuel.
T. Boone Pickens is promoting compressed natural gas (CNG) as a transportation fuel, but why spend huge amounts of money for conversion to a CNG system, which would only hasten the depletion of natural gas, and primarily benefit T. Boone Pickins?
So where does that leave us? Obviously, the foundation of our future energy policy should be conservation and improved efficiency. Then we should concentrate our efforts on weaning electric power generation from fossil fuels to nuclear, wind and solar energy. And finally, major increases in non-fossil fuel electrical power generating and distribution grid capacity would make it possible to replace our gasoline-powered automobiles with plug-in hybrids.
That still leaves trucks, railroads and ships dependent on diesel fuel; and airplanes dependent on jet fuel. Biodiesel can be made from oily plants and cooking wastes, but there may not be enough of these materials to supply the total demand. Research has shown the conversion of algae to petroleum, which in nature takes eons of heat and pressure, can be accomplished in the laboratory in a matter of days. Of course, we must solve the problems of what to feed the algae, and scaling up to a production capacity many times the size of our entire beer industry before algae can take the place of petroleum for diesel and jet uses.
The bottom line is that not only can we replace our dependence on fossil fuels, but our own good, we must ” and the sooner the better.
Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent
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