Our energy future: There’s no free lunch
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
With the fast-approaching decline in the production of oil and natural gas, the industrial and developing nations are confronted with the perplexing challenge of where to find a source of energy to take their places. Where is the energy going to come from to keep the wheels of industry turning, power our transportation, heat and light our homes, and produce our food?
The one fossil fuel the world is not yet running out of is coal, which used to run our railroads and ships, and fuel our electric power plants. But growing concerns about the huge amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning coal has driven us to switch to gas or oil, so it doesn’t make much sense to go back to burning more coal. Technologies such as coal-to-liquid, or sequestering the carbon dioxide produced from burning coal, have lost much of their appeal in the reality of the cost and practicality of large-scale application.
Wind and solar power generation have tremendous appeal, because they are renewable energy sources, using up no resources and producing no carbon dioxide except in the manufacture of the generation equipment. The real problem comes from the magnitude of the power demand they would need to supply. It would take wind farms covering an area nearly the size of Texas and Oklahoma, or solar collectors covering the entire state of Arizona to supply our nation’s total electricity demand.
That leaves us with the option of uranium-based nuclear power generation. It is a nonpolluting source of energy, although there are legitimate concerns about safety and disposal of spent nuclear waste. Uranium is not an inexhaustible resource, but it could buy us a few decades to try to come up with something else.
But none of these means of generating electricity do anything to solve the problem of “portable energy” to keep trucks on the road, ships at sea, or airplanes in the air.
What about extracting hydrocarbons from tar sands as they are now doing in Canada, and from oil shale as is again being proposed for here in Colorado? Unless someone comes up with a magic wand to waive over these processes, they will continue to require enormous amounts of electrical power and water, and will leave catastrophic environmental destruction in their wake. And where are those water and power resources going to come from?
We read a lot about plug-in hybrid cars ” just recharge them by plugging into the outlet in your garage. But where is the extra electricity needed to supply this demand going to come from? The same question applies to the great idea of powering our cars with nonpolluting hydrogen fuel cells. Where do we get the staggering amount of electrical energy required to produce all the hydrogen?
And then there’s the great ethanol hoax. Other than the fact that we don’t have enough agricultural land to grow the corn that would be needed to replace gasoline as an automotive fuel, there are plenty of other problems with ethanol, not the least of which is that its carbon footprint is greater, not less, than gasoline.
So what are we to do about the energy situation? The real problem is the enormity of the demand, not only in the U.S., but worldwide, which is steadily growing as populations continue to increase, and rising per capita demand for energy compounds the problem. With no miracle answer in sight, no panacea waiting on the horizon, we are left with no choice but to reduce both of the factors that are driving global energy use ” population and per capita use of energy. It won’t be easy or pleasant, but the consequences of inaction will be far worse.
Hal Sundin’s column appears every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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