Clean Energy Crossroads
When New York City hosted the first National Automobile Show in 1900, many auto companies were just setting up shop and patrons could chose from several propulsion systems. A poll taken at the show showed that safe and clean electric cars were Americans’ first choice, followed closely by quiet steam. Gasoline came in a distant third; only 900 hand-cranked, dirty, noisy gas cars were built that year.
At today’s auto shows, electric cars now sit alongside hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles. Yet no proposed technology has a clear lead. The market reflects continuing uncertainty as the world’s energy picture evolves in response to society’s rapid and profound changes. With the twin specters of climate change and peak oil prices, the 21st century is of necessity a time of pivotal decisions by governments everywhere and by us, as global citizens.
Energy experts concur that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—at our current, accelerating pace. Partly because significant populations in China and India are starting to drive private automobiles, world consumption of oil is growing an average of 1 percent a year (down from 2 percent, when oil was cheaper).
In 2007, the world consumed 85.7 million barrels of oil. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that, given current projections, by 2030, that number will jump to 118 million barrels per day. Oil prices are expected to stay high, simply because demand will continue to grow faster than accessible supply.
Even if we uncovered new oil reserves, the phenomenon of global warming dictates the need for a green energy revolution if we are to survive and thrive. As a world leader in climate science, NASA’s Dr. James Hansen has called for a moratorium on construction of coal-fired power plants, the number-one source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and a phase-out of existing plants over the next 20 years. He’s among those also calling for a new energy economy.
“Moving beyond fossil fuels,” as sources for commercial and residential energy, he says, “makes enormous sense for many reasons—cleaner air, cleaner water and energy independence.”
But how are we going to get there? Civilization is seriously addicted to oil and coal, and set to compete for remaining deposits. A rising corps of politicians and activists, however, are campaigning for international agreements that would put the world on a different path.
Environmental writer Bill McKibben has founded 350.org, an organization dedicated to reducing overall emissions and holding CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere below the tipping point of 350 parts per million. We could hold that line, his group says, by “building solar arrays instead of coal plants… planting trees instead of clear-cutting rainforests… increasing efficiency and decreasing our waste.”
Fred Krupp, executive director of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, not only is calling for a sharp reduction in fossil fuel consumption, he has a blueprint for how nations and their citizens can make that happen, starting today.
“Tomorrow’s energy will come from a variety of sources, undoubtedly including wind, solar power, geothermal and some sources we don’t even know about yet,” he told Natural Awakenings. “I recently co-wrote a book called Earth: The Sequel, which looks at some of the country’s brightest inventors and entrepreneurs who are developing these alternatives. What we really need now is national ‘cap and trade’ global warming legislation, which will bring these new technologies into the marketplace.”
Under such a system, countries will set a ceiling for global warming emissions, and then manufacturing and other companies will have financial incentives to reduce the pollution they produce to abide by that ceiling. In the market, entities may buy and sell government emission certificates: buyers purchase a specified right to pollute; and sellers that have reduced their emissions can realize a financial reward by selling their certificates.
Krupp believes that cap and trade will be in place within the next two years, no matter who is elected president, and that the legislation “will create a cascade of private investment in new technologies.”
Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that lifting the current offshore drilling moratorium would not lead to any new production for seven to 10 years, “And even then, it wouldn’t significantly reduce energy prices.” Instead, his environmental organization would like to see development of a “low-carbon infrastructure” to replace the 180,000 gas stations that pump oil in the United States.
BIOFUELS Of all plant-based fuels, fireplace wood is the simplest form.
Ethanol made from corn has made inroads, due to a 2005 federal mandate for incorporation of 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012. But an accelerating “food vs. fuel” movement objects to concurrent increases in corn prices, while others point out the energy required to produce corn ethanol exceeds the energy it delivers. Other, better, biofuels on tap include those made from sugar cane, jatropha and algae.
COAL Carbon-rich coal deposits are formed from fossilized plants. Burned mostly to generate electricity, it’s still one of the cheapest forms of energy, but at enormous cost. Opponents cite coal as the number-one aggravator of global warming and fight destructive mountaintop removal mining practices that have devastated Appalachia.
GEOTHERMAL Modern Iceland heats almost all of its buildings with hot spring water near the surface there. But recent advances make tapping into heat energy under Earth’s crust accessible nearly anywhere. Geothermal heat pumps take advantage of year-round 50-degree Fahrenheit temperatures just five to 10 feet below ground. These systems’ buried pipes circulating antifreeze liquid can both warm and cool buildings.
HYDROELECTRIC One of the oldest forms of renewable energy, hydro technologies today use the power of flowing water to turn turbines and generate electricity. Hydro is emission-free, but impedes the natural flow of rivers and streams, blocking passage for migratory fish.
HYDROGEN The fuel cell that converts lighter-than-air hydrogen into electricity and clean water is 150 years old. Still, hydrogen, because it’s extracted mostly from natural gas these days, is not yet the renewable resource it could be if produced solely from solar or wind power. It’s also considered a “future fuel” because, despite advantages, it’s currently expensive to produce. Fuel-cell cars, which are virtually emission-free, face cost hurdles as well.
NATURAL GAS Former oilman T. Boone Pickens recently announced a controversial plan to massively boost U.S. investment in wind power and run our transportation fleet on cleaner natural gas. This mostly methane fossil fuel must be processed to remove other elements in order to burn in home heating systems and internal-combustion engines.
“Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) are already available and combine top performance with low emissions,” Pickens writes, citing California Energy Commission figures that put greenhouse gas emissions from burning natural gas 30 percent lower than those from gasoline. Currently, only 150,000 NGVs operate here, and insufficient fuel stations exist to make his plan soon viable. Too, many of the largest untapped natural gas deposits are in politically sensitive regions—just like oil.
NUCLEAR Some environmentalists are calling for reexamination of nuclear power, because it can produce large amounts of electricity with no significant global warming emissions. Obstacles include difficulty in financing, licensing and building nuclear plants in time to have an impact in the next 15 to 20 years, as well as detrimental effects of uranium mining and waste disposal. Some countries, such as Germany, are phasing it out, while France derives 77 percent of its energy from nukes.
OIL The modern industrial complex runs on gasoline refined from crude oil deposits, and the Central Intelligence Agency reports that the United States is the world’s single largest oil consumer. The DOE notes that, “The decline in U.S. consumption in the first half of 2008, reflecting slower economic growth and the impact of high prices, was the largest half-year volume consumption decline in the last 26 years.”
SOLAR Technology for solar power—capturing the radiant energy of the sun—is rapidly improving, and governments are increasingly subsidizing it. Today’s equipment is not just an ugly panel stuck on a roof, but incorporates correctly oriented roof designs. New, thin solar films turn the roof itself into one big solar panel. Passive solar designs also use a building’s windows, walls and floors to collect and store the sun’s heat in the winter and repel it during the summer.
TIDAL POWER Underwater turbines have proved able to efficiently harness the immense energy contained in waves and tides. Experimental units have been tested in the United States, UK and other locations around the world. A major obstacle to developing reliable tidal power is operating in such a turbulent, changeable and fragile environment. Currently, tidal resources for creating utility-level electricity are concentrated in a few places, such as Alaska.
WIND Whether on- or offshore, today’s high-efficiency wind towers capture steady breezes to turn a turbine and generate electricity. This ancient, zero-emission energy source is heating up in Europe, Asia and the United States. Texas and New York are leading wind states, but 44 others are said to have useful resources. North Dakota alone could supply a third of the country’s electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The opposition to wind is mostly aesthetic. Negative effects on migratory bird populations is another concern. Opposition has been powerful enough to stall major initiatives, such as the offshore Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts.
All in all, “State leaders have begun to move us in the right direction on energy, but we must do a lot more at every level of government,” urges Dave Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program. “Congress can flip the switch on America’s clean energy future by increasing fuel economy standards to at least 35 mpg and requiring that we get 15 percent of our electricity from clean, homegrown sources like wind, solar, and biomass by the year 2020.”
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