Arcs, Sparks, & Electrons: Accelerating Into The FutureUpdated June 1, 2022 Energy Science
The following introduction to the future of new energy is excerpted from
Section IV – Arcs, Sparcs, & Electrons: Accelerating Into The Future of AEI's award-winning book, Turning the Corner: Energy Solutions for the 21st Century.
In the 21st century, the energy trend will be toward technologies that can best serve the greatest population with the least use of valuable resources, while also having the smallest adverse impact on the environment. Changing from a global system in which more than 85% of the energy used produces carbon, to a system where very little carbon is released, requires fundamental changes in technology and major investments in capital equipment turnover or replacement.
As a result of steady population growth and needed economic expansion, projections indicate that the world will require 50% to 100% more energy in 2050 than it does today. By mid-century, 85% of the world's population will be living in developing countries, and those countries will account for the major part of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.
Even with continuous efficiency improvements, the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentrations will require a serious long-term commitment to zero-carbon alternatives for large-scale global deployment. Solving the energy/carbon conflict represents a critical milestone toward achieving a more holistic approach to environmental progress.
The global demand for electricity is expected to grow rapidly in the 21st century. Both industrialized and developing nations will utilize this type of energy, which can be applied with great precision, efficiency, and cleanliness at the point of use is compatible with the streamlined infrastructure of modern economies, and can be generated from a wide variety of sources.
Energy conservation and increased resource efficiency are logical first steps in reigning in the United States' runaway energy consumption and rising greenhouse gas emissions. In order to meet projections of future demand for electricity, the US Department of Energy has estimated the need for 1,300 new power plants by the year 2020 (at an average size of 300 megawatts).
But a new study shows that improved energy efficiency measures would reduce that estimate to only 170 new power plants. Installing energy-efficient household appliances like clothes washers, air conditioners, and water heaters would save the equivalent energy generated by 127 power plants.
Programs to reduce energy use in new buildings, such as building energy codes, tax credits, and public benefit programs, would avoid another 170. Everyone can help: if each household in the United States replaced four 100-watt bulbs with compact and long-lasting fluorescent bulbs, it could eliminate the need for thirty new 300 megawatt power plants.
It's no secret that to replace fossil fuels with robust and carbonless energy systems, new technical solutions will be required. To be viable as a future energy source, emerging energy technologies must not produce carbon emissions nor contribute to climate change. Engineers are making strong advances in exotic conductive materials and computer technology in all phases of power generation and distribution. Fuel cells utilize electrochemical combustion of hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity.
Fuel cells produce reliable streams of current and emit only water vapor and heat when fueled with hydrogen. They are quiet, require little maintenance, and, when hooked up to water electrolyzers, can also store electricity as hydrogen for energy that can be fed back into the system during peak demand. Solar and wind power can be used to produce hydrogen to feed the fuel cell resulting in a clean and renewable system for sustainable energy production.
Technological innovation has emerged as the primary driver for economic growth. Because existing renewable energy systems will not be sufficient to sustain the industrial world's present levels of energy consumption, new, exotic technologies must be developed that can tap other sources of energy. Emerging technologies currently under experimental development are unlikely to translate into robust energy or propulsion systems in time to replace diminishing oil production.
If history is any guide, once a new energy system is discovered, it will take several decades to develop and implement the energy resource. Under-investment in energy technology R&D is detrimental to both long-term energy security and global sustainability. Further, it could foreclose the technology options that the global community will need to address systematically the environmental impacts of energy.
For the most part, the organized scientific community varies from highly resistant to openly hostile toward novel scientific research. However, each new major advance in science starts with an anomaly that is unacceptable at first. The anomalies are important because they inspire new ways of thinking.
The energy crisis may eventually be solved by a dramatic change in perspective, a paradigm shift in which upcoming scientists are encouraged to challenge the conventional laws of physics as they seek answers to the global energy crisis. Future generations are relying on our efforts, so they will inherit a healthy, sustainable environment and economy.
Transitions: Life Beyond the Oil Patch
The following information about the shift to new energies is excerpted from
Chapter 17 – Transition: Life Beyond the Oil Patch of AEI's award-winning book, Turning the Corner: Energy Solutions for the 21st Century.
A major energy revolution is just around the corner, and, with adequate assistance, guidance, and a bit of luck, it will arrive in time to stave off a potentially disastrous energy crisis. The slow transition from our historic reliance on nonrenewable fossil fuels to renewable, decentralized, and carbon-free energy has already begun.
It will require a panoply of new alternative energy systems, coupled with strong public demand for clean and green power, to wean ourselves from polluting fossil fuels. This transition to alternative energy won't be quick or easy, but the well-being of every future generation of Americans will rely on the decisions we act on today.
The United States was blessed with good geology and endowed with vast primordial reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas, but after more than 100 years of heavy consumption, that scenario has markedly changed. These fossil fuels account for the vast bulk of the global energy supply, but they formed over millions of years and are finite and nonrenewable. There are still substantial coal reserves buried in the continental US, but the environmental and health costs associated with using this carbon-rich energy source as a primary fuel are prohibitive.
Once-abundant petroleum and natural gas fields are being rapidly depleted and becoming increasingly expensive to produce. The US once led the world in oil output but is now a densely drilled, mature producing region in which oil production has been declining for 30 years.
As recently as 1950, the United States was producing half the world's oil, but now its proven reserves amount to only 3% of global petroleum assets. Indicative of declining domestic production in the US, during the 1950s, oil producers discovered about 50 barrels of oil for every barrel invested in drilling and pumping. Today, the world finds only one new barrel of oil for every four it consumes.
As we begin the 21st century, a large number of the giant older fields that anchor the world's hydrocarbon production base (including the North Sea — a key non-OPEC producing region), have now started to decline. Petroleum geologists have warned for 50 years that global oil production would "peak" and begin its inevitable decline within a decade or two of the year 2000.
As the inevitable apex of world petroleum production looms ever closer, policies encouraging conservation, more efficient energy use, and the development of alternative energy sources are urgently needed. A major obstacle is that renewable energy systems can generate only a fraction of the power now being produced by fossil fuels. Hard choices will have to be made by the government, industry, and the American public if the US economy is going to survive the inevitable transition from a world swimming in inexpensive oil to one without enough to meet global demand.
The long, potentially disruptive journey to carbon-free energy has already begun with incremental baby steps such as the scattered implementation of wind, solar, biomass gasification, geothermal, and other renewable energy systems. Energy-producing technologies that draw on renewable sources avoid the severe environmental impacts of the fossil fuel cycle. Wind power has really taken wing in the last decade, boasting double-digit growth.
Western Europe has installed the bulk of the world's wind turbines so far, but, between 1990 and 2000, global generating capacity posted an impressive average growth rate of 24% per year.
In Japan, five companies that generate electricity from wind have formed an industry association to encourage and promote wind-power generation in that country. Japan is the world's fourth largest energy consumer and second largest energy importer after the United States. The island nation lacks significant domestic sources of energy and must import substantial amounts of crude oil, natural gas, and other energy resources, such as uranium.
For decades, proponents of renewable energy systems such as wind and solar power have been fighting an uphill battle against an entrenched fossil-fuel industry. Like David versus Goliath, oil companies and electric utilities that have billions of dollars already invested in infrastructure and inventory have been unwilling to switch to buying from alternative energy providers, which are not yet cost-competitive on the open market.
Fossil fuels are cheaper only when environmental and health costs are ignored, but an energy market that considers the total cost to society of our energy choices would greatly encourage the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Big Oil can read the writing on the wall and is transforming itself into a more diversified energy business. Although real profits with renewable energy are some way down the road, corporations that sell hydrocarbons know that a long-range strategy that includes environmental policies is good for business.
There are many optimists who believe that America can quit guzzling oil and natural gas and switch to clean and renewable sources of energy like solar and wind power without disrupting our high material living standards.
One thing is for sure, the 21st century will be a world with many different energy systems combined to help us make the transition to sustainable energy use. Back in 1994, British scientist and statesman, Sir Crispin Tickell wrote, "We have done remarkably little to reduce our dependence on a fuel [oil] which is a limited resource and for which there is no comprehensive substitute in prospect."
It's time we did something about that. If not now, when? If not us, who?