Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Light at the End of the Energy Tunnel

The United States is facing a crossroads in its future energy usage.  Will we choose to stay on the traditional fossil fuel track for the foreseeable future facing the same environmental, health, and political problems, or will we choose to start down a more sustainable path?  Although some have criticized solar energy, it offers one of the few large-scale solutions to our future energy needs.  Some sobering environmental facts may help to shed light on solar energy’s potential and importance.

The current population of the earth is seven billion and still growing.  It is estimated that it will peak at between 9 and 14 billion.  Not only is the population growing, but average per capita resource use is increasing and predicted to continue to do so.  The planet’s energy consumption will sky-rocket in the future.  Can fossil fuels meet the demand?  Oil production is predicted to peak in the next 20 years and then decline.  Natural gas, for all its promise will do the same, peaking in probably 30 to 40 years.  The cost of both of these will only increase over time.  Coal could produce energy for another 900 years or so in the United States.  However, coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.  Coal combustion emits many more radioactive particles into the air than the nuclear industry.  As the largest emitter of mercury, particulates, sulfides, nitrous oxides, hydrocarbons (smog), and CO2, coal has considerable environmental and health costs every year, leading to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 to 600,000 people in the US alone.  Cleaning up coal would add considerably to its price.  The nuclear industry promises a long-term supply, but still faces the problem of safely transporting and disposing of, not only radioactive spent fuel rods, but also used radioactive piping and production equipment.  To date no practical solution has been found, and the radioactive waste has been stored on site at the nuclear plants.  Many of these plants are running out of room for the waste.  In addition, many of the plants that were scheduled for decommission are still in use and operating at greater risk of releasing radioactivity, because the solution to the radioactive waste has not been found. 

In the end, uranium, like the fossil fuels, is finite and polluting, eventually necessitating the switch to renewable energy sources.  But which renewable energy source to use?  Biofuels are often touted.  Most agricultural experts agree that, in order to feed 9 – 14 billion people into the future, most or all of our current agricultural land must remain in food production and not converted to energy use.  Opening up more wilderness areas for agriculture would put our ecosystems and global ecological services at risk.  Some promising new biofuels such as artificial oil produced from algae, ethanol produced from discarded agricultural waste such as corn stalks, or methane produced from livestock waste, offer perhaps limited and select solutions and should be considered.  However, biofuels still face the cost of distribution and will probably never be able to supply all of humanity’s needs.  Hydropower has been maxed out – we have dammed nearly every river possible.  Wind and tidal power have much more potential left and together with solar offer the hope for the future.  However, they are more limited geographically to areas with wind or tide potential.

What about solar?  Why will it be the major work horse of the future?  The reasons are numerous. 

1) In short, it is ubiquitous – it is found everywhere in the temperate and tropical zones in abundance.  Everyone can use it.  Germany, the world’s leader in solar energy production, is higher in latitude and so receives much less direct sunlight than the US – there is so much more potential here.  In addition, it is much cloudier than many parts of the United States, demonstrating that solar energy can still be utilized to a great extent in areas with significant cloud cover. 

2) Solar eliminates energy loss through transmission and the expense of erecting power transmission infrastructure, because it can be locally generated.  Delivering energy to impoverished rural areas would be less burdensome for developing countries.  Solar would allow developing nations to leapfrog dirtier, costlier energy sources and the building of costly power distribution systems in order to achieve rapid development in rural areas. 

3) Solar is the only energy source that is getting LESS expensive and will continue to do so, despite receiving far fewer government subsidies than the fossil fuels. 

4) Solar would allow us to build a smarter, more efficient grid system with more decentralized energy production that would be more resistant to mass power failures. 

5) Solar is, of course, much cleaner than fossil fuels and nuclear energy.  Switching to solar energy in cities would help to reduce CO2 production and urban air pollution and their resulting health and environmental costs, and solar involves no radioactive waste.

6) Finally, solar is the only source of energy that can supply the energy of our growing world population into the future.  The energy from sunlight that strikes the earth in one hour is more than is used by the entire world’s population in one year.  This means that there is an ample and endlessly continuing supply of solar energy for a future world of fourteen billion people and a global high-tech economy.  No other energy source offers this light at the end of the tunnel.
Plano Solar Energy Advocate (MY)