Home Homepage Featured The search for a new energy source

The search for a new energy source

By Jack Stevenson for Blowing Rock News. March 8, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC –Journalists and scientists have succeeded in dispelling the objections of climate change denialists. Activists have produced enthusiasm for addressing climate change issues. The critical third dimension is selecting the right technology or technologies to address climate change. The challenge is finding a safe, affordable energy source that will serve humanity indefinitely.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jack Stevenson is retired.  He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee.  He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).  Currently residing in Pensacola, FL, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and occasionally writes non-exclusive commentary for Blowing Rock News.

All opinions expressed by Mr. Stevenson are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Blowing Rock News or its managers and employees.

The demand for energy is increasing and the demand is intense. Edmond Mathez and Jason Smerdon report in the second edition of their Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future that energy consumption increased by forty percent during the first two decades of the 21st century. Dr. Frank P. Incropera, former Dean of Engineering at Notre Dame University: “. . .energy. . .is the lifeblood of our modern life and economy.” “It would be difficult to overstate the importance of energy to the well-being of humankind. It is the resource that sustains all life and economic activity.” “While developed nations are responsible for most of the cumulative emissions, it will not be long before developing economies achieve this distinction. . . .” “The reality is that — for decades to come — global energy demand will continue to increase in concert with population and average energy consumption per capita.”

Dr. Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba: “Modern society has been created by the. . .combustion of fossil fuels. . . .” “More than in any other modern nation, the power and influence of the United States have been created by its extraordinarily high use of energy. . . .” “What can be seen with great certainty is that much more energy will be needed during the coming generations to extend decent life to the majority of a still-growing global population whose access to energy is well below the minima compatible with a decent quality of life.”

Eighty-five percent of the world’s energy is derived from fossil fuels.

Eighty-five percent of the world’s energy is derived from fossil fuels. Six thousand items that we use are made of plastic, and plastic is made from fossil fuels. Sixty percent of the clothing we wear is made from fossil fuels. The food supply for forty percent of the world population depends on manufactured nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer production requires substantial energy, usually obtained from fossil fuels. Dr. Anthony D. Barnosky, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, at the University of California, Berkeley: “. . .the only reason we humans can exist in such high numbers—numbers that are far above Earth’s normal carrying capacity for big land animals—is that we add a huge amount of energy to the global ecosystem, mostly through the extraction of fossil fuels. Without that extra energy, a lot of people would have to die, and the high quality of life that billions of people now enjoy and billions more aspire to would evaporate.”

One common proposal is that we convert our automotive fleet to electric vehicles. United States citizens operate more than 250 million automobiles and trucks and drive three trillion miles each year. If we convert a significant percentage of the fleet to electric power, where would we get the electricity? We should also remember that electric vehicles are pollution-free only if the power plants producing the electricity that the vehicles use do not burn fossil fuels. Electric vehicles would not be the only additional draw on our electricity supply. Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, and Joao Marques Lima reveal that data centers (cloud computing) may be consuming 20 percent of the electricity supply by 2025.

Transitioning to non-fossil fuels is going to be difficult. Companies that produce or use fossil fuels do so because we demand the products and services they produce. If we were suddenly deprived of our energy resources, our economy would not merely decline, it would collapse, and those who survived would quickly revert to a primitive existence.
Non-polluting technologies include hydroelectric, wind, solar, and nuclear. Other technologies are possible, but these four systems are at the forefront of energy development.

Transitioning to non-fossil fuels is going to be difficult.

Nuclear reactors produce approximately eleven percent of the world’s electricity. Nuclear generators are capable of flexible output, but they have two serious flaws. They produce radioactive waste for which no satisfactory permanent storage system has been developed. Storage of radioactive nuclear waste needs to be managed for thousands of years. Nuclear electric generating stations are very expensive, too expensive to be profitable for private investors. The plants may require government subsidies, loan guarantees, or protection for liability in case of accidents. In the U.S., the Price-Anderson Act limits the dollar amount of liability that the nuclear plant owners are responsible for. Dismantling an aged nuclear power plant is also very expensive. The expense of developing a large fleet of nuclear power plants would delay investment in safer, long term energy solutions.

Hydroelectric generating plant development depends on suitable terrain and precipitation. These are limiting factors that preclude extensive development of this energy system.
The sun is the ultimate source of energy for planet earth. Dr. Varun Sivaram, Professor of Clean Energy Innovation at Georgetown University and a Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations: “. . .every hour the sun beams down more energy than the world uses in a year.” Solar powered electricity generation is our under-exploited opportunity. The sun delivers an immense amount of energy to our planet, and it is widely distributed across most of the densely populated geographical areas of the earth. The technology that is extremely promising are solar panels that convert sunlight to electricity. It is a technology that warrants generous funding for research and development.

Research and development for electricity storage needs to be funded.

Solar panel electricity generation has some flaws that need to be addressed. Solar panels do not work the night shift, and they do not function when the sunlight is obscured by clouds. Solar panel electricity requires backup by “baseload” generating stations. Baseload generators are fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydroelectric. Baseload generators can operate 24/7/365. Currently, solar panels produce maximum output during mid-day and feed the electricity into a baseload system. The baseload generator must cut back electricity production to accommodate the solar field input.

When clouds suddenly obscure the solar field or as the sun sets in the evening, the baseload generator must rapidly increase generation of electricity. The rapid rate of production change is expensive and hard on equipment. The process may require that the baseload generator be connected to other baseload generators by a wide area grid to distribute the burden of rapid solar field production variations. Generally, baseload operations can accept no more than approximately 20 percent of their electricity from solar panel fields. But solar energy has enormous potential, and the Holy Grail for solar panel electricity generation is an electricity storage system. Expansion of wind energy also requires development of a storage system, and both solar and wind will require new transmission lines to move the electricity from collection facilities to storage or usage areas.

Research and development for electricity storage needs to be funded. The United States has some historical precedents that could be a guide for electricity storage R & D. During World War Two, the scientists at the secret Manhattan Project developed nuclear weapons. While that may be a dubious accomplishment, the method used to achieve the goal is significant. The method was funding, the concentration of intellectual talent, and singular purpose. During the subsequent “cold war” era, a program was launched to put an astronaut on the moon in competition with Russia (USSR). Again, it was successful because of funding, the concentration of intellectual talent, and dedicated purpose. Both examples cited above were driven by fear. Fear is a prime motivator. At some future time, climate change may induce fear, but if we wait for that motivation, we may have waited too long. We need a research effort to learn how to store solar and wind energy. That research effort needs to be massively funded, implemented by a concentration of intellectual talent, and driven by dedicated purpose.

Research and development is not a profit center; it is a cost.

Research and development is not a profit center; it is a cost. The R & D effort will require government financing and incentives to induce private enterprise investment for an electricity storage system. Electrical grids need to be connected to enable distribution of electricity, both intermittent and baseload, from places where it is available to places where it is needed. Wind and solar energy systems do not emit carbon dioxide, but they produce electricity intermittently and will provide a significant solution to our energy problem only if a storage system for electricity is developed and wide area grid connections are established.

Political leadership is essential. International cooperation will be required to prevent excessive accumulation of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Billions of people are striving to acquire the benefits of energy enjoyed by the wealthier nations. The governments of the wealthier nations should exhibit prudence and moral leadership to assist and guide the energy acquiring populations to an energy frontier that does not cause our atmospheric carbon dioxide thermostat to malfunction.


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