Solving the World’s Energy Crisis

Posted on May 4th, 2006 in Politics by EngineerBoy

Today the world derives the vast majority of its energy from non-renewable resources like oil, coal, and natural gas. There is a finite amount of these fuels, and at the current growth rate of usage they will all be used up within 100 years. That means that some of the young babies of today will live to see the end of the age of hydrocarbon fuels. What will they use to fulfill their energy needs?

There is a strong push to replace hydrocarbons with “green” energy sources, using so-called renewable resources such as sunlight, wind, or thermal energy. While I can see that these resources could be considered renewable given their current levels of usage, I fear the impact on our environment if we scale usage up to the point where they could provide most of the world’s energy needs.

Consider wind power, which today consists of a few wind farms in a few places, and which have no discernable impact on weather patterns (or the energy supply, for that matter). However, if you scale up wind power so that it is ubiquitous, and you remove all of that wind energy from the meteorological realm, what would be the resulting long-term impact? I have been unable to find any estimates of this, nor do I see a logical way to predict such an impact, even if one were to attempt to figure it out. Today we see huge, wild shifts in the world’s weather with each degree of temperature change — what would be the impact of reducing wind energy by one mile per hour around the globe?

The same with sunlight. Today people have solar cells or solar water heaters on the rooftops of their homes, and there are a few large-scale commercial solar energy farms, but again nothing noteworthy in relation to the overall world energy supply. And these few solar installations really have no impact on global weather, as they are so small as to be inconsequential. But, again, imaging scaling up the production of energy from sunlight, with vast farms of solar cells or solar water heaters absorbing energy from sunlight, energy that would previously have hit the ground and contributed to the natural forces of our biosphere. What if large-scale solar energy farms reduced the global temperature by one or two degrees?

The same can be said for geothermal energy, as well as other “renewables” such as biomass or flowing water. These may seem to be potentially endless reserves of energy, but when one uses one’s imagination to extrapolate usage up to providing any significant portion of the worlds energy needs it becomes much less clear as to the long-term effects and actual “renewability” of these resources. Keep in mind that if you take a long enough view of the world, oil is a renewable resource, we just have to wait a few geologic millenia for natural forces to replenish the oil supply naturally (just like it was created in the first place). An energy source is “renewable” only if it can be replenished faster than it is used, and no one can yet say that this is true for sunlight, wind, biomass, or thermal energy sources.

In my opinion there are two realistic, long-term energy resources available to mankind today. The first is nuclear energy, and the second is hydrogen energy, and they actually represent pretty much one energy source. You see, hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe and is also an efficient energy source. The trick is that it takes a great deal of energy to extract hydrogen from its primary sources, such as water. So we need nuclear plants in remote places producing hydrogen to be used everywhere else. And while both hydrogen and nuclear fuel are both finite resources, the known quantities would provide for mankind’s energy needs for an uncountable number of millenia.

We are at the end of the Hydrocarbon Age and at beginning of the Hydrogen Age. Let’s climb on board.

3 Responses to 'Solving the World’s Energy Crisis'

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  1. EngineerBoy said,

    on April 30th, 2007 at 10:19 pm

    Further the theme of this article, have you noticed that the world is rushing to ban incandescent bulbs and replace them with Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs)? Canada, for example, has banned incandescent bulbs beginning in 2012 and much similar legislation is in the works around the world. The thinking is that the bulbs last longer and consume less electricity, which are both true.

    However, any sort of mass switch to CFLs will introduce a huge environmental and personal health issue – mercury. You see, all CFLs contain non-trivial amounts of mercury, and if a CFL bulb breaks in your house, well, you may just be on the hook for an actual toxic waste remediation (not to mention the personal health effects of inhaling vaporized mercury). Also, the disposal of CFLs will have to be strictly controlled, as any bulbs discarded in normal household trash and landfills will result in breakage of bulbs and the release of permanent, toxic mercury clouds over all of our landfills. So some sort of take-back retail program (like glass bottle recycling, for those of you old enough to remember) or municipal recycling solution will need to be put into place.

    Which leads to several questions. First, has anybody done the math on the energy costs for producing a CFL versus a traditional incandescent bulb? Better yet, has anyone done a full lifecycle analysis, including the energy costs for safely disposing of CFLs? Not that I can find.

    Secondly, why is it that the same people who spew fire and brimstone about the evils of nuclear power are the very same people embracing a solution that will move lethal toxicity directly into all of our homes? Think of the number of broken incandescent bulbs you have experienced in your life – would you like it if each instance of that had cause you to inhale unsafe and unhealthy levels of mercury vapor, estimated to be at 5-10 times the supposedly safe limits?

    In the end, it comes down to the theme of the original article below – beware the law of unintended consequences. While CFLs *seem* like a good idea and might *seem* like a panacea, they aren’t when you factor in the billions or trillions of CFLs that would be needed to replace the current usage of good old fashioned incandescent bulbs (unless some some type of safer, less toxic CFL can be developed). I for one do not want to load up my house with a potent neurotoxin (mercury) that is stored in fragile, easily breakable little time bombs in every room. Do you?

  2. Marvin said,

    on April 3rd, 2014 at 5:40 am

    In the text above, the author criticizes today’s use of technology. But not only non-renewable sources of energy are object of discussion also ‘green’ energy sources like wind turbines or geothermal energy appear in the text.
    The author writes about the influences of for example the massive use of wind turbines. He is afraid that these turbines will decrease the speed of the global winds which would have a massive influence on our planet. However I think that wind turbines will never ever have such an influence on our global weather. The area of a rotor of a wind turbine is just too small even if we had millions of them. The same arguments count for solar panels. If we ever use such an incredible number of solar panels that we reduce our global temperature so what? We should just switch back to old energy and burn more CO2 which will heat the planet again. This way we would sustain balance.
    In the fifth passage the author states that ‘renewable’ energy sources need to grow faster that they are used. First, the sun sends more energy to the earth every second than we could use in years. Second, the energy that reaches the earth does not disappear. For example if we take the energy from the earth’s surface to power light bulbs these light bulbs will produce heat so everything is fine again. We could even use solar energy with solar panels from outer space, which would be even more efficient.
    So my conclusion is that there are more long-term energy sources available. Not only hydrogen and nuclear energy but also wind and solar energy.

  3. Mario said,

    on February 18th, 2015 at 4:38 am

    Dieses Text ist wunderschön

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