by Dan Schafer
Are we in danger of running out of energy supplies? The simple answer, if we are talking about fossil fuels is, 'Yes'. There is a definite limit to how much oil, gas, and coal we can get out of the earth. Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University claims that global oil production could peak by 2004 ("The View from Hubbert's Peak" by Kenneth Deffeyes), meaning that we could begin to experience scarcity from then on. Others give us many more years. The International Energy Agency projects that remaining oil reserves will easily be able to meet demand until 2020. Even more optimistic is Rene Dahan, one of ExxonMobil's top managers. He insists that the world will have plenty of oil for another 70 years. (The Economist, Nov. 3, 2001, p.81) But whoever's prediction we believe, at some point there will come an end to the present abundance.
Of course anyone who has thought about energy problems can list many alternatives to oil. A sticky problem with many of them comes in trying to apply them to one of our main energy uses, transportation. That is because sources like nuclear power, hydroelectric power, wave power and wind power are generally most effective in static installations. Certainly nuclear power has been used in ships and submarines, but that is possible because in those vehicles, size and weight of the energy generating plants are not significant problems. For most transportation uses, being compact and light are essential features. However as technology makes advances in lighter more compact batteries and other storage devices for electricity, at least in that respect use of those alternative energy sources will become more viable.
Forty or fifty years ago when we first began thinking about the prospect of nuclear power it seemed the "wonder drug" of the world's energy needs. It was an incomparably greater source of power from a given amount of fuel than anything ever dreamed of before. Visions of centuries of unlimited, cheap power loomed before us. But the reality of radioactive waste with deadly decay extending into our children's and great-great-great grandchildren's centuries, and the spectre of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Tokaimura nuclear accidents chilled our enthusiasm so badly that now most people would rather not spend another penny on nuclear power generation.
Hydroelectric power was another challenging dream in its early days. It is clean, relatively safe, and is a supporting partner for water management programs. But we have found we do not want every stream dammed up, nor do the fish. Every new hydroelectric project we undertake has its cost in disruption of people and ecosystems. Certainly there are objective ways of measuring that cost and evaluating whether, all things accounted for, it should be paid. But unless we trim our appetite for energy in, at this point, unthinkable ways, responsibly planned hydroelectric power is not going to meet our needs.
There are many other alternative energy sources that perhaps we can deal with in future articles. We have already mentioned wind power and wave power. There are already many wind power installations operating that can sell power back into the electrical grid and thus provide power (and income) at the cost of only the capital investment and the maintenance. The fuel is free. The same can be said of wave power, which is attractive to countries like the UK which are surrounded by water. It is at more of a developmental stage, however. Solar power offers tremendous potential, especially in tropical and semi tropical countries. Its main drawback is the relative cost of the equipment in relation to the useable energy produced. However for applications such as water heating it is very cost effective.
Fuels from renewable resources are another attractive alternative. Alcohol from crops and waste holds great promise. The main problem is competition with petroleum products in cost that retards development of the engines and distribution systems enabling ordinary people to use it. Hydrogen has been hailed as the fuel of the future for its clean burning value. Imagine driving a car that produces only water vapour as an exhaust. What clean air we could have! There has been remarkable research into ways of producing hydrogen, not only from fossil fuels, but also from organic processes that make use of photosynthesis. They are no doubt still a long way from industrial production, but make for fascinating possibilities.
So to return to the question, Are we going to run out of energy?, we can say that, of course eventually the sun itself is going to burn out. But in regard to the practical situation of our planet we can say that there is plenty of energy, if we only learn how to use it rightly.
How then can we go about doing that? We will try to deal with this in future articles, but there are a few broad points we can mention here. First we need less hysteria and more thoughtfulness. If we are in the hands of greedy multinational oil companies, or Gulf States that care only about their vested interests then the world is in trouble. In fact we aren't in their hands. In the first place time goes on and no human institution can last forever. In the second place, and more importantly, the
One who ignited the sun and all the stars in the universe knew what He was about when He set this relatively little ball spinning about the sun. Contrary to what some may think, he did not just wind it up like a watch and set it going hoping for the best. He knew what He had put in it and knew the plans He had for each of us who would live in it to make use of those resources in the best way.
In light of that, problems of the economic viability of alternative energy take on a new perspective. We are not going to be able to change multinational companies into humanitarian "put environment before profit" charities, whatever loud noises we make. And though we should do what we can to get governments to deal with planning for future energy needs in helpful ways, what we can do there is also quite limited. What we can do is find our part, using the talents and skills we have. Instead of complaining about what others are not doing, we need to get up and make ourselves useful. In fact there are many places in the undeveloped world that could make use of our talents and skills in many ways including perhaps helping set up alternative energy projects that would be viable there. One of our biggest energy failures has been in applying human energy to human needs.
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