Monday, September 30, 2013

What kind of power you got?

It's Energy Week this week at Notre Dame and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first portion of its highly-anticipated AR5 report, so I thought I'd share some thoughts on energy issues and policy.

I feel I need to admit up front that I'm no expert on these questions, but I nevertheless believe it's worth offering my thoughts and directing you to informed sources so you can form your own views. Mostly, however, my goal is to convince you that we as Americans need to support, and let our governmental representatives know we support, the work of those who are experts to improve our country's approach to energy.

I tried to be comprehensive, an ambitious concept, so use the subheadings to focus on what matters to you; just make sure you read the Conclusion.

Problems with Fossil Fuels

The reason we need change, the reason energy is an "issue," is that since the industrial revolution humanity has powered machines, generated electricity, etc. almost exclusively through the burning of fossil fuels. This means fossil fuels have been an amazing resource and contributed immensely to human advancement. Unfortunately, it also means the problems associated fossil fuels have been amplified along with the benefits, and we've now reached a point where these problems must be addressed. The three primary problems with the continued use of fossil fuels are finitude, distribution, and climate change.

By finitude I mean the simple fact that there is a set amount of raw fossil fuels on our planet and so we could eventually run out. We won't run out for some time, however, and new technologies could allow us to use fossil fuels more efficiently and access all possible fossil fuel reserves (though these, especially 'fracking' have their own problems). Thus, finitude means we should try to find energy sources that won't run out, but the case for immediate action depends on the other two problems with fossil fuels.

Distribution refers to where the natural reserves of fossil fuels are located. The problem here is that certain countries have a lot of oil, others don't, and everyone needs it. The United States' foreign policy troubles in regions like the Middle East can in many ways be traced to our interests in maintaining access to their oil supplies. For example, we in the U.S. would care a lot less about Iran if it wasn't the case that a massive amount of the world's oil must travel through the Straight of Hormuz to reach us. This problem is at the heart of advocating for U.S. "energy independence," which essentially means the U.S. finding a way to provide for its energy needs without importing fossil fuels. This is a motivator for change, but some people think it means we should focus on domestic production of fossil fuels rather than further developing the use of other forms of energy. While this form of energy independence may not be all it's made out to be, it nevertheless remains that distribution doesn't absolutely mandate the switch to alternative energy sources.

Now we come to the big problem, the reason we can't keep using fossil fuels and need to stop ASAP, and it is climate change. The fact is that climate change is happening and humans are causing it. The first section of the IPCC's AR5 report came out today and the summary for policy makers was released last Friday. The report details the facts of climate change and affirms that scientists are as certain as they can be that human activities, especially burning fossil fuels, are a primary cause of the substantial changes currently occurring in Earth's climate. The seas are rising, the global temperature is rising, the ozone layer is depleting, and 'greenhouse gasses' like the carbon dioxide released in burning fossil fuels are the reason. We need alternatives to fossil fuels before climate change causes catastrophic damage.

Problems with Nuclear Power

One possible alternative to fossil fuels, at least in the area of producing electricity, is nuclear power. Nuclear fission reactors can create massive amounts of energy and don't have the climatic impact of fossil fuels. Nuclear power, however, has some significant drawback of its own. There is a lot of ongoing debate on the merits of nuclear power, but in my view the cons overpower the pros. The problems with nuclear power that have me so concerned are the destructive potential and the inadequacies of waste removal.

The destructive potential of nuclear power was witnessed recently in the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant. While more modern plants can be better protected against this particular sort of catastrophe, there will always be the potential for natural forces, like the earthquake and tsunami that perpetuated the Fukushima incident, to upset even the best of our precautions. The risks of a nuclear power plant malfunctioning due to natural, mechanical, or even human causes may be very small, but because the potential damage is so great it still may not be a risk worth taking. The awesome power of nuclear reactors is part of their appeal as an energy source, but it is also a reason to be concerned about their use.

The other, and even more significant, reason I oppose the use of nuclear power is that we have yet to create a safe process for disposing of nuclear waste. The process of nuclear fission inevitably results in dangerous radioactive waste materials that must be dealt with in one way or another. The problem is that these materials are very radioactive and will be radioactive for a very, very long time. There is potential for technological advancement to create reactors that produce waste that will not remain radioactive as long and safe storage sites for the waste while it remains radioactive, but until those technologies arrive I just don't see how we can countenance the use of nuclear power.

Renewable Energy Sources

What is left to us is renewable energy sources. These are methods of generating energy based on exploiting natural processes that are naturally recurring and don't have the adverse waste products of nuclear power and fossil fuels; including wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and other such energy sources.

These energy resources are criticized for not producing enough energy and not being cost-effective, but the problem is that not enough money has been put into developing the relevant technologies and they have not yet been employed on a large enough scale (if you're doubtful read about Germany in the "Overseas" section).

There is also the problem that fossil fuels are currently used in the production of machinery for these processes, but that is an absurd reason for objecting to renewable energy sources. We can't instantly eliminate the carbon footprint of these technologies, but when we bring them together on the several levels of energy we will then be able to stop harming our planet with fossil fuels. A huge part of this is developing motor vehicles that don't require petroleum products, which is being approached through electric cars and biomass fuels. A personal favorite of mine is the ongoing development of bacteria that can be used to produce biofuels.

These sources can have some environmental impact, but much less than fossil fuels. The key factor is that transitioning to these energy sources will address the incredibly pressing problem of man-made climate change. The way to bring this about is by refocusing our technological efforts; we need substantial investment in the technologies relevant to tapping these energy sources and  need to turn from the concepts of "clean" fossil fuels and new drilling techniques to improving wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy production.

US Policy

The Obama administration and its Department of Energy have prioritized American energy independence and development of "green" energy technologies. The increase in U.S. production of oil and the increasing use of natural gas that this has involved are not the best approaches, even though natural gas power plants emit less carbon dioxide than coal power plants. The failure of the solar panel company Solyndra has also been a set-back for the Obama administration as it has been seized on as a reason for not the government not investing in renewable energy research. The administration also failed to get cap-and-trade proposals through congress in the President's first term.

Nevertheless, the fact that President Obama is attempting these programs is good and will hopefully open the door for continued efforts to transition to more environmentally-friendly and renewable energy sources in the near future. In fact, the President is currently working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restrict the carbon emissions of new, and eventually existing, power plants.

Let's hope that the American people and our politicians realize the importance of continuing to transition from the increasingly dangerous fossil fuel based system of the past to a renewable energy driven system of the future.


Were the U.S. to properly orient itself toward the development of "green" technology and abandon efforts to cling to the energy sources currently employed, it would be following in the footsteps of countries like Germany and China.

Germany's commitment to renewable energy innovation and reducing fossil fuel consumption has been wildly successful. Germany has already reached the point where renewable sources account for 25 percent of energy production and has set the goal of producing 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. Germany has been so successful, in fact, that the German government is now making an effort to export their energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and expertise. The United States will soon need such exports if we don't set our energy policy straight.

China is not as far along as Germany, but the Chinese government has demonstrated its willingness to make renewable energy a priority and to heavily invest in "green" industry. The emphasis on renewable energy in China has also spurred a good deal of private investment, which dispels the myth in the U.S. that no one is willing to invest in these technologies. China, like Germany, will soon leave the U.S. behind and reap the economic benefits of this industry that is poised to explode in growth in the very near future.


Ultimately, we're in a 'something's got to give' situation. We can't continue to use fossil fuels in the way we have used them in the past, we have to change our approach to energy one way or another.

The good news is that there are so many exciting ideas and technologies, from algae biomass fuels to high-altitude wind turbines, out in the world today. We need only make a serious commitment as a nation, both psychologically and monetarily, to see amazing results.

Two experts, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, have gone so far as to say we could power the whole world with renewable sources of energy by 2030. This might not be politically feasible, and political will is the number one obstacle according to the authors, but the potential is exhilarating and I believe politicians are slowly but surely recognizing both the need for and the value of renewable energy sources.

I'm going to stay optimistic about our energy future, and I'm happy to be at a school that recognizes the importance of these energy issues. A happy Energy Week to all!!

Carleton College's turbine in Northfield, MN

See For Yourself
Check out these videos to learn what the experts say ...

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (2013):

Former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu (2011):

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