Energy’s Future Today
There is a great deal of information and enthusiasm today about the development and increased production of our global energy needs from alternative energy sources. Solar energy, wind power and moving water are all traditional sources of alternative energy that are making progress. The enthusiasm everyone shares for these developments has in many ways created a sense of complacency that our future energy demands will easily be met.
Alternative energy is an interesting concept when you think about it. In our global society, it simply means energy that is produced from sources other than our primary energy supply: fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas are the three kinds of fossil fuels that we have mostly depended on for our energy needs, from home heating and electricity to fuel for our automobiles and mass transportation.
The problem is fossil fuels are non-renewable. They are limited in supply and will one day be depleted. There is no escaping this conclusion. Fossil fuels formed from plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago and became buried way underneath the Earth’s surface where their remains collectively transformed into the combustible materials we use for fuel.
In fact, the earliest known fossil fuel deposits are from the Cambrian Period about 500 million years ago, way before the dinosaurs emerged onto the scene. This is when most of the major groups of animals first appeared on Earth. The later fossil fuels — which provide more substandard fuels like peat or lignite coal (soft coal) — began forming as late as five million years ago in the Pliocene Period. At our rate of consumption, these fuels cannot occur fast enough to meet our current or future energy demands.
Despite the promise of alternative energy sources — more appropriately called renewable energy, collectively they provide only about 7 percent of the world’s energy needs (Source: Energy Information Agency). This means that fossil fuels, along with nuclear energy — a controversial, non-renewable energy source — are supplying 93 percent of the world’s energy resources.
Nuclear energy, which is primarily generated by splitting atoms, only provides 6 percent of the world’s energy supplies. And it is not likely to be a major source of world energy consumption because of public pressure and the relative dangers associated with unleashing the power of the atom. Yet, governments such as the United States see its vast potential and are placing pressure on the further exploitation of nuclear energy.
The total world energy demand is for about 400 quadrillion British Thermal Units — or BTUs — each year (Source: US Department of Energy). That’s 400,000,000,000,000,000 BTUs! A BTU is roughly equal to the energy and heat generated by a match. Oil, coal and natural gas supply nearly 88 percent of the world’s energy needs, or about 350 quadrillion BTUs. Of this amount, oil is king, providing about 41 percent of the world’s total energy supplies, or about 164 quadrillion BTUs. Coal provides 24 percent of the world’s energy, or 96 quadrillion BTUs, and natural gas provides the remaining 22 percent, or 88 quadrillion BTUs.
It’s not so much that we mine fossil fuels for our consumption any more than it is to mine salt or tap water supplies way underground. The problems occur when we destroy ecosystems while mining it and while using it. Certainly, if there were a way that fossil fuels can be mined and used in ways that do not harm our ecology, then everything will be okay… in a perfect world. What makes our world perfect is that, it really isn’t perfect according to definition. It is natural, with all things interdependent on each other to live, grow and produce. Fossil fuel mining and oil production can and has caused irreparable damage to our environment.
The Fossil Fuel Dilemma
Fossil fuels exist, and they provide a valuable service. It’s not so much that we use fossil fuels for energy that is problematic, but it’s the side effects of using them that causes all of the problems. Burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide, the number one greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Combustion of these fossil fuels is considered to be the largest contributing factor to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the 20th century, the average temperature of Earth rose 1 degree Fahrenheit (1°F). This was a period that saw the most prolific population growth and industrial development (read use of energy) in Earth’s history.
The impact of global warming on the environment is extensive and affects many areas. In the Arctic and Antarctica, warmer temperatures are causing the ice to melt which will increase sea level and change the composition of the surrounding sea water. Rising sea levels alone can impede processes ranging from settlement, agriculture and fishing both commercially and recreationally. Air pollution is also a direct result of the use of fossil fuels, resulting in smog and the degradation of human health and plant growth.
But there’s also the great dangers posed to natural ecosystems that result from collecting fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil. Oil spills have devastated ecosystems and coal mining has stripped lands of their vitality. This is the primary reason to discontinue the pursuit to tap the vast oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
The oil, coal and natural gas companies know these are serious problems. But until our renewable energy sources become more viable as major energy providers, the only alternative for our global population is for these companies to continue tapping into the fossil fuel reserves to meet our energy needs. And you can pretty much count on these companies being there providing energy from renewable sources when the fossil fuels are depleted. Many oil companies, for example, are involved in the development of more reliable renewable energy technologies. For example, British Petroleum Company, today known as BP, has become one of the world’s leading providers of solar energy through its BP Solar division, a business that they are planning on eclipsing their oil production business in the near future.
Future Supplies for Future Energy
Just how limited are our fossil fuel reserves? Some estimates say our fossil fuel reserves will be depleted within 50 years, while others say it will be 100-120 years. The fact is that neither one of these projections is very appealing for a global community that is so heavily dependent on fossil fuels to meet basic human needs. The bottom line: We are going to run out of fossil fuels for energy and we have no choice but to prepare for the new age of energy production since, most certainly, human demands for energy will not decrease.
Nobody really knows when the last drop of oil, lump of coal or cubic foot of natural gas will be collected from the Earth. All of it will depend on how well we manage our energy demands along with how well we can develop and use renewable energy sources.
And here is one very important factor: population growth. As the population grows upwards towards nine billion people over the next 50 years, the world’s energy demands will increase proportionately. Not only will it be important for renewable energy to keep up with the increasing population growth, but it must outpace not only these demands but begin replacing fossil fuel energy production if we are to meet future energy needs.
By the year 2020, world energy consumption is projected to increase by 50 percent, or an additional 207 quadrillion BTUs. If the global consumption of renewable energy sources remains constant, the world’s available fossil fuel reserves will be consumed in 104 years or early in the 22nd century.(Source: US Department of Energy) Clearly, renewable energy resources will play an increasingly vital role in the power generation mix over the next century.
The Ultimate Energy Sources as the Underdogs
Sun, wind and water are perfect energy sources…depending on where you are. They are non-polluting, renewable and efficient. They are simple: all you need is sunlight, running water and/or wind. Not only do the use of renewable energy sources help reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, but they also add some much-needed flexibility to the energy resource mix by decreasing our dependence on limited reserves of fossil fuels.
Essentially, these renewable energy sources create their own energy. The object is to capture and harness their mechanical power and convert it to electricity in the most effective and productive manner possible. There’s more than enough renewable energy sources to supply all of the world’s energy needs forever; however, the challenge is to develop the capability to effectively and economically capture, store and use the energy when needed.
Take solar energy for example. The ultimate source of energy is the sun. Its energy is found in all things, including fossil fuels. Plants depend on the sun to make food, animals eat the plants, and both ended up becoming the key ingredients for fossil fuels. Without the sun, nothing on this planet would exist.
The sun also provides enough energy that can be stored for use long after the sun sets and even during extended cloudy periods. But making it available is much easier said than done. It would be cost prohibitive to make solar energy mainstream for major world consumption in the near future. The technology is pretty much ready for many business and consumer applications, but it would be way too expensive to replace the current energy infrastructure used for fossil fuel energy. Still, according to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, solar power could provide energy for more than one billion people by 2020 and 26 percent of global energy needs by 2040.
Wind and hydroelectric power, which have been used effectively for generations, are also rapidly growing energy markets. The principle behind both is that the force of the wind and water currents are passed through turbines which convert their energy into electricity. Commercial wind energy is usually collected by wind “farms” essentially consisting of hundreds of wind turbines (windmills) spread over large plots of land.
But hydroelectric power is harnessed in several different methods. The most popular is through dams, such as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Another form of hydroelectric energy is tidal power. In use since the early 1900s, tidal power stations collect the energy created by the rise and fall of the tides to convert to electricity.
Biomass energy, or energy from burning plants and other organic matter, is one of man’s earliest sources of energy. Wood was once the main source of power for heat, and it still is in many developing countries. Most people in developed countries use wood only for aesthetic purposes or secondary heating, limited mainly to fireplaces and decorative woodstoves. Roughly one to two billion people in the developing nations still use wood as their primary source of heat. It is this group that is seen being among the first to convert to solar heating and energy because there is no other existing infrastructure to hinder its development.
Perhaps the best solution to our growing energy challenges comes from The Union of Concerned Scientists: “No single solution can meet our society’s future energy needs. The solution instead will come from a family of diverse energy technologies that share a common thread — they do not deplete our natural resources or destroy our environment.”
Did You Know?
Wind energy is actually a form of solar energy. Wind is formed from the heating and cooling of the atmosphere, which causes air and air layers to rise and fall and move over each other. This movement results in wind currents.
More Information Sources
- Energy Sources & Production: US Department of Energy
- Energy & The Environment (US DOE)
- About Fossil Fuels (US DOE)
- Energy Information Administration (DOE)
- Fossil Energy
- Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network
- Renewable Energy: Union of Concerned Scientists
- United States Energy and World Energy Production and Consumption Statistics
- The Energy Story