PEACE in Action
Using Multi-Track Diplomacy to Deal With Ethnic Conflict
Policies for International Peace
Renewable Energy Revolution
Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves of any country (Saudi Arabia has the most oil). Our prosperous American lifestyle depends on importing 38 percent of the energy we use (see endnote 1).
Oil powers much of industry, heats homes, and fuels our cars. But it is also critical to our agriculture, powering irrigation pumps, producing fertilizer, and fueling tractors and trucks. Take away the oil, and "life as we know it" would end. There would be no food in cities and precious little even on farms.
Worldwide, oil is being pumped from the ground faster than new supplies are being discovered. Geologists believe that, within this decade, the amount of oil recovered per year will peak and start to fall for the first time. In the next decades, the world's supply of oil will run out (endnote 2).
Natural gas and coal can substitute for oil, but there are problems. Like oil, these are fossil fuels -- energy from the sun captured and stored in the earth over millions of years. All are running out, and once they are gone, they are gone. Also, burning any of these adds carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Scientists believe burning fossil fuels is already changing the earth's climate, raising the level of oceans, triggering storms of unprecedented severity, and disrupting agriculture with floods and droughts.
If we expect to live on planet earth for the indefinite future, we must achieve sustainability. In terms of energy, this means we must wean ourselves from these finite fuels. That will require technology and infrastructure to harvest renewable energy from the sun. We're not talking about a symbolic effort. Because of the amount of energy involved, we need a new industrial age -- a renewable energy revolution.
For a handle on big energy, we need to talk in "quads." A British Thermal Unit (BTU) is the energy needed to raise a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. A "quad" is a quadrillion BTUs. This is the energy equivalent of a tank of gasoline the size of a football field and 5 miles high!
World energy production is about 400 quads, of which U.S. annual energy usage is about 100 quads (endnote 1).
That energy comes from:
Oil is the most significant fuel in the U.S. and in the world. Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) account for 85% of our energy usage. But their supplies are finite and burning them threatens the global climate.
Nuclear power requires raw materials that are also in finite supply and creates byproducts that remain radioactive and extremely poisonous to humans for tens of thousands of years. These by-products can also be used to make nuclear bombs. Nuclear reactors could be attacked by terrorists with conventional bombs, poisoning large land areas. Therefore, nuclear power is not considered a key to our energy future.
Ninety-three percent (93%) of our energy supply, 93 quads per year, is unsustainable. The question is: what renewable sources might be capable of taking their place?
Biomass (wood, waste, alcohol, biodiesel, etc.) is not the answer. According to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, humans worldwide now use about 50% of all solar energy captured by photosynthesis (endnote 3). Fertile land is needed to grow food.
Suitable hydropower sites are mostly taken and some dams are being removed to reverse ecological damage they cause.
But wind power is growing rapidly because modern turbines can produce electricity at competitive cost, despite government subsidies of fossil fuels. Good wind areas, which cover 6% of the continental U.S., have the potential to supply more than one and a half times the current electricity consumption of the United States (endnote 4), or about 60 quads (endnote 5). That's a lot of energy!
Solar power has still more potential. In a sunny area like the southwest U.S., an area 28 miles square of photovoltaics could produce a quad of energy per year (endnote 6). In theory, the State of Nevada could supply America's 100 quads per year from the sun alone.
Wind turbines only make electricity when the wind blows. Solar plants make electricity only during daylight. Neither of these, by itself, can produce a continuous supply of electricity. Electrical transmission over long distances also involves large energy losses. This is where hydrogen comes in. Electricity can be passed through water (electrolysis) to make hydrogen gas. The hydrogen can be compressed and efficiently sent long distances through conventional pipelines, from sunny (or windy) places, throughout the country. Hydrogen releases pure water when it burns without climate-changing carbon dioxide.
The renewable energy revolution will give us the ability to harvest as much energy from the wind and sun as we need. But we won't need as much energy as we now use to enjoy the same or greater prosperity. Major improvements in insulation of buildings and efficiency of cars and appliances will make a lot of sense when fossil fuels get more expensive. Co-generation, with waste heat from power plants heating houses, can help. Some utilities already find it cheaper to promote energy savings ("megawatts") than to build new power plants.
Power needs depend on the population to be supported. Public policies encouraging smaller families will tend to increase health, education levels, availability of jobs, and overall quality of life, as well as decreasing energy needs.
Hydrogen fusion and other technologies may become practical in the future. But the renewable energy revolution won't wait.
The political tide for renewable energy is turning as if to coincide with the 2004 election. Two new coalitions have burst on the scene. The Energy Future Coalition has industry, environmental, and bipartisan political endorsements. Its 129-page report calls for a onethird reduction in U.S. oil consumption over the next 25 years.
The Apollo Alliance, independent of the Coalition, brings together labor and environmental interests, and has a 10-point plan not just to expand renewable energy, but to promote hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell cars, increase building efficiencies, invest in "smart growth" and more. (Apollo is the Greek god of the sun and also the name of the program that landed Americans on the moon in less than a decade.)
Both the Energy Future Coalition and the Apollo Alliance have packaged their messages in terms of business profits and jobs. Hundreds of billions of dollars in new business and 1-2 million good jobs! And, by the way, energy independence from the Middle East!
The sun can supply all the energy we need. With a small fraction of our $400 billion military budget, we can jump start an enormous new industry for America, supplying at least a million new jobs, and U.S. energy independence! The renewable energy revolution is a winning proposition for America and for the planet.
Special thanks to Ashleigh Brilliant
(Brilliant Enterprises; 117 W. Valerio St.; Santa Barbara, CA 93101 USA)
for permission to use his Pot-Shots postcards.