Energy, A Major Challenge for the Future?

The following article by guest contributor Dr. Abbas Ghassemi is part of a series of articles focused on energy issues of importance to our region and as part of a lead up to the 2nd Annual Re-energize the Americas conference being held on Oct 17 & 18th, 2012 at the Las Cruces, NM Convention Center.

 

By 2050 the demand for energy could double or even triple as the global population rises and developing countries expand their economies. All life on earth depends on energy and the cycling of carbon. Energy is essential for economic and social development but also poses an environmental challenge. We must explore all aspects of energy production and consumption including energy efficiency, clean energy, global carbon cycle, carbon sources and sinks and biomass as well as their relationship to climate and natural resource issues. Knowledge of energy has allowed humans to flourish in numbers unimaginable to our ancestors. The world’s dependence on fossil fuels began approximately two hundred years ago. Are we running out of oil? No, but we are certainly running out of the affordable oil that has powered the world economy since the 1950s. We know how to recover fossil fuels and harvest its energy for operating power plants, planes, trains, and automobiles which results in modifying the carbon cycle and additional greenhouse gas emissions. This has resulted in the debate on availability of fossil energy resources, peak oil era and timing for anticipated end of fossil fuel era and price and environmental impact versus various renewable resources and use, carbon footprint, emission and control including cap and trade and emergence of “green power”.

Our current consumption has largely relied on oil for mobile applications and coal, natural gas, nuclear or water power for stationary applications. In order to address the energy issues in a comprehensive manner, it is vital to consider the complexity of energy. Any energy resource including oil, coal, wind, biomass, etc is an element of a complex supply chain and must be considered in the entirety as a system from production through consumption. All of the elements of the system are interrelated and interdependent. Oil, for example requires consideration for interlinking of all of the elements including exploration, drilling, production, water, transportation, refining, refinery products and bi-products, waste, environmental impact, distribution, consumption/application and finally emissions. Inefficiencies in any part of the system have impact on the overall system and disruption in one of these elements causes major interruption in consumption. As we have experienced in the past, interrupted exploration will result in disruption in production, restricted refining and distribution, and consumption shortages; therefore, any proposed energy solution requires careful evaluation and as such, may be one of the key barriers to implement the proposed use of hydrogen as a mobile fuel.

Wind energy turbine generator

Even though an admirable level of effort has gone into improving the efficiency of fuel sources for delivery of energy, we are faced with severe challenges on many fronts. This includes: population growth, emerging economies, new and expanded usage and limited natural resources. All energy solutions include some level of risk including technology snafus, changes in market demand, economic drivers and others. This is particularly true when proposing energy solution involving implementation of untested alternative energy technologies.

There are concerns that emissions from fossil fuels leads to changing climate with possibly disastrous consequences.  Over the past five decades, the world’s collective greenhouse gas emissions has increased significantly even as efficiency has increased resulting in extending energy benefits to more of the population. Many propose that we improve the efficiency of energy use and conserve resources to lessen green-house gas emissions and avoid a climate catastrophe. Using fossil fuels more efficiently has not reduced overall green-house gas emissions due to various reasons and it is unlikely that such initiatives will have a perceptible effect on atmospheric green-house gas content. While there is a debatable correlation between energy use and green-house gas emissions, there are effective means to produce energy, even from fossil fuels, while controlling emissions. There are also emerging technologies and engineered alternatives that will actually manage the makeup of the atmosphere, but will require significant understanding and careful use of energy.

We need to step back and re-consider our role and knowledge of energy use. The traditional approach of micro management of green-house gas emissions is not feasible or functional over a long period of time. More assertive methods to influence the carbon cycle are needed and will be emerging in the coming years. Modifications to the cycle means we must look at all options in managing atmospheric greenhouse gases including various ways to produce, consume, and deal with energy. We need to be willing to face reality and search in earnest for alternative energy solutions. There appears to be technologies that could assist; however, they may all not be viable. The proposed solutions must not be in terms of a “quick approach”; but a more comprehensive, long term (10, 25 and 50 plus years) approach that is science based and utilizes aggressive research and development. The proposed solutions must be capable of being retrofitted into our existing energy chain. In the meantime, we must continually seek to increase the efficiency of converting energy into heat and power.

One of the best ways to define sustainable development is through long term, affordable availability of resources including energy. There are many potential constraints to sustainable development. Foremost of these is the competition for water use in energy production, manufacturing, farming and others versus a shortage of fresh water for consumption and development. Sustainable development is also dependent on the earth’s limited amount of soil, and in the not too distant future, we will have to restore and build soil as a part of sustainable development. Hence, possible solutions must be comprehensive and based on integrating our energy use with nature’s management of carbon, water and life on earth as represented by the carbon and hydro-geological cycles. Obviously the challenges presented by the need to control atmospheric green-house gases are enormous and requires “out of the box” thinking, innovative approaches, imagination and bold engineering initiatives in order to achieve sustainable development. We will need to ingeniously exploit even more energy and integrate its use with control of atmospheric greenhouse gases. The continued development and application of energy is essential to the development of human society in a sustainable manner through the coming centuries. All alternative energy technologies are not equal and have risks and drawbacks. When evaluating our energy options, we must consider all aspects including: performance against known criteria; basic economics and benefits; efficiency; processing and utilization requirements; infrastructure requirements; subsidies and credits; waste and ecosystem, as well as unintended consequences such as impacts to natural resources and the environment. Additionally, we must include the overall changes and the emerging energy picture based on current and future efforts to modify fossil fuels and evaluate the energy return for the investment of funds and other natural resources such as water.

Americans use at least 520 million MWh to pump, treat and heat water—equivalent to 13% of our nation’s electric supply. This is equal to the output of 150 typical coal-fired power plants.

Water is a precious commodity in the west in general and the southwest in particular and has a significant impact on energy production, including alternative sources due to the nexus between energy and water and the major correlation with the environment and sustainability related issues. While the correlation between these elements, how they relate to each other and the impact of one on the other is basically understood, it is not significantly debated on when it comes to integration and utilization of alternative energy resources into the energy matrix. Additionally, as renewable technology implementation grows in various states, nationally and internationally, the need for informed and trained human resources continues to be a significant driver in future employment resulting in universities, community colleges, trade schools offering minors, certificate programs and even in some cases majors in renewable energy and sustainability. As the field grows, the demand for trained operators, engineers, designers and architects that are able to incorporate these technologies into their daily activity is increasing. Additionally we receive a daily deluge of flyers, emails and texts on various short courses available for interested parties in solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, etc. under the umbrella of re-tooling an individual’s career and providing trained resources needed to interact with financial, governmental and industrial organizations.

The upcoming Re-energize the Americas 2012 conference in New Mexico is a wonderful venue to learn, discuss and debate all the various aspects of this issue and how we as a region can address the emerging needs and capitalize on the opportunities. –Abbas Ghassemi

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2 thoughts on “Energy, A Major Challenge for the Future?

  1. I did not know that despite using fossil fuels, it is possible to control emissions and generate energy efficiently. I thought that in order for us to reduce green-house gas emissions, we had no other choice but to switch to alternative energy. So, that is a new idea I learned from this blog entry. With that said, fossil fuels are going to deplete very soon, and with the rapidly growing population, we need to come up with ways to constantly generate enough energy to meet the current and future population needs. Not only that, like you mentioned in your article, they have to smoothly blend into the energy generating processes of today. A lot of hard work, and more importantly, time and patience need to be devoted to this innovation because we need something that can be maintained over a long period of time. Until then, the fossil fuels currently being used should be used in a more efficient manner so that they can be available to us at least until we figure out a suitable and sustainable alternative.

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