What are the main reasons for the energy shortage we are facing today? Is this problem due to the extreme population growth, more people living in cities, increased agricultural production, and a boom in other industries like mining? What is the effect on nature of our current energy consumption habits? What kind of problems might arise from our pollution? What can be done to prevent our quickly rising global energy demand from transforming into an untreatable energy shortage? Do clean energy alternatives meet the huge demand? What is the extent of waste in energy? Can waste be prevented while still meeting demand?
There are even more questions, and many of the answers pose more questions themselves. Not only is it getting harder to obtain clean, cheap, abundant, and practical energy, but the pursuit of energy leads to environmental problems.
In the past, the term "energy" did not mean what it does today. The kinds of "energy" we think of today weren't feasible in the past. When we think in terms of construction, transportation, travel, communication, defense, or heating, human capabilities were much lower.
For example, the high temperature required to melt iron ore for canon casting was once obtained via wood burning. Ships moved by wind – and if the wind died, they used oars. Grains were ground by water and wind mills; water was pulled from rivers to upper terraces via Archimedean screws, mills, or directly by human power. Soil was plowed by animals and clothes were dried by sunlight.
For the last 150 years, coal, petroleum, and natural gas have been major sources of energy; uranium has been used for the last 60 years. Recently, wind, solar, and geothermal energy – the earliest energy sources – have been making a comeback, albeit in new, faster forms.
The future and costs of energy sources
Today, coal and lignite deposits are predicted to last for centuries; petroleum and natural gas reserves are estimated to last for another 50-60 years. Petroleum is used in the transportation industry, despite being an environmental pollutant and harmful to human health. In electricity production, while thermal power plants based on nuclear energy, geothermal fluids, and solar energy are common, fossil fuel (coal and natural gas) thermal plants are prioritized. For instance, in 2010, half of the total electricity generated in the USA was from coal-burning power plants. There are also countries which starve for energy and spend an overwhelming portion of their national income to import petroleum and natural gas.
There is no alternative, clean, common, and practical fuel on the horizon that can replace petroleum in the transportation industry in the short run. Hydrogen as a synthetic fuel is still in its initial stages. Its production from clean sources, like water, and use for transportation is technically possible, yet still not economical. Plants such as canola, sugar cane, beets, corn, and sunflowers can be used in bio-fuel production and are increasingly becoming part of energy generation. This not only negatively affects the food supply in a world experiencing droughts, food shortages, and hunger problems, but also drives prices higher.
Hydroelectric plants are increasingly opposed worldwide, though this opposition is oftentimes driven by the petrol lobby. Some of the opposition is also due to the fact that hydroelectric dams destroy vegetation and animal habitats, and also cause the relocation of human populations.
Due to the increase in energy consumption, ash, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur oxides pollute air, water, and soil. The damage could take hundreds of years to undo. Acid rains lower the quality of soil and water. Ash, generated from burning coal, harms vegetation and the atmosphere. The accidents occurring at petroleum rigs, transmission lines, and among transportation vehicles also lead to pollution.
Despite this, energy is still a necessity. Our current sources have been deposited on the earth – and many are derivative of solar energy (fossil fuel, wind, and sun energy). Unfortunately, today it is becoming harder and harder to meet global energy demands without disrupting human and environmental health.
The most important alternative seems to be global-scale, cheaper production of synthetic fuels, such as hydrogen, from renewable clean sources like solar and wind sources. In the long run, the development of hydrogen energy systems as a replacement for the petrol economy is quite possible. It will take a while because the petrol industry already has a well-established foothold within the global economy. It is a huge network. Our petroleum economy is not expected to change in the short run and change is not currently possible technologically, economically, or politically.
Energy waste, efficiency, and saving
While searching for solutions to the growing energy demands, the efficient use of energy and consuming it without waste are the two significant goals. So, it is important to know a bit more about what we call "waste." There are two kinds of waste: objective and subjective.
Objective waste can be divided into three subcategories: excessive use, negligence, and irresponsible use. Excessive use is when you need to use electricity in a dark place, but you use more light bulbs than necessary. Negligence is when you do not switch off lights when you leave your office. And irresponsible use is when you turn on lights when there is already enough daylight.
Subjective waste can be defined as organizing entertainment activities, in addition to the illumination, advertisement, and material consumption of these events without presenting them to public debate. Today, almost all production sectors (food, electronics, automotive, industrial, communication, transportation, tourism, and service) contribute to the entertainment and media sector. All forms of entertainment and media, targeting both individuals and masses, are perceived to be among the most important needs worldwide.
With the uncontrolled spread of things that have become an unnecessary need, the waste of electricity and sources like water, food, and fuel is ever increasing. Eliminating bad habits will not be easy. Excessive abuse of the planet's energy sources leave millions of people without clean water, food, and electricity. The volume of technology that is dependent on fossil fuel (especially petroleum) and electricity is also getting larger – and spreading.
Many would say that in free market anyone or any institution can organize such activities. However, in the near future, it is quite possible that the world will be in a situation in which the consumption of water, basic food, primary fuel, and electricity will all be regulated. Also, if we envision humanity as a big family, in a world in which hundreds of millions of people live without clean water, and enough food, fuel, and electricity, nobody should have the right to consume vital resources for arbitrary habits.
Energy efficiency is sought in the hopes of preserving more energy for populations that do not have access to them. Such preservation can be achieved both by eliminating waste and by developing new devices (economic light bulbs that can provide the same luminescence with lesser electricity use), machinery, and buildings (where solar heat and illumination are better employed in lighting, heating, and ventilation).
Maybe humanity needs to ask some hard questions: How much is our share of the earth? How can we know the fairest way to benefit from nature without abusing this God-given trust?
We should think about these questions. We should also think about future generations before we consume energy that we do not need to consume. We need to help design a better future for the generations yet to come.
The Uncertainties of Energy Supplies
- By Omer Said Gonullu
- Category: Issue 106 (July - August 2015)
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