An Energy Policy for the 21st Century
It is clear that continued dependency on fossil fuels will seriously jeopardize our national security, erode our economy, and devastate our environment. In order for the United States to our reclaim our position as a world leader, and to redevelop our economic vitality, we must create a paradigm shift in our development, use, and distribution of energy. Just tweaking the current situation will not serve us well.
Economic improvements that result in investment and job development are driven by innovation and it is time to move our energy policy into the 21st century. Renewable energy, the development of hydrogen and fuel cells and new battery technology will provide new jobs and economic growth in a world ever more dependent upon declining fossil fuels, and reduce our environmental impact. For those concerned about loss of revenue from oil, gas and coal, it will take from 25 to 50 years to fully transition from a fossil based economy into one based upon renewables and hydrogen, giving those fossil-based companies time to reinvest or otherwise adapt to the new economy.
While wind, solar and geothermal sources of power have the capacity to fulfill our electrical demands, they do not, by themselves address our transportation needs. As petroleum hits peak production, and world demand continues to increase, we seek to replace this resource with biofuels; the unintended consequence of which is displacement of valuable food production, especially with regard to corn-based ethanol. Cellulosic (from grass) ethanol will be much more neutral as it can be grown on less fertile ground than corn and will place less stress on the agricultural commodities market. Oilseeds such as canola and palm oil have a viable place as substitutes for diesel, but there are very valid concerns regarding the loss of valuable rainforests, as ever increasing numbers of palm plantations take there place.
Hydrogen can employed as a fuel anywhere that natural gas can be used. It can be produced from renewably produced electricity at off-peak hours, using electrolysis of water. Using fuel cell technology, energy efficiencies of up to 85% can be achieved when combined heat and power systems are employed. When hydrogen is utilized, the waste product is water vapor. Obtained from water, it returns to water. Because it is expensive to produce using conventionally generated electricity, the key to a hydrogen economy must be that the electricity needed to produce it must be renewably obtained.
The excess renewably produced electricity needed to create the amount of hydrogen that will be needed to fuel our total transportation infrastructure will not be available for several decades. In order to initiate the development of a hydrogen infrastructure, to include storage and distribution, it is possible to employ coal gasification as a transition production technology. This will create a buffer and transition economy that will allow jobs to be created and maintained for a predesignated period of time, until a renewably based economy reaches full bloom.
The aviation and associated tourism industries are some of the economies hardest hit by increases in the cost of fuel. Hydrogen, at this juncture is not well adapted to fixed wing applications, do to storage and weight requirements. As oil continues to rise in cost, travel and tourism will be devastated unless fuel costs can be contained. Using hydrogen for land-based transportation will free up petroleum, keeping costs lower for other critical uses such as aviation and for chemical feedstocks.
The previous discussion makes the argument that hydrogen is an exciting and viable fuel when produced renewably, and that to prepare for the future we must begin now to create the infrastructure that will be required to bring such an industry to fruition. Renewables are extremely adaptable and due to their many and varied forms lend themselves to being placed in many geographic areas; wind in the great plains, oceans and mountains, tidal and wave energy along coasts, solar throughout, but most efficiently in places such as the American southwest.
A technology that has not gotten the interest that it deserves is electrical generation via ocean currents. Due to the density of water, ocean currents have the capacity to yield tremendous amounts of electrical power, at much lower velocities than wind, for example. The Gulf Stream, flowing along the whole eastern seaboard of the United States is one of the fastest currents in the world, and has the capacity to yield tremendous amounts of electricity, and/or hydrogen. The corrosive nature of seawater, and submersed generators do present some special problems, but these are not insurmountable. The ability to seal systems against intrusion of seawater under pressure is well established, and underwater generators have been installed in Norway and in the Hudson River.
Renewable energy technologies, in their many incarnations, represent the paradigm shift that we require to make our civilization and our standard of living sustainable well into the future. The investment that we will need will be considerable, but it must be done soon. While voters resent taxes, I believe that if well-defined goals are established and progress is documented, that they will rise to the occasion. A “Manhatten Project”, that addresses our energy future and national security should include investment at all levels of government, and the private and corporate sectors, as well. Conservation and energy efficiency are integral components to this strategy, and human innovation has just begun to scratch the surface in these arenas.
To achieve success will require tremendous articulation and communication between the federal government and all segments of our society and the world, at large. It will be a job never undertaken at this level before. These are exciting times and if we choose wisely we can create a healthier, happier and safer world for our children and grandchildren.