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Future Alternative Energy Sources and why we Need Them.
Why Change From Fossil Fuel to an Alternative Energy Source?
As you are reading this oil and gas is being pumped out of the ground all around the world to drive the global economy. The modern western society is still completely dependent on fossil fuel energy to sustain its way of living. The problem with this scenario is two-fold.
First, as more societies approach the western world standard of living the demand for fossil fuels increases, at the same time the ability to pump them out of the ground fast enough is being strained. This causes oil prices to spike as we have seen the last few years. At some point in the future, if the oil demand outpaces the supply potential we reach a scenario often referred to as peak oil.
Peak oil is a term used to describe the point in history when oil production will be at its highest point. This term has nothing to do with the total amount of fossil fuels available, which is not an issue as we have only used about 10% of it. It is, however, a fact that we have already used the oil that is easiest to pump up and in the coming years, it will be harder, costlier and slower to extract more fossil fuels. For that reason, it is forecasted that fossil fuel production capacity will at some point start to decline. resulting in some nations being starved for energy.
This scenario is sure to happen if there is no effort made to shift the global economy from a fossil fuel one to a more renewable one. Thankfully, such a shift is already occurring around the globe and the possibility of a peak oil scenario is shrinking.
The second reason to move from a fossil fuel based economy is due to the greenhouse effect.
What is the Greenhouse Effect?
Every gas that can absorb infrared radiation is in effect a greenhouse gas. There are however only a few gases that have a considerable effect on the planet. These are, for example, water, carbon dioxide, methane, and dinitrous oxide.
Heat in the form of radiation (sunlight) comes from the sun and is reflected off the planet. Only a small fraction of the energy from the sun remains on the planet. The energy that remains is mostly stored in the oceans and the atmosphere of the planet. Now the chemical composition of the oceans and atmosphere control how much energy can be stored there. The greenhouse gases are the compounds that are able to store this energy, while, for example, oxygen and nitrogen are unable to do so.
It is, nevertheless, necessary to have a certain amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to keep the planet warm. If there were no greenhouse gases the average temperature of the planet would drop by about 40°C.
What is happening now and is being called the greenhouse effect is that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing drastically. This means the atmosphere can store more energy from the sun, which in turn means more heat and more extreme weather. In fact, there are not many that are arguing against this point, the argument is usually if the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are really having such great effect or if some other culprit is to blame for the increased temperatures.
Yet, the only way to counter the effect from greenhouse gases, regardless off how big an effect they have, is to turn our focus to alternative energy sources, either the renewable energy sources like solar energy and geothermal energy, or some other future forms of alternative energy. In this article, I want to go over the possibilities of future alternative energy sources which could be, and are, used instead of fossil fuels.
Solar Energy as a Future Energy Source
Solar energy is the most abundant energy source on the planet. The total solar energy that the earth absorbs in a year is about 3.850.000 Exajoules per year. To put it in context, that amount of energy is about half the total energy that can ever be obtained from all the coal, gas, oil, uranium and other non-renewable resources that are found on the planet. If we could harness just a small portion of all this energy it would replace all the other energy sources that are used today.
Solar energy is harnessed in many ways. As an example, agriculture is, in fact, using the energy of the sun to grow crops. Yet when discussing solar energy we typically think about solar panels ( PV-cells ) which convert photonic energy into electricity. Solar energy can also be utilized to heat water by reflecting it on a water tank, heating the water to steaming and using the steam to produce electricity and the hot water to heat homes.
While solar energy is a very clean form of energy it has it's problems. It is costly to build a solar cell (but will likely drop with greater mass production) and you can only produce energy while the sun is in the sky. Also while it is a good choice for desert environments, the northernmost areas of the planet have a considerably less amount of solar radiation than the desert areas and equator. That being said, solar energy will most likely be the primary future alternative energy source as it's relatively easy to set up small or large solar power plants if the location is suitable.
Can Wind Energy Replace Fossil Fuels?
Wind energy comes from harnessing the wind with wind turbines. This energy source can be harnessed in most areas of the planet, although there are a few locations that are unsuitable due to either strong shifting winds or a general lack of wind. Today an estimated 2,5% - 3% of the total electricity used in the world is generated by wind turbines. Wind turbine technology is advancing greatly with individual wind turbines reaching over 1 MW of energy output
Like solar energy, wind energy is a very clean form of energy with little to no pollution, there are however some problems. Windmills are generally considered to be unattractive in the landscape, they tend to be noisy and the power output varies with the wind speed from day to day. However, if the total amount of electricity from wind turbines is less than 20% of the local grid the variation of wind speed becomes a small problem.
Geothermal Energy, a Clean and Cheap Future Energy Source.
In certain areas of the planet, a lot of superheated water is found underneath the surface. In some places, this water manages to break to the surface and form hot springs and even geysers. In these geologically hot areas of the planet, it is ideal to harness the energy in the hot water with geothermal power plants. As an example, there are five geothermal power stations in Iceland that supply hot water and electricity to the majority of the people in Iceland.
A geothermal power plant is basically a turbine that is spun with the steam that comes from a borehole that can be up to 3000 meters deep. The water that comes up is often 200-300°C. Usually the water is also used to heat up homes by warming up cold water that is then pumped into homes.
Geothermal is a relatively clean source of energy, it's cheap, renewable if handled correctly and very reliable. However, geothermal energy can only be utilized in specific locations around the globe. The infrastructure of such a plant is something of an eyesore and some heavy metal and hydrogen sulfide pollution can be expected as it reaches the surface with the hot steam. Most of those problems can be minimized but it requires extra safeguards and cost.
Hydro Energy, Both an Original Energy Source and a Massive Battery.
Hydro energy comes from harnessing the natural water cycle. Generally, a dam is built to store water from a river. The water from the reservoir is then directed through a turbine that generates electricity. There are also smaller hydropower stations that only use the flow of water in a river without a dam. Hydropower is a clean form of alternative energy and renewable as long as it keeps raining.
Another way to utilize hydropower is to make the water reservoir act as a battery. By having pumps move water up into a reservoir during times of abundant renewable energy ( such as during windy days ) it can later be used to balance out shortcoming on days where there is a lack of energy from renewable sources.
The greatest problem with hydropower is the land that goes underwater for the reservoir. In some areas landmass would be much better used to grow food than sunk underwater for electricity. Also, hydropower plants can only be built where there is a steady supply of rainwater. This limits the use of them globally. The Hoover dam in the US is probably the most famous hydropower dam in the world.
Could Tidal Energy Work as an Alternative Future Energy Source?
Tidal energy is produced by harnessing the flow of water as the tides turn. Generally, this sort of energy production would be ideal in narrow and deep fjords. It is not used much around the world as other energy sources are considered superior. However, in some locations, tidal power plants may be an ideal future energy source.
Like all power plants, there are downsides. There are concerns that a tidal power plant may damage sea life in the fjords they would be placed, either by reducing the oxygenation of the seawater or simply by directly killing fish and other sea creatures in the turbines themselves. More research is required in this field before it can be considered a viable future alternative energy source.
Nuclear Energy, Good or Bad?
Nuclear energy uses nuclear fission to heat water. The hot steam is then used to turn turbines that generate electricity, much in the same way as geothermal plants, the difference being that in geothermal the hot steam comes directly from the ground.
The problems of nuclear energy as a future alternative energy source are well known, nuclear fallout from meltdowns, nuclear waste that takes thousands of years to dissipate, radiation pollution and so forth. Despite this nuclear energy is a clean energy source, compared to fossil fuels. And as it is used extensively in several countries across the globe the use of nuclear energy may increase as fossil fuels become harder to get.
Fusion Energy, a Far Future Energy Source?
Fusion energy is still in development and might end up being an ideal future energy source. In a fusion power plant, the energy comes from fusing together two hydrogen atoms to form a helium atom, which is the same process that runs our sun. So, yes, to generate fusion energy you would need to have a miniature sun under control. Technically, this form of energy would not be considered a renewable source, however, the amount of hydrogen on the planet is so great that it could supply us with energy far into the future.
The problems here is the difficulty in controlling the fusion. The technical know-how required to built and maintain such a facility would also be a massive hindrance to less developed countries. There is also no real guarantee that this will ever work properly, only time will tell.
Other Alternative Energy Sources That Could Become Reality.
There are also ideas going around for future energy sources that could be harnessed in the near or far future. Ideas such as tapping into the natural magnetism of earth, harnessing plasma gas extracted from deep boreholes, collecting electricity from bolts of lightning and even earth-orbiting solar power plants which beam energy down to earth.
These ideas are more in the realm of science fiction at this point, yet who can say what breakthroughs in energy technology will turn into a great future alternative energy source.
What Will be the Alternate Energy of the Future?
What energy source do you believe will be the main future energy source?
So why are we Worried?
So what's the problem then? Why are people so worried about an energy crisis? According to this short compilation, there should be so much energy available that it could be free for all.
The problem lies in the cost and mostly the time it takes to change the global energy infrastructure from a fossil fuel based one to a renewable-based one. Producing electricity is also just a part of the problem, we also need suitable storage ability to transport this energy and use it in cars, ships, and airplanes.
There are however already several possible solutions to the energy storage problem in the form of renewable energy carriers.
What Will we Use as Fuel in the Future?
As the availability of fossil fuels reduces in the future new forms of sustainable energy carriers will be needed. For over 100 years we have depended on oil and gas as fuel for our cars, ships, and airplanes. In the near future, we will still need those transportation methods so there is a great need to find new energy carriers which are suitable as fuel and can replace fossil fuels used in cars, ships, and airplanes.
There is, however, no real need to have only one medium, a wide variety might even serve a better purpose, allowing for a more tailored approach depending on the needs of specific industries. There are already several working ideas for suitable energy carriers to store and transport energy in either liquid form or gaseous that can be developed in a sustainable manner. These are
So let's go over the pros and cons of these possibilities.
Liquid or High Pressure Hydrogen
My personal view is that hydrogen (chemical formula: H2) will become the main fuel medium of the future. The simplicity in which it can be produced from water using electricity and the great energy efficiency that has already been reached using fuel cells being the main reasons for this belief.
The main problem with hydrogen though is the difficulty with storing it. As a gas that has a boiling temperature of -253°C, it is extremely hard to store in liquid form. Hydrogen in gas form also has very low energy per volume, resulting in the need for high-pressure canisters should hydrogen be used as fuel. And while the canisters could be stored in a vehicle in a mostly safe manner just try to explain to your mother how driving a car with two 400 bar tanks underneath you is safe.
Because of this problem with safety, both real and imaginary, there have been great efforts made in developing a metal hybrid mesh to store hydrogen under much less pressure. At the moment the temperatures needed for this to work are far to low for commercial use, but last I heard you could use a certain type of mesh on the south-pole with good success.
When the problem with storing it safely has been solved the rest is really easy. Hydrogen is easily produced on site by electrolysis and fuel pumps suitable for hydrogen have already been developed. Hydrogen is also a nice compound to produce using renewables like solar and wind as it can be produced when there is an energy surplus in the grid and then stored for use later on.
Liquid Methane or Liquid Natural Gas
Methane (chemical formula: CH4) is a gas at room temperature that is commercially sourced from natural gas. Such methane is in no way different than other fossil fuels and cannot be considered a sustainable choice, although it does deliver more energy with less carbon emissions than petrol and diesel.
Methane however is also a by-product of biomass degradation, called biogas. Methane collected that way and burned as fuel can be considered to be renewable with the added bonus of reducing carbon footprint as methane is a 21 times greater greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, meaning it is much better to burn it than release it into the atmosphere.
There are already several car companies producing commercial cars which run on either pure methane or directly on biogas. As it is already being used on a large scale to drive vehicles it is tempting to consider it as the solution to the energy carrier dilemma. The problem, however, lies in the fact that biogas production is a lengthy process and would require significant infrastructure changes as production areas would be scattered and not centralized like natural gas. The total amount of biogas which can be produced this way is also not enough to fuel every vehicle on earth.
Methane could, however, be a nice supplement to hydrogen and possibly other energy carriers as farmland and biowaste are not going away anytime soon.
Renewably Produced Methanol
Methanol (chemical formula: CH3OH, also known as wood alcohol) is one of the liquids that have been discussed as a possible energy carrier. Methanol is a liquid at room temperature with a boiling point at 64,6°C and as such could easily be integrated into the modern fossil fuel infrastructure. It is a well-known compound that has widespread industrial uses. Methanol is commercially produced today by a process called steam reform that effectively turns methane into methanol via chemical processes.
Methanol produced from natural gas methane cannot be considered a renewable source. There are however other methods of producing it. By sourcing, the methane from biomass methanol can be produced and used as fuel in a carbon-neutral process.
In addition, a company called Carbon Recycling International is developing a method to produce methanol directly from hydrogen and carbon dioxide using electricity from a renewable source. This technology is still in development with a test plant producing 2 million liters a year. The carbon dioxide is sourced from a local power plant and as such the methanol can be considered carbon neutral as each carbon that is released from the car would have been released anyway from the power plant itself.
Ethanol (chemical formula: C2H5OH), like methanol, is a liquid at room temperature with a boiling point of 79°C. Ethanol is already used in various locations around the globe as fuel. Ethanol is mainly produced from corn and sugarcane and is therefore really a renewable energy carrier.
The problem with ethanol is that a lot of farmland needs to go under crops for ethanol production, leading to increased prices of food around the world. This has already started to happen with selected food products such as rice and sugar. Do to this ethanol cannot be the main energy carrier of the future as it would have a serious effect on global food prices.
Biodiesel is a common name for all fuel that is produced from organic material and changed into diesel fuel via chemical synthesis. Like ethanol, biodiesel is mainly produced from farmland produce. However, it could easily be produced from other sources like algae and biowaste. With an added bonus that cars would not need to change much, it has a greater potential to be an important factor in the future energy market.
Already great research is being done on biodiesel and in some locations biodiesel is being used in both cars, tractors, and boats. The use is however still only a fraction of the total energy market.
It is a fact that the global economy is still using too much fossil fuels. From an economic and ecological standpoint, it makes sense to shift to a renewable model of keeping the planed energized. By using renewable sources of energy and renewable forms of storing that energy, most of the detrimental effects of fossil fuels can be avoided to the benefit of all.
© 2013 Levictus Marcus Saarith