Chapter II, Section C.  What are the sources of our energy?

A single bar chart summarizing the resources for the annual world consumption of energy is almost identical to the chart summarizing U.S. resource consumption, and quickly elucidates our energy reality. Over four fifths of that world pie is provided from the fossil fuels: coal and natural gas each providing about 23% of total consumption, and petroleum providing about 40%. The remaining 14% come from what are referred to as the “alternative” energies, which include nuclear energy, providing about 6%, and the politically more popular “renewable” energies, providing about 8%. Alternative energies only contribute 14% of the energy we need today, a fact that its competitors in the fossil fuel industries are quick to point out. Though this is the energy economic reality today, one must also evaluate the untapped potential of each resource. As the economy turns, is there an alternative energy gold rush on the horizon, or are the alternatives ultimately resource limited, or even thermodynamically limited?

Can we wean ourselves from fossil fuels? In the long term, we have no choice. Through heedless amnesia, we’re occasionally rudely reminded that fossil fuels are finite. To both wean from fossil fuels and maintain world population or modern lifestyles, alternative energy must eventually grow from its current 14% to 100% of total consumption, a total consumption that is itself increasing with time. That is to say, eventually both nuclear and “renewable” energy contributions MUST grow.

Nuclear energy produced with today’s technologies exploit fission nuclear reactions, leaving long-lived radioactive wastes and a potential for fallout from nuclear accidents. Though always controversial, nuclear energy was actively developed in Europe and initially in the U.S. Following the 1979 3-Mile-Island and 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accidents, there were no new orders for nuclear power plants in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, and the current 104 active power plants are down from a peak of 112 plants in 1990. In light of climate change, acid precipitation, advocacy from the Bush Administration, and an increased awareness of our energy situation, nuclear energy has experienced a bit of resurgence. Approval has been sought for 26 nuclear reactors since 2007, though it is unknown how many of these projects will ultimately proceed. The nuclear industry has an image problem, very definitely perpetuated by the likes of The Simpsons—Homer and Blinky the 3-Eyed Fish—as admitted by one of the industry’s representatives featured in a recent special on the show’s creation. Nuclear opposition has long centered on the health effects of radiation from reactors, accidents, and nuclear wastes, as well as the proliferation of nuclear technology that can lead to weapons. The security of nuclear materials has recently been raised to consciousness with the concerns over terrorism, though years ago when asked how best to detect nuclear materials hidden in shipping crates, Oppenheimer replied, “... a screwdriver to open the crates and look.”  Despite these objections, a frustrated champion of the opposition, Dr. Helen Caldicott, opined recently, “Global warming is the greatest gift the nuclear industry has ever received."

Ironically though, out of the pot of one environmental issue and into the kettle of another, the nuclear industry’s gaining popularity, its environmental redemption as a carbon free alternative, fades again when the prospects of new uranium mines are realized by the public. The Obama administration recently called for a two year “time out” for uranium mining claims near the Grand Canyon. The fact that uranium is mined recalls not only the miner’s admonishment, “if it’s not grown, it’s mined,” but also its corollary: uranium, and thus nuclear fission, is also ultimately finite if limited to Earth’s resources.

A future nuclear energy technology may actually be an essentially unlimited and potentially environmentally clean source of energy. Fusion remains the only “silver bullet” for the energy problem for the long term if truly considering population growth, resource depletion, and being honest about limitations of renewables. To date, controlled fusion remains technologically elusive, and 50 years of patience is wearing thin. Nuclear fusion research is an ongoing international effort, but the U.S. suspended its 2008 contributions to ITER, the international consortium for controlled nuclear fusion research, and has yet to restore these funds. Whether this represents budgetary concerns, other political opposition, or a science decision is a matter for debate. The energy “Manhattan (or Apollo) Project” should be directed toward fusion, but it will take a politician and a populous capable of nuance—able to make the distinction between nuclear fission and nuclear fusion—to call for the critically needed nuclear fusion research.

Most environmental advocates of alternative energy promote renewable energy. “Renewable energy” would better be called “continuously sourced energy.” No energy converted from available to unavailable is ever renewed. Instead “renewables” tap a continuously available source, including 1) hydroelectric, solar, wind, ocean thermal, and ocean wave: examples of renewable energy sourced ultimately from the Sun, 2) tidal: examples sourced ultimately from the Sun-Earth-Moon gravitational system, and 3) geothermal: examples sourced ultimately from the Earth’s radiogenic heat output. “Continuously sourced” energies currently only provide about 8% of the world’s energy portfolio. Obama made “renewables” and green jobs a campaign pledge, but little has been stated in terms of goals. In the 2004 campaign, Kerry pledged to increase the contribution of “renewables” from 8% to 20% by 2020. At the time the goal was dismissed by political opponents as too ambitious, and yet even with that goal, the glaring question remains: where will the other 80% of our energy come from once fossil fuels are gone? The question is not an excuse to end support for renewable energy development: the relatively low contribution renewables make to the current energy portfolio is often an argument used by its rivals to end renewable subsidy programs. The opposition comes at a time when diversifying our energy portfolio is paramount.

A fair debate must look at “renewables” in terms of their potential contribution, but that debate must consider their environmental consequences as well. Contrary to popular belief, “renewable” energies have environmental consequences, and too often these problems are overlooked. The current 8% “renewables” contribution to the energy portfolio is an already optimistically misleading figure: at least 75% of this number is hydroelectric, a resource that may already be exploited to its fullest potential. The environmental consequences of dams have come sharper into focus recently, and environmental opposition has grown along with the consciousness. Wind has been cited for bird kills and opposed for aesthetic reasons. Tidal projects are opposed for the disruption to wildlife and modifications of harbor inlets. Thermal solar farms consume real estate and water while photovoltaic solar use rare earth elements as doping agents in the panels. “Renewable” energies are finally receiving a lot of justifiably favorable press, but choices have to be made.

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