Many of us hear about the problems we have facing our nation and the world when it comes to energy. We hear about the pollution; the large amounts of CO2 added to the atmosphere, the tons of mercury and sulfur dioxide released from burning coal. While some may contest the reasons for climate change, no one can deny the environmental hazards of oil spills and coal mining. On top of this, we are reminded of the world’s growing population. Hundreds of millions of people from China, India and Brazil are emerging out of poverty, all becoming Westernized consumers, which puts a further strain on our demand for energy.
For generations we have been burning coal and drilling for oil to meet our energy demands. Much of our society is deeply rooted in these industries and the culture they have helped to create. Then come along these “scientists” that say we can make energy from wind and solar panels. A number of other technological ideas have presented themselves as well, some more feasible than others. These ideas many seem like something out of a sci-fi movie in the future. Imagine an entire world run off of renewable energy. Seems like a world that only Gene Rodenberry could give us on the big screen.
But this world is closer than you may think. We have the technology and everyday we are getting better and more efficient at creating energy from renewables.
This year, worldwide wind production has surpassed 250 gigawatts. In the U.S. we produce 49.8 gigawatts now from wind. How much is this? In the U.S. we have about 490 coal-firing plants, each producing on average 667 megawatts. So, our current energy produced by wind power in the U.S. is equivalent to about 73 coal plants. Wind power usage has grown about 25% in the past two years. If this trend were to continue consistently, in just 10 years wind power could replace all electricity that is currently produced by burning coal.
Denmark has the largest percentage of its energy powered by the wind. 28% of Denmark’s energy now comes from wind. China and India are the other 2 largest producers of wind energy.
Then let us not forget solar power too. Germany is number 1 when it comes to using solar power. Germany gets 40% of its electrical energy from solar power now. Over 22 gigawatts, which is equivalent to about 20 nuclear power plants. After the Fukushima disaster, Germany put in place a plan that is well underway to close all their nuclear power plants by 2020. Spain gets 10% of their energy from the sun and Italy is a close second at 9%. Currently the U.S. makes 4.2 gigawatts from solar energy, which is the equivalent to
another six coal- burning power plants. Our use of solar is increasing as well. There currently are plans for other large-scale solar farms, which will add another 4 gigawatts in the next 2 years. In California, Governor Jerry Brown set a standard for 33% of California’s power demands to come from renewables. Factor in the rate of growth from solar power, between wind and solar, coal-burning plants could be a thing of the past in as little as 8 years.
While replacing coal is desirable for a number of reasons, the bigger issue on most people’s minds today is gas and oil. Especially their prices, what we pay at the pump and how rising oil prices also increases the price of all our consumer goods. Oil prices have risen for one reason. Demand! Not only our increasing demand from 320 million Americans, but add another 3 billion people from the growing economies of China, Brazil, India and others, and you have almost 10 times more people demanding oil than there were 10 years ago. This is a big problem as well. There simply aren’t enough oil resources throughout the world to keep up with this growing demand. It’s a good thing too, because of all the added emissions that will be released from the exponential growth of oil use. So, what’s to be done?
In the U.S. about 40% of our oil is used for electric power, 29% for transportation, 21% industrial and 10% is residential and other commercial use. First, imagine if we could eliminate the 40% used for electrical generation and replace it with wind and solar. Then there is the recent emergence of electric and hybrid vehicles. Yes, they are expensive now, but so were the VCR, home computer, cell phone and DVD player when they all first appeared on the market. Again, these things will get cheaper and more efficient as time moves on.
The biggest question is how fast will we make these technologies cheaper and more efficient? Will we support policies to further promote our clean energy future, or do we just want cheaper gasoline. The problem with just pursuing cheaper gasoline is that it will slow and prolong the growth of green energy. The recent advances in wind, solar and electric cars have been sped up in part because of the rising cost of oil and gasoline. Higher oil prices have pushed us to pursue and expand on these renewable technologies. If gas prices are lowered, our complacency operating under an unsustainable path of dirty fuels will continue.
To help encourage and advance these renewable energy sources, various tax credits have been given. As we argue about our current budget deficit, are these tax credits that encourage market growth for renewables in danger? Over the past few years the Department of Energy has initiated programs that give grants to developers of renewable energy for further R&D, all which has helped make these technologies even more efficient and cheaper. In addition the Obama administration has doubled the fuel efficiency of cars to 54.5 MPG by 2025, again in an effort to reduce demand and make driving more cost efficient.
The technology is here. All around the world countries are employing green energy and energy efficient technologies at a staggering rate. Walking in the streets of Beijing, hundreds of old diesel motorbikes are now replaced by electric bikes. We’ve developed numerous other energy saving appliances such as water heaters and air-conditioners. Again, the technology is here. It’s in our hands. Do we continue to expand our energy security, while promoting a cleaner environment by making use of resources that are unlimited and free for the entire world? Or do we look for the cheap way out, continuing to pollute, continuing to fight over locations for fossil fuels, all which carry other large expenses. Cheaper gas and coal may be easy in the short term, but result in heavy extraneous costs in the long term. It is just that we can’t continue this path forever and we all know it. We will eventually have to change our ways. Do we change now or later? We can and are doing it now, creating jobs along the way. One of the big questions in the coming election is how much of an effort are we going to put forth towards our future. Are we going to lead the way for the world, or will we let China and India lead in these technologies? They already have a head start on us, but we are in a perfect position to catch up and surpass them all.