Monday, July 26, 2010

Fueling our future

I've always followed our world's energy needs with great interest. It started out less about the cost issues associated with our oil dependency and more about ecological impact. But as I learned more, I realized that we have a lot of reasons as a country to move away from our current energy policy. Also, the fact that oil is practically our sole provider for so many crucial aspects of our civilization seems like a setup for a future disaster. Since I was young, we've been hammered with the fact that fossil fuels are a limited resource. So why isn't this addressed with the upmost urgency? This is a problem we cannot simply buy our way out of. Within the next two generations, the world's oil reserves would almost surely be depleted. What then?

We cannot avoid this problem and think that it will simply resolve itself. The BP oil disaster in the Gulf has only reinforced the suspicion that we can't rely on big business to work this problem out for us. The opposite in fact. They will continue to feed our oil addiction for as long as possible and maximize their profits. As supply diminishes and demand skyrockets, companies only look to gain more. Why would they bother introducing any ideas or technology to undercut their dominance?

We as a whole need to take the lead to drive policies, push technology and alter our habits. This is my attempt to galvanize my own thoughts on the situation and what can be done.

A daunting task considering the development of China and other nations who's energy needs will surely increase as time goes on. In the United States though, we have established infrastructures that can allow us to, at least individually, keep us from using more fuel than needed. Simple things such as turning off lights and appliances when not in use, commuting to work or using mass transit would drastically undercut our energy consumption.

Suburbanization has pushed people further away from their places of work, increasing commute times and thus fuel usage. Advancement of communications technology such as teleconferencing, and company policies allowing for working offsite could help reduce the need to commute to the office everyday.

Car mileage per gallon is the first thought that comes to mind. In the 1970s during the Mideast Oil Embargo on the U.S., gasoline was in scarce supply and for the first time created awareness of the fragility of our country's dependency on oil. President Carter responded by introducing radical policies that included investigating alternative fuels and increasing standards on fuel efficiency in vehicles.

Unfortunately most of the proposals he set in motion were systematically shut down by the next administration. Had his policies been followed to fruition, automakers would've been pushed to continually increase the fuel efficiency at a rate of 2% per year! Instead, the car industry has been allowed to sit on technology for the past 40 years at a nearly constant rate of 15 - 25 mpg.

This is when I become frustrated with policies driven by the pocketbooks of corporations. I'm not a anti-big business zealot or a conspiracy theorist, but it's hard to ignore the meddling hands of corporate self-interest in these situations. There's a reason why so much of this information has been difficult to uncover on the internet and why policies are so impossible to push through in government. Keeping the public in the dark and feeding us their side of the story allows them to keep doing what they're doing.

Dramatic change will only come from the public. Even researching these issues has been tough since it's hard to determine if the sources are unbiased (towards either side). The only thing to do is to keep reading as much as possible and decide for oneself.

Another way to address fuel efficiency is to rethink our country's electrical grid. Our aging grid creates uneven distribution, haphazard architecture and electrical waste. Remapped systems and better conductive materials could increase efficiency of output without drastic rethinking of the power sources.

However we proceed, whichever source of power we draw from, the only clear thing is that we cannot rely on fossil fuels anymore. Renewable and sustainable should be key credos of any future policy. Surprisingly, many of the technological innovations necessary may already be out there.

The diesel engine was originally meant to run on biofuel. Convoluted agriculture policies put forth by the government, while not directed at stunting the biofuel diesel engine, effectively caused the makers to switch to petrol fuel. Amazingly unbeknownst to most people, the modern diesel engine will run on biofuel gasoline without ANY modification. The result is higher fuel efficiency than a normal gas engine and none of the polluting emissions. And no direct reliance on fossil fuels.

Biofuel is an attractive solution because it can come from used material. Grease from fast food fryers can be utilized into biofuel. Weed crops such as switchgrass can also be a source, which is beneficial for not competing with the needs of usage such as other crops like corn. Also, weed crops grow in less than ideal environments that are usually considered unfarmable, again avoiding any competition for valuable farming land.

Another source of biofuel that is being developed is algae. The benefits include eating up large amounts of carbon dioxide from our air, requiring less space to grow, the ability to grow from our own waste and sewage, and not emitting carbon dioxide when burned.

Megaflora is also a new alternative that is being studied. These are engineered trees that grow to full size within three years, and when cut down can regrow from the cut stump back into a full tree again.

Before proclaiming biofuel as the savior to our problems, I want to do further research to see what possible offsetting issues come along with them. The methods are definitely new but promising as well. Virgin Airlines has been one of the many proponents of the emerging technology, even flying over the Atlantic on biodiesel to prove it's viability.

Ethanol has been the subject of many debates as a possible alternative to oil. Enough has been written and can be easily found on the web so I won't repeat it all here. But I know that one of the complaints is that corn is a food crop that could be problematic if we also being to rely on it for fuel consumption.

My thinking here is that this could be an opportunity to move America away from its corn addiction (food-wise anyway). Much has been made of how our food industry is creating many unhealthy and fat people with so many additives, primarily corn. There are enough books and documentary films out there to start convincing people to not eat so much food with corn additives so the movement already has traction.

I know why America supports corn as much as it does. After all, it's still a vital way to make a living for many farmers. Our government heavily subsidizes corn so that it becomes integral to much of our food. But the fact is that our corn growers actually overproduce the crop and sell it to other countries. We don't grow so much corn out of dietary need, but to keep the influential farm states in business.

Take a look at another food staple: salt, which has been the crux of more than one civilization. Salt was virtually the only way to preserve meat historically and thus was of vital importance to living. The Salt Industry in America had a tight grip on governmental policy, much like oil and corn do today. It was only after the development of the electrical grid and refrigeration technology that we needn't rely on salt as we did, which resulted in its loss of influence on our politicians.

Similarly, the corn industry is a powerful lobbying influencer that could be tough to circumvent. However, our energy needs could provide an elegant solution that solves our food industry problem with corn without having to fight the corn industry or try to strip it of its power.

An indirect solution, such as a technological innovation, may be the only way to effectively fight against such powerful opponents. I just have no idea what that innovation would be for our oil addiction. What is clear to me is that our technological creativity is not the problem. It's the restriction of policy and the greed that drives it. (See General Motors and the EV1.)

Again, it is upon us (the public and the consumer) to force the change. Only after hearing the outcry of the public will politicians make the necessary changes. In Germany, biofuel is subsidized to be cheaper than gasoline, thus making it easier for consumers to move towards alternative fuels. In Sweden, renewable fuel sources are untaxed in an effort to move towards complete petroleum freedom.

Other energy alternatives that have always been on the table are wind and solar. These are possibly the most ideal solutions, in theory. Completely natural and renewable, they require virtually no effort on our part to generate. The only problem, which has always been the problem, is that we are unable to get high yields of energy from these sources. Until we revolutionize the method of capturing this energy, they will always be relegated as marginal sources. One other problem with the current setup is that each requires rather large equipment to collect wind or sunlight. Any future technology needs to be space efficient as well. Imagine if we had a car with one small solar panel instead of having every inch of its surface covered. Or if we had a personal windmill the size of our satellite tv dishes on our roof instead of the giant field monoliths.

As ingenius as we humans have been with how we get our energy (the grease biofuel still impresses me), it's amazing to me that everything still boils down to us burning something to turn generators to produce energy. It seems to rudimentary and antiquated that I'm surprised that we haven't found another way to get electricity. Isn't there any other way than to create steam to push turbines to create static electricity??

Even our modern cars use gasoline because it creates an explosion when lit which causes air pressure to push a piston in the engine.

I criticize our collective inability to create other methods but I don't really have any substantial solutions either. I'm not that smart. I can throw out wild ideas but have no idea how they work or how to repurpose them for our energy needs.

What about plant photosynthesis? Plants are able to capture sunlight and use it as energy. They definitely aren't using steam turbines. Can we somehow synthesize or replicate how they do it? Or is there a way to use plants directly and tap into their energy generating ability?

The human body uses electricity to carry signals. How are our bodies generating those sparks? Can we copy that somehow? I'm not suggesting we get all Matrix-y and insert tubes into people or anything. I'm just saying we always get our inspiration from nature and it seems to me that we haven't really felt the need to push our energy creation solutions beyond what they already are.


So those are my thoughts. No fool-proof or total solutions. I suspect the real answer lies in an amalgamation of methods rather than one magic answer. I still have faith in our current President to push for energy independence and technological innovation. But I also know that he is mired in our current polarized political system and can't do it alone. He's been focused on a lot of issues, like universal health care, but with the BP disaster and the resulting public dissatisfaction with oil companies, it'd be a wasted opportunity if he didn't channel some of the public attention into innovative policy.

No comments: