Just like the human body, civilizations require energy to survive and grow. While the human body depends on the chemical energy contained in the food they consume, a civilization, on the other hand, relies on technology to convert the stored energy of the sun from within the earth’s ecosystem.
One of the earliest forms of energy conversion technology came from the burning of natural resources (wood, animal dung, etc.) – for temperature control, cooking and defense. As civilization progressed, humanity invented new technologies to further leverage the latent energy hidden within our ecosystem.
Windmills and waterwheels were some of the most groundbreaking technological discoveries of our forefathers. Breathtaking in its simplicity, these constructions harnessed the power of the natural world to increase the productivity of their agrarian-based economies. The introduction of hemp sails gave humankind the ability to traverse vast swathes of the oceans and seas by converting wind to kinetic energy. The birth of the steam technology precipitated the arrival of elementary steam powered engines and machines. It appears that the continual advancement of energy conversion technologies kept a steady pace with the growth of civilization. Or was it the other way around?
In any case, this steady rate of growth was shattered early in the 18th century with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Humanity made a huge, huge leap forward in technological advancement involving almost every facet of modern civilization; primarily though, in the areas of manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and mining. What is even more remarkable, this world-changing revolution effectively took place within a period of a little more than a century! It didn’t end there. The Technological Revolution came immediately after in the second half on the 19th century, and propelled the human race into a brave, albeit strange, new world of electricity, automobiles, assembly lines, and much more.
Alongside this accelerated pace of advancement, there was the inevitable exponential growth in energy demand. However, in a fortuitous twist of fate, a geological compaction process on primordial waste started by old mother earth during the Archeozoic Eon about 3.5 million years ago, came to the rescue. At its conclusion, the multimillion year-long repetitive crust movements and high pressure environment transformed the long decayed organic matter into something we now call fossil fuel, a generic, inclusive term, used to describe the following hydrocarbon base compounds.
These substances went on to become the world’s biggest source of energy, accounting for over 90% of the world’s total energy requirement. It proved to be the catalyst for the 20th century technological blitzkrieg, and in the process, transformed itself into political and socioeconomic force of its own. One could spend a lifetime talking about the effects that fossil fuel had on humanity as a whole, but that’s another subject for another day in another bar (preferably with a bottle of scotch close by).
Nonetheless, the heady days of the black gold ended, in the estimations of many, in 1973, in the wake of the decision of the Arab members of the Organization Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to enact a strategic oil embargo and supply reduction against the United States and its allies for their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. This resulted in the quadrupling of oil prices, a devaluation of the dollar, a worldwide economic recession, and a rift between Israel, United States and their allies. The emergence of the ‘oil blackmail’ phenomenon prompted the United States to adopt an interventionist policy in the Middle East to safeguard our supply of oil from the region.
President Richard Nixon, faced with a nervous business sector and more importantly, a direct threat to our economic survival, pledged to eradicate the nation’s energy dependence on foreign countries, which constituted half of our consumption then, within the decade.
“Let us set as our national goal that by the end of this decade [1970s] we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign sources.”
Richard Nixon, November 7, 1973
Nixon also initiated Project Independence, a plan designed to completely eliminate U.S. oil imports by 1980. After Nixon left, President Gerald Ford introduced the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) policy, which mandates for the creation of an emergency store of fuel to serve as a buffer against any future oil embargo or “severe energy supply interruption.”
The policy is still in place today, and the SPR, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, currently maintains 727,000,000 barrels (115,600,000 m3) of oil in several specially constructed salt cavern facilities*, which is expected to offer a 90 days import protection buffer for the nation.
*SPR storage facilities
Bryan Mound, Freeport, Texas (254 MMB in 20 caverns)
Big Hill, Winnie, Texas (170.1 MMB in 14 caverns)
West Hackberry, Lake Charles, Louisiana (228.2 MMB in 22 caverns )
Bayou Choctaw, Baton Rouge, Louisiana (73.2 MMB in six caverns )
MMB: Million barrels of oil, or 42 million gallons
Note: The 2005 Energy Policy Act directs the SPR to increase their oil storage to one billion barrels. Plans are underway to expand the Big Hill and Bayou Choctaw facility, as well as constructing a new site in Richton, Mississippi, to fulfill the directive.
President Jimmy Carter carried the baton further after that by merging the Federal Power Commission, Federal Energy Administration and the Energy Research and Development Administration into a new federal body named the Department of Energy, which was henceforth tasked to formulate and manage the national energy independence objective.
There have been five more administration in the White House since then (Reagan, H.W Bush, Clinton, W. Bush and Obama), and the inevitable implementation of a host of other measures designed to achieve the overriding objective of energy independence. Unfortunately, inexplicably and surprisingly, our dependence on foreign energy has instead increased (currently at +60%), with total imports amounting to $252,160,511,000, a figure larger than the GDP of 30 U.S. states (Wisconsin, ranked 20th, has a GDP of $251 billion). Our thirst for fossil fuel seems to be unquenchable, fulfilling 86% of our energy needs, and the economic survival of the United States now no longer lies exclusively in our hands.
There have been two new developments on our energy policy since then.
Anthropogenic Global Warming
The first, is the deeply polarizing issue of global warming. Critics argue that the use fossil fuel by humans are chiefly responsible for the changes in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, altering the energy balance of the climate system. The 2010 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4 Synthesis Report) made the following conclusions based on 75 separate studies derived from more than 29,000 observational data sets (excerpts).
1.1 Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850). The 100-year linear trend (1906-2005) of 0.74 [0.56 to 0.92]°C is larger than the corresponding trend of 0.6 [0.4 to 0.8]°C (1901-2000) … The linear warming trend over the 50 years from 1956 to 2005 (0.13 [0.10 to 0.16]°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the 100 years from 1906 to 2005.
… Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3]mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 [2.4to 3.8]mm per year from 1993 to 2003. Whether this faster rate for 1993 to 2003 reflects decadal variation or an increase in the longer term trend is unclear. Since 1993 thermal expansion of the oceans has contributed about 57% of the sum of the estimated individual contributions to the sea level rise, with decreases in glaciers and ice caps contributing about 28% and losses from the polar ice sheets contributing the remainder … Observed decreases in snow and ice extent are also consistent with warming … Satellite data since 1978 show that annual average Arctic sea ice extent has shrunk by 2.7 [2.1 to 3.3]% per decade, with larger decreases in summer of 7.4 [5.0 to 9.8]% per decade. Mountain glaciers and snow cover on average have declined in both hemispheres. The maximum areal extent of seasonally frozen ground has decreased by about 7% in the Northern Hemisphere since 1900, with decreases in spring of up to 15%. Temperatures at the top of the permafrost layer have generally increased since the 1980s in the Arctic by up to 3°C…
6.1 Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level…. Many natural systems, on all continents and in some oceans, are being affected by regional climate changes. Observed changes in many physical and biological systems are consistent with warming. As a result of the uptake of anthropogenic CO2 since 1750, the acidity of the surface ocean has increased… Global total annual anthropogenic GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, weighted by their 100-year GWPs, have grown by 70% between 1970 and 2004.
As a result of anthropogenic emissions, atmospheric concentrations of N2O (nitrous oxide) now far exceed pre-industrial values spanning many thousands of years, and those of CH4 (methane) and CO2 (carbon dioxide) now far exceed the natural range over the last 650,000 years… Most of the global average warming over the past 50 years is very likely due to anthropogenic GHG increases and it is likely that there is a discernible human-induced warming averaged over each continent (except Antarctica)… Anthropogenic warming over the last three decades has likely had a discernible influence at the global scale on observed changes in many physical and biological systems.
However, skeptics alleged that the phenomena of anthropogenic global warming, even after several decades worth of study, remains inconclusive and tenuous at best. They believe that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is an agenda-driven myth perpetuated by ideologues and/or opportunists who obfuscate facts while promoting dubious scientific theories as proof. Its effects, hypothesized using flawed climate simulation models, are exaggerated, while other more plausible explanations are routinely ignored.
For instance, climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer (Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama and former Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center) and colleague, Dr. John Christy (Climate scientist at the University of Alabama), demonstrated the absence of any perceptible global warming in the earth’s troposphere (the lowest, 17km deep, portion of our atmosphere) since 1979 using data from the Microwave Sounding Unit (MSU) of the planet-circling TIROS-N weather satellite.
In their 1991 paper (Precision and Radiosonde Validation of Satellite Gridpoint Temperature Anomalies, Part II: A Tropospheric Retrieval and Trends during 1979–90; Journal of Climate volume 5:8, August 1, 1992), the two men showed a negligible 0.02-0.03°C decade-long warming trend of the troposphere, going against conventional global warming suppositions. The observations have been repeated many times since, with similar results.
Furthermore, skeptics argue that even if there is some truth behind the theory of anthropogenic global warming, the economic costs are just too crippling, and far outweigh any long-term benefits, if it all.
However one may look at the issue, anthropogenic global warming has ushered in the debate for alternative energy. Having said that, there is another reason why alternative energy is looked upon with increasing urgency these days.
The End Is Nigh?
While naturally created, the production of fossil fuels involves a time frame so vast, it cannot be considered as a renewable source energy, per se.
Scientists aren’t quite sure on the actual length of time required by nature’s kitchen to convert organic matter into fossil fuel, but it is safe to conclude that the process began even before dinosaurs roam the earth.
Based on the current extraction rate of fossil fuel, there are clear reasons to worry that we may be scrapping the barrel in the not too distant future.
And the news doesn’t get better.
The world’s energy consumption grew by 5.6% last year (2010, the highest since the 1973 oil crisis), as demands from the factory of the world, China, outstrips the U.S. for the first time ever, consuming over one-fifth of the energy produced worldwide.
Consumption are projected to grow almost 80% by 2035, and this is before we even fully factor in the India effect, whose future energy consumption is still leaving analysts with many a sleepless night.
As it is now, India consumes more energy than all but two of the G8 nations (U.S. and Russia).
Oil continues to be the primary source of energy in the world, accounting for more than 33.6% of worldwide energy consumption. Coal comes in second at 29.6%, with China utilizing almost half of them (48.2%). Natural gas, meanwhile, continues its commendable growth with 7.4%, but renewable energy continues to languish at the bottom, at 1.8%.
A recent BP Statistical Review of World Energy (June 2011) once again revealed some particularly troubling information.
•The world’s current oil reserve** is sufficient to meet 46.2 years* of current global demand
•The world’s current natural gas reserve** is sufficient to meet 58.6 years* of current global demand
•The world’s current coal reserve** is sufficient to meet 118 years* of current global demand
*generally taken to be those quantities that geological and engineering information indicates with reasonable certainty can be recovered in the future from known deposits under existing economic and operating conditions. **Ed: Technically/ economically recoverable reserve
Oil continues to be the primary source of energy in the world, accounting for more than 33.6% of worldwide energy consumption. Coal comes in second at 29.6%, with China utilizing almost half of last year’s total production (48.2%). Natural gas, meanwhile, continues its commendable growth with 7.4%, but renewable energy continues to languish at the bottom, at 1.8%.
So What Does The Future Hold?
Humanity’s hope for a single miracle replacement for fossil fuel may be nothing more than, forgive the pun, a pipe dream. Increasingly, energy specialists are of the opinion that the world’s future energy needs will involve a combination of several energy sources. Of course, things may change further down the road with new scientific breakthroughs, but for now, we are looking at extending the lifespan of our fossil fuels through a more efficient use of them, while leveraging other sources of energy, which includes,
We start a process called nuclear fission inside a light water reactor by shooting neutrons at uranium-235 nuclei, splitting it in two. The atoms will split again, and again, and again, until it loses critical mass. That’s a chain reaction there, and it generates a massive amount of heat. It is then cooled with circulating water, and in the process, produces steam that will be harnessed to drive turbine engines, which in turn generates electricity. If things get a little too hot inside the reactor, boron rods are introduced to absorb the neutrons, slowing down fission activity.
The process is fast, costs slightly less than coal mining, and in a perfect world, emits very little waste byproducts. It currently generates over 10% of the world’s electricity, and the figure is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.
Here’s the bad news. The fuel, the uranium-235 rods, becomes heavily radioactive once spent, and requires a deep underground burial in a secret location. Sites are chosen for their long-term ecological and geographic stability, as natural disasters such as earthquakes or flooding may unearth these dangerous wastes. Secrecy and/or security is also essential because the rods can be converted into ‘dirty bombs’, capable of causing widespread and long-term harm. The radiation will decay to a safe level of radioactivity after several thousand years.
There is also the matter of a nuclear plant meltdown, where a single series of safety or security failure could lead to a devastating outcome, and turn the affected area into a radioactive wasteland for several millennia.
Photovoltaics has been used by NASA for almost half a century, while ordinary Americans have come to depend on this technology for everyday items such as wristwatches, chargers, calculators and other small gadgets. The technology uses amorphous semiconductors to absorb light photons from the sun before releasing electrons which can be harnessed into electricity.
Biomass involves the conversion of organic waste (dead plants, timber waste, garbage, etc.) and specially cultivated power crops (tall grasses, miscanthus, sorghum, bamboo, willow, algae, etc.) into fuel. Among all sources of alternative energy, biomass offers the best prospect of replacing our dependency on fossil fuel. In a way, it makes sense, as these wastes will become fossil fuels themselves – eventually. One of its primary byproduct, ethanol, is already being lauded as an effective substitute to gasoline.
Hydroelectric power has been an essential part in the early growth and expansion of electricity. The concept behind the technology is simple. Running water from an elevated position ‘falls’ into turbines, powering electricity-producing generators. The resulting alternating current is then channeled into a transformer which first converts it into direct current before transmitting the electricity out. As long as the seasons turn, as long as the river runs, as long as the tide rises and fall, you can depend on hydroelectric power (with the appropriate dams, reservoirs and long high-voltage transmission lines in place, of course).
Wind is essentially air in motion, caused by differential heating between the equatorial region and the North and South Poles. Humans have long recognized the inherent energy of the wind, and this is reflected by the invention of the windmill.
Modern wind conversion technology operates on an almost similar principle. Gigantic blades, sitting on top of a 100 meter wind turbine, harness the kinetic energy of the wind into rotational energy to power the generator, which in turn produces electricity. The process generates almost no waste byproduct, but the costs of wind turbines, alongside the unpredictability of wind, is proving to be quite a challenge
Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, actually used geothermal energy to power the fictional planet Trantor in his 1942 classic, ‘Foundation’. Rods of unspecified length were sunk deep into the planet’s core to transfer heat to the surface and fuel electricity-generating plants. Conceptually, it is not too much different actually from the modern geothermal energy conversion. The potential here is vast, but the challenge lies in overcoming the technological and geographical constraints to tap into this awesome source of energy.
Page Update In Progress
2012 Republican Presidential Nominee
Former Governor of Massachusetts
“And then there is energy, every year we send hundreds of billions of dollars out of our country to go buy energy from other nations,” said Romney. “I think this president faced a number of easy decisions that he missed, but this one is perhaps either at or near the top of the list: How in the world could he have said to Canada ‘No, don’t bring in that Keystone pipeline, we don’t need your oil. At a time like this, when we’re seeing gas prices like they are, we need to get that energy into this country.”
February 25, 2012: Romney addressing the audience of the Ingham Lincoln Day Breakfast at the Chisholm Hills Banquet Center in Lansing, Michigan
“… Unfortunately, the first three years of the Obama administration have witnessed energy and environmental policies that have stifled the domestic energy sector. In thrall to the environmentalist lobby and its dogmas, the President and the regulatory bodies under his control have taken measures to limit energy exploration and restrict development in ways that sap economic performance, curtail growth, and kill jobs…
... As president, Mitt Romney will make every effort to safeguard the environment, but he will be mindful at every step of also protecting the jobs of American workers. This will require putting conservative principles into action.
•Significant Regulatory Reform
•Research and Development
"Governor Romney: "We're using too much oil," Romney said. "We have an answer. We can use alternative sources of energy -- biodiesel, ethanol, nuclear power -- and we can drill for more oil here. We can be more energy independent and we can be far more efficient in the use of that energy.”
(Waterloo Courier, September 29, 2006)
"America must become energy independent... We're in a very vulnerable position. Our economic and military strength require us to become energy independent.
I'm not just talking about symbolic measures. I mean that we must finally take the actual steps that will produce as much energy as we use. This could take 20 years or more. Of course we're going continue buying fuels from our friends even after that time, but we'll buy and sell.
We'll end our strategic vulnerability to an oil shutoff by nations like Iran and Russia and Venezuela. And we'll stop spending or sending a billion dollars a day to other nations, some of whom are using that very money against us...”
April 10, 2007: Speaking at former President George W. Bush’s Presidential Library Foundation event in College Station, Texas (View Video)
“In fact, much of the “pain at the pump” Americans are now feeling is due to federal policies designed by environmental alarmists to punish traditional energy production – like oil, coal, and natural gas – in hopes of making energy sources they favor more “economical.”
Sadly, even with $4.00 a gallon gasoline, many are attempting to make our energy crisis even worse by working to impose job-destroying carbon taxes, or a “Cap and Tax” system.
As long as we allow federal regulations and bureaucratic red tape to get in the way of energy exploration, our country will never solve its energy crisis, and Americans will continue to pay the price in high costs.”
“We should start by ending subsidies for oil companies. And we should never, ever go to war to protect our perceived oil interests. If oil were allowed to rise to its natural price, there would be tremendous market incentives to find alternate sources of energy. At the same time, I can’t support government “investment” in alternative sources either, for this is not investment at all.
Government cannot invest, it can only redistribute resources. Just look at the mess government created with ethanol. Congress decided that we needed more biofuels, and the best choice was ethanol from corn. So we subsidized corn farmers at the expense of others, and investment in other types of renewables was crowded out.
Now it turns out that corn ethanol is inefficient, and it actually takes more energy to produce the fuel than you get when you burn it. The most efficient ethanol may come from hemp, but hemp production is illegal and there has been little progress on hemp ethanol. And on top of that, corn is now going into our gas tanks instead of onto our tables or feeding our livestock or dairy cows; so food prices have been driven up. This is what happens when we allow government to make choices instead of the market; I hope we avoid those mistakes moving forward.”
November 20, 2008: Interview with Freakonomics.com
Specifically, should we subsidize, enforce mandates, or give tax credits and deductions to industries like ethanol and natural gas? Having a thriving energy market domestically is a good thing and something the government should not hinder. Not only would decreasing our dependence on foreign oil simplify our foreign policy, but it would greatly enhance our anemic economy at home. Of course, the government should neither inhibit nor subsidize any particular type of energy.
June 27, 2011: Texas Straight Talk, Energy Independence
"The free market must dictate the necessity of alternative energy sources in America. To cripple our economy in the pursuit of premature energy goals is just dumb. We cannot force the market. Attempts will surely lead to debacles like Solyndra, over and over again."