written: June 3, 2011
The Everything Bagel of Energy:
The Global Dilema and How we Proceed
Fifty years ago, shorelines drew the awe of dreamers. They were armed with balsa-wood longboards, guts, and a natural understanding of the power in water. The sun rose, the same as it does today. The tides still rolled, and waves still broke. Coastal features weathered with the seasons, and the break points of 10-foot rollers shifted north and south with the changing sea floor. Life was good for these dreamers. Today, as the sun sets in the western sky, sails of catamarans still break the bright reds and firey yellows of the horizon. But the sounds of the crashing seas are curtained amid rush hour horn blasts, and two hour traffic jams. Many of the dreamers put on suits and ties to fit the 9 to 5 demand. Today, it seems, much of the awe of beauty in this incredible power has faded. As the rise of a keyboard pounding, digitized world consumes us, we find less and less time to offer appreciation for the scape that stretches along the interstates we commute.
We have given birth to a new era of energy demand. In the United States, economic, environmental, and social costs of energy are often highlighted in the news by the extreme cases. From rolling blackouts in the densely populated areas along the east and west coast during the 90’s, to Hurricanes of unparalleled strength, we are a nation living in a time of extravagant change. The cause of this change is complex. Weaving factors that include fossil fuel consumption and dependance, global waste, pollution, and the demand for electricity, have landed human civilization in a tricky spot. As the US moves further into the 21st century, scientists, economists and politicians are ever more aware of the global need to optimize energy production, distribution, and use.
The need to optimize our energy industry is not only logical, but is essential. This is supported in studies across the world. The critical need to shift away from wasteful means of energy productions is best illustrated thru profit driven oil companies. Modern applications of industrial-age-fossil-fuel-technologies shows little forethought for the toll on future generations. This dependence is quickly approaching a turning point.
According to Jeremy Leggett of Oxford, the certainty of an insufficient supply of fossil fuel is no longer an argument of validity, but instead one of date and time. As an internationally respected expert and Ph.D. in the field of Geology, his studies of worldwide reserves have, caught a foothold. Many of recent published studies on oil reserves vary in findings; but nearly all seek to answer for a global topping date. This is a term often referred to as “Peak oil”. The topping date an estimated period when decreasing extracting costs, and increasing supply will shift. The backside of peak oil promises increasing cost and decreasing supply in the oil industry. Estimations of a specific date fluctuate. This fluctuation is often corresponds to financiers of research costs. The estimates of earlier topping points often come from experts. These experts, whom Leggett coins as early toppers (Leggett 6), in “…the heart of the oil industry” include geologists, economists, oceanographers, and engineers. Some believe that the topping point has already passed, while others among the early toppers, predict a peak in the coming decade. The opposing group of late toppers is typically composed of oil companies, governments, financial analysts, and business journalists. The findings from early and late toppers predict that somewhere between 2005 and 2050. (Leggett 22-49.) Nationally and internationally the evidence of a topping point of oil production is becoming more and more accepted.
As the debate of insufficiency moves forward, the more difficult topic of how to rebalance our power supply comes into view. To begin answering this requires an understanding of where our greatest demands on energy lie, and how we currently satisfy those demands.
In the US, the most resounding debate often stems from our love for the automobile. The history of the automobile revolutionized our country, and the world. The Ford model of production not only kick-started the age of industry, but also sparked the admiration and imagination of generations to come. The ability to cover great distances in a short amount of time forever changed the human race. The perceived sense of freedom that came with the automobile was unrivaled until the advent of the internet.
The sprawl of populations out of the cities has stretched the demand on transportation in unforeseen ways. Today drivers commute into and out of major metropolitan cities daily. Observed atmospheric measurements show current CO2 levels to be higher than in the past 1 million years (Smil 112.) All evidence to date shows that the burning of fossil fuels is the leading contributor to this fact. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that in 2009, 5.7 billion metric tons of CO2 were emitted by the US from the burning of fossil fuels (United States.) These numbers can often be so big that they lose meaning to the general public. To many people, the complex terms dissuade their attention. Imagining 5.7 billion of anything is mind bending. To imagine such a figure in the form of an invisible, colorless, and odorless gas is absurd. Even a metric ton is difficult to conceptualize. To break these figures into more understandable terms, one must first know that one metric ton is equal to 2,205 pounds. Going a step further, to picture CO2 in it’s frozen state is more concrete. CO2 in its frozen state is dry ice. It is that super cold stuff that keeps steaks fresh during cross-country shipping routes. As dry ice evaporates, it becomes the much more talked about CO2. To wrap it all together, a metric ton of dry ice equates to a brick about the size of a Volkswagen. By multiplying that brick by 5.7 billion a sense of relativity can be gathered. Of the 5.7 billion tons of CO2 emitted in 2009, 42.7% came from the combustion of Petroleum (gasoline and diesel fuel.)
Though the American addiction to fossil fuel is most recognized due to soaring gas prices, the sector of transportation is only one of the three main sectors that have scientists scrambling. Before the turn of the 19th century, Thomas Edison gave the world a source of new, more reliable, constant and versatile energy. Electricity quickly found its way into houses across the nation. The consumer age soon introduced products and widgets that have become central to households across world. Televisions, microwaves, refrigerators and water heaters power the typical household. As the technological revolution has boomed since the 90’s, the rise in demand for electricity has exponentially grown. Together, electricity production and transportation are the biggest contributors to green house emissions. As electricity production has shown to be the faster growing of the two sectors, it has gained attention.
The means by which electricity is generated is of great importance to the future of the energy industry. Today, coal is the primary fuel for power plants worldwide. It’s concentration of GHG emission is less than that of petroleum, but it is still the second leading source of greenhouse gasses (GHG) worldwide. In 2009, nuclear and hydroelectric power answered for 27% of production; and in conjunction with cleaner burning natural gasses, the three sources yielded over 50% of production.
The scientific stand on the issues that surround energy consumption is simple and concise. First: The burning of fossil fuels emits CO2. We burn a lot of fossil fuel, and have been doing so at an increasing rate for over 100 years. Second: Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are on the rise, and show no signs of slowing. Rising CO2 levels yield to higher global surface temperatures. Third: The rate at which we can pump fossil fuels from the ground is slowing due to a decrease in supply. These facts will have an impact on human life. The severity of the impacts vary, however, studies in different sectors of modern society, have come to suggest some very negative outcomes.
The enormous power of nature is humbling. Great powers of history have fallen at the might of great volcanic eruptions. Ancient tales of giant waves are prevalent in the Far East. Fire raining from the sky brought the extinction of the planet’s great reptiles. Mankind has acknowledged the might of these forces since we first stood upright.
Perhaps the fact that mankind has always dealt with the natural world and its risks that has brought forth our complacency. The warnings and evidence of experts has been met with denial, dismissal, and disillusion. By way of habit our country has disregarded the signs for a very long time. People bash and discredit individuals in the spotlight. The generation of politicians in power today have allowed the banter of falsifying global warming to continue. As a result, the drastic changes that are necessary have not been implemented.
The scientific community has moved beyond the questions of whether or not global warming was taking place. The more useful studies being conducted today look to find out what will happen as a result.
The rise in surface temperatures will cause sea levels to rise, weather systems to become more volatile, and will permanently change the face of the planet.
The threat of melting global ice caps is no joking matter. Over 6% of all freshwater is locked in the frozen ice plate that sits atop Greenland (Legget 79.) This totals 2.6 million cubic kilometers. Should it melt, average sea levels would rise 7 meters, or about 23 feet. This rise would threaten to leave the worlds most populated cities under water. Over the last century average sea levels have risen 1.8mm a year (Smith, Thomas 29.9.) Predictions of .18-.59 meters of rise forecast by 2100.
At these rates, 7% of the worlds’ population inhabiting regions below 1meter above sea level will be threatened. 25% of the planet’s population inhabit regions below 3meters above sea level. To address some of the most dire of populations, consider 120 million people in Bangladesh, 7 million in Egypt, and 30 million in China would be inundated by seawater. 13 of the worlds 20 largest cities lie on threatened costal regions.
The critics of global warming refute this argument by attacking the lengthy time frame that the rise will over. These arguements however often fail to acknowledge the extreme weather that will accompany this rise in sea level. Massive hurricanes and costal storms will continue to bombard costal regions. The surges of low pressure and high seas will be amplified by these higher levels.
Ever more powerful storm systems will occur within shorter time periods. The intensification of weather systems will bring longer seasons of drought in sub-Saharan nations and stronger monsoons in India. Famine and disease will begin to spread. As the delicate balance of ecosystems shift with the increase of temperatures, so too will the species that inhabit them. Mosquito populations will increase. Cities and regions in Central and South America that were established above the mosquito line will experience pandemics of insect borne illnesses. Already weak and poor governments will not be able to afford to provide citizens with aid. Minimal supplies of equipment and antibiotics will paralyze hospitals and medical response organizations.(Legget 73-4).
The economic impact will impair even the richest and strongest nations. World trade will slow, as agricultural exports can no longer fill consumer demands. Costs of shipping will skyrocket as the affordability of petroleum productions goes up. Corporations and Companies across the world would fail as the markets around them collapse. Money markets will collapse and financial institutions will bankrupt. The systems of government we depend on will no longer be able to repair roads, bridges, pot-holes or vending machines. The world will be in disorder. In summary: chaos.
The good news is that these unfolding’s are worst-case scenarios. Many scientists and bright minded hopefuls suggest that we are not doomed yet. According to author Peter Huber, a specialist in legal policies of technology and science, and Mark Mills, a physicist in integrated circuits and defense electronics; our always growing demand for energy will always be answered. In their book, The Bottomless Well, they explain how the twilight of fuel from combustion and heat first shifted with Edison.
Huber and Mills say that, “More than 85 percent of the growth in U.S. energy demand since 1980 has been met by electricity. About 60% of our GDP now comes from industries and services that run on electricity—in 1950, the figure was only 20 percent.” (18) They go further on to talk about advances in technology yielding more efficient ways to harness energy. As the demand for electricity grows as result of technology, so too in turn does technology answer with improved production efficiency.
Accordingly, the steady decline of profit in the oil industry will force companies and investors to effectively transition to alternative energies. The transition can already be seen in the market today. The push away from fossil fuels by electric companies is not only to comply with new and improving government regulations, but also to endure in the market. Failing flex during turbulent conditions will break a company. Preparation and anticipation for the impending change is a positive sign.
The alternative energy industry has been a fast and growing field. With better understandings of natural weather systems and patterns, environmental engineers have begun to dream big. Modern marvels of wind farms are spanning more and more states. The dropping cost of solar panels is making them more affordable to households and businesses.
The growth in these fields is a testimony to human potential. The negative push against the green initiative by the money hungry oil companies has polluted more than just the environment. The generations to come will have the burden of rebuilding pre-alternatives infrastructure.
The dream of prosperity is not lost for our species of 6.5 billion yet. The crisp corner of coastal swells that give free rides to hippie long boarders has sparked dreams in the new age hippies. These environmental engineers are armed with data packing recording instruments, calculators, and graphing paper.
Today, companies such as Halcyon Marine Hydroelectric are in the thick of the alternative energy market. Founded and directed by Ramez Atiya Ph.D., Halcyon has a patented design that captures the power of lunar tides. In an interview with Dr. Atiya, he said “The advantage of the tides is that they are fully predictable. We don’t have to worry about seasonal changes like wind and solar alternatives do.”
Atiya’s patented design works within coastal lagoons, bays or estuaries. The design harnesses energy twice per tidal wave (high tide to low tide.) As incoming tidal flood currents push in to an engineered containment reservoir, they spin electric turbines. At the peak of high tide the reservoir (tidal wing) closes until the tidal ebb current reaches low tide. At low tide, the spillways of the tidal wing open, and spin turbines with the weight of the elevated levels.
By answering particular problems of sedimentation that previous designs incurred, and using improved construction methods, Atiya has redefined tidal power potential. His understanding of the threat that we face reinforces the direction of his life works. “Global warming is an issue brought on by fossil fuels. How to deal with it [global warming] has no one simple answer. It is a serious problem.”
The advances do not end with renewable. In our haste as a species, the amount of surmountable plastic trash riddles the environment. The utility of plastic for it’s longevity has critically impacted ecosystems, animal species, and human health. across the world.
The struggle to come will not be an easy one. Political tension and complex international relationships make implementing policy a difficult process. The decision to act is in our hands. Getting involved in the progressive movement away from oil is not only a moral cause, but is one with growing demand. To invest in the education of science and math promises a return of efficiency and productivity in how our society operates. The potential for the human race to survive depends on what we do today. Inaction is not an option.
Atiya, Ramez. United Kingdom. Re: Severn Tidal Power Phase One Consultation. London: DECC, 2009. Web. 8 May 2011..
Atiya, Ramez. United States. USPTO Patent Database. Salt Lake City: DECC, 2004. Web. 8 May 2011.
Fraenkel, Peter. “Tidal Current Energy Technolgies.” Ibis: The International Journal of Avian Science 48.s1 (2006): 145-151. Web. 8 May 2011..
Ramez, Atiya. Intervew by Nicholas Vogele. 2 MAY 2011. Print. 8 May 2011.
Legget, Jeremy. The Empty Tank. 1. 1. New York: Random House, 2005. 1-236. Print.
Huber, Peter, and Mark Mills. The Bottomless Well. 1st. 1. New York: Basic Books, 2005. Print.
“Plastic to Oil Fantastic.” Our World 2.0: United Nations University. Web. 23 Jun 2011. <http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/plastic-to-oil-fantastic/>.
Smith, Carol. “Plastic to Oil Fantastic.” Our World 2.0(2010): n. pag. Web. 23 Jun 2011. <http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/plastic-to-oil-fantastic/>.
Smith, Thomas, and Robert Smith. Elements of Ecology. 7th. San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings, 2009: 29.1 Print.
United States. Annual Energy Outlook- 2011. Washington DC: U.S. Energy Information Administration , 2011. Web. 23 May 2011..
The first video below is the first concept, that I am aware of, for the Oil to Plastic Design.
The next video is the newest CNN report on the real world application of this plastic/oil conversion.
Below is the actual sourced link for the CNN report.