Arcs, Sparks, & Electrons:
Accelerating Into The Future
The following introduction to the future of new energy is excerpted from
Section IV – Arcs, Sparcs, & Electrons: Accelerating Into The Future of AEI's award-winning book, Turning the Corner: Energy Solutions for the 21st Century.
In the 21st century, the energy trend will be toward technologies that can best serve the greatest population with the least use of valuable resources, while also having the smallest adverse impact on the environment. Changing from a global system in which more than 85% of the energy used produces carbon, to a system where very little carbon is released, requires fundamental changes in technology and major investments in capital equipment turnover or replacement. As a result of steady population growth and needed economic expansion, projections indicate that the world will require 50% to 100% more energy in 2050 than it does today. By mid-century, 85% of the world's population will be living in developing countries, and those countries will account for the major part of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Even with continuous efficiency improvements, the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentrations will require a serious long-term commitment to zero-carbon alternatives for large-scale global deployment. Solving the energy/carbon conflict represents a critical milestone toward achieving a more holistic approach to environmental progress.
The global demand for electricity is expected to grow rapidly in the 21st century. Both industrialized and developing nations will utilize this type of energy, which can be applied with great precision, efficiency, and cleanliness at the point of use, is compatible with the streamlined infrastructure of modern economies, and can be generated from a wide variety of sources. Energy conservation and increased resource efficiency are logical first steps in reigning in the United States' runaway energy consumption and rising greenhouse gas emissions. In order to meet projections of future demand for electricity, the US Department of Energy has estimated the need for 1,300 new power plants by the year 2020 (at an average size of 300 megawatts). But a new study shows that improved energy efficiency measures would reduce that estimate to only 170 new power plants. Installing energy efficient household appliances like clothes washers, air conditioners, and water heaters would save the equivalent energy generated by 127 power plants. Programs to reduce energy use in new buildings, such as building energy codes, tax credits, and public benefit programs, would avoid another 170. Everyone can help: if each household in the United States replaced four 100-watt bulbs with compact and long-lasting fluorescent bulbs, it could eliminate the need for thirty new 300 megawatt power plants.
It's no secret that to replace fossil fuels with robust and carbonless energy systems, new technical solutions will be required. To be viable as a future energy source, emerging energy technologies must not produce carbon emissions nor contribute to climate change. Engineers are making strong advances in exotic conductive materials and computer technology in all phases of power generation and distribution. Fuel cells utilize electrochemical combustion of hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity. Fuel cells produce reliable streams of current and emit only water vapor and heat when fueled with hydrogen. They are quiet, require little maintenance, and, when hooked up to water electrolyzers, can also store electricity as hydrogen for energy that can be fed back into the system during peak demand. Solar and wind power can be used to produce hydrogen to feed the fuel cell resulting in a clean and renewable system for sustainable energy production.
Technological innovation has emerged as the primary driver for economic growth. Because existing renewable energy systems will not be sufficient to sustain the industrial world's present levels of energy consumption, new, exotic technologies must be developed that can tap other sources of energy. Emerging technologies currently under experimental development are unlikely to translate into robust energy or propulsion systems in time to replace diminishing oil production. If history is any guide, once a new energy system is discovered, it will take several decades to develop and implement the energy resource. Under-investment in energy technology R&D is detrimental to both long-term energy security and global sustainability. Further, it could foreclose the technology options that the global community will need to address systematically the environmental impacts of energy.
For the most part, the organized scientific community varies from highly resistant to openly hostile toward novel scientific research. However, each new major advance in science starts with an anomaly that is unacceptable at first. The anomalies are important because they inspire new ways of thinking. The energy crisis may eventually be solved by a dramatic change in perspective, a paradigm shift in which upcoming scientists are encouraged to challenge the conventional laws of physics as they seek answers to the global energy crisis. Future generations are relying on our efforts, so they will inherit a healthy, sustainable environment and economy.