Thursday, February 8, 2007

Alternate Energy: Food for Thought

As of 2005, 71 percent of US electrical power generation used fossil fuel sources (per Energy Information Administration). Coal by far lead fossil fuel sources producing 50% of the total 4.05 Gigawatt hours (GW) produced. Relating back to the New Agriculture: Energy Farming article, the 60,000 5 Megawatt hours (MW) wind turbines operating at 25 percent of capacity (wind doesn’t blow all the time) would produce 75,000 MW. Representing much less than one percent of the total US electrical power output.

Clean energy resources, nuclear, hydroelectric and other renewable sources combined to produce 28 percent of the 2005 totals. Wind power was the fastest growing sector of power generation.

2005 motor gasoline usage was approximately 100,000 barrels per day or 31,500,000 gallons per day. To try to keep everything in common units, hourly gasoline use in the United States is approximately 48,000 MW. The percentage of this energy used in automobiles varies between sources as airplanes and boats use a percentage that is difficult to accurately determine. For the purpose of this article I will assume 90% usage by road vehicles. So with that assumption US road vehicles consume 43,200 MW per hour or just over one percent of our nation’s electrical power generation.

By now you are wondering, “Where the hell is he going with this”! To set priorities is my goal. Automotive internal combustion engines are inefficient and despite the huge numbers represent a small but very expensive percentage of our energy budget. Fuel cell vehicles are twice as efficient as internal combustion engines. Making fuel cell vehicles a logical initial goal in our quest for energy independence.

While agriculturally produced bio-fuels are a wonderful start for a green energy economy, the inherent inefficiency of the internal combustion engine is not addressed. With alcohol as fuel the efficiency of the auto engine is even worse. This is not to de-rate the importance of bio-fuels, just to emphasize that some 100 plus year old technologies may not be a part of our future.

Another goal of this article is to illustrate the challenges we face in reducing overall fossil fuel use in the United States. Wind power is the fastest growing alternate energy sector. While there will surely be advances in wind power technology, the current cost per KW is attractive making wind power generation a profitable enterprise.

Solar is increasing as an energy sector, but the potential of new more efficient solar panels will cause relatively slow growth. It is hard to justify spending big money on equipment in a technology sector that may cost 75% less in just a few years. An investor would be leery of placing billions into large-scale solar power plants. Again, this is not meant to devalue solar energy’s significance. There are applications were solar is cost effective.

Tidal and wave energy sources have yet to make a significant energy impact. Technological advances are making this a much more attractive sector. The potential of tidal/wave energy is greater than that of wind power.

Last but not least, nuclear energy, which provides less than twenty percent of our total electrical energy, is a proven technology. Replacing aging fossil fuel fired power plants with nuclear power is a logical decision. Increased nuclear power plant construction based on proven designs is also logical.

Stimulating interest and discussion on our rapidly changing energy future is important. All our options need to be considered and hopefully most of the readers are realizing that most alternate energy technologies will play a role. Focusing on your one favorite alternate energy is fine, but don’t sight of the goal. Moving to a fossil free future in a logical, orderly manner.

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