Future Energy Supply: Breakthroughs Needed

Few resources are more important to our future than the
availability of clean, domestic energy. New and alternative energy sources must  be developed and commercialized as rapidly as possible. Major breakthroughs or large improvements in scale and economics are needed for alternative energy
sources to become an important part of future supply and this represents a key
challenge to chemical engineers, who will  contribute in every one of these areas.

The compelling need to move the country  to a clean energy regime with much less dependence on Middle East oil and lower  emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants must, however, be viewed in the  context of the difficulties this goal is facing, notably the opposition of different kinds that many alternative energy projects continue to face.

So much is heard and discussed about how the U.S. can lessen
its dependence on foreign oil imports in favor of additional domestic sources of crude oil, natural gas and biofuels; on how we should rapidly build up the production of alternative
energy sources such as solar and wind energy and accelerate the introduction of fuel
cells and hydrogen. Also, how we should substantially reduce the amount of energy produced from  “polluting” coal and whether we should start shutting down our nuclear plants,  either because of their presumed intrinsic hazard or because we don’t have a
long term storage place for spent fuels. Here is some food for thought:

  • It might surprise you that a large percentage of
    “foreign” sources of crude oil and crude oil products come from Canada and Mexico and from some of our other friends in South America.
    If we mainly want to stop importing Middle East oil, the amount of foreign crude we must replace with other energy sources  becomes more manageable.
  • Nuclear power is, next to coal, the largest
    source of our domestic power supply. There is no way we can live without it,
    except by drastically reducing our electricity demand and spending hundreds of
    billions of dollars building natural gas-based power plants
  • It will take several decades before wind and solar power make a substantial dent in the overall picture and even then this  will require a huge investment in transmission plants to conduct the power from
    areas where solar or wind energy is most efficiently produced (Texas, Wyoming,
    etc) to the large users in other parts of the country.
  • Biofuels production (Ethanol, biodiesel, etc)  will be stepped up, but these fuels need to be increasingly made from  cellulosics, including plant wastes and grasses, rather than from corn, which  the growing world population will need as a food source. Much needs to be done  to develop appropriate technologies and to find ways to scale up production and  deal with feedstock and byproduct waste transportation costs.
  • The use of hydrogen as a fuel in large  quantities is many years away and requires a country-wide installation of  hydrogen refueling stations as well as major ramifications to new and existing  car engines. Fuel cells are also unlikely candidates for making a dent in our  energy supply picture.

For all these reasons, shifting the supply pattern of
domestic energy sources is very difficult, a fact that surprisingly few people
understand very well. The supply picture, including all possible sources,
therefore can only shift very slowly, a situation that has been likened to
turning an ocean liner. (Fortunately, we are not heading for any icebergs here.)
Many people would be discouraged when they understand how difficult it is for our country to make dramatic changes in the composition its energy supply sources. It is instructive to look at a forecast prepared by the U.S. International Energy Administration

 It shows that natural gas will play a much greater role in the future,
primarily due to the new shale-based discoveries in many parts of the country
and the fact that new cars and trucks can be designed to run on natural gas. It
shows some increase in coal, in spite of the fact that some of the most highly polluting plants will be shuttered, because they cannot come into EPA Clean Air Act compliance. And it does show an encouragingly large buildup of biofuels. The contributions expected from  wind and, particularly, solar power are discouragingly low. New breakthroughs
in all three areas could improve that picture.

In summary, it is difficult to make a significant change in
our energy supply and demand landscape. But we can definitely increase the
amount of energy from domestic sources, notably by using more natural gas and
accelerating the production of biofuels. A bipartisan national energy policy
that makes the “correct” decisions in stimulating the new energy supply sources
while cutting down on demand (e.g. a large gasoline tax, a carbon tax of some
kind, major changes in car and truck design, a Federal decision on storing
nuclear wastes, etc) could beneficially affect the country’s energy picture and
reduce our imports from the Middle East. In addition to the benefit of thereby
improving our energy supply security, we would also substantially reduce our trade
deficit. This lofty goal requires a series of breakthroughs in the alternative
energy sector. This could lead to a dramatic change in our energy supply
forecast. Isn’t that a worthy challenge for chemical
engineers wanting to make a difference?

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