A few weeks back I reviewed some of my research regarding the possible alternatives to fossil fuels. I concluded that there were no viable alternatives that could operate the world’s big energy users — cities, airplanes, trains, blast furnaces, major factories etc. The conclusion was that we would probably continue to rely on oil, gas and coal for the foreseeable future. Although I found that there were a number of minor players that could decrease that dependence somewhat, nothing in sight could do what the carbon-based substances now supply. The implication was that we will just have to do with much less through a change in our life-styles reflected by a dramatic rise in conservation. While as a non-expert I still hold to that conclusion, a number of my correspondents though I was entirely too pessimistic.
Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence, there are still a few die-hards who deny that the fossil fuels and the 50 billion tons of CO2 they pump into the atmosphere each year are even partially to blame for climate change and global warming. Indeed they deny that climate change exists! This un-scientific position is held despite the fact that 90% of the world’s climatologists have said the opposite. What should have settled the question are the images generated by NASA and the satellite maps of the rapidly receding icecaps. Deny there is a problem to the Pacific islanders whose rising oceans have already flooded their nations. I was in the arctic working for the Air Force almost 50 years ago, and returned to that part of the world a couple of summers back. The difference I observed was shocking! I saw a major glacier that had retreated over a thousand feet, and in another decade would be almost totally gone. It is true that one arm of the Antarctic ice-cover has grown a bit in the last year, but the overall evidence of rapid climate change is irrefutable. A colder when average winter in Minnesota is hardly solid scientific proof. But the preponderance of the evidence can only be denied by whose heads are buried neck deep in the tar sands.
There are others who take climate change seriously but believe that all the energy needed to operate the planet efficiently can be found in renewable resources. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, writes that coal was the main energy source in the 19th century, oil the main energy source in the 20th century, but that the 21st century will end up belonging to wind and sun as the driving energy sources. (Plan B 3 Mobilizing to Save Civilization) Brown disagrees with those who hold that we must continue to rely on fossil fuels. In his well-documented study this scientist argues that harnessing wind and sun will decrease the C02 spewed into the atmosphere 80% by 2040. While he holds that wind-drive turbines are at the heart of his proposal, what he suggests is not limited to either windmills or solar panels. In China almost 200 million people get the hot water they need from rooftop solar systems.
The US Department of Energy reported that the nation could generate sufficient energy using wind driven devises located as much as 50 miles off-shore. While Brown holds that the basic technology for energy production already exists, the main research projects need to focus on storage and transmission.
A team from Stanford University headed by Christina Archer and Mark Jacobson have concluded that harnessing just one-fifth of the earth’s wind would produce seven times the electricity currently used throughout the world.
Whether or not these more optimistic forecasts prove to be accurate, in the interim a serious look at conservation at all levels must take place.
China, Germany, Denmark and a handful of other nations are putting the funds into research in the use of wind and sun, and have already produced amazing results. The US still lags far behind, because the fossil fuel industry still has enough political clout to convince our policy makers that funding of this kind if just another example of government waste. As in many other areas of our national life, the ultimate answer lies with the voters who must finally wake up and discover just what this century this is all about.