Why There Isn’t an Easy Solution
The epic challenge of the 21st century is filling the gap between energy supply and demand with clean, reliable and inexpensive energy. While new sources of energy are gradually changing the landscape, products made from fossil fuels continue to heat our homes, fuel our cars and power our computers. Despite extraordinary advances in technology, rapid economic growth in countries like China and India will require more energy. Some solutions are being implemented today, but many will come from the next generation of entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists. In order to rise to this grand challenge, we must consider the following issues.
Encouraging Growth of Alternative Energy Sources
Research at companies, universities and national laboratories are pioneering technologies that will aim to be sustainable and economically competitive with today’s fossil fuels. While wind, solar and biofuels appear to be among the most promising, significant breakthroughs are still required to make them viable sources of future energy supply. The wind blows where and when it wants. Similarly, the sun only shines during the day and is most intense in sparsely populated areas. How do we effectively transport this energy from such remote areas to big cities? How can we efficiently store energy generated during the day for use in homes at night? The challenge will be to bridge these supply limitations with a 24-hour demand for electricity throughout the world. This means making our electricity grid more efficient and streamlined while developing storage systems to allow wind and solar energy to be saved for times of peak use.
Another source of future alternative energy may come from the world’s vast reserves of natural gas. Currently, much of our electricity comes from burning coal in power plants, releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide and other gases. Despite advancements in “clean coal” technology, alternatives to coal will surely be part of tomorrow’s solution. New technologies are beginning to unlock vast reservoirs of natural gas in North America, making it both a cheap and clean alternative to coal. Natural gas is also more easily transportable over long distances and releases less pollutants for the same amount of energy produced.
It is likely that meeting tomorrow’s energy needs will require not just one but all of these alternatives working alongside traditional fossil fuels.
New Transportation Technologies
A large portion of the oil produced globally is directly processed into transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel. These fuels dominate the transportation industry because they combine reliability, affordability and performance. But, large swings in gasoline prices at the pump during the past few years are growing symptoms of this century’s energy challenge. In order to meet surging demand over the next 50 years, alternatives to these transportation technologies are vital.
Among the alternatives being considered is equipping vehicles with the ability to consume clean and affordable natural gas. Already a proven technology, many challenges still remain—pipelines, service stations, and vehicles must all be adapted to accommodate the fuel. It will also be important to develop cutting-edge electric cars to offset the demand for gasoline and diesel fuel. Eventually, refueling your car may be as easy as plugging it into to an electrical outlet in your garage. On the distant frontier of alternative transportation technologies are novel ideas such as the use of algae or other micro-organisms to convert the sun’s energy into liquid fuel that can be used like oil. Another emerging technology involves hydrogen-powered cars that transform hydrogen into electricity. The major promise of this technology is that water is the only waste product released. Scientific breakthroughs in these areas are still required to make these technologies competitive with today’s fuels.
Reducing Environmental Impact
Already great strides have been made to ensure that oil and gas producers make as little impact as possible on the natural environments in which they operate. This includes drilling multiple wells from a single location or pad to minimize damages to the surface, employing environmentally sound chemicals to stimulate well production, and ensuring a seamless transition from the wellhead to the consumer.
Another major environmental obstacle to low-impact fossil fuel production is the highly intensive process of mining coal. Currently, coal-powered plants are one of the largest sources of electricity in the world. The transition to cleaner sources of energy such as wind, solar and natural gas will reduce the impact of coal production on the environment.
Substantial work will be required to address the impact of oil and gas consumption, notably the emission of carbon dioxide as a major byproduct. Among the proposed solutions to this problem is the sequestration, or storage, of carbon dioxide in old oil and gas fields. Storage of carbon dioxide from power plants and other industrial facilities would require collecting and processing the gas, compressing it to high pressures, and then injecting it into the small spaces between rock grains deep below the surface. Here, the key challenge is capturing and storing the CO2 emissions on a sustainable scale. Can we store enough CO2 to realize a meaningful reduction in emissions released to the environment? How do we best collect CO2 released as a byproduct of various industrial processes? Can we do this in a reliable and cheap manner? How do we ensure that once it is stored, it will not be released into the atmosphere again? Ultimately, reducing emissions will require storing carbon dioxide, developing new alternative sources of energy and, perhaps most importantly, using less.
Increasing Energy Efficiency
Meeting energy demand over the next century will require not just producing more, but also using what we do produce more efficiently while supplying consumers with affordable energy to allow them to maintain a comfortable standard of living. New technologies and new cultural habits will be needed. Electricity generated on the wind-swept prairies of Texas and sun-laden deserts of Arizona must be carried efficiently to houses and businesses in New York and Chicago. Doing so remains difficult, since a large portion of useable electricity is lost to heat as it travels long distances through wires and cables. The red-hot wires you see heating your toast in the morning have been designed specifically to use the resistive heat generated by the movement of electrons. But, if the objective is to move electricity over large distances efficiently, this loss of energy is undesirable. By improving efficiency, less total energy will be needed to power everything we use. Accordingly, scientists and engineers are working to streamline the electricity grid, modernizing transmission cables with new materials that allow electrons to move more easily, producing less waste.
Another energy-saving efficiency can be found in hybrid cars. These cars capture a portion of the energy traditionally wasted as heat from friction between the tires and brakes. When you rub your hands together really fast, the heat you feel is created by friction. This same effect occurs when the brakes on your car slow the rotating wheels—the energy used to move the wheel is converted into heat. In hybrid cars, this contact recycles some of that wasted energy into electricity that can then offset some of the gasoline used in the car’s engine.
Becoming more energy efficient will also require us to change how our buildings are made, how we heat our homes, and how we light our classrooms. For example, when coal is burned in a power plant, the energy released is used to superheat water, just as you would boil a pot of water on your stove. The process creates very hot and high-pressure steam that then pushes a propeller. The spinning motion of this propeller turns a large magnet that generates an electrical current that is then transmitted to your home. But that steam at the power plant is still very hot after it has been used to create electricity. Rather than letting this heat escape as wasted energy, it is possible to send the steam out to homes and buildings to provide warmth on cold winter days. This process, called “combined heat and power,” will require us to rethink the ways in which we live and work, making our cities and buildings more connected.
Energy efficiency is also being explored in other areas as well. If you have ever been in a car on a sunny day without the air-conditioning on, you know it can become very hot and uncomfortable. By redesigning our homes and buildings, this energy from the sun could be captured to heat rooms or the water we use in our showers and kitchens. We can use less energy by making even the simplest things more efficient—from our light bulbs to our cars, from our home air conditioners to our computers. Engineers will continue to be on the forefront of such innovation, helping to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and impact on the environment.
Recruiting the Next Generation of Engineers and Scientists
Over the next 10 years, a large number of people in the energy industry will retire. But their retirement will not lessen the growing demand for affordable, reliable and clean energy. Accordingly, new engineers and scientists will be needed in every discipline. This new wave of young minds will have to take on larger roles and bigger projects earlier in their careers than their predecessors, making the transfer of knowledge and ideas from one generation to the next a top priority in the coming years.
Energy Sustainability: Will We Run Out of Fossil Fuels?
Most of the world’s energy needs are met through fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources, and demand for this energy is projected to increase. While there is enough supply for several more decades, what will happen when it starts running low? How will we keep the air clean with increased usage? There are ways to reduce waste and use existing technologies to keep the air cleaner by reducing fossil fuels emissions. Options like these are part of a concept called energy sustainability.
Energy sustainability is about finding the balance between a growing economy, the need for environmental protection and social responsibilities in order to provide an improved quality of life for current and future generations. In short, it is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.
Energy sustainability can inspire technical innovation with an environmentally conscious mindset. Regulations designed to reduce air, water and waste emissions from energy-related activities such as coal mining and electricity generation also help with energy sustainability, as do people who conserve energy.