What Will it Take to Run the Country and the World with Clean Energy


(E) We are now witnessing the huge risks and the enormous impacts on the Earth ecosystems of deep offshore drilling with the present BP oil spill. As openly stated by the White House Energy and Climate Change Adviser, Carol Browner, on May 30, “it is probably the biggest environmental disaster, we’ve ever faced in this country”. Since the spill began on April 20, between 23 million to 49 million gallons of oil have already leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, already doubling the output of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. With so much oil, it is obvious that the fabric of life itself in the Gulf of Mexico has been destructed for many generations!

Just in the next decade, we have to double the present production of worldwide energy. As the developing nations leading by China are transitioning to stronger economic growths and higher living standards, the pressure on energy supply, that has already significantly increased, will increase much more in the soon future. Now add to that, the growth in worldwide populations from around 7 billion this year to 9.2 billion in 2050, according to the United-Nations, and imagine how much more energy the world will need!

The lighter grades of crude oil guarantee the best yields to produce fuel oil and gasoline but as the world’s reserves of light oil are depleted, the oil industry is exploring and producing more oil from deep offshore wells and unconventional reserves such as tar sands (or bitumen) and maybe in the future oil shales.

The Deepwater Horizon well that has led to the present BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is around 5,000 feet below the ocean surface and its oil reservoir 2 miles below the ocean floor. Offshore wells can now be drilled from 6,000 to 8,000 feet below the ocean surface and 20,000 – 30,000 feet below the ocean floor. The deepest offshore oil is 36,000 feet deep.

The onshore production of heavier crude oil such as tar sands requires more complex and expensive oil refineries resulting in larger carbon footprints for the environment. Bitumen is so thick and heavy that they must be heated and diluted before they can flow. In that process, a lot of water is used and heated with natural gas. In addition, the water generated is quite toxic because of the heavy metals such as sulfur contained in the oil.

Another type of unconventional oil reserves is oil shale, an organic-rich sedimentary rock. Extracting oil from the shales is a very difficult and environmentally unfriendly process known as “retorting”. Because of the high costs of retorting, no one has yet been producing commercial quantities of oil shales.

I do not believe that natural gas (which produces less carbon dioxide (CO2) than oil) and clean coal (whose carbon has been captured during production) are solutions to our world energy problems. Natural gas obviously impacts the environment. And, producing clean coal is an expensive process still in an exploration phase. In addition, both of them still make us dependent on fossil fuels.

We need to explore and produce new sources of energy that will preserve the Earth ecosystems, are sustainable in the long run, cost-effective like oil and scalable, and plentiful like coal. We have only two options in front of us: solar and nuclear energy. Both of them are ecological, plentiful, scalable and cost-effective, and can directly produce electricity.

Nuclear energy has two major disadvantages that make it a second choice after solar energy: disposal of nuclear waste (although solutions are emerging, read MIT experts tackle nuclear power waste problem) and the risks of non-peaceful nuclear proliferation.

Therefore the Sun is the energy of our future. Solar energy is our largest, safest and longest-lasting energy source. Photovoltaic (PV) cells are already in use on the roofs of houses and buildings but emerging miniature PV cells will soon be found in power-generating windows, electric car sunroofs, and soon your iPhone (Apple has already filed a patent on it).

There is a vast amount of solar energy to harvest, and we need to start urgently heading down that path. To that end, we need both the private and the public sectors to massively invest and we need quickly to embrace new policies, regulations and carbon taxes from governments to switch the world from the exploration, production, and use of oil, natural gas and coal to the research, production and use of solar energy and other forms of clean energy.

Because of the demand for oil exceeding the supply, oil prices are likely to skyrocket again in the future. As oil prices increase, oil companies will become even more profitable and therefore will have the cash to invest in bringing economically the production of oil sands and maybe oil shales.

So we need to make very expensive and unprofitable to explore, produce and use oil and other fossil fuels and make it very cheap and profitable to research, produce and use solar energy and other renewable energies. We need to quickly transfer the investments, the labor, and the energy companies from the oil industry to the emerging solar industry.

We cannot take the risk to have another large-scale ecological disaster as the present BP oil spill. The planet resources and ecosystems are already too stressed out. We need to run the country and the world with clean energy.

And, we are running out of time!

Wikipedia, Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
BP, Gulf of Mexico Response
Time Magazine, Catastrophe in the Gulf: How Bad Could It Get?
NPR, Browner: Government Monitors BP’s Every Move
A Silicon Valley Insider, We Will be Running Out of Oil Soon
A Silicon Valley Insider, The Sun Our Future Energy Source

Note: The picture above (copyright of BP p.l.c.) is Rachel Newman from the International Bird Rescue Research Center examining a pelican from the Gulf of Mexico to determine if it is healthy enough to be released.

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