Despite all of the recent negative publicity surrounding fossil fuels, crude oil and natural gas has been beneficial for the growth of our modern world. It has helped the population have life after dark, transportation of goods all over the world, and allowed technology to advance. However, the use of fossil fuels has also resulted in many negative consequences: it has created severe pollution, political conflict, economic control and total dependence of countries that lack this natural resource.
The supply of fossil fuels is limited, and it is only located in certain areas of the world. The demand for fossil fuels creates conflicts which threaten peace. Countries that have adequate fossil fuel supplies could potentially threaten the security and economy of countries that are dependent upon these countries. In addition, there have been many estimates made about the amount of fossil fuels left in the world. These estimates are dependent upon the population growth, and how much the actual fossil fuel consumption increases in the near future. These estimates state that there is enough for approximately another 35 years of oil, 37 years of natural gas, and 107 years of coal . In addition to the negative environmental consequences of using these fuels, there is a finite supply of fossil fuels that will force the use of another form of energy. This limited supply and large demand will cause inevitable price increases. Therefore, the end of low-cost oil is rapidly approaching.
The use of fossil fuels to fulfill the world’s energy needs is causing harmful side-effects for people, plants and animals. Waste products from these fuels heat the earth’s atmosphere and pollute the earth’s air, water, and ground. This results in decreased living conditions for all species of the earth. In addition to being hazardous to our ecosystem, and the health of many species, the pollution is also changing the atmosphere of the world. This trend is called global warming, and will continue to become worse due to the increase in the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity due to the growing world population. In the process of burning the gasoline, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons are released into the atmosphere. The catalytic converters reduce a large portion of the pollution, but they are not perfect. Many cities currently have dangerous levels of ozone in the air. The world needs a power source that has low pollutant emissions, is energy-efficient, and has an unlimited supply of fuel for a rising world population.
Many alternative energy technologies have been researched and developed. These include solar, wind, bioenergy, geothermal energy as well as many others. Solar cells use the sun to generate electricity, wind power is obtained from the kinetic energy of the wind, bioenergy is extracted from plants and geothermal energy is energy from the earth. Each of these alternative energy sources has its advantages and disadvantages and all are in varying stages of development.
For most countries around the world, if the supply of fossil fuels were cut off — the entire economy would come to a halt. There would not be a way for people to drive to work, or use electricity in their homes or workplaces. The global population consumes petroleum products at a rate 100,000 times greater than the rate that they are formed. The United States currently imports 70% of the oil, and it is still increasing. About 80% of the total energy in the world is provided by fossil energy sources . The International Energy Agency  estimates that the primary world demand for energy is expected to grow by about 45% by 2030. The cost of meeting this energy demand is estimated to be $20 trillion U. S. dollars [2, 3]. Therefore, since so much money needs to be spent on the investment in energy infrastructure in the upcoming years, this enables an opportunity for replacing the fossil fuel infrastructure with a renewable energy infrastructure. U.S. coal and fossil fuel plants are already fairly old because at least half of the plants were built before 1970. If the oldest plants are retired first, it may be an easy progression to transfer the energy production to alternative energy without retiring the plant’s prematurely.
Although the demand for oil is increasing, the world’s oil production peaked in 2005 . In 2006, countries that had a significant percentage of their power from renewable energy was Canada (16%), followed by France (6%), Italy (6.5%), Germany (5.6%), United States (4.8%), and the United Kingdom (1.7%) . The global community has reached a point where future energy demands need to be balanced with future economic and environmental needs. We currently have a real opportunity to transform the way that our economy utilizes energy, prevent further pollution, and we can help to insure a safer and more secure future.
About Global Warming
For all you global warming naysayers – please keep reading!
Everyone is aware that the definition of global warming is a significant increase in the Earth’s temperature over a short period of time due to the result of human activities. An increase in temperature of 0.4° Celsius is significant over a century, and an increase of 1° Celsius is considered global warming. Although 1° or 2° Celsius may not seem like a lot, small temperature changes can have significant effects. When you hear the term “ice age,” you probably think of the world covered in snow and ice. Ice ages occur every 50,000 to 100,000 years, and the average global temperature was only 5 °C cooler than they currently are [4, 5, 6].
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a group of over 2,500 scientists from countries across the world that met in 2007 to advance climate research. One of the conclusions of this meeting was that the last 15 years have been the warmest since 1850. Some of their observations were that glaciers and snow have decreased in the northern and southern hemispheres, and average arctic temperatures have increased by twice the global average during the last 100 years. Rain has increased in the Americas, northern Europe and parts of Asia, and South Africa and the Mediterranean have been experiencing drying trends. Overall, hot days globally have become more frequent, and cold days have become less frequent and severe [4 – 7].
Natural changes in climate such as heating due to volcanic activity, radiation from the sun, and changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere sometimes take thousands of years to change only 1 °C. The current carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) determined from the ice cores (180 to 300 ppm) is far greater than the natural range found over the last 650,000 years. If the CO2 concentration rises to 400 – 440 ppm and stays there, the eventual rise in temperature would be around 2.4 – 2.8 °C [4 – 7].
In order to stabilize the CO2 level, it needs to peak, and then decline. The more quickly that this occurs, the lower the peak stabilization level. According to the IPCC, in order to stabilize the CO2-equivalent concentrations around 445 to 490 ppm, CO2 emissions would need to peak by 2015 (at the latest), and then fall to between 50 – 85% below the year 2000 levels by 2050. A later peak and higher concentrations would lead to larger increases in temperature.
A Future Vision
There are many ways to create a “bright future” with renewable energy. There is no single answer for our future energy system. The future energy economy will consist of many renewable energy technologies used in combination — wind, solar, geothermal and fuel cell energy. The technology to accomplish this is either available, or already being developed. Some of the tasks that we need to accomplish include:
Build an industry based upon alternative energy technologies
Reduce energy costs
Reduce climate change
Increase energy security
Help to create conditions for long-term prosperity
In order to accomplish these tasks, we will have to:
Use a combination of wind power (both on and off-shore)
Use both concentrating and standard PV power systems
Use geothermal systems
Use fuel cell systems that generate hydrogen using electrolysis
Use biomass and municipal waste
In order to successfully have a society based upon renewable energy, there has to be a way to store energy because renewable energy (solar and wind power) is intermittent. Solar and wind energy are both excellent methods of obtaining energy from natural resources, however, the levels of sunshine, and the intensity of wind varies. When these sources are not available – electricity cannot be generated. When a large amounts of energy is being produced, hydrogen can be created from water. The hydrogen can then be stored for later use.
As far as fuels are concerned, hydrogen is one of the most powerful fuels. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe; however, it does not exist in its pure form on earth. Therefore, it has to be extracted from common fuel types or water. The process that is used most frequently for extracting hydrogen is the steam reforming of natural gas. It can also be extracted from coal, nuclear power, biofuels or even waste products. Hydrogen can also be produced using water through the process of electrolysis. Electrolysis splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. Renewable forms of energy such as photovoltaic cells, wind, hydro and geothermal are increasingly being used to produce electricity, and excess electricity can be used for the electrolysis process. The hydrogen can be used, or stored to generate electricity at a later time.
Electricity for Residential and Business Use
Electricity for residential and business use can be produced using a combination of wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel cells. There will also have to be intermediate solutions and cooperation between corporations, utility companies, and individuals in order to successfully transition to a renewable, hydrogen, and energy-efficient economy. Corporations will have to manufacture energy-efficient electronics and appliances, which minimize energy consumption, and automatically turn themselves off when not in use. Utilities and governments need to give incentives for people to use less energy, and individuals need to be more aware of the amount of energy that they are using. There is significant proof that the growth in the electricity demand can be decreased through the use of creating appliances and devices that are more energy-efficient, implementing building codes, financial incentives and helping individuals to voluntarily decrease energy use.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently conducted a study that investigated wind power, and found that implementing 600 GW by 2030 was feasible. If this actually occurred, this would be an estimated 50% of the United States predicted power use in 2030. One advantage of wind power is that it does not take a lot of space — the towers can be placed on farmland, (and just about anywhere else), without really getting in the way.
Solar photovoltaics (PV) are a technology that can be used immediately, and sales have been growing very strongly during the last decade. However, it still has a small market share due to the high costs of the solar panels. Concentrating solar power may be accepted faster than conventional solar technology because the costs are beginning to be competitive with traditional energy technologies. Concentrating solar power systems allow power plants to produce electricity from the sun on a larger scale, which in turn allows consumers to take advantage of solar power without making the investment in personal solar technology systems. Geothermal energy can also provide a significant amount of energy if it can be proven within the next few years.
Fuel cells have already been used for decades for business and residential use. Stationary fuel cells can produce enough electricity and heat to power an entire house or business, which can result in significant savings – and they also can make enough power to sell some of it back to the grid. Fuel cells can also help provide electricity by working with large power plants to become more decentralized and increase efficiency. Most electricity produced by large fossil-fuel burning power plants are distributed through high voltage transmission wires over long distances. These power plants seem to be highly efficient because of their large size; however, a 7 to 8 percent electric energy loss in Europe, and a 10 percent energy loss in the United States occurs during long distance transmission. One of the main issues with these transmission lines is that they do not function properly all the time. It would be safer for the population if electricity generation did not occur in several large plants, but is generated where the energy is needed. Fuel cells can be used wherever energy is required without the use of large transmission lines.
Fuel cells can power residences and businesses where no electricity is available. Sometimes it can be extremely expensive for a house that is not on the grid to have the grid connected to it. Fuel cells are also more reliable than other commercial generators used to power houses and businesses. This can benefit many companies, given how much money they can lose if the power goes down for even a short time.
In the future energy economy, individual households will be able to produce their own energy. This will help to redistribute power from global oil companies and governments to the people. Individual households can share their energy with the grid to help distribute energy to areas that may have less due to weather conditions.
The Energy Information Administration  states that vehicles use 70% of the liquid fuels consumed by the U.S. The average fuel efficiency of current vehicles is about 22 miles per gallon. However, it should not be unrealistic for the average fuel efficiency to increase to about 45 miles per gallon by 2030. Hybrid, electric and fuel cell vehicles would all provide either lower or no oil consumption, and each can be useful in transforming to a hydrogen and renewable energy- based economy. All of the major automakers have already invested heavily in hydrogen fuel cell technology vehicles.
Many factors are contributing to the fuel cell push in the automotive market. The availability of fossil fuels is limited, and due to this, an inevitable price increase will occur. In addition, legislation is becoming stricter about controlling environmental emissions. One of the new pieces of legislation that will help introduce the fuel cell automobile market in the U.S. is the Californian zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate, which requires that a certain number of vehicles be sold annually in California. Fuel cell vehicles also have the ability to be more fuel-efficient than vehicles powered by other fuels. This power technology allows a new range of power use in small two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, boats, scooters, unmanned vehicles, and other utility vehicles.
In the future, automobiles will be plugged into an outlet in homes and offices to help generate electricity for both the vehicles and the houses. Houses only require an average of 10 kW to power everything. And since automobiles can generate 40 kW of power, a car can become a power plant for the house or office. Cars can also be plugged into a pole when individuals go to work to power the building. This transition to a hydrogen economy provides an important challenge, and great opportunity of the 21st century.
Portable electronics such as laptops, cameras and cellular phones can last 10 – 20 times longer by using hydrogen. In coming years, portable devices-such as laptops, cell phones, video recorders, and others- will need greater amounts of power for longer periods of time. Fuel cells are very scalable and have easy recharging capabilities compared to batteries. Cell phone technology is advancing rapidly, but the limiting factor for the new technology is the power. More power is required to provide consumers with all of the functions in devices they require and want. The military also has a need for long-term portable power for new soldier’s equipment. In addition, fuel cells operate silently, and have low heat signatures, which are clear advantages for the military.
The Creation of Jobs with the New Renewable Energy Industry
The building of the alternative energy industry would easily create millions jobs during the next 10 years. These jobs would include construction and operation of new power plants, manufacturing of renewable energy technology (such as solar and wind power), R&D for new renewable energy technologies, and jobs that are created due to the money spent on these technologies.
In order to transform our oil economy, we need to make an investment in changing it. We need to make sure that we are planning how to power our world during the next 20 years and beyond.
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Colleen Spiegel is the founder of Clean Fuel Cell Energy LCC, and author of “Designing and Building Fuel Cells” (McGraw-Hill, 2007), “PEM Fuel Cell Modeling and Simulation Using MATLAB” (Elsevier Science, 2008), and (coming soon) “The Brilliant Mind: Fuel Cell Experiments for a Bright Future” (The Brilliant Mind, 2008). You can get a free fuel cell ideas booklet filled with simple tips to help you build your own fuel cells, plus a free newsletter and many free articles simply by visiting: http://www.cleanfuelcellenergy.com