Why would anyone ignore proven methods of energy generation and conservation in favor of new approaches that rely on expensive development and implementation? There have been some major technical breakthroughs applied to centuries old approaches that have proven the value of upgrading old technology instead of a wholesale replacement.
For the United States, the first question is why are we so wasteful? The US population is a small fraction of the global population, but we consume a major amount of the world power. This is especially true of consumption for transportation, and indirectly true for consumption for items that get little attention, e.g. manicured lawns and golf courses, air conditioning for nearly every office and home. We need to conserve as the first approach to gaining energy independence.
There has been major focus on developing hydrogen for automobiles. This requires a major infrastructure for fueling, and it puts hydrogen in very high pressure cylinders to go in as fuel. A much better alternative is to generate biogas and equip transportation vehicles to utilize natural gas separated from the biogas. The biogas sources are human waste, animal waste, plant and food waste. The technology is already available. Compressed natural gas is much safer and cheaper than hydrogen. There are several cities fueling their busses with biogas already.
Thermal oxidizers offer an opportunity to strip additional energy from the digested materials used to produce biogas and the burn sewage sludge. These materials contain energy that can be converted into carbon monoxide and then burned for electricity generation. With many additional steps, coal can be converted into combustible gases without the major issues of pollution and carbon dioxide generation. Thermal oxidizers are also efficient in reducing the volume of non-digestible plant byproducts, e.g. corn stalks, rice stalks, and other high fiber materials while producing heat that can be used to drive turbines for electricity generation.
Some major companies such as GE and Siemens have recognized the potential from modern windmills. Today’s wind turbines are computer controlled to maximize the efficiency from the available winds. Although windmills have been used for centuries to pump water, the growth of the wind farms is encouraging and viable. This approach has the advantage of not contributing to global warming and the environmental issues related to putting the turbines on sites and distributing the electricity can be managed.
The use of water to generate electricity is well proven and has been in use for as long as electricity has been generated. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is still a major supplier of hydroelectrically generated electricity. There is huge potential to utilize the existing dams on the major rivers to generate hydroelectric power. With the continuing development of hybrid automobiles, the ability to substitute electricity for the majority of petroleum based fuels is absolutely proven. The title photograph is of the O’Shaughnessy dam north of Columbus, OH, which can produce 5 megawatts of electricity.
The oldest technology of all is photosynthesis by plants to use the sun’s energy to produce carbon based materials and oxygen. This conversion of carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen is a global opportunity. The establishment of plant based farms of algae or other plants is readily available. This plant material could then be used in digesters to generate biogas. The ultimate solution to global warming may well be in artificially synthesizing this process to consume carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and generate carbon based fuels in a so called artificial leaf process.
With serious conservation and the proven technologies of wind power, hydroelectric generation, biogas, and thermal oxidation, we can maximize the generation of energy with proven technologies. The promise of simultaneously converting carbon dioxide into fuel and oxygen is the new development that has the greatest impact on the continued survival of the earth’s environment.