Blog #11 Nonrenewable Energy & Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

Nonrenewable Energy

The text starts our sections on energy by defining the laws of thermodynamics. The first law being that it takes high-quality energy to get high-quality energy. The second law of thermodynamics is when high-quality energy is used in each step is automatically wasted and degraded to lower-quality energy. These two laws of thermodynamics are set in stone and cannot be changed or altered in any way. Net energy is the usable amount of high-quality energy available from a given quantity of energy resource. It is the amount that is useful to consumers. We can measure net energy by estimating the total amount of energy available from the resource over its projected lifetime and then subtracting the estimated amount of energy used, automatically wasted because of the second law of thermodynamics and unnecessarily wasted in finding, extracting, processing and transporting the useful energy to consumers. The text states that any energy resource with a low or negative net energy yield cannot compete in the open marketplace with other energy alternatives with higher net energy yields unless it is subsidized by taxpayers. We should not rely on low or negative net energy yields.

We can reduce energy waste, which improves net energy yields and can save money. However, the bad news is that about 84% of all commercial energy used in America is wasted. It is estimated that only 16% of the dollars that Americans pay for energy actually provides them with high-quality energy. Continuing, 41% of that 84% is automatically wasted due to the second law of thermodynamics. Therefore, we the people of America, unnecessarily waste about 43% of energy used. The use of our coal-burning and nuclear power plants produce about two-thirds of its electricity, which is very inefficient. The good news in this scenario is that we know how to reduce most of this unnecessary energy waste (but we really have to *try* in order to reduce the unnecessary waste). If we reduce our waste, we can save money, reduce emissions and other air pollutants, and decrease our dependence on oil.

From the news, advertisements, and our day to day lives, we become highly aware of our dependence on oil. Sadly, oil supplies around 40% of the energy used in the United States. It is the moneymaker and life source of many businesses. The oil that most people are used to seeing his petroleum, or crude oil – “black gold” that comes from the ground. This oil is pumped from the ground and is continued to be pumped until the well stops producing. At this point, it is referred to as peak production for the well.

Our global peak production is something that we should carefully consider — it is the point in time when we all reach the maximum overall rate of conventional crude oil production for the whole world. The issue here is if we do not have renewable resources or means to sustain ourselves once all the wells are dried up, we will die out. At the high rate of pumping and use of oil all over the world, it is likely that our wells will not last too much longer. I know the debate is continuous on whether or not our global peak production will happen very soon or not…but I think it’s undeniable to think that if we keep consuming it at this rate that it will just last forever.

In 2009, the entire world used the equivalent of almost 31 billion 159 liter barrels of oil. This astonishing number can be looked at as if the barrels were laid end to end they could reach from here to the moon and back 44 different times. And although we keep talking about how we will reach an end to the use of oil, it is expected that oil usage will increase by 37% by 2030. As I said, the debate for when our oil will run out is continuous and changing, but the book refers to geologists that estimates we will be completely depleted of oil by 2050 and 2100 (though I have heard of scientist that are now saying it will be sooner than 2050).

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries consist of 13 counties that have about 60% of the world’s proven crude oil reserves and control most to the world’s oil supplies. Saudi Arabia has the largest of the world’s conventional proven crude oil reserves. While the two largest users of oil, the United States and China only have about 1% of the world’s proven crude oil reserves. Based on the data from the U.S Department of Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey, if we continue to use global oil with a growing rate or 2% per year: Saudi Arabia could only supply us for the next 7 years, the remaining reserves would only last us for about 6 months and if the Chinese are to use as much oil as Americans use today then we will need the equivalent of seven more Saudi Arabian supplies to meet their demand. Very scary thought!

In hollywood movies, discussions in classrooms, town meetings, or with friends, the debate over whether or not to use natural gas is rising. Natural gas is a mixture of gases which 50-90% if methane. Conventional natural gas lies above most reservoirs of crude oil. When a natural gas field is drilled and tapped, the propane and butane gases are liquefied under high pressure and removed as liquefied petroleum gas. The text states that conventional natural gas is more plentiful that oil, has a high net energy yield and a fairly low cost and has the lowest environmental impact of all fossil fuels. But the burning of natural gas does release the greenhouse gases and other air pollutants into the atmosphere. It does, however, release less than coal, crude oil and nuclear power fuel cycle. Use of unconventional natural gas is another part of the debate. One type of this unconventional natural gas is coal bed methane gas found in coal beds near the earth’s surface across parts of the United States and Canada. However, unlike conventional natural gas, unconventional natural gas has more environmental impacts like scarring the land, large usage of water, and potential pollution of drinking water.

This chapter continues by reviewing the advantages and disadvantages of using coal, but it is such a dirty energy that I can hardly begin to talk about the advantages of it. We, the United States, are second in line (behind China) for the largest coal-burning countries. We have more coal than we do oil, but the problem with coal is that it is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels. Just the processes of making the available severely degrades the land and pollutes the water and air. Then when coal is burned it emits severe pollution into the air — some parts of that pollution can get past our bodies natural defenses and get into our lungs. Coal-burning power plants prematurely kills more than 24,00 people a year or an average of nearly 66 people everyday and are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. Like all the other nonrenewable resources, the use of coal is growing, most rapidly in China. Something new that I learned about coal while reading this chapter is that when we burn coal it emits trace amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere and that a coal burning power plant actually emits more radioactivity (about 100 times more) than a nuclear power plant!

Additionally, there is no such thing as clean coal. Clean coal was a huge campaign stated by the coal industry in 2008 to make consumers believe that we can burn coal more cleanly. I like the comparison – there is no way to make clean coal, like how there is no way to make a healthy cigarette.

This pictures are from the protest that I participated in with Capitol Climate Action in 2009 in Washington, DC to shut down the coal power plant powering the capitol for the day. There was over 3,000 of us that marched to the power plant that day in February with a wind chill below 0 degrees. It was one of the best days of my life and helped to shape who I am today.

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Nuclear Energy is the last of the nonrenewable resources talked about in this chapter. Nuclear power has a low environmental impact and a low accident risk, but its use has been limited by a low net energy yield, high costs, fear of accidents, long-lived radioactive wastes and the potential for spreading nuclear weapons technology.

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy

As stated earlier in this blog and the previous blogs, we waste huge amounts of energy each day. The best way to reduce this unnecessary of wasted energy is to improve of energy efficiency. Our energy efficiency is the measure of how much work we can get from each unit of energy we use. As we learned earlier, the United States wastes roughly 84% of all commercial energy – partly due to incandescent light bulbs, furnaces, industrial motors, most motor vehicles, coal and nuclear power plants and numerous other energy-consuming devices. So we know that we need to reduce our energy waste — but it’s getting people to understand and really do it, is the problem.

A quote used in the text that I like “doing more and better with less energy and money, but with more brains and technology”, Amory Lovins. This quote holds true, we need to reduce to focus more on reducing our energy usage and talking for days about the whether or not natural gas is a energy we should use.

So how can we cut energy waste? If we cut industry waste was could save a large amount of energy since industry accounts for about 30% of the world’s total energy consumption and 33% of the U.S energy consumption. Industries can use cogeneration, replace energy-wasting electric motors, recycle materials, and switch from low-efficiency incandescent lighting.

A good way to ‘vote with your dollar’ is to start buying from sustainable organizations. In the last few months I’ve made it my goal to never buy from a clothing company unless it is either practices sustainability and/or uses ethical practices with their employees. I think the consumer really needs to take a step back and understand where their money is going towards and how it affects other people around them and/or the environment. Though this clip of Peter Singer is associated more with human rights than environmental rights, the message (and pond example) still holds true: is there a moral problem with where our money goes?

There is so much room for reducing energy waste in regards to transportation — which accounts for about 28% of the energy consumption and two-thirds of the oil consumption in the United States. The text suggest that we include more real (hidden environmental costs) with our transportation, making gasoline price higher or through gasoline taxing, swaying people away from traveling solely by car. Additionally, we could save so much energy if we build large high-speed rail lines between cities and encouraging bicycling and walking. Along with saving energy with transportation we can design building that save energy (a project that is currently underway in NYC).

We need to save more energy (and money) in our daily transportation. I think it’s becoming a ridiculous notion that one person should take one single car to their destination, especially in an area like NYC when so many people are traveling to the same location (because there is just so many people traveling). This idea of convenience by using a car or a taxi every day as your means of transportation is bewildering to me. I made the person goal last year to go 5 years without owning a car. I’ve lived in Seattle and NYC since making that goal and have had a very easy time getting around, without owning a car. So I hope by the time my 5 years are up, I will be so comfortable with not owning a car, that I’ll never own one again. I know that “going green” is difficult for many people to start and make it a part of their daily routine, but I think once people see the benefits not just to their lives it will becoming just a little more easier to conceive.

Solar energy use has its advantages and disadvantages. Passive solar heating system is when a system absorbs and stores heat from the sun directly within a well-insulated structure. We can use walls and floors of concrete, adobe, brick or stone and water tanks can be used to store much of the collected solar energy as heat and to release it slowly throughout the day and night. Active solar heating system is when energy from the sun is captured by pumping a heat absorbing fluid through special collectors, usually mounted on a roof or on a special racks to face the sun. Only some of the collected heat can be used, the remainder is stored in a large insulated container. Passive and active solar heating system can heat water and buildings effectively, the cost of using direct sunlight to produce high temperature heat and electricity are coming down. The advantages of solar energy is: very low greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants, low land disturbance and moderately cost efficient for the passive form. The disadvantages are as follows: need access to the sun 60% of the time during daylight, issues arise when the sun is blocked by trees or structures, high cost to install and maintain and need a backup system for very cloudy days.

Like solar energy, hydropower has its advantages and disadvantages. Hydropower is when the use of kinetic energy from flowing and falling water to produce electricity. The most common way we harness hydropower is by building dams across a large river to create a reservoir.  With hydropower we can use water flowing over dams, tidal flows, and ocean waves to generate electricity. Today it is the world’s leading renewable energy source, mostly used by Canada, China, Brazil, America and Russia. Hydropower gives us moderate to high net energy, low-cost electricity and is a largely untapped renewable potential.  However, environmental concerns and limited availability of suitable sites may limit our use of hydropower. Large land disturbances and displacement occurs with the building of dams. And hydropower can disrupt downstream aquatic ecosystems.

Wind power, too, has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Though I think this is one of the most important of all the of renewable energies and one that we can look forward to in the future. Wind energy is created by capturing wind with wind turbines on land and at sea the convert into electrical energy. Wind farms are now being erected with large numbers of wind turbines. We can put wind farms in rural pasture areas or even on the outskirts of sea.  Wind power has the potential to produce 40 times the world’s current use of electricity! The DOE and Worldwatch Society estimates that when we include harmful environmental and health cost of various energy resources in comparative cost, wind energy is the cheapest way to produce energy. So to not want wind power is kinda crazy to me. The most common distaste for wind power is it’s noise level and eye sore. Though I think they’re kinda beautiful, many people do not like to mixture of natural with metal. The only issue with wind power for me is that it can be deadly to birds that cross its path. So we need to make sure we take into consideration flight patterns of birds when building wind farms.

Two Blog Questions:

  1. How does the class feel about the use of natural gas at Fordham?

  2. Is there a moral problem with the energy we use and how we spend our money in regards to not being energy efficient?


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