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13 Alternatives to Oil Wars

03/27/2011
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As I mentioned Monday, the world’s oil reserves are being depleted much faster than many experts predicted. The UN’s sanction of military intervention in Libya is instructive. Is this really an effort to provide relief to an oppressed people? Or is that just political cover for securing our energy interests? Remember that in 1994 when Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire asked the UN to send troops to prevent the impending genocide, the situation was deemed too “risky.” An estimated 800,000 were killed.

Libya will be just another conflict in the long, bloody struggle for the remaining oil supplies–unless we immediately accelerate our implementation of alternative energy sources. There are many. Below, I discuss 13.

Sun

Enough sunlight hits the Earth in one hour to power the whole world for a year. Unfortunately, modern solar panels are costly, and not very efficient. More money needs to be allocated to developing this technology for it to become a viable replacement for fossil fuels–and for that to happen, more people need to start using it.

A promising idea for harnessing solar energy more efficiently involves space-based solar panels mounted on satellites. The sunlight outside our atmosphere is more intense, and the energy collected this way can be electromagnetically beamed back to Earth.

The Kyoto Box, invented by Jon Bohmer, puts solar energy to use in a clever way. It costs $7 to build. Its design is simple: a cardboard box, with a black interior, aluminum foil-covered top panels, and covered with clear acrylic. Inside, it gets hot enough to boil water. It’s mainly intended for use in the developing world, to reduce the need to cut down trees for firewood. Right now around 3 billion people use firewood to boil water–with the Kyoto Box, they can get clean water without contributing to deforestation and global warming.

Wind

The energy stored in the wind is estimated to be 100 times the amount needed to power human civilization. Public opinion polls show that the public strongly supports wind power in principle, however wind initiatives often meet local opposition. This is called the NIMBY principle (Not In My Back Yard). Opponents of wind power cite noise, visual intrusion, electromagnetic interference and harm to birds as reasons against it.

There are a few ways to circumvent these hazards. The airborne wind turbine is a recent invention. It typically uses kites to harness the wind at an altitude of hundreds of meters and transmits the energy to generators on the ground. Another solution is to situate wind turbines on floating platforms offshore.

Water

Hydropower has been around for hundreds of years–in the form of irrigation, water wheels, et cetera. Today, it makes up approximately 88% of electricity from renewable sources and around 20% of the world’s electricity. Hydroelectric complexes create no direct waste, and produce far fewer CO2 emissions than energy plants that use fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, hydroelectric projects damage surrounding ecosystems and are disruptive of people living nearby, who usually need to be relocated. As well, dam failure can be devastating to downriver settlements.

A new technique is being developed for harnessing energy from slow-moving currents, which should sidestep the majority of these risks.

Heat

The first geothermal power generator was tested in 1904. Now geothermal electricity generation is used in 24 countries, and in 70 countries geothermal heating is used.

Geothermal electricity is generated from geothermal energy, and it too can have adverse environmental impacts. The construction of geothermal plants can cause earthquakes. As well, fluids drawn from deep in the earth carry a number of gases, including CO2, though emissions are a fraction of those produced by fossil fuels. Hot water from geothermal sources may also contain trace amounts of toxic chemicals.

Atoms

Nuclear power accounts for about 14% of the world’s electricity. It’s produced using controlled nuclear reactions.

A lot of stigma is associated with nuclear energy, a situation not helped by the emergencies at Japanese reactors following the earthquake there. Uranium mining poses threats to the health of both humans and the environment, and there are several risks involved in managing radioactive waste. There have also been serious nuclear accidents, such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen isn’t technically an energy source, but a carrier of energy. You still need to charge hydrogen fuel cells using energy some other source. I wanted to include it, though, in order to make this list a nice round 13.

Hydrogen’s only byproduct is water vapour. A hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen to product electricity, heat and water. It is widely considered an attractive alternative to fossil fuels for powering cars, since it produces no CO2.

In recent years there have been several advancements in hydrogen energy. It is now easily affordable to individuals.

Biofuel

A biofuel is any fuel derived from biomass. Biofuels provide nearly 2% of the world’s transport fuel.

While biofuels pose an increasingly appealing alternative to oil, there is still some controversy surrounding them. Many opponents take issue with the use of crops to power vehicles while billions currently live in hunger, and a global food crisis draws nearer. Also, increasing farmland for the use of biofuels means increased deforestation and soil erosion, a loss of biodiversity and a negative impact on water resources.

Algae

In 1999 researchers discovered if you deprive algae of sulfur and oxygen, they produce high yields of hydrogen. Though algae fuel is technically biofuel, it sidesteps many of the risks associated with other biofuels. It doesn’t affect water resources since it can be produced using ocean water and wastewater, it’s relatively harmless to the environment if spilled, it doesn’t detract from food supplies, and it’s produced on land not suitable for agriculture. Researchers are now trying to refine the process, thereby reducing capital and operating costs and making algae fuel commercially viable.

Dancing

Yes, dancing. Using specially designed floor tiles, some dance schools and clubs are now harnessing the vibrations created by customers as they get down.

Bloom

Bloom Boxes, produced by Bloom Energy, require an energy source–such as natural gas or  biofuels–but produce power extremely efficiently. One Bloom Box currently costs $700,000 and can power roughly 100 homes. Companies like Google, FedEx, eBay, WalMart and Staples have already purchased several. The Boxes produce significantly less greenhouse gas when using natural gas than do fossil fuels, and none when using biofuels.

Bloom Energy aims to reduce the size of their Boxes, as well as their cost–to around $3,000. One will power a whole house, making it virtually self-sufficient. The fact that half the power from traditional power stations is lost in transit combined with the efficiency of Bloom Boxes make this a promising new technology.

Humans

Science fiction tells us robots will harvest us for energy. Until they do, why don’t we? With an exercise bike generator–which can be constructed fairly cheaply–you could be powering your appliances. Other devices exist that are designed to harvest our energy while we walk.

Poo

On a blog called Batshite, we must not neglect poo. Solid animal manure can be burned for energy, and liquid manure produces natural gas. In case you’re wondering, chicken shit is best suited to produce electrical energy, cow shit to heat homes, and pig shit to fuel cars.

No word yet on what bat shit can produce.

Garbage

How does resolving our waste issues and our energy woes in one go tickle your fancy?

There are a few methods for getting energy out of the trash. It can be incinerated to boil water and power steam generators, though that releases harmful gasses into the atmosphere. Landfills can also be processed mechanically, turning much of it into bricks of solid fuel. Or natural gas produced by the bacteria present in landfills can be extracted.

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