Energy is not an issue; it is a mosaic of intersecting issues far more complex than is understood by the general public. This is a big reason why CARE exists, to break down the complexity of energy into components that can be more easily understood. With a broader understanding of energy production and how it affects our lives, everyday citizens can form more educated opinions and use that knowledge to their advantage and to the benefit of society as a whole. Without sufficient knowledge people can easily be led to make decisions contrary to their best interests. CARE’s goal is to be a tool by which any citizen can discern energy reality from energy rhetoric.
Much of the discussion that takes place concerning energy is far too narrow. For example, energy producers like to focus on the power side of an energy resource while downplaying its environmental impact. Conversely, environmental activist groups are quick to criticize energy sources (primarily fossil fuels) as being “dirty” without considering how these resources keep our environment clean. For example, imagine what your life would be like without rubber, asphalt, plastic bags, fertilizers, chemical cleaners, garbage trucks, plastic-lined landfills, sewer systems, sewage treatment plants, etc.
The balance between energy production and environmental protection is only the beginning. Several other factors should also be considered. How expensive is the resource? Is it found in abundance? Is it consistent? How much energy must be expended to produce the energy source? What are the natural resource impacts? Is it safe to use and can it be kept safe from those who would harm us? Will it last?
All of these questions must be considered when attempting to determine the overall value of an energy source. This is the Broad View, a more thoughtful, informed manner in which to think about energy. There are eight different measures that should be applied to any energy resource. They are as follows:
If a resource is not generally available, it will not be of practical use. For example, hydrogen’s biggest problem is availability because it does not exist in a pure form in nature. It is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier, like a battery. Hydrogen must be taken from another source (natural gas, coal, oil, water, etc.), therefore it scores low on availability.
Affordability is closely tied to availability. Fossil fuels are affordable because they exist in abundance. All successful societies have this in common: they enjoy abundant, affordable energy.
It is not enough for an energy source is available and abundant. It must also be reliable. This is the biggest challenge faced by renewable energy resources. Because the sun doesn’t shine at night and cloudy days significantly reduce the ability of photovoltaic cells to produce energy from the sun, solar power is inconsistent. It is far less reliable than fossil fuels that produce energy on demand. Our electric grid cannot run solely on renewable power because the grid demands consistent energy input.
Every energy source has an energy profit, or in some cases a deficit. Fossil fuels dominate our national energy portfolio because they have a high energy profit, i.e., a small amount of energy is expended to produce a much larger amount of energy. In spite of great technological progress, all renewable energy sources today have either a small energy profit or an energy deficit.
This category is somewhat tricky. Common belief is that while fossil fuels are available, affordable, reliable and provide a strong energy profit, they also produce significant environmental impacts. This is true. However, fossil fuels also meet 86 percent of the nation’s electricity and liquid fuels needs (Nuclear: 8 percent; Hydropower: 5.4 percent; Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Biomass combined: 0.6 percent). If, for example, it were even possible to run the electrical grid with only wind turbines, there isn’t nearly enough landmass in the entire United States for all the millions of windmills that would be needed to replace coal and natural gas. Environmental impact must be weighed against energy output.
One factor rarely considered in the energy equation is the amount of other resources that must be used in the production process, most notably water. Enormous amounts of water are used every day to cool nuclear and coal and natural gas fired power plants. As populations grow and more demands are placed on our fresh water supplies it will become increasingly important that our energy resources produce more power with less water (or other natural resources).
In the age of global terrorism, the security of our energy sources is a significant and growing concern. If an energy resource provides a strong energy profit yet is difficult to keep secure, it becomes less valuable. The safety of common use of a fuel source is also important. If, for example, multiple technological breakthroughs make hydrogen power economically feasible, there will still be the problem of creating a safe delivery system that an untrained person can safely use. Currently only highly-trained personnel are allowed to handle hydrogen.
If an energy resource can’t serve us well in the long term then it is prudent to minimize the importance of that source. Likewise, if an energy source can be relied upon indefinitely with minimal impacts, then we should work to increase its use. Sustainability is what makes renewable resources so attractive. The finite supply of fossil fuels causes concern. For this reason it’s easy to see why idea of renewable power is so popular. However, the reality is that renewable energy must make several quantum leaps forward to fulfill the renewable dream. While we work toward making that dream a reality we must still plan for powering an energy-hungry world for decades to come.