Available here: http://www.urbanoptions.org/RenewableEnergy/index.htm
Our Energy Challenges
Consuming fossil fuels has improved our lives in many ways, but burning fossil fuels has also created threats to our environment. Burning fossil fuels has provided us with energy for lights, refrigeration, air conditioning, and electronics – such as radio, TV, and computers. Yet the use of fossil fuel energy has also brought several problems with it. Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources can solve these problems.
Global Warming and Climate Change
Fossil fuels consist mostly of the element carbon. As these fuels burn, the carbon combines with oxygen from the air, and it releases heat energy and carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide was not considered a pollutant until recently. Scientists discovered that this gas has been building up in the atmosphere over the last 100 years as we burned fossil fuels. As carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere, the gases act like a pane of glass around the earth. Sunlight moves through this "pane of glass" and is absorbed by the earth, where it turns from shorter wavelength light radiation into longer wavelength heat radiation. The longer wavelengths of heat energy cannot pass back out to space through the "pane of glass" in the atmosphere, reflecting the heat energy back to the earth and changing the climate of
A 1999 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the earth's average surface temperature will increase between 2.5°F and 10.4°F in the next 100 years.11 This is in addition to the increase of 0.5° F to 1.1°F that has already occurred since 1860. The panel is made up of two thousand scientists from around the world.
Such a modest rise in the earth’s average temperature could have dramatic effects. Over the past 10,000 years, the earth’s average temperature hasn’t varied by more than 1.8°F. During the last Ice Age, in which much of the North American continent was covered by a kilometer of ice, average temperatures were only 5°F to 9°F cooler than those today. Analysis of ancient ice cores shows that temperatures can change significantly over just a few decades. We will see the effects of climate change within one lifetime. Predicted effects include more severe weather (e.g. hurricanes, tornadoes, drought), spreading of diseases such as the West Nile Virus, destabilization of local ecosystems, and rising sea levels.12
In the United States, approximately 25 tons of greenhouse
gases are emitted per person every year, the second highest rate of any country
in the world.13 Fossil fuels burned to run cars
and trucks, heat and cool homes and businesses, and power factories are
responsible for about 98% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.14
The U.S. has 4.6% of the world’s population but consumes 23% of the world’s
energy.15 This gives us a special
responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists have determined that sulfur dioxide (SO2)
and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are the primary causes of acid rain. In the
U.S., about 2/3 of all SO2 and 1/4 of all NOx comes from
electric power plants burning fossil fuels like coal.16
Half of the nitrogen oxides come from cars and trucks burning gasoline.17
Acid rain occurs when these gases react in the atmosphere with water,
oxygen, and other chemicals to form various acidic materials. The result is a
mild solution of sulfuric acid and nitric acid rain or snow. This acid is then
washed into lakes, rivers, and land by rainfall and snow. Acid rain has a
variety of effects, including damage to forests and soils, materials, fish and
other living organisms including human health.
This photo of dying trees in Maine shows the effects acid rain can have on forests.18 Acid rain may harm or kill individual fish in a lake, or completely eliminate fish and other living organisms from a body of water, decreasing biodiversity. The Canadian government has estimated that 14,000 lakes in eastern Canada are acidic.19 In a national survey of the problem in the U.S., acid rain caused acidity in 75 percent of the acidic lakes and about 50 percent of the acidic streams.20
Depending on Imported Oil
The U.S. has both pumped and burned more oil than any other country. For the last 30 years, oil fields in the U.S. have been depleted faster than we can find new ones. Now we must buy more than half of the oil we use from other countries (54% in 2001). While the U.S. was once the world’s largest exporter of oil, today we are the world’s largest importer.
Oil imports cost the U.S. $233 million each day in 2001, for a total of $85 billion.21 That’s a lot of money drained from our national economy. The people and businesses of Michigan spend about $12 billion each year to import energy from other states and countries.22 As our oil resource becomes more depleted, it will become even more expensive. In contrast, energy efficiency and renewable energy keeps money and jobs here, producing a healthier economy.
The U.S. imports more than half of the oil we use and an ever-increasing portion of our natural gas. This makes us vulnerable to supply disruptions whether they are caused by labor unrest, terrorism, or the actions of foreign governments. This dependence forces us to deal with countries whose policies we oppose. In 1973, a group of countries with most of the world’s oil refused to sell oil to the U.S. This embargo resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs. In contrast, renewable energy systems tend to be small-scale and distributed, reducing their potential as terrorist targets and eliminating the need for importing and transporting fuels. Renewables don’t depend on the cooperation of foreign governments. Renewables provide a secure, domestic energy supply.
Fossil Fuel Depletion
fuels were formed over millions of years by the action of pressure and heat on
huge piles of dead plants and animals. Once we use up our fossil fuels, they’re
gone forever. Global studies show that oil, which supplies 40% of our energy,
will be used up before gas or coal. Oil isn’t manufactured – we drill wells into
the ground and pump it out. As these wells grow older, they yield less oil each
year. Many experts (petroleum geologists) and the International Energy
Administration (IEA) think our oil production could start declining by 2010 or
2020.23 We must develop and expand other
sources of energy, such as renewable energies, both to help our environment and
to supply our energy needs.
Fuel Cells Are Not a Source of Energy
Fuel cells convert hydrogen gas into electricity. The potential for using fuel cells in our cars and our buildings is great. But the hydrogen for fuel cells must be produced from some other energy source. Staff from the National Renewable Energy Lab explained that for fuel cells to be clean energy, the process to produce the hydrogen has to be nonpolluting. If fossil fuels such as natural gas are used to generate the hydrogen, the results are presently close to the same as burning the fuel. Producers of electricity from renewable energies want to use fuel cells to store and transport the energy produced from the wind and the sun. A lot of research on fuel cells is occurring now.
23 International Energy Agency
For other views see: http://sepwww.stanford.edu/sep/jon/world-oil.html, (8-Feb-2003).
21 Michigan Consumer and Industry Services, Summer 2002 Energy Appraisal, http://www.cis.state.mi.us/mpsc/reports/energy/02summer/oilimports.htm, (8-Feb-2003).
22 Michigan Public Service Commission, at: http://www.cis.state.mi.us/mpsc/gas/about1.htm and the U.S. Department of Energy, Table 143. Energy Price and Expenditure Estimates by Source, Selected Years 1970-1999, Michigan
17 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website http://www.epa.gov/air/urbanair/nox/what.html, (8-Feb-2003).
18 Paul Donahue, Tree Death and Forest Decline, Forest Ecology Network, http://www.powerlink.net/fen/tree_death.html, (8-Feb-2003).
19 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/acidrain/effects/surfacewater.html, (8-Feb-2003).
20 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website http://www.epa.gov/airmarkets/acidrain/effects/surfacewater.html, (8-Feb-2003).
11 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, Summary for Policy Makers, April, 1999. Page 8. Available at: http://www.ipcc.ch/pub/un/syreng/spm.pdf , (10-Mar-03).
12 The Greenhouse Network website: http://greenhousenet.org/resources/faqsglobalwarming.html#1 , (10-Mar-03).
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website:
http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/EmissionsInternationalInventory.html?OpenDocument , (10-Mar-03).
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website:
http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/climate.html , (10-Mar-03).
15 International Energy Agency (IEA), Key World Energy Statistics from the IEA, http://www.iea.org/statist/keyworld2002/keyworld2002.pdf , (10-Mar-03).
An Acid Rain overview link
(Thanks to Jennifer for suggesting this)