Perceptions, Principles, and Progress;

An essay on the differing concepts and connotations of energy sources (and how they hinder innovation). The Final Edit. 

Introduction 

In the age of consumerism and common access to energy and tertiary services; individuals are more often than not choosing what is more convenient for them than what is more necessary for themselves. In the modern age, survivability and necessity are seldom concerns with the comfortability of modern life. As much as I may consider myself an environmentalist, my life choices do not typically reflect as the demand for our consumer needs currently are at risk. My once very strong opinion on opposing offshore oil exploration has been reversed due to my own supply and demand to rely on oil to fuel my lifestyle. Leading to misconceptions, this is where convenience crosses the line of ones’ own opinions. If I truly wanted to be ‘environmentally friendly’ I could purchase a bicycle and wake up at least 2-3 hours prior to work for my transportation. Same goes for power usage, as much as I wish I did not need to depend on lights for my apartment or an electrical outlet to charge my phone or my laptop, I am dependent on such sources for my lifestyle. You see, in recent times I’ve begun to have an understanding that it is almost impractical to have beliefs in prioritizing the environmentally friendly while continuing my need to participate in the options provided for survival (I.e. cost effective). I feel we must realize that in order to have the best of both worlds, the future of our energy production will indeed need to be altered, if not, we take an economic and national security risk in the progress of innovation.  

With the 21st century status quo of constant energy use to sustain the average Americans’ lifestyle, the knowledge that our current energy infrastructure is limited and shrinking can be a daunting foreshadow of a potential economic disaster. The lifestyles we enjoy are potentially fleeting if action is not taken to ensure if more sustainable sources of energy are not instituted before they are necessary. While we currently know of the depleting source and have begun implementing other options, the other options are not as cost effective, in which the average American consumer would choose the option that best fits their financial needs. To this advantage there are three methods of energy production that require evaluation when determining the future of energy production, these are renewable energy, fossil fuels, and nuclear power. With this evaluation comes major changes as each produce different economic costs and risks. Our lifestyles are currently based upon what is easily accessible and cost efficient for the average Americans’ wallets. Taking much consideration, the commodity costs as well as environmental and economic risks all need to play a factor when going forth with our choices and determination in the future of our energy production.  

Natural Gas & Fossil Fuels 

With natural gas being one of our main energy sources, much controversy is surrounded by our use, production and import within America. Individually taking into consideration, the use of natural gas accounts for most of our basic needs for our comfortable modern lifestyles. Whether it is cooking, heating/cooling your home, refrigeration, drying clothes, and fuel for vehicles, natural gas consumption has a current impact on the basic human consumer needs. The use of natural gases account for around a combined total of 30% in the US consumption in 2019 for residential, transportation, and commercial activity. The US oil and gas industry accounted for about “31 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas” in 2019 to be consumed. This can be difficult for the average person to understand so to break this down, I calculated that the 31 Tcf that is 231896103896103.88 US liquid in gallons, and 1 barrel is 42 gallons of oil which means a total of 5521335807050.1 barrels of oil being consumed within the year of 2019 (U.S. Energy Information Administration). The reason for this current state of high demand in fossil fuel use is because it is the cheapest option so far of the 3 energy sources being evaluated. With a whopping total $14.24 annual cost per gallon for the consumer in residential areas, and $5.16 annual cost per gallon for the consumers in the city within the year of 2019 (U.S. Energy Information Administration), making it affordable for consumers’ lifestyles.   

Regardless of affordability, due to the average individual consumption and dependency, there is a depletion of fossil fuels as the supply and demand rise, which in turn the prices then rise. A study in 2009 found that these non-renewable fossil fuels make up about “81% of the global primary energy supply, being the single largest primary source for energy oil fulfills 33% of the world’s energy needs” (Höök). Due to this high demand for oil and the rate of depletion, it is apparent that our system needs reevaluated for the future of where our main source of energy is derived from. I enjoyed reading this article as it points out the differences between the concept of a decline rate and the depletion rate of oil supply. While the decline rate essentially means the yearly cutback in the rate of production after peak production, the depletion rate is referring to the rate at which oil can be produced (Höök). With the supply and demand rate, this causes oil and gas prices to rise (ex. gas stations) because it is much more difficult to extract the oil as quickly as it is being demanded (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Essentially, the connection with the rise in energy costs is also connected to the rise in the price of food as well due to production supply and demand of society (Bierbaum). Unrelated to political influence, my research involved diving deeper into how natural gas usage took affect within my lifestyle, I came to an understanding that I may be in opposition of how the process of extracting the oil is not the safest method for the environment, but without the production my life choices would be much more challenging, such as fueling my vehicle and my eating habits. 

Each energy source poses their own threats to the environment, in my opinion the oil and gas industry, is the most complex of the three. Here’s why; agricultural waste/pollution, air pollutants, and oil spills that affect coastlines in America (Bierbaum). Although I disagree with the process of extraction (offshore oil drills and fracking), I understand the supply and demand needed for our current status of living, but with the data provided I do not think the costs and environmental effects are worth continuing this process for future energy production. With the current status of fossil fuels in depletion, new technology for renewable energy sources has been introduced into the mix.  

Renewable Energy 

Only in recent years has the technology for renewable energy been modeled to be improved, but this does not go without its economic and environmental complications as well. A study in 2007 reports that around “80% of the world’s total primary energy consumption is accounted for by fossil fuels, and with the threats of climate change and oil depletion, there is an increase in demand for renewable energy sources, approximating over $30 billion,” (Thomas) which has only increased in a 13-year span. We hear in news reports of solar and wind power with how they limit the use of fossil fuels and can be a switch into energy sources that are environmentally friendly but, how much information do we really know on these products and their costs? 

Reports in 2020 for the Annual Energy Outlook review the demand for electricity as it grows and the future of energy sources through 2050 (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Below you will find diagrams pertaining to the amount of electricity generated from natural gas and how renewables increase as a “result of lower natural gas prices and declining costs of solar and wind renewable capacity, making these fuels increasingly competitive” (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Suggesting the projections for the U.S. Energy production sources and with increases occurring throughout, growth rates for electricity demand have slowed as these new efficient devices and production processes that require less electricity (wind and solar) have replaced depleting sources, excluding nuclear (U.S. Energy Information Administration). 

As the popular demand increases for renewable energy sources there is also information missing, how do they get broken down over time, what is their environmental and economic impact after use? Exploring how environmentalists have long promoted renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind farms to save the climate, Michael Shellenberger’s TED talk dives deeper into what happens when those technologies destroy the environment. Explaining why solar and wind farms require so much land for mining and energy production, Shellenberger has ideas on an alternative path to saving both the natural environment and economic innovation. Thinking my first idea of the technical lifestyles with solar panels and electric cars and thinking of the main obstacles as political, I was wrong, this was not as simple an idea as expected. The implications Michael mentions in this TED talk refer to solar panels on roof houses, “costing about twice as much as the electricity from solar farms, with large transmission lines to bring in all the electricity from the country into a city, and the mix of solar and wind admitting electricity only 10%-15% of the time a year”(Shellenberger). The solutions mentioned are to convert solar and wind energy into an electric battery like source to store that energy, which is expensive to convert. The issue of reliability is that there is too much electricity one day being conducted and another not enough, for example California would pay neighboring states such as Arizona to use the solar electricity, suffering and risking a blow out in the grid. Wind turbines have even become a threat to bird species such as the bald eagle, and solar farms require clearing areas of wildlife; pulling the natural animals that inhibit those lands into captivity where many end up dying, “in other words, all of the major problems with renewables aren’t technical, they’re natural”(Shellenberger). With unreliable and unsustainable power, economic costs begin to increase in the state of CA from solar and wind power usage, we see this in the graph a look provided below, the increase in electricity prices from 2011-2017 due to high demand and low production.

Aside from the worry that fossil fuel sources will dwindle, the demand for renewable energy sources also stems from a populist interest in decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, and the threat of global warming. This interest in reducing CO2 emissions has led to the development of technology capable of reducing air pollution, environmentally friendly alternatives to modern necessities have been and continue to be developed both in the private sector and by government entities. Despite these ‘eco-friendly’ technologies aspirations, energy is still a need to sustain a modern economy and infrastructure. Even with efforts such as electric and hybrid vehicles such as Tesla’s and Prius’ with 64.2% of America’s electricity being produced by coal and natural gasses (U.S. Energy Information Administration). The CO2 pollution of electric automobiles have not been reduced but merely rerouted. With the data in juxtaposition to minimal positive environmental effects, the question that appears in my mind is whether the longer lasting negative effects are worth expansion? The future of our energy dependence relies on the equal part of environmentally conscious and survivability; which leads into the expansion and exploration of nuclear power, we see in the graphs below, provided by Environmental Progress and Michael Shellenbergs TED talk, the comparison between solar/wind and nuclear energy production. From the data we see the context of sustainable energy. As nuclear power plants show more sustainability, academic journals follow this study deeper as the rate of renewable energy education increases. Chacko Thomas of Murdoch University conducted a study in 2008 on the issues with the education of renewable energy, whether it be in course content or skills shortage, the link of teaching to research to development takes a “multidisciplinary approach,” providing solutions to “serious global problems such as oil depletion, air pollution, and global warming,” resulting in mass amounts of technology that needs to be developed to include in the educational programs (Thomas). The main point that Thomas provides is that the variety of technology needed in order to provide the education of renewable sources, is costly and can be unreliable as the issues that surround renewable energy sources that have gone unnoticed and are miscommunicated within the media and educators. The reports show the world’s total primary energy consumption alongside the threats of climate change and oil depletion, as there is an increase in demand for renewable energy sources. 

Nuclear Power

Believed to be the most misleading of the group, nuclear power is underrated and overlooked when considering the environment and our economy and going forth with our choices and determination in the future of our energy production. When I was beginning my research, this energy source stood out to me the most, even with negative associations such as the disasters of the power plants from Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, as well as the association with the atomic bomb drop in Hiroshima in 1945. A study conducted by the EPA in 2012 reported that the United States had 104 commercial nuclear power plants in 31 states, generating 20% of the county’s electricity (Palliser). This report is interesting because a study within recent years states that by the end of 2019, the United States EIA reported 58 nuclear power plants in 29 states however, generating  20% of the country’s electricity, the same percentage with fewer plants in just 7 years  (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Advocating for nuclear power is in turn advocating for the environmentally friendly. According to the EPA, nuclear energy production promotes clean energy as it does not emit CO2, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides (Palliser). Within another TED talk from Michael Shellenberger we gain a sense of the solar and wind as an energy source to be unreliable in sustainability, compared with the depletion of fossil fuels; generating electricity 10%-30% of the time (weather permitting). In the graphs provided by Environmental Progress and Michael Shellenberg’s TED talk, we examine the comparison of carbon emissions, deaths involved, and materials for each energy source. There is an importance in recognizing where our future energy innovation is to maintain a successful environmental and economic status, these graphs should serve as evidence to such. 

As you can see in the graphs above, the information provided gives incite on the reliability and sustainability of nuclear power compared to other energy sources. Not only is it important to consider moving forward with a reliable energy source but a sustainable one in which can be used for consumer lifestyles as years progress, that won’t dwindle and won’t cause economic and environmental destruction. Nuclear power can not only produce twice as much energy with less materials, it also emits less carbon pollution. As shown in the graph below, Solar energy sources require 5 different materials, all needed to be broken down and “recycled” individually while nuclear energy sources require 3 materials and can be broken down very simplistically. The risk associated with the disassembly of nuclear plants is rumored high and it can be a ‘high’ risk, but looking at the other sources, it’s a risk worth exploring. 

Conclusion 

Even with the high demand of advocating for eco friendly usage for energy sources, our current comfortability and convenience status will not change until things become necessary and convenient for other options when the day arrives of total depletion of fossil fuels. As I was writing this essay, I experienced a drastic change within my point of view on environmentalism, activism and my basic needs as a human; causing me to go through a roller coaster of emotions as it was challenging to foresee that all along, the environment is and will be fine after human existence. In the words of George Carlin “saving endangered species is just one more arrogant attempt by humans to control nature, interfering with nature is what got us in trouble in the first place, with animals disappearing at the rate of 25 a day regardless of our behavior,” the need for lobbyists is not as equivalent to the importance of needing a change in the production of a primary energy source. It took multiple resources such as these academic journals and TED talks cited, for my opinion to have a complete change, but here I am. Someone who once dreamed of working for a non-profit organization, lobbying, thinking I was working towards the “greater good,” now believes that my greater good is advocating and educating others for other resources of energy. Taking the time for educating myself on matters such as these have opened up my eyes to the truth of reality, the harsh truth, that the Earth will be okay, it is us humans that need to realize this to become less of the ‘superhero’ and more of a collected humanity to equally keep an energy source sustainable while still being ‘environmentally friendly’. 

It is not with laws and regulations that change will be influenced but, with the power of correcting the production of the energy system in its entirety to match the financial needs of consumers and influence the environmental activists’ validation, eventually the future of energy production will be progressive. In theory, it is an environmental and economical win, in my opinion shaped by the data given with the depletion of fossil fuels and how renewable energy can lead to other difficulties, that our future of energy production will lead to be innovative with a change towards nuclear power.  

Works Cited 

Bierbaum, Rosina M., and Pamela A. Matson. “Energy in the Context of Sustainability.” Daedalus, vol. 142, no. 1, 2013, pp. 146–161. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43297308. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.  

Carlin, George. “The Planet Is Fine.” YouTube, 21 Oct. 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W33HRc1A6c. Accessed Oct. 2020.  

Environmental Progress. 2020. The Complete Case for Nuclear — Environmental Progress. https://environmentalprogress.org/the-complete-case-for-nuclear. Accessed 30 October 2020. 

Höök, Mikael, et al. “Decline and Depletion Rates of Oil Production: A Comprehensive Investigation.” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 372, no. 2006, 2014, pp. 1–21. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24502100. Accessed 24 Oct. 2020.  

ICPP. “Carbon Pollution: Nuclear and Solar.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, http://www.ipcc.ch/.

Palliser, Janna. “Nuclear Energy.” Science Scope, vol. 35, no. 5, 2012, pp. 14–18. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43184528. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.  

 Shellenberger, Michael. “Why I Changed My Mind about Nuclear Power | Michael Shellenberger TEDx Berlin.” YouTube, 4 Jan. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciStnd9Y2ak&ab_channel=TEDxTalks. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.  

Shellenberger, Michael. “Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet | Michael Shellenberger | TEDx Berlin.” YouTube, 17 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-yALPEpV4w. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020. 

Thomas, Chacko, et al. “Issues in Renewable Energy Education.” Australian Journal of Environmental Education, vol. 24, 2008, pp. 67–73. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44656502. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.  

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “ANNUAL ENERGY OUTLOOK 2020.” EIA.Gov, 2020 www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/AEO2020%20Full%20Report.pdf.   

U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/use-of-natural-gas.php  

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Nuclear Industry – EIA.” EIA.Gov, 2016, www.eia.gov/energyexplained/nuclear/us-nuclear-industry.php.