As the world’s oil supply dwindles and greenhouse gases take their toll on the environment, renewable resources and technologies can sustain the planet and improve our way of life.
The United States is a country built on revolutions and, likewise, progress and innovation.
As American statesman William Henry Seward said 150 years ago, “Revolutions never go backwards.”
It’s true. The American Revolution brought our country into existence, and the agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries led to innovations that helped farmers produce a great deal more food on their land. More recently, this century’s informational revolution, referred to as the Information Age, led to the new belief that knowledge is a tangible product.
Now, a new uprising is taking place and shaping the country—indeed, the world. This renewable revolution finds individuals, governments and countries seeking environmentally friendly ways of living. But this time, the stakes are even higher.
Across the globe, people are fervently looking into new forms of energy as a way to supplant non-renewable fuel and provide power. In fact, the increasing demand for solar energy is expected in the next two years to fuel a 40-percent annual increase in the photovoltaic (PV) cell industry, according to a 2008 report from research firm iSuppli. The industry has already grown 25 percent annually and is worth $15 billion a year. And now, as we face a depleting oil supply, ethanol is being increasingly explored as a replacement.
From ethanol and other biofuels, to solar and wind power, to bioplastics and recycled materials, the renewable revolution is moving full speed ahead.
COMING UP DRY
Signs of an overly taxed world are everywhere. Because of an increase of carbon in the atmosphere—coal-burning power plants and automobiles produce 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) every year in the United States alone—many scientists and researchers say the planet is simply too hot for its own good.
Compounding the CO2 issue is the world’s dependence on oil. “It took hundreds of millions of years for the world to develop all of its oil, and we’ve used up half of it in 150 years,” says David Goodstein, Ph.D., Physics Professor at Pasadena’s Caltech University and author of Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil [W.W. Norton & Co., 2004].
Not long ago, the idea that the world’s oil supply would be exhausted seemed ludicrous, but unfortunately, it’s much less absurd today. The world is producing about 87 million barrels of oil per day, and production is unlikely to ever again exceed 90 million barrels per day, says San Francisco-based Energy Analyst Chris Nelder, a Web Editor for Energy & Capital magazine and co-author of Profit from the Peak: The End of Oil and the Greatest Investment Event of the Century [John Wiley & Sons, 2008]. “Within the next three to six years, the world will likely reach the end of the peak oil plateau and go into terminal oil production decline,” he says. “At that point, a growing world population will be forced to live with an ever-decreasing supply of oil.”
As Nelder notes, the problem isn’t just that the world’s oil beds are drying up. It’s also that the global population has approximately doubled during the past four decades, and an ever-greater number of that population lives in cities—about 70 percent of the world will live in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations.
To curb or reduce these effects, many scientists and experts believe we must change our way of living.
THE SILVER LINING
Thankfully, the renewable revolution is already well underway across the globe. Worldwide, investors put some $148 billion into alternative energies in 2007, up 60 percent from the previous year, according to the United Nations.
Ethanol is playing a large role in the changing landscape. The development of an extensive ethanol program provides another oil replacement while also lessening U.S. dependence on foreign production, says Jeff Broin, CEO of POET in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“If our country remains committed to the future of domestic ethanol, we could replace 50 percent of our gasoline in the next 12 to 15 years,” he says. “Let’s transition to a renewable source now, before we’re forced to later. In the worst case, this will extend our oil supply for future generations.”
Adds Susan Meredith, President and Co-founder of HumanExcel, an environmental educational firm based in Austin, Texas, “Alternative fuels play an important role because the challenge that faces us is such a systemic problem. Ethanol and biodiesel and natural gas-based vehicles—any of these things will transition us away from oil.”
Ethanol also makes sense because it keeps the Earth’s energy cycle within a closed system, Broin says. “Our environment and the supply of oil are both telling us that the future of fossil energy is limited. It’s time we start getting energy from the surface of the Earth, where it’s part of the natural carbon cycle,” Broin says, referring to the self-contained cycle of CO2 of the Earth’s atmosphere. Ethanol plants help maintain this balance because the crops used to produce ethanol consume CO2, while oilbased products produce CO2 and do nothing to remove it from the environment.
Other potential energy sources are gaining ground, too, including solar energy. In fact, PV manufacturer OptiSolar has announced plans to create a 550-megawatt solar farm—nearly 40 times as large as the biggest solar power plant currently in operation—in California by 2012.
Wind power in the United States alone increased by 26 percent from 2005 to 2006. That figure jumped another 27 percent in 2007. Globally, Germany and Spain are ahead of the United States in windpower production.
Worldwide installed capacity of geothermal power — or using the Earth’s internal heat to create energy — grew from 8,933 megawatts in 2005 to 9,732 megawatts in 2007. A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the total resource base in the United States, both renewable and non-renewable, has an energy content of more than 657 trillion barrels of oil equivalent, or nearly 50,000 times the current annual rate of national energy consumption.
Though not an energy source, another area with the potential to decrease oil consumption is bioplastics, biodegradable products produced from a variety of plants such as corn or potatoes. Bioplastic production requires less fossil-fuel energy, and the products are not made from fossil fuels, as are regular plastics. According to Dutch consulting firm Helmut Kaiser, bioplastics could reduce petroleum consumption for plastic by 15 to 20 percent by 2025.
And POET and other ethanol producers are working to make their product even more environmentally friendly. POET Biorefining – Chancellor, S.D., is implementing a solid waste fuel burner that will consume waste wood and produce steam energy. This, along with a new system to burn landfill methane gas, will help to offset up to 90 percent of the plant’s natural gas usage.
ON OUR WAY
Without a doubt, the renewable revolution will require hard work and a solid commitment from governments, businesses and consumers alike. But the technologies are increasingly available to lesson world dependence on oil and reverse greenhouse gas effects.
We are well on our way, and the heightened public awareness is proof positive of it. “What will happen—because of the high prices of gas and petroleum-based fuels, and the interests shown by government, press and the public—is that the consumption of petroleum will slow,” says Saifur Rahman, Ph.D., Vice President for New Initiatives and Outreach for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. in Washington, D.C., as well as President of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech University. “We will see that we are using less oil than we used to.”
That trend may already be playing out: Amidst growing awareness of environmental issues, U.S. demand for gasoline has shrunk 5 percent compared to the same time last year. That’s thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles and Americans just plain driving less. Moreover, a Harris Interactive AutoTECHCAST study found two-thirds of consumers surveyed were familiar with E85 flexfuel vehicles, and more than half were interested in purchasing one.
“I’m very optimistic,” says Bryan Smith, President of consulting group Broad Reach Innovations and a faculty member of York University’s Sustainable Enterprise Academy in Toronto. “People understand this is essential. As a human race, we are up for this challenge. There are all kinds of causes for optimism.”