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Exploring New Energy Alternatives: What Is Most Likely to Satisfy Our Energy Needs in the Future-Wind Farms and Photovoltaic Arrays, or Something Yet to Be Invented? Options for the World's Energy Future May Include Surprises, Thanks to Innovative Research under Way around the World

By LePoire, David J. | The Futurist, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

Exploring New Energy Alternatives: What Is Most Likely to Satisfy Our Energy Needs in the Future-Wind Farms and Photovoltaic Arrays, or Something Yet to Be Invented? Options for the World's Energy Future May Include Surprises, Thanks to Innovative Research under Way around the World


LePoire, David J., The Futurist


much discussion about going beyond petroleum includes the development of wind farms, solar thermal concentrators, solar cells, and geothermal energy production. But will these satisfy our energy needs in the future? We hope that renewable sources will provide enough energy to supply the world's future needs, but there are still many uncertainties.

How much will low-intensity sources of energy cost over their life spans, and what will their environmental impacts be? The answers depend on research and on the operational experience gained in deploying these technologies and their associated storage, transmission, and conversion systems.

Another area of uncertainty is the growth in world demand for energy. If everyone in the world used energy as the United States does, the rate of energy production would have to increase by a factor of four. In addition, the energy use per person in the developed world might not be stagnant; it might increase. Could renewable sources keep up with this demand?

The following is an overview of a few conventional renewable energy sources that may be expanded in the near future, as well as some more speculative potential "surprises." As the time horizon increases, the uncertainties associated with the technologies, economics, and political scenarios increase.

Energy Today

Fossil fuels currently account for 83% of the U.S. energy supply and slightly less (80%) of the world's energy supply, but energy conservation and efficiency since the oil crises of the 1970s have suppressed growth of energy demand. If energy use had grown as fast as the economy, the United States would be using an estimated 60% more energy than it does now. We've improved energy use in buildings, electrical appliances, cars, and industrial processes. These applications are often motivated by cost savings.

The attainment of energy efficiency through conservation or improved technology allows us to extract more applied energy from a comparable amount of fuel. This has led to growth that has been quicker in the economy than in energy use.

Current nuclear power plants extract the remnant energy from supernova explosions stored in the heavy element of uranium. Since these stellar explosions occurred billions of years ago, before the solar system formed, nuclear power is not renewable. However, there is still much more energy stored in the heavy elements than the amount that is currently utilized. Techniques are being explored to expand the possible fuel materials to include other types of uranium and thorium.

Hydroelectric power is renewable but demonstrates some limitations: Though inexpensive, electricity generated from hydropower (for example, along the Tennessee, Colorado, and Columbia rivers) affects large tracts of land and is generally limited to a few select spots where the topography of the land supports a good reservoir location. Growth globally is limited because prime locations have already been developed.

Direct solar-energy technologies such as solar photovoltaic cells are being rapidly developed and deployed, and other technologies are also advancing our ability to efficiently convert wind, waves, ocean currents, and biofuels into usable energy.

Beyond Conventional Renewable Energy Sources

To hedge our energy bets and reduce future uncertainty, researchers are exploring new options for future energy sources, including ways to improve older ideas, such as fusion energy, space-based solar power satellites, Moon bases, and advanced nuclear fission options.

The strategy of maintaining a variety of energy options could be likened to the strategy of reducing risk in an investment portfolio. For example, our current energy technologies have costs, environmental impacts, and maturity levels that are relatively well known. Researchers are now testing newer renewable technologies, with the aim of cutting production expenses, minimizing negative environmental impacts, and enhancing scalability.

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Exploring New Energy Alternatives: What Is Most Likely to Satisfy Our Energy Needs in the Future-Wind Farms and Photovoltaic Arrays, or Something Yet to Be Invented? Options for the World's Energy Future May Include Surprises, Thanks to Innovative Research under Way around the World
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