Renewable Energy Power for Tomorrow

By San Martin, Robert L. | The Futurist, May-June 1989 | Go to article overview

Renewable Energy Power for Tomorrow


San Martin, Robert L., The Futurist


Renewable Energy

POWER FOR TOMORROW

Renewable energy is making a surprisingly significant contribution to U.S. energy needs and the U.S. economy. Renewable energy sources today supply enough energy each year to run the United States for one month. That's about $18 billion worth of energy. In terms of electricity, renewable energy sources supply enough energy to power 58 million homes for a year. Renewable energy is making a bigger contribution than synfuels, clean coal, fuel cells, or even nuclear power.

Yet it is easy to overlook renewable energy's accomplishments. This is partially because it is difficult to demonstrate renewable energy's potential by pointing to a single area of the energy system as an example of what renewable energy does -- producing electricity or fueling cars or heating homes. Renewable energy can do all those things. Some of the other advantages of renewable energy are also difficult to explain in a few words: Renewable energy facilities don't require massive long-term capital commitments, they can be brought into production relatively quickly, and so on.

Today's successes in renewable energy only foreshadow its ultimate potential. For example, U.S. road surfaces alone absorb more than twice as much solar energy each year as the total U.S. energy requirement. The issue is not a shortage or limitation of these renewable energy resources, but a limitation in technology to collect and convert them into useful energy.

Tapping Renewable

Resources

Solar and renewable energy technologies include a wide range of methods used to capture and transform naturally occuring wind, sunlight, geothermal heat, falling water, and organic biomass into fuels, heat, and electricity. Biomass in the form of wood and hydropower from large dams have been in use for many years and make a large contribution to the U.S. energy supply.

There are many large and small companies supplying equipment to tap these resources and many users of the energy they produce, so there is a certain stability to their development and potential. Other energy resources, such as photovoltaics, solar thermal, geothermal, and wind, are just beginning to show their commercial potential.

For example, U.S. photovoltaic manufacturers have reached annual sales volumes of $40 million, at the same time adding 8 megawatts to the power supply every year. Photovoltaic systems are being installed in many countries for lighting, water pumping, and medical refrigeration. U.S. wind energy sales are about $10 million annually. Over the next five years, the growth potential for wind power has been estimated at 300 to 400 megawatts per year internationally.

Solar thermal systems now generate around 200 megawatts of power annually in the United States. Geothermal energy is also providing a competitive, renewable energy resource for power generating plants in several western U.S. states. And municipal solid waste is another important energy resource whose use is expected to grow rapidly, since waste-to-energy plants reduce landfill requirements as well as producing power for urban centers.

Resource Potential

The U.S. Office of Renewable Energy recently examined the availability and accessibility of renewable resources as a potential energy-supply resource indigenous to the United States. The preliminary findings promise to be eye-opening.

The total resource base -- the physically available (both identified and undiscovered) resources regardless of whether they can be practically or economically extracted -- is made up largely of renewable energy sources. Renewable energy resources account for 93% of the estimated U.S. total, or the equivalent of over 599 trillion barrels of oil.

No energy resource can be fully harnessed, because some portion is physically unrecoverable. Even so, the numbers remain impressive. …

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