There’s a lot of talk right now about transitioning to renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, and converting our transportation system to run on cleaner “alternative” fuels, such as hydrogen and electricity. But what does it all mean? And why should it matter to me? Well, let me see if I can quickly address those questions…
First of all, let’s try to demystify the idea of renewable energy. Most of the energy we use today to drive our cars or light up a room are derived primarily from what are referred to as “fossil fuels.” Most of these fuels are dug or pumped from gigantic sources under the ground.
To most people they are invisible until you actually pull up to the gas pump or flip on a light. Even then, there is still a magical, mystical element to it. To the average person the concept of billions upon billions of gallons of oil or pounds of coal is so incomprehensible that it seems unlimited to us.
Let’s face it. after nine or ten zeros, our eyes start to glaze over and we just go into nod-and-smile mode. It is difficult for us to believe that this supply is limited. But it is! This is the reality behind the so-called theory of “Peak Oil.” Peak Oil may be a controversial model but the reality is the more we use, the less we have; and the available resources are said to already be on the decline.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was the primary supplier of oil. Things have changed. While we still have local supplies in states such as Alaska and Texas, our demand has far exceeded our supply.
Anyone that isn’t aware of the implications on our economy and our national security probably has their head buried in the sand, and therefore wouldn’t be reading this article.
So I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say we are questioning our national security and are on shaky ground economically, due largely to our huge dependence on fossil fuels.
“Renewable” is a fancy way of saying unlimited. Renewable energy comes from unlimited resources. The primary sources of renewable energy are: solar, wind, thermal and hydro. Just remember: the sun will always rise and the wind will always blow; heat will always rise and current will always flow. (I just came up with that off the top of my head, but it sounds pretty good; so if someone else already said it, my apologies).
Capturing these sources of energy has been done for thousands of years. The down side to renewables is that they often fluctuate. The sun rises and sets, winds vary, climates change and water flow fluctuates. (Not as catchy, but you get the point). The technology exists to efficiently convert these energy sources into electricity.
But to make these useable, the energy must be stored during peak production. To store electricity efficiently, we need cost-effective batteries that last a long time. The ability to effectively store electrical energy has been around for almost 200 years. Technological advancements and enhancements have been made over the last 100 years, but not as much as you might think.
The discoveries that Thomas Edison made in battery technology almost 100 years ago didn’t improve substantially until the 1970s and 80s. Even then, those developments didn’t reach the consumer until the 1990s. The average person didn’t even know what a nickel-metal hydride (NiMh) or lithium ion (Li-ion) battery was until a couple years ago.
The most prevalent batteries are still lead-acid and these have been around since the beginning. Still, there is a common element in all batteries: metal.
The reality is that while the source of energy may be renewable, the resources needed to make it usable is still based on mining special metals and mineral deposits in the earth. Does that mean it’s a bad idea? Absolutely not! Metals can be recycled. Fossil fuels cannot.
Next, let’s see if we can tackle the concept of alternative and clean fuels. “Alternative” basically refers to anything other than traditional fuel sources ( e.g. Gas, diesel, coal, wood ). It doesn’t necessarily mean renewable or clean, although emphasis is given to those fuels that are.
Natural gas is an example of an alternative fuel that, while already used for heating, is not widely used for transportation, and while it is cleaner than petroleum and coal sources, it is not 100 percent clean burning. It is, however, much less invasive to the environment to obtain and transport, and is more prevalent in America.
Ideal alternative fuels come from renewable sources and are completely clean burning. Hydrogen, for instance, can be made from prevalent sources such as water and is 100 percent clean, but it needs an energy source, such as electricity, to separate out the elements.
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Electricity is clean and renewable only if it is generated from a clean renewable source. Fossil fuels supply a surprising amount of our daily electricity needs. Much of the controversy surrounding electric cars is that most of America’s electricity is generated from huge generator farms and coal-burning plants.
On the other hand, as more and more states convert to renewable sources, the cleaner and more plentiful it will get. Washington state, for instance, is primarily supplied by hydro power, which, while it does have its own set of environmental issues, is considered zero emissions.
The idea of “clean coal” seems viable, but it is at least 15 years from full development and is still not renewable. Out of all the alternative and renewable sources, electricity seems the most promising. While hydrogen is a close second, it is generally used to generate electricity (e.g. most hydrogen cars use electric motors for propulsion). Most likely we will see hydrogen and electricity working together for many applications in the future.
So what does this all mean for you and me? Well, it depends. It’s going to mean something different for you than for me. But what it means for everyone across the globe is that we need to consider some lifestyle changes. There are those who will take this kind of information and try to exact major changes in government policy and national security, maybe even internationally.
Actually, this has already been done on many levels. There are even those who have gone into their communities and made a stand for change. But the reality is that we all have to live. Not very many of us have the capacity to make drastic lifestyle changes on the spot without some sort of major cataclysmic event.
The inherent warning of Peak Oil is that we are headed toward that cataclysmic event. It may be too late to avoid it completely, but we can soften the blow by making some changes now — even if they are gradual changes.
So what can we do? I’m not just talking about changing out your incandescent bulbs with energy efficient CFL bulbs (although this is a good idea). I’m talking about pinpointing one major element of energy usage and changing it to a renewable source. Here are some ideas…
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1. Convert Your Car To An Electric Vehicle (EV).
A good place to start is with your car (or at least one of them). You can convert your car to electric for less than you think. Yes, your range will be greatly reduced, but if you have more than one car, use one for long-range driving and the other for short-range.
Unless you are one of those people that commutes 3 hours to work, you’ll find that you use your short range, electric car for as much as 90% of your normal driving. The savings in gas will pay for the vehicle in as little as one year. From there, you’re essentially making money.
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2. Install Solar (PV) Panels.
This too is actually cheaper than you might think. Sure, you could go all-out and buy the top-of-the-line latest-and-greatest, and you could probably recoup your investment in ten or fifteen years. But did you know that you can make your own panels for only a couple hundred a-piece? No, they’re not going to be the super-efficient, high-tech gadgets that you pay thousands for, but hey! You aren’t paying thousands.
Best of all, you can start with one at a time and get better at it as you go. Before you know it, you’ll have a whole system generating enough power during the day to run your lights at night. You might even have enough extra to sell back to the electric company. Think of that!
3. Capture The Power Of The Wind.
Do you live where it is constantly windy? Well, even if you don’t, you could benefit from installing a wind generator. Ok, so if it’s always dead calm at your house, this may not work for you.
But in most places even if it is calm during the day the wind generally picks up at night, enough to generate a reasonable amount of electricity — a perfect supplement to the solar panels that only work when the sun is out. Best of all, you can make a wind generator yourself and avoid the big up-front costs of a brand-new one. Get some plans, buy the materials and get to it!
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4. Make Your Own Bio Diesel.
People have been doing this for years. You can power your truck, car, generator, fuel-oil furnace; basically anything that takes standard diesel can take bio diesel. Right now you can buy bio diesel from some gas stations at about the same cost as regular fuel.
The only thing you get is the satisfaction that you can sit and breathe the emissions without worrying about health problems. So what if you want a cheaper alternative? Get a supply of grease from your local restaurant and put it to good use.
This is not a cakewalk, remember you’re dealing with fuel here, but it is pretty simple. As long as you carefully strain, mix and heat according to reliable detailed instructions, you will end up with a recycled, cleaner, multi-use fuel source.
So what does Renewable and Alternative energy have to do with you? Everything! If we all did just one thing every year, we would find ourselves living in a cleaner world, breathing cleaner air and living better lives.
I’ve shared just a few examples, but as you can see, there are things that you can do to improve and preserve your living environment today. You may not be able to do all of these things, but all you have to do is start somewhere. If you need a place to start, try my web site for some suggestions.
I think you’ll find that as you begin to take initiative on some of these things and build them with your own hands, you will gain confidence, security and self-worth. Perhaps best of all, you’ll be putting money back in your own pocket.
J.D. Kennedy believes in getting things done. From working with electronics and mechanics as a young child, volunteering in the community and owning his own business, all before graduating from high school. He began taking college classes in grade 11 and earned 2 college degrees by age 22. Since then he has held positions as a technology coordinator, consultant, machinist and auto repair. Today he relies on his faith in God to properly balance business and family, trying to focus on enjoying life with his wife and kids while contributing to positive change in his environment and community.
Originally published on SearchWarp.com for J.D. Kennedy Friday, September 11, 2009
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