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The Secret World of Energy
 ~ The Evolution and Use of the World's Energy Systems ~
By Eric McLamb

Every minute enough of the Sun's energy reaches the Earth's surface to meet the world's energy demands for a whole year. Combine this powerful energy source (the very source of life for our planet) with other readily available energy sources like wind, moving water and heat from within the Earth (geothermal heat), it almost seems incredulous that our human population depends on the burning of fossil fuels to meet nearly all of its energy demands. And this picture doesn't look like it will change very much in the near future.

Why fossil fuels? The fossil fuels we largely depend on today are coal, oil and natural gas. They are called non-renewable energy sources. But if you think about it, that description is actually another way of saying we use them faster than they form. Over 100,000 times faster to be exact! So how did we ever decide this would be the primary energy resource to power human development and progress?

It all goes back to human mastery of fire to provide warmth, light and a means of preparing more palatable and easily digestible foods. To the early humans, fire was the equivalent of having a little sun with them wherever they needed or wanted to go. With this energy available at anytime and anyplace, humans could begin to spread about the world and thrive, regardless of the climate or amount of sunlight available. It provided the power for humans to begin their mastery of Earth as a species, less vulnerable to extinction than all other animal species, yet with a greater ability to bring about change -- for good or bad.

It was wood -- a renewable biomass energy source -- that was unquestionably the first fuel used for fire. Although the fossil fuel coal had been used as a fuel since 1,000 B.C., it wasn't until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution from the mid -1700s through the 1800s that coal began to replace biomass as the primary source of energy.

The Industrial Revolution also marks the beginning of an era when the world human population started to explode. Indelibly tied together, both energy consumption and population growth have experienced exponential growth with few exceptions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As the population increased, energy demands increased with greater intensity. Naturally, as the population grew and industry advanced, the demand for energy increased exponentially.

Coal: the First Mass Use of Fossil Fuels

Why coal? Coal can provide much more energy over longer periods of time than wood or any other biomass product. Forests were also diminishing in many regions because they were being consumed for fuel, particularly in England -- where the Industrial Revolution started. Coal was in ample supply. It very quickly made industrial and economic sense to use coal to supply the rapidly increasing energy demand for a growing and progressing human population.

Since coal and other fossil fuels to be discovered -- oil and natural gas -- seemed to exist in infinite supplies, human progress and achievement centered around the exploitation of these resources. Not only had we learned to use fire to meet our energy demands, but we had become dependent on fossil fuels to supply the fire!

Oil & Natural Gas

The fossil fuels oil and natural gas combined currently provide most of our energy needs. Although they have been used in some form for thousands of years, the massive consumption of them did not start until the late 1800s and early 1900s following their discovery in large quantities in shallow oil reservoirs. In the U.S., the discovery that sparked the oil boom was in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 when Edwin L. Drake drilled the world's first oil well that launched the modern petroleum industry. This high energy fuel set the stage for the expansion of industry, but it also led to the development of the automobile. At this time, few considered the non-renewable nature of these fossil fuels and the amounts that would be used in the future.

The Prediction that Startled the World

wasn't until M. King Hubbert predicted in 1949 that the fossil fuel era would be very short-lived that we began to realize we would one day soon have to rely on other energy sources. Though Hubbert startled the world with his calculated assessment, he followed it in 1956 with the prediction that US oil production would peak around 1970 and decline thereafter. This peak period of world oil discovery and exploitation has become known as Hubbert's Peak.

Indeed, US oil production began to decline in 1971. Since then, world energy use has risen almost 70 percent. Today, more than 50 percent of oil consumed by the US is imported from other nations. According to the US Department of Energy, US dependence on imported oil will reach 64 percent by 2020. World oil use will continue to grow exponentially particularly as developing countries become more industrialized.

In the late 1990s, renowned geophysicist Kenneth S. Deffeyes -- Professor Emeritus at Princeton University -- predicted world oil production decline would occur by 2005; however, many scientists believe the actual decline of oil is now 2020-2040, with the US using 2015 as the projected start of the decline.

By the time the world began to heed Hubbert's prediction, the use of fossil fuels had become so firmly interwoven into human progress and economy that changing this energy system would drastically alter the very way we have lived our lives. Certainly, the production and consumption costs of changing our energy systems have greatly discouraged the development and use of alternate energy resources.

As much as we are now all aware of the impending depletion of our primary fossil fuel reserves -- and the fact that we would like to see renewable and cleaner energy sources take their place -- alternative energy will be challenged to take over as a primary energy supplier for human consumption by the end of this century. It is also widely believed that we will not see alternative fuels become mainstream until fossil fuels become too expensive to produce and consume. And that will happen in the relative near term! The immediate importance of renewables is that their use extends the life of the fossil fuels and provides cleaner alternatives to the fossil fuels.

The good news is that energy abounds all around us, energy resources that we haven't even begun to consider, and we now have a natural mandate to begin developing them before the fossil fuels disappear. One thing for sure, the human race will not just one day start living in the dark and without power because we used the last drop of oil or lump of coal. And scientists are working on it in ways you probably haven't even considered.

Energy and potential energy exist in everything. Energy is basically without form and cannot be seen, but we see and feel its effects. Electricity is not energy, but rather it is created from energy. Energy captured from the sun, the burning of fossil fuels, water currents and wind is used to create electricity and provide power for our homes, businesses and transportation. It is the release of energy from the burning of wood or other combustible materials that causes the heat and fire used to help meet today's power requirements.

Understanding Energy

In simple terms, energy is motion, the force created through the movement of the tiniest particles of matter as well as the very largest objects in the universe. Even light from the sun is made up of tiny submicroscopic particles called photons -- which literally means visible-light particles -- the movement of which is energy. These particles travel in waves at different frequencies (wavelengths) to create what is called radiant energy, a.k.a. electromagnetic energy. Radiant energy also exists in non-visible forms such as infrared and ultraviolet radiation (oh, those sunburns!), X-rays and gamma rays.

And what about heat? Heat is created by the kinetic energy -- or motion -- of all the tiny atoms and molecules in a gas, liquid or solid (yes, molecules can even move about in solids). The motion of any object possesses kinetic energy, and the larger and faster the motion of the object, the more kinetic energy it possesses.

Any object has the potential to start moving and gain kinetic energy. Take gravity and Newton's Apple, for instance. The apple on the tree is being acted upon by the force of gravity, but it is only when the apple falls from the tree does it possess kinetic energy. When the apple is hanging it has potential energy, which is also the same as stored energy or energy for future release. The potential energy is converted to kinetic energy when the apple falls.

Energy Dynamics & Environmental Health

By understanding the secret lives of energy -- how it exists, how it is created, how it acts and even where it can be found, we can better understand how to tap the world of energy available to meet our continuously increasing energy demands. The issues really aren't about energy at all, but about how we try to get it and use it! The specific issues concern the fuels we use to create energy. All fuels have to go through either a chemical or physical change to create energy, whether it's the burning of oil (chemical) or the boiling of water (physical).

Yet, while using fuels such as fossil fuels as energy resources, not only is their kinetic energy potential released, but the very carbon molecules that make these fuels such powerful energy sources are also released. The end result is pollution, pollution that not only causes health problems but also directly contributes to today's global warming trends. The costs of these side-effects cannot be calculated but can only be measured in terms of the costs of lives and quality of living, environmental health, and climatic change.

A Global Perspective

Already, the world is making progress in tapping alterative forms of energy from solar, wind and water, to nuclear, biomass, geothermal and even new forms of fossil fuels. Currently, hydroelectric energy -- which is the kinetic energy of falling or moving water, is the world's largest source of renewable energy. Over 80 percent of the world's renewable energy is hydroelectric. Hydroelectric is followed by solar energy, biomass and wind in that order.

But let's this put this in its proper perspective. According to recently released data by the International Energy Agency (IEA), fossil fuels currently provide 79.5 percent of the world's primary energy supplies! Biomass and other combustible renewables and waste account for 11 percent, and nuclear energy accounts for 6.8 percent. Hydro (moving water) alone accounts for 2.3 percent with all other renewable resources meeting .5 (five-tenths) of a percent of the world's total energy appetite. (Note: The total percentages add up to 100.1 percent due to rounding.)

Total world electricity demand -- which is part of the total world energy demand -- still depends primarily on fossil fuels but to a somewhat lesser extent. Hydro and other renewable energy sources account for 18.7 percent of the world's total electricity needs. Fossil fuels still account for well over half of the world's electricity supplies -- 64.4 percent according to the IEA, while nuclear energy supplies 16.9% of the world's electricity.

The Alternatives

Renewable energy is the ultimate replacement for any non-renewable source. Certainly, the day will come when this fossil fuel era will pass and eventually fade totally into the history books. And what will life be like then? Even more important perhaps is what we will have to do -- and even endure -- to get there.

Despite nuclear energy's role as a significant power supply source, it is highly unlikely it will survive past the 21st century if that long. Many people are against it, storage of its highly radioactive wastes is difficult and costly, there are not enough ores available to maintain continued production of nuclear energy as it is being done today, and most of today's nuclear plants will reach the end of their life-span within the next 50 years.

While hydro, solar, wind (a very efficient energy source), geothermal are currently our most promising forms of renewable energy to develop for future use, there are sources that many scientists classify in the "surprise category" that theoretically hold great promise. These sources range from the mining of methane hydrates (a fossil fuel that exists under the oceans and are very difficult to reach and dangerous) and hydrogen fusion from simple H2O -- the same process that powers our Sun and all the stars of the universe, to sources we have yet to discover. The startling potential of hydrogen fusion is so great that the US government has launched an initiative to study whether it's feasible within the next 35 years to develop and use what's known as fusion energy.

And, yes, there are other fossil fuels that some scientists believe may be able to help contribute to the current energy pressures, but these forms have a low net energy yield, are difficult to process, and have serious pollution side-effects. They are oil shale and tar sands. Still, it appears unlikely that these forms will ever be used as significant sources of energy.

The Sun, no doubt, holds the greatest potential to meet the world's energy demands. But it will take a change in the technological, political and economic landscape for it to be realized. Still, the most plausible answer for our indefinite energy needs lies in a cohesive, sensible and ecologically sustainable combination of the resources available to us. The incentives must be there to be successful -- political, economic, and human intelligence -- and success can be achieved only through the use of renewable energy in ways that will ensure the healthy sustainability of Earth's life systems. As Nobel Laureate Sir George Porter so eloquently said in the late 1960s, "I have no doubt that we will be successful in harnessing the sun's energyIf sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago."   

Point taken!


Did you know?

  • Sunlight is made up of tiny particles of energy called photons. The amount of this energy hitting the Earth's surface in one year is equivalent to the energy provided by 935 trillion barrels of oil. The current annual world consumption of oil equals about 26 billion barrels!
  • Biomass can produce electricity, liquid fuels, gaseous fuels, and a variety of useful chemicals, including those currently manufactured from petroleum. It just doesn't contain as much concentration of energy as coal and other fossil  fuels. For biomass to be competitive with fossil fuels, new technologies are     required to harness its energy. (Sustainable Energy Coalition )  
  • In 2001, 3,834 million metric tons of coal were produced to help meet world energy demands. That is a 49% growth over the past 25 years! (Source: World Coal Institute )
  • Reservoirs of hot liquid with temperatures greater than about 350F are the most common type of geothermal energy sources. (Source: Hawaiian Electric Company)
  • To lock up the eight billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere each year would require planting a forest four times the area of the United States. (Source: Whole Systems Foundation)

Also check out these links

Energy: At What Cost?

Alternative Energy Institute, Inc.

World Renewable Energy Network

People & Renewable Energy

Energy Science Made Simple

Clean Energy Basics: What is Renewable Energy?

Fossil Fuel Facts




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