As we enter the twenty-first century, it is appropriate to examine how our energy-intensive society chooses to meet its energy needs. We take our present level of energy use for granted and have grown accustomed to lifestyles that depend on the availability of plentiful and inexpensive energy sources. Yet, one dramatic view of our Planet Earth from the space program has created a lasting visual image that the world we inhabit is beautiful, but fragile and finite in size. This finite size of Planet Earth places important limits on the continued growth of our energy use. Environmental issues need to be taken seriously in developing plans for our use of energy in the future.
The choices that we make to meet our energy needs in the future will have an important impact on our lives during the next century. In this course we will consider our uses of energy and their environmental consequences from a scientific point of view. Physics is a major player in the energy game and the physics of energy will provide a basis for our considerations. We will begin with an overview of the role of energy in our lives and an introduction to the physics principles that will guide our study of energy issues. Since we live in an era of fossil fuels, we will consider their use in electric energy generation and transportation. Environmental issues, such as acid rain and global warming, will arise naturally as we examine the measured effects and projected impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels as our energy source. Options for the future that we will consider include nuclear energy (fission and fusion), solar energy (space heating and electric energy generation), and other renewable energy resources (hydro, wind and biomass). The last part of the course will be devoted to developing an energy plan for the future which starts with conservation and energy-efficiency issues and concludes with a consideration of the technological advances that might impact the long-term future.