Indiana University Research & Creative Activity January 1998 Volume XX Number 3


Energy
At What Cost?
by Brian D. Keith

Almost all aspects of life as we know it depend directly or indirectly on a reliable and affordable supply of energy. The alarm clocks we wake up to, the lights we turn on, the hot water we bathe in, the foods we eat, the cars we drive, the computers we use--all rely on the generation of massive amounts of energy.

In the United States today, 88 percent of our energy comes from nonrenewable fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas. Most of us will still be alive when--according to some current estimates--the world's oil supply starts to run out around 2020 or 2030. By the year 2100 (when some of our generation's grandchildren will still be around) fossil fuels will meet less than 50 percent of world energy demand, according to one recently published analysis.

For societies under stress because of war, overpopulation, or breakdown of central structures, the hunt for energy becomes as all-consuming as the search for food. Haiti is practically stripped bare of trees that were burned for cooking fuel during the political upheaval in the late 1980s. During the Bosnian war, residents burned their furniture and anything else made of wood in homemade stoves in attempts to stay warm during the cold winter.

So the question we face is how to best make that transition to a world less dependent on fossil fuels. To make realistic projections, we have to consider many factors.

Each energy source has its own cost-benefit trade-offs. For example, coal is a relatively plentiful and inexpensive energy source, although it is non-renewable, expensive to transport, and burning it raises serious environmental concerns. Nuclear power--which now supplies 8 percent of American energy--is the longest lasting large-scale source using current technology, but it is expensive and has the possibility of damaging the environment severely. Alternative sources--including hydroelectric and geothermal power, along with wind and solar generators--pose little environmental risk but they may not be suitable for many areas.

The federal government influences our energy choices as much as the marketplace. Through tax incentives and regulations, the government can alter the cost-benefit ratio of one energy source relative to another, and influence how energy research dollars are spent. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 covers many aspects of federal policy, including promoting of greater efficiency at all levels of society, developing alternative energy technology, promoting increased alternative fuel use, and providing incentives for increased production of conventional fuels and energy technology.

World energy demands also must be taken into account. Since the Industrial Revolution in the last century, nations have driven themselves to achieve continuous economic growth. This drive applies not only to the developed nations such as the United States, but to the many developing nations demanding an increased share of the world energy supply to fuel their growth. To put this in perspective, consider one energy source--petroleum. Only one-fifth of the world's population today lives in the developed nations. These countries collectively consume about two-thirds of the world petroleum supply, yet they only produce about one-third of that supply. The demand for petroleum by both developed and developing nations is increasing, the latter at a much greater rate due to exponential population growth.

The long-term impact of factors such as new and improved technology, development of renewable energy sources, environmental constraints, price, and government policy is hard to predict. But fossil fuel supplies are non-renewable and we will eventually deplete them. As individuals, it is sometimes difficult to feel concern about something that will happen decades from now, but what about our generation's children and grandchildren? They will face a problem on a global scale, inherited from us. Choices we make now are important for the future. Conservation of energy is probably our most potent tool as individuals. We can decide, for example, to drive less and buy fewer energy-intensive products. If we decrease our demand for energy on a large enough scale, we might ease the transition away from fossil fuels, which, in turn, would buy us time to develop satisfactory alternatives. We also can work with our local, state, and national governments to promote conservation and alternative energy strategies. It is difficult to predict how much these efforts will ameliorate the potential for a worldwide crisis. It is up to each one of us to decide what we are willing to do. It is clear, however, that individual efforts, although important, are not enough. Government and industry need to look seriously at major investments in the development of new technology for replacement energy now--not when the decline starts.

In this issue of Research & Creative Activity, we explore the amazing diversity of energy research at Indiana University. We examine research on coal--its use as a future fuel source, the preservation of old coal data by moving it into the digital age, and the development of tools to better record information as it is gathered in the field. For a different perspective, we also explore work on using limestone to clean emissions from coal-fired plants. Other sources of energy, however, are not being neglected. Indiana University researchers are collaborating on complex computer modeling of deeply buried natural gas resources. Wind is being explored as a power source. Scholars are also looking at the issues and consequences of our energy use, the impact of government regulation on the utility industries, and air-pollution control technology. We hope this issue enlightens you regarding these efforts and that you come away with a better understanding of this complex topic that touches all our lives. E



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