Renewable energy resources important for establishing energy independence

If we play our cards right, an energetic horn of plenty will provide us with independence

By Russell L. Kratowicz, P.E., Executive Editor

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Nuclear power — that's what started it all. Every single erg, joule and BTU of energy of any form we have on and in this planet has its ultimate source in a thermonuclear reaction that's still burning strong 93 million miles above our heads. If the sun didn't hang around like it seems wont to do, we'd be nothing more than part of a thin, frozen skin on an enormous piece of frozen rock zipping through the frozen void, going nowhere in particular. Did you know the total amount of solar power illuminating the Earth during one minute is about equal to the electrical power the entire planet generates in one year? But I digress.

The concepts of energy availability and economic growth are intertwined. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, this planet has been liberating the solar energy stored in wood, peat, coal, gas, oil and anything else that ignites — all the while following Mother Nature's hard and fast rule — hydrocarbon plus oxygen yields carbon dioxide and water.

It's all that pesky carbon dioxide floating around in the air that some claim is causing problems. Renewable energy sources don't generally release that heavy, nasty gas. So, most of the world has agreed to limit the amount of greenhouse gases sent to our shared atmosphere.

What's the big deal?

Kyoto, Japan, hosted the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in December 1997. The event involved more than 10,000 participants from various governments, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and the press. The resulting document is the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Of the 124 countries involved with the document, 105 have ratified or approved it. The most relevant exception is the United States, which seems to be bucking the international trend. Being the odd man out is unnerving and raises the question of what's so objectionable about a document the rest of the world seems to embrace. If you're interested, you can find out for yourself by accessing the full text of the Kyoto Protocol at http://www.cop4.org/resource/docs/cop3/l07a01.htm.

So, what are we about?

The United States actually has an energy policy, and it's published on the big bad Web. You can access this 80-page bedside reader at http://www.whitehouse.gov/energy/. Don't waste time clicking on the extraordinary number of PDF logos that cover the page. Doing so merely reveals an explanation of the different formats in which the page can present its content. Instead, click on the words. Although they lack the traditional underscore, they're the links.

Energy Information Administration posts the official energy statistics from the U.S. government at http://eia.doe.gov/indexnjava.html. This is where you go when you need information about production and capacity data on nearly every form of energy, renewable and otherwise.

Energy Information Portal is the Department of Energy's gateway to hundreds of Web sites and thousands of online documents on energy efficiency and renewable energy and is found at http://www.eere.energy.gov/. And the Renewable Resource Data Center at http://rredc.nrel.gov/ offers information about the common sources of renewable energy.

Hydrogen

Water former. It's supposed to be the key to limitless and inexpensive energy. At least one Web resource cites a price of around $1.28 per pound of hydrogen liquid. It sounds good until you realize the only logistical problem with the lightest element known is that it's light. Consider that a 120,000 cubic-foot tube trailer chock-full of hydrogen needs an 80,000-pound truck to tote a cargo weighing less than 630 pounds. The cost to get the truck's front wheels from the hydrogen plant to the expressway on-ramp exceeds the value of its cargo. That's no way to run an energy infrastructure. But we try.

Mouse your way over to http://www.clean-air.org/ and look for the link to the Hydrogen Calculator Charton the left side of the page. Clicking it reveals a comparison of the energy content of hydrogen to that of gasoline, methanol, diesel fuel, jet fuel, methane, propane, butane, coal (anthracite, bituminous and lignite), crude oil and electricity. While you're there, move to the right side of the page to access the bit about converting cars to operate on hydrogen. Watch out, NASCAR.

Another site promoting hydrogen is operated by the California Hydrogen Business Council, Independence, Calif., a not-for-profit corporation providing education about developments and future uses of hydrogen and fostering business partnership opportunities that can achieve a non-polluting global energy economy. There is much on the site. It has flow diagrams showing various processes for producing hydrogen on a commercial scale. It has a collection of videos in which business executives and celebrities discuss different aspects of moving to an energy infrastructure based on hydrogen. There are pages dedicated to fuel cells, transportation, as well as ship, submarine and aerospace propulsion, all of which are based on the smallest of all molecules. This is a large, rich site, so I'd suggest worming your way into it through http://www.ch2bc.org/industrial.htm. Note the graphic in the upper right corner of the page. It explains the organization's mission most succinctly.

Biomass

Another source of renewable energy is biomass, defined as vegetation and organic waste. It's hard to imagine an economy deriving much useful energy from these sources, but then, as one site points out, biomass fulfilled most of humankind's energy needs long before the Industrial Revolution even began.

The American Bioenergy Association, Washington, D.C. offers Biomass: Clean Energy For America's Future, a fact sheet that lays out the arguments for commercializing the technology. Hop over to http://www.biomass.org/fact_sheet_2.htm for quick answers to a series of frequently asked questions.

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