Sunshine in Your Gas Tank
By now, we are all familiar with the laundry list of environmental, political, and economic issues associated with fossil fuels. They pollute, cause wars, and create confusing fiscal entanglements that are difficult for even the most seasoned economist to follow. Even more than that, however, is the elephant in the room: fossil fuel reserves are finite, non-renewable, and will eventually run out. So whether we want it to or not, our dependence of this form of energy will eventually come to an end.
Also familiar by now is the suite of alternative energy sources that have cropped up within the past 50 years that attempt to address these issues. One of the most popular is biofuels. This is the approach championed by President Bush in his State of the Union Address in 2007, calling for the reduction of 20 percent of the US’ annual gasoline usage over the following ten years. This opened the floodgates for farmers and landowners to start producing biofuels from the crops in their fields, and the most common of these is corn.
Unfortunately, this created a host of new problems, most of them environmental. The production of corn itself reduces the amount of nitrogen in the soil, reducing its quality and making it difficult for anything to grow there again. The nitrogen ends up in rivers, and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico, where it causes huge algal blooms that create “dead zones” devoid of oxygen where fish and other marine creatures cannot survive. Growing corn is also an energy and labor intensive process, requiring petroleum-based pesticides, and there are concerns about whether or not it takes more energy to grow corn than it produces. The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners rent to allow their lands to grow native prairies and forests, lost 2.3 million acres in one month to corn production after Bush announced the biofuel initiative. Interestingly enough, native prairies themselves might provide the answer. In a study conducted at the University of Kansas, a test plot with a diverse community of native prairie grasses produced the same amount of biomass as hay meadow treated with chemical fertilizers. Since they do not require chemical fertilizers, and return farm acreage to its natural state, fields sown with native grasses are much more environmentally sound than cornfields.
The whole issue in question here is energy production. When most of us think of fossil fuels, we think of the gasoline that powers our cars. There is a huge infrastructure in place in the United States for delivering gasoline to the most remote areas so that we can cruise the highways. This has likely contributed to our reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source, and our enthusiasm for embracing biofuels like biodiesel and ethanol. However, if we were to switch our transportation network to one that was all electrically powered (i.e. electric cars), that would open the doors for true alternative fuel sources. We are tantalizingly close to a revolution in power production; as our dependence on fossil fuels wanes, new technologies will take up the increased demand. These new technologies are already in production and poised to supply our needs.
Recently the IAA (International Academy of Astronautics) released a report concerning the feasibility of orbital solar power stations. They concluded that it could be cost effective to supply the world’s energy needs in this way in as little as 30 years. Basically, space-based solar stations would collect energy and send it to any location on the Earth it was needed, via microwave or laser. Another technology that is picking up steam is molten-salt thorium nuclear reactors. These reactors are much safer and cleaner than traditional nuclear reactors, and the only reason they were overlooked as an energy source in the United States is that they don’t produce enough weapons-grade uranium for warheads.
As previously mentioned, our supply of fossil fuels is limited, and we will eventually run out. Long before that point, these fuels will be so difficult to obtain that they will cease to be a cost-effective means of energy production. Biofuels will help to soften this shock as they will allow us to continue to drive our cars and burn hydrocarbons, but eventually politics will catch up with technology. What the future of energy-production and transportation holds in store for us is anybody’s guess, but there are a number of options for us to choose from, and probably many more than no one has thought of yet.