Energy At the Edge

 Rapidly changing technologies define this era in history. The computers of just 10 years ago are quaint and useless today, while satellites and the Internet have revolutionized communications. Yet, we stubbornly cling to outdated modes of energy generation. The use of fossil fuels dates from the Industrial Revolution. In this digital and wireless age, it's striking that we still generate energy by setting things on fire – surely the most primitive of technologies.

Add to that the inefficiencies of a global supermarket where goods produced using energy generated by burning fossil fuels are then shipped via fossil-fuel-burning freighters from one part of the world to another.

In contrast, renewable energy innovations are well adapted for local or regional use, often drawing on the particular assets of each location. For example, geothermal is the second largest source of energy in Iceland, where it's used for the direct heating of water, greenhouses, homes, and fish farms as well as for generating electricity.

Other widely available approaches are less dependent upon geographic conditions than on the social, economic, and political climate. The most ambitious projects to develop solar power are in Germany, Japan, South Africa, and the US, not in the low to mid-latitude regions of the world where the suns rays are most intense and consistent.

Also available virtually anywhere on Earth are opportunities to use energy more efficiently and save literally billions of dollars.

Despite advances on virtually all fronts – and despite evidence that our reliance on fossil fuels is profoundly damaging ecosystems and human communities – the use of renewable energy and efficiency to meet human needs still falls far short of what is needed.

Signs of hope, however, can be found in the pioneering work of communities, individuals, businesses, government agencies, and others around the world who are using new technologies and, often, rediscovered traditions to develop energy systems that meet human needs without harming the planet.

Solar: Each year, 2.5 million exajoules of solar energy reach the Earth, more than 6,000 times as much energy as is used by human societies worldwide. Production of photovoltaic cells, which convert this sunlight directly into electricity, grew nearly 50 percent last year, while prices for photovoltaics have dropped from $40,000 per watt in the early 1960s to $6 per watt today.

South Africa has launched the world's first large-scale commercial solar electrification project with the goal of bringing solar-generated power to 50,000 homes in the Eastern Cape province. The program is a cooperative venture between the state utility agencies, nongovernmental organizations, community groups, and large private companies.

The United States has approximately 100,000 homes equipped with solar-electric systems and about 10,000 powered entirely by solar electricity.

Wind: Wind power generation grew an average of 40 percent worldwide between 1994 and 1998 and was the fastest growing energy source in the world last year. Costs for wind power have fallen so low in recent years that in certain regions, wind is competitively priced with coal-based electricity. Today, only 0.15 percent of the world's energy comes from wind. According to a recent report by Greenpeace International, the European Wind Energy Association and others, if we were to use wind to supply 10 percent of the world's energy, 1.7 million jobs would be created.

Fuel Cells: Fuel cells generate electricity from the energy released when oxygen and hydrogen combine. They are similar to batteries except that, with a continuous supply of hydrogen and oxygen, there's no need for recharging. Fuel cells can supply all of the electricity needed for a home, and fuel-cell-powered cars are in development. The cost of fuel cells is approaching affordable levels. Although it takes energy to extract hydrogen – and that energy typically comes from fossil fuels – technology is being developed to extract hydrogen from water using solar energy.

Biomass: Biomass – organic matter that can be converted into energy – contributes 10 to 14 percent of the world's energy supply, the largest part of which is in developing countries. Agricultural residues, commercial wood and logging residues, animal wastes, the organic portion of municipal solid waste, and methane gas from landfills can all be used to create energy in a process that has several advantages over fossil fuels. This is a virtually limitless option because of the diversity of sources. Currently, proposals for refitting coal-burning plants with biomass-burning capabilities are being considered. By creating another potential market for agricultural products, biomass can boost local economies and promote sustainable agriculture. It can also reduce the need for landfill space and reduce pollution from in-field burning of crop residues.

Geothermal: The geothermal heat within 10,000 meters of the Earth's surface contains 50,000 times more energy than all oil and natural gas resources combined. Geothermal energy has been used since prehistoric times for space and water heating, and these two applications are still the most economically viable sources. Direct use applications of geothermal presently supply the equivalent of almost 1 million barrels of oil.

Earth energy, which draws on the relatively constant ground heat, is used directly to heat or cool buildings, most often through heat pumps. Today, over 200,000 heat pumps operate in US homes, each cutting heating costs by as much as 50 percent and cooling costs as much as 25 percent.

Geothermal power plants, suited to geographically specific areas, such as the western US and Iceland, use hydrothermal reservoirs to generate electricity. Large pools of steam and hot water in porous rock underground are pumped to the surface to drive a turbine which spins a generator. In the western US, geothermal power plants have enough generating capacity to power homes of more than 3.5 million people.

Efficiency: Perhaps the most promising way to meet our energy needs is through efficiently using the energy we already produce. Enormous amounts of energy are being wasted through poor insulation, old appliances, low gas mileage standards, and over-engineered production processes.

Since 1973, the US obtained the use of over four times as much energy through efficiency as from all expansions of domestic energy supplies combined; half of the electricity currently used in the US could be cost-effectively saved, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. If US residents were still using electricity as we did in 1973, we would spend $200 billion dollars more per year. If we were as energy-efficient as Asians and Europeans, we could save an additional $200 billion each year, and even Asians and Europeans have far to go in terms of the possibilities for greater efficiency.

Think of it this way: If we make minimal investments in insulation, light bulbs, efficient appliances, and other technologies, we won't need new power plants, and we could use the energy we do produce more intelligently.

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