The Moral Imperative of Sustainable Energy
Sustainable Energy – Energy of a type and in a quantity that can meet current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
If one accepts the above as a reasonable definition, and if one also accepts that we have a moral obligation to future generations to not “leave the energy cupboard bare”, then the moral ground under the feet of energy consumers in industrialized countries is already shaking at a high magnitude on the Richter scale. The United States, for example, constitutes about 5% of the world’s population and consumes about 25% of the world’s energy. As we promote and export our products, culture and ideas, it is not unreasonable to expect that others will emulate our lifestyle and consumption habits, and this trend has certainly been present for many decades already. A world energy consumption rate which reaches the present U.S. rate would then result in a fivefold increase in worldwide energy consumption levels. If these numbers are applied to oil consumption, the results are quite startling. Generally accepted estimates for known oil reserves project a 40 year supply based on current consumption rates. A fivefold increase in consumption rates would therefore reduce this to a 8 year supply. Plug in your own assumptions for new oil discoveries, increases in the U. S. rate of consumption, the time that it might take for the world to ramp up to this consumption level, etc., but it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is not just a problem that we are leaving for future generations to grapple with. For many of us, it is likely to be a problem within our own lifetime. Add in the environmental and financial costs of oil spills, and military costs incurred and political concessions made for the sake of keeping the oil pipeline flowing, and the practical and moral dilemma deepens. Solutions such as alternative energy, renewable energy and sustainable energy are bandied about, but what do these really mean?
Renewable energy refers to solar based technologies such as photovoltaics (solar panels), wind power and biomass which are not depleted over time (or at least as long as the sun shines.) However, a particular form of renewable energy might not be sustainable, since the definition of sustainable energy included the provision “in a quantity to meet current needs.” For example, methane derived from cow manure is a form of renewable energy, but this energy source is certainly not available in sufficient quantities to sustain all of our needs.
In a general sense, alternative energy refers to energy sources that are substitutes for other predominantly used energy sources. Natural gas, when replacing gasoline or Diesel fuel in a vehicle, is termed an alternative fuel and is therefore a form of alternative energy. Renewable energy sources are often referred to as “alternative”, but all alternative energy sources are not renewable, as in the above example of natural gas.
What about hydrogen or nuclear power?
The so-called hydrogen economy is a compelling vision on the surface. With the exception of nitrous oxides, hydrogen produces no emissions or carbon dioxide when burned. Fuel cells can use hydrogen to produce clean, quiet power. However, hydrogen is not available in any appreciable quantities in nature, so it must be produced. An objective evaluation of any energy source must include the analysis of how it is derived and what kind of energy is required to produce it and in what amounts. Unlike renewable energy sources, hydrogen cannot be produced directly from the sun (at least at present in any commercially viable process.) In fuel cells, it can be produced from natural gas, but natural gas is non renewable. It can be produced by hydrolysis which is an electrical process, but since the vast majority of our electrical power is produced from non renewable sources, then hydrogen produced in this fashion is essentially non renewable. One might argue that producing hydrogen from renewable energy sources makes it a form of renewable energy. However, the reality is that this simply represents the conversion of renewable energy to another form of energy, and at a cost, since no energy conversion process is 100% efficient. It converts it into a form which is certainly useful since it can be stored and transported, but there is a considerable cost to set up the infrastructure for this storage and transportation. The basic question that remains, however, that once the valuable commodity of renewable electrical energy has been created, is conversion to hydrogen the highest and best use for that commodity?
Nuclear fission power could be sustainable, but the issues of safety, and the creation of waste products that are radioactive for tens of thousands of years, are issues that present their own moral dilemmas. Also, while useable for stationary power generation, nuclear power is not practical for most transportation applications.
Nuclear fusion power, while potentially plentiful and clean, is an example of the “technology will bail us out” school of thought. Such wishful thinking must account for the time and cost necessary to develop new technologies, as well as the often significant unintended consequences of new technology.
Looking to Old, Rather Than New Technology
In 1900 Rudolph Diesel showed his newly developed engine in the World Exhibition in Paris, using peanut oil as a fuel. In 1912 he said “the use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.” 1 The fact that this has not happened does not in any way diminish the fact that there is a very real potential for these and other plant derived fuels, such as ethanol, to pave the way towards a sustainable energy future. In Germany and elsewhere today, retrofitted automobiles are being run on straight vegetable oil as well as Biodiesel, a fuel derived from processing vegetable oil. Strides are also being made in photovoltaics (direct conversion of solar energy to electrical energy – a decades old technology), as well as wind power (a centuries old technology), and these plus some other “old” technologies, combined with a heavy dose of conservation, hold great promise in not only fulfilling our moral obligations to future generations, but in solving some increasingly pressing problems deriving from our dependence on oil and other non renewable fuels.
Perhaps we should look to the past not only for technology guidance but for philosophical guidance as well, and here might be good place to begin:
“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” – From the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy
1 Tickell, Joshua & Tickell, Kaia. (1999). From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank. Green Teach Publishing. Sarasota, FL.
© 2003 Bruce Colley. All rights reserved
© 2003 Sustainable Energy Project. All rights reserved