America’s Only Way Out
U.S. Government 1101
4 April 2005
One would think that the most technologically advanced country in the world would not be entirely dependent on an energy source that will eventually be depleted. The United States is currently consuming vast quantities of fossil fuels at a rate of 20 million barrels per day (Clayton), without a firm plan to switch to alternative and renewable energies. There are possibilities, however, to achieve energy independence in two and a half decades. This is a very ambitious goal, but could be accomplished by subsidizing the private sector to make strides in hydrogen, bioenergy, and photovoltaic technology, as well as reducing oil consumption with taxation.
Hydrogen technology is the Holy Grail in energy technologies in most ways and would ideal for modern societies. Hydrogen is abundant; the most abundant element on Earth, and it is relatively easy to extract it from common sources such as water (“Electrolysis”). Once the infrastructure for hydrogen is set up, the demand for fossil fuels could be dramatically reduced.
One useful application of hydrogen would be to provide local power to structures. Hydrogen fuel cells, unlike fossil fuel or nuclear-based generators, do not have to be large to achieve high efficiency (Weiss et al.). A relatively small fuel cell could provide quiet, clean energy to a residence and operate with greater efficiency than a central power plant. The power grid would no longer be needed. Preexisting natural gas lines could provide hydrogen to the fuel cells – in the form of natural gas - until infrastructure for pure hydrogen is built.
Another important application for hydrogen would be as a transportation fuel, replacing gasoline and diesel. The advantages of this are numerous. Hydrogen-powered vehicles, if utilizing a fuel cell, would produce no emissions, and are mechanically simpler and potentially higher performing than gasoline internal-combustion engines (Weiss et al.). Hydrogen can also be fed into internal-combustion engines with only slight modifications and achieves reduced emissions when compared to gasoline (“BMW CleanEnergy”). In this way, hydrogen could replace gasoline as a fuel without replacing all of the current technology on the road.
It is often argued that, while a hydrogen powered vehicle itself does not pollute, that the production of hydrogen creates pollution and therefore the entire system would not help achieve energy independence. This statement is partially true; it does require energy to produce pure hydrogen, but fuel cells are much more efficient than gasoline engines and therefore would require less pollution-creating energy (Weiss et al.). Also, hydrogen can be extracted from alcohols to avoid problems with the creation of pure hydrogen.
Hydrogen technology has promises but needs work done to give it a viable future. The storage of hydrogen has been a continuing problem - it is difficult to store useful amounts of hydrogen aboard vehicles. The infrastructure of a hydrogen-based economy is also a huge hurdle; it is not enticing to provide hydrogen as a service when there are no hydrogen powered vehicles, and nobody wants to buy a hydrogen powered vehicle if there are no places to fill up.
This is where the government needs to step in and offer incentives to private companies to develop these technologies. Once there are places to refuel a hydrogen vehicle, it becomes entirely reasonable for a consumer to purchase one. Private companies have little economic incentive to pursue hydrogen technology research and development because costs will be high and it would be unrealistic for a single company to provide enough infrastructure to make such a technology useful. Therefore, without government intervention, these developments are probable to stagnate.
Subsidizing private companies in this development would hasten the speed in which this technology was adopted. This would save resources over time, as hydrogen fuel cells are more efficient than combustion engines, as well as reducing pollution levels and dependence on foreign nations. Although a government agency could be established that worked in this field (such as NASA for space exploration), these subsidies should be given to private companies - people work more effectively when they are working for the survival of their company. If a company fears they may lose funding unless certain criteria are met, that is a strong incentive for the workers to meet their guidelines. A federal agency does not have as strong as an incentive because federal agencies are not easily dissolved. This situation can be illustrated in the development of space exploration technology, where NASA has consumed grossly large budgets only to fly an ancient shuttle fleet, while a private firm recently created an economically viable method of launching people into space (“SpaceShipOne Captures X-Prize”). The private firm had personal incentive, while NASA did not.
Hydrogen alone will not be enough to allow the United States to become entirely energy dependant, however. Producing hydrogen for motor vehicles takes energy, which must come from somewhere else. While there are other technologies that might make a strong impact in the future, most notably fusion, it is unclear if it will ever become feasible. The options that hold the most potential are photovoltaic (solar) and bioenergy.
Photovoltaics are in widespread use in today's society but are not currently efficient enough and are too expensive to fulfill the energy needs of the entire country. This technology is improving steadily but would benefit greatly from government assistance. Current cells convert approximately 7-14% of the sun's energy into electricity, so there is great potential for improvement (“Photovoltaics timeline”). Accelerating the research and development of photovoltaics would not only be a solution to a problem in the future, it would ease our demand for fossil fuels immediately by easing the burden on today's coal, oil, and gas-fired generators.
Bioenergy is a fledgling area of interest that, like photovoltaics, holds great potential in solving a massive energy problem. Waste products that are currently being decomposed could be instead used to generate electricity. Wastes of most kinds could be used in this process, from sewage to unwanted plant matter (“Biomass Program”). This helps two separate problems - wastes are being disposed of, and energy is being generated.
Capturing our waste products would not be sufficient to power the entire country, however. Biofuels can be produced from plants and used in place of fossil fuels. Biofuels are typically alcohols and can be made from a variety of plants. Their main advantage is that they are renewable and carbon-neutral, meaning that the carbon released when they are burned is equal to the carbon dioxide the plant absorbs when it grows. As a bonus, biofuels burn cleaner than fossil fuels. Using biofuels would be especially useful as a transitional technology, before hydrogen becomes fully accepted and established, because they can be used in current vehicles with little modification.
Producing biofuels from waste products is currently economically feasible, but harvesting plants to produce them is not because of cheap crude oil prices. Once the price of crude oil (and consequently gasoline and diesel fuel) rises, biofuels would find a market and private companies would be willing to produce them.
The next logical question to ask is where the government would raise the funds to subsidize these private firms. As noted previously, the energy usage in the United States is much higher than any other country in the world, per person. Much of this energy use is not necessary and could be reduced substantially by consumer choice. A good example of this is vehicle preference - the recent boom in sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which are notoriously fuel inefficient. One reason consumers favor them is because of their perceived safety, which may or may not be true. SUVs safety depends entirely on the model and are no safer than cars. For instance, the full-size GMC Yukon SUV scored four out of five stars in the NHTSA front impact test and three out of five stars in rollover risk, with five stars being the best score. The Honda Civic, a small passenger car, scored five stars on both categories, although it is substantially smaller, weighs about half as much, and perceived to be unsafe (“Safecar.gov”). Because of this, it would be favorable for the public to adopt more fuel-efficient vehicles, which could be encouraged through gasoline taxes. This would reduce our energy requirements as well as raise money for subsidizing alternative energy research. With an estimate of ten billion gallons of fuel consumed every year, a one-dollar per gallon tax would raise enough to create the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen fueling in less than two years (Collier). Over the course of a decade, this tax alone would be sufficient for the promotion of photovoltaics and bioenergy as well.
It will be essential that the United States government adopt a large-scale research and development program to achieve energy independence. The primary means of doing this is the adoption of hydrogen as a primary fuel, as well as pursuing solar and bioenergy technologies as ways to support the hydrogen economy. Achieving these goals would be possible by the year 2030 if initiatives were set in place, and if people had incentive to change.
Clayton, Mark. “Breaking Free from Energy Dependence.” USA Today 21 Oct 2004 http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techpolicy/2004-10-21-energy-independence_x.htm
Collier, Robert. “Energy and America’s Future.” San Francisco Chronicle 26 Oct 2004
Weiss, Heywood, Schafer, and Natarajan. “Comparative Assessment of Fuel Cell Cars.” Laboratory of Energy and Environment. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Feb 2003
“Biomass Program.” U.S. Department of Energy: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 30 March 2005
“BMW CleanEnergy.” BMW North America. 2001
“History: Photovoltaics Timeline.” About.com.
“Safercar.gov.” NHTSA 2004
“SpaceShipOne Captures X-Prize.” Scaled Composites 4 Oct 2004
ZanCRX Draft Evaluation by themis
2.05 Energy Paper.doc
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