Cumberland Times-News

May 12, 2012

How will we face our energy future?

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

—  My Energy and Environment Course, which I have regularly taught each term is nearly over for the spring. Our class discussions centered on how Americans will be living several decades from now.

Will our country be using energy as it is now, or will we be using a lot less energy (but perhaps more effectively than the present). A darker possibility is that our living standards will be considerably worse.

Are U.S. living standards sustainable in terms of the global demand for petroleum and mineral resources (especially rare Earth elements mainly from the Orient)?

 Well, there is a new book out, “Before the Lights Go Out” by Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2012, John Wiley, available in cloth (ISBN 978-0-470-87625-1) and in 3 electronic book versions. Following are some highlights.

 Recent surveys have shown that the U.S. population has more skepticism about climate change than five years ago. But a large majority of those surveyed support increased research in alternative energy sources and progress towards energy conservation.

Americans hope to see increased miles per gallon for motor vehicles and higher energy efficiency for machinery and home devices. In 1981, the U.S. expended 12,000 BTU’s per dollar of GDP.

Today we expend 7,500 BTU’s per dollar of GDP. (A BTU or British Thermal Unit is the heat needed to raise 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit GDP = Gross Domestic Product, the value of all goods and services produced by a country each year.)

But we must realize that per capita (per person), the U.S. now uses 25 percent more energy than in 1981. If current trends continue, we will need 28 percent more energy per person by the year 2030.

To meet the projected demands, we will need more oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power. The nagging question is: Should we make some gradual changes in how we live? or Sail on until we suffer some serious setbacks and painful adjustments?

 Despite the popular support for alternative energy sources, most of us don’t really want to change our lifestyles. We expend twice as much energy per person as Western Europe. There the living standards are comparable to those in America.

The people of France, United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany have televisions in their homes, use the Internet, have quality health care for their citizens, use cell phones etc. The difference, as Koerth-Baker’s book points out, is that Europe has less area (for a larger population), more expensive land and cities that have been there for centuries.

Since their city roads are narrower, big cars would be unwieldy. Europeans are more comfortable using public transit. America grew greatly at a time when gasoline costs were low so our suburbs were situated out in the country; cars were a necessity to get to work.

We have a tradition of being individualistic, not sharing, but coming and going as we please.

 Our energy facilities (mainly coal burning power plants) are big (economy of scale) and mainly situated in the rural areas of the U.S.

Our American lifestyle results in putting 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. While China puts somewhat more carbon dioxide into the air, they have a population four times ours. The U.S. leads the world in carbon dioxide output per person.

 As I see it, our country is in a real bind. The loudest voices on the political scene demand a shrinking government and lower taxes.

But to develop alternative energy sources that presently are more expensive per kilowatt hour than fossil fuel sources, there needs to be government subsidies to offset their lack of capital by private investors. (Would you invest in a company that may not make a profit for several years?) So we are stuck with fossil fuels for the immediate future.

Since the Internet allows technology to flow across national boundaries, countries with lower labor wages are likely to dominate the future manufacturing of alternative energy devices.

So when alternative energy sources become competitive with fossil fuels, we will end up buying these devices from India, Europe and the Orient.

EVENING SKY THIS WEEK: The moon is now in the morning sky, appearing about half full in the southern dawn. Next Sunday, the moon will swing from the morning to the evening sky (New Moon).

This Tuesday, the brilliant planet Venus begins to drift westward among the stars, causing its rising time to fall back about 40 minutes per week. In two weeks, Venus will be setting before it gets dark. This is a prelude to Venus passing across the sun’s disk late in the afternoon of June 5.

Mars is high in the southwest at nightfall, shining below Leo, the Lion. Saturn shines steadily above the bright star Spica in the southern evening sky. Nearly overhead is the bright golden star Arcturus.

ANTELOPE AND VENUS PROGRAMS. In Africa, they don’t have deer with antlers. Instead, Antelopes with permanent horns roam the plains. They display a great variety of coats and horn sizes.

Come and take in our free public program this afternoon at 4 p.m. in Compton 224. At about 4:30 p.m., we will enter the Science Discovery Center and see some of these colorful and magnificent antelopes as they are found in the African plains.

 The Cumberland Astronomy Club will meet May 18 at 7:30 p.m. at the LaVale Public Library, just off the National Highway. Our featured presentation will be about safely observing the Venus passage across the sun’s disk on June 5.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.