The future of our energy

Source: Thomas Beltman

Global warming, too much CO2 in the air, the need to change everything, from our food production to our energy supply, I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. How is it possible then, that when we look around, most of what the current leadership has done is nothing more than incompetent attempts at changing the world? Considering the fact that the evidence of climate change has been here for decades, this is rather depressing. I understand that changing our eating habits is really difficult, as with most behavioural habits, and driving electric cars has only recently become a viable alternative to a petrol powered car, but what about our energy supply?

The problem with changing the world’s energy supply to greener alternatives starts with politicians, who usually get elected for 4 or 5 years, which means they will only try to “do good” in the short period they have, in order to achieve a second term. This is quite possibly the single biggest reason our energy transition worldwide has been so slow, as most alternatives used to cost more than fossil fuel, up until recently, but we’ll get to that. Another factor is the increasing energy demand of developing nations, as their populations boom, and their appetite for modern technology booms with it. This would have been the perfect time for the developed world to take responsibility for setting up green energy sources for the developing nations, but that would take politicians allocating money outside of their country, which isn’t an ideal strategy to get re-elected. Therefore, to change the world’s energy supply, politicians would need to not be busy with their re-elections, which seems like an unlikely event.

But then, everything changed. Putin had an ego trip which has changed many things. I won’t go into the details of the horrors of the war, because this has been well documented, but out of this mess a rather unique situation has been born, and quite possibly an opportunity to really change the world. As many countries feel the implications of this war in Ukraine, with the rise of gas prices and Europe’s dependency on Russia as the main problems, politicians rush to find solutions to the energy crisis at hand. We must therefore identify long term solutions, as a temporary fix like keeping coal-fired power stations running is definitely not a viable long term option.

The first solution for the energy crisis is to continue what we are already doing, but on a larger scale. Build more wind turbines, hydroelectric power plants and, of course, solar panels, increasing our output of renewable energy, replacing old fossil fuel powered installations, because this is a proven way to reduce carbon emissions. There is, however, a major problem with this: Renewable energy sources can’t guarantee round-the-clock energy supply, as the sun and the wind aren’t always there to generate energy, and hydroelectricity is reliant on decently filled reservoirs, which is these days not always available (you can thank extreme weather conditions for that). This means: either society adapts to the rhythm of the weather and the sun for power supply, which seems unlikely, or we find a reliable way to store it.

One possibility is to store power in batteries, but the problem with those is the production cycle, where a lot of environmental damage is caused by the mining of harmful materials. This is in line with other environmental damage caused by renewable energy production. The problem here mainly lies in the production aspect: to replace coal-fired power the world would need a lot of solar panels and wind turbines, which in turn damages the environment. Solar panels, for example, can take three years to pay off their carbon debt, in comparison to coal. Naturally, this is better than nothing, but renewables have other problems, such as environmental damage to water bodies due to damming for hydroelectricity.

The upside, however, is that production processes can become greener and greener. Scientists constantly develop new recycling techniques and more efficient production facilities. There is still the problem of harmful battery acids being mined, but there is an alternative: building hydrogen power facilities. Pure hydrogen is created when you separate the H2 from the O in H2O, which takes electricity. By uniting H2 with O (oxygen) in a fuel cell, and thus creating water, you generate electricity. In its H2 form, it is a gas that can be stored and transported in a green way. There is no need for mining highly toxic material. This method is already used by certain cars, and it has the potential to do a lot more. 

Alternatively, for when renewable energy is still not green enough, there is another viable solution to the energy crisis: nuclear energy. I still don’t know why it is being looked at as an ugly duckling, as it is one of the most elegant solutions to the problems at hand. Sure, it is expensive to build, but as a long term investment it is cost competitive. Nuclear energy can save us from fossil fuel created pollution, and it is a very green alternative to renewable energy. A single US power plant can produce one gigawatt on average. In comparison, you would need 3.125 million solar panels for this, or 333 wind turbines. It is currently the cleanest per gigawatt-hour in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, because nuclear energy does not produce any CO2 emissions. It is also one of the safest forms of energy we have, as waste is a very small amount, and can be stored very safely

The problem is that people are afraid of nuclear energy, but as it turns out, they have no reason to be, as it is only second to solar power in being the safest form of energy, by looking at the death toll. This is counting the disasters like Chernobyl (caused by flawed design) and Fukushima (built in a highly active seismic area). All other forms of energy have caused more deaths. The situation is similar to  people being afraid of flying. Statistically, you are more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, yet more people are afraid of stepping onto an airplane. I think this is because every time a plane crashes, the news is all over it, as many people die at once, but when a car crashes, it just becomes another statistic. This goes for nuclear power as well, because we all know of Chernobyl, but no one knows about the direct deaths caused by other sources. People just have to be convinced of how small the dangers really are.

There is only one remaining obstacle, because even if people are convinced of nuclear energy and hydrogen, there still is the problem of time. Nuclear power plants require a lot of time to develop and build, as this is the only manner in which systems can be built safely. The same goes for a hydrogen power grid. It would have to be developed from the ground up, as it has never been used on a large scale, and safety is a problem here as well, because hydrogen is highly flammable. The only way to speed up both nuclear and hydrogen development is by pouring more funds into it, as is with all research and development.

Now it’s up to the politicians to actually put all of this into action. I know this has always been the case, and not much has changed, but now they actually have direct reasons to make a change, as prices are skyrocketing and nobody wants to rely on Russia anymore. I hope we learn from our mistakes by adapting to future trends and funding  more research, as playing catch-up is not a nice position to be in.