Alternative energy, conservation could reduce oil dependency

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series on energy.

Fossil fuels are a limited resource and the United States’ dependency on Mideast oil has been detrimental to national sovereignty at times.

So where can the administration turn?

Conservation is an option, but it would only prolong the 40-year supply of oil and 200- to 300-year supply of coal. U experts say temporary answers are not sufficient.

In a March visit to Ohio, President Bush said the United States needs to diversify its energy supply by developing alternative sources of energy.

“If future generations can count on energy in many different forms, we’ll be less vulnerable to price spikes and shifts in supply,” he said.

Alternative Energy options

Kevin Perry teaches a course at the U on atmospheric chemistry and air pollution where he examines energy-use policies.

Perry said the best alternative he sees in the future is nuclear fusion, in which hydrogen atoms are bonded into helium. The current problem with fusion is that some mass loss occurs in the process, resulting in a loss of energy, and there is no plausible way to contain the 40 million-degree heat that would be emitted by the reaction.

“A magnetic bottle is a possibility, but right now to contain the energy would result in a net loss of energy,” he said. “But we have an abundance of hydrogen, so it’s an unlimited source if we could control nuclear fusion. If we run out of our fossil fuel reserves before we contain fusion, we’re in serious trouble.”

However, Perry said, “It is not in our economic interest right now to use alternative resources. They all cost more than fossil fuels and it takes a leadership with a vision to lead the way and bring costs of alternative resources down and encourage conservation.”

U students pay a $1 fee to support wind power on campus, which the U’s wind power campaign Web site says provides just more than 1 percent of the U’s energy consumption, but also “has the potential to prevent between 3,000 to 7,500 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.”

Perry said wind power, like several other alternatives, is still pricey in comparison to fossil fuels and makes electric bills three times as expensive.

Richard Peterson, who teaches a course on alternative energy at the U, said wind power is becoming affordable.

“The cost of wind has been dropping very quickly,” he said. “It’s more like 5 cents for wind now [compared to about 2.5 cents for fossil fuels], and again, you have to at least double the cost of coal if you’re counting the pollution.”

Utah Power offers a “Blue Sky” program, which allows customers to purchase 100 kilowatt-hour blocks of wind power for $1.95 each. The Blue Sky charge is included on customers’ monthly bills in addition to regular charges.

Each block accounts for 10 percent of the average customer’s monthly use, meaning the average customer would pay nearly $20 per month in addition to their monthly bill to completely switch to wind power.

The Web site encourages customers to participate in order to help reduce air pollution, lower the dependence on fossil fuels so energy supply becomes more self-sufficient, preserve the environment and conserve resources for future generations.

“In the coming years, we plan to add significantly more renewable energy to our resource mix,” the site reads.

Nearly 12,000 customers have signed up for the Blue Sky program despite the fact Utah does not offer tax incentives for using wind power and other alternative energies.

The Californian government offers tax incentives to its residents, a fact that has led to a waiting list for some hybrid vehicles, which customers are paying between $21,000 and $27,000 for in most cases.

Perry said he’d like to see a disincentive for fossil fuels by increasing taxes and making them more expensive because they are such a limited resource.

“There was a time when people drove small cars,” Perry said. “Look at government taxes. In Europe people are paying $5 or $6 for a gallon of gas because they pay $3 in taxes. If politicians here discouraged vehicles, they’d be booted out of office because people love their SUVs.”

Nuclear fission is another option, but seems a less likely alternative, according to Perry, because of the waste it creates.

The problem is especially potent in Utah and Nevada with recent controversies surrounding the government’s attempts to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, which is about 100 miles from Las Vegas, and the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Resevation, which is 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Bush said the nation should promote safe, clean nuclear power, which can generate huge amounts of electricity without ever emitting air pollution or greenhouse gases, but the United States hasn’t ordered a nuclear power plant since the 1970s.

“Decades of experience and advances in technology have proven that nuclear power is reliable and secure,” Bush said. “We’re taking early steps toward licensing the construction of nuclear power plants because a secure energy future must include nuclear power.”

The administration has also pushed a hydrogen fuel initiative, which could produce vehicles that emit water instead of pollution.

“We’re providing $1.2 billion over five years to help move hydrogen-powered cars from the research lab to the dealership lot,” Bush said.

Another approach could put carbon dioxide into the Earth instead of emitting it into the atmosphere where it worsens the Greenhouse Effect, according to U environmental economist Gabriel Lozada.

“There’s an alternative energy that is getting renewed interest: Using fossil fuels like coal to produce hydrogen, which can be used by burning or by using it in a fuel cell,” Lozada said. “The solution to this oil problem is not to encourage more oil-well drilling from the United States…The solution would be either using less energy through conservation or developing alternative sources.”

Conservation

Peterson said petroleum, which is used in products such as plastics and computers, should be invested in the future rather than wasted on oversized vehicles.

“You have to say what point we’re going to stop wasting it on SUVs and putting it into plastics,” Peterson said. “So you really have to question how much you care about the future.”

In addition, Peterson said, Americans use about five times more energy than they need to.

“If we were to reduce it even by half, we could be more in line with what Europeans use and it would not be nearly as difficult to utilize sustainable energy,” he said. “The problem is we are burning up 150 million years of carbon storage in 150 years…since we’re burning them up a million times faster than they were formed, it’s not a difficult concept that we are using them all.”

Peterson said people could cut down on energy usage by “insulating their house, riding a bicycle and not driving SUVs because that’s ridiculous.” He added that “the more stuff you own, the more energy you’re using…All stuff takes energy to make, transport and get rid of. Also, not eating so much meat. That would cut your energy usage in half.”

U student Mike Purcell said it would make more sense to give an incentive to the people who use alternative energy and conserve fossil fuels rather than disadvantaging fossil fuel users by overcharging them.

Bush said he is pursuing the incentive path.

“I’ve proposed tax credits for drivers who choose fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles,” he said March 9 in Ohio. “We want to encourage you to make good choices.”

Perry said something needed to be done soon.

“We need to be smart enough and technologically advanced enough to sustain what we’ve got because once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back,” he said. “The world population is expected to peak in 2050 at 10 billion, and it’s hard to feed people without energy. We can’t support the number of people on the planet throu
gh fossil fuel. There’s a dark view of a massive crisis or a visionary’s view to lead the way toward alternative resources and mass transit.”

[email protected]

Alternative Energy options at a glance

HydroelectricEnergy produced from falling water. Dams and pumped storage plants are production centers. U professor Kevin Perry said the resource has been built out and carries environmental concerns by diverting water from plant and animal life downstream.

Wind PowerNot yet competitive in pricing, but a good source.

Solar CellsNot cost-effective. It costs 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is 10 times what fossil fuels cost.

Ocean EnergyPerry said it’s hard to use in midland areas like Utah. It uses thermal energy from the sun on the ocean and mechanical energy from winds and the moon’s tidal pull Tide power is collected in a dam and taken through water turbines to a generator.

GeothermalHot springs are released by drilling into the earth and converted into energy. To determine drilling spots, water is injected into the ground until it hits hot rocks. Seventy percent of surface areas have that potential, but rock is fractured when water is injected and it can lead to earthquakes.

Nuclear FissionControversial because of the nuclear waste it creates. France produces more than half its energy through fission, then ships waste to islands in the South Pacific. It could be an alternative if the waste issue is solved. There will likely be an upsurge in facilities if Yucca Mountain proves to be a good storage site, but the waste remains radioactive for 10,000 years.

Nuclear FusionThe same process that occurs continually in the Sun and stars where Hydrogen is converted into helium. Supplies are virtually unlimited due to the amount of hydrogen on Earth. There is no known way to contain it as the product is 40 million degrees and more energy is expended containing it than is produced by the process.