Geologist speaks on alternative energy

Richard Alley, a geologist at Penn State University, spoke last week about global climate change trends over his lifetime. Photo by Stephen Willis
Richard Alley, a geologist at Penn State University, spoke last week about global climate change trends over his lifetime. Photo by Stephen Willis
Fossil fuels have helped propel incredible advancement, said Richard Alley, a geologist from Penn State University, but people are using it all up and leaving future generations without an energy safety net.

“The idea of oil being close enough to the surface that you might actually trip on it, once was true. So what was BP doing out in the gulf in the deep waters spending millions? The easy oil is gone,” Alley said, while lecturing at the Frontier of Science series hosted by The Leonardo Museum.

Alley believes global warming is occurring and this conclusion is supported by the data and physics. He said in the future the potential of summers being hotter than any summers we’ve seen so far increases, and, without the deep frost killing many of the insects, this will allow the bug population to flourish.

“So, people say, ‘why do you believe in global warming?’ It’s completely unavoidable physics,” Alley said.

However, Alley referred to fossil fuels as one of humanities greatest achievements, and said petroleum is a wise alternative to burning coal or whale oil.

“How many of you spent the entire summer hoeing corn so you don’t starve to death this winter? [Fossil fuels] is one of the greatest things we’ve ever come up with,” Alley said.

Alley suggested some answers to the world’s energy problems, and said a solution is economically attainable.

“The estimates are that we can get to a sustainable energy system for about one percent of the [world] economy,” Alley said.

Kent Udell, a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the sustainability research center at the U, attended the event and said he saw optimism, not doom and gloom, in Alley’s speech.

“What I liked most about this is the vision of hope and the putting it into objective perspective that we can do it with a small amount of investment,” Udell said.

There were roughly 200 people in attendance and many were forced to stand because every seat in the lecture hall was full.

One of the environmentally friendly solutions Alley promoted was wind turbines. He said people who have windmills on their properties receive about $10,000 a year per windmill and a windmill basically pays for itself in energy the first year of operation.

“You break even in the first year,” Alley said, “Basically if you built the windmill with fossil fuels, if you maintain the windmill with fossil fuels, if you recycle the windmill with fossil fuels, you would reduce the fossil fuel emissions by 95 to 98 percent.”

The impact windmills have on wild birds is minimal, much less than domestic cats, Alley said. Roughly 270 million birds die a year, and only 16,000 of these deaths are due to windmills.

Windmills impact the environment far less than burning fossil fuels, Alley said. A full gas tank in a large car can hold about 100 pounds of gasoline and it produces roughly 300 pounds of CO2 waste. That is, around one pound of waste per mile.

Early in the speech, Alley addressed bleak concerns of environmental refugees, using the aboriginal Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Southern Colorado to illustrate his point. Alley said Mesa Verde’s is an arid climate and when a hot weather cycle occurred and the rains stopped, the population quit growing and the people died or left.

Alley said the Mesa Verde people are an early example of environmental refugees.

“At some point there are people whose crops are heat stressed. They look to other countries and they become environmental refugees,” Alley said.

Alley said nuclear energy works, but the issue is so polarizing it is difficult to move forward. He also said many of the technicians, the people with “hands-on experience,” who designed and worked on constructing these nuclear plants, have retired.

Right now the world has experienced a one degree increase in temperature, Alley said, but as temperature increases, the effects will become more devastating.

“The first degree is almost free, the second degree we’re starting to move out of our comfort zone, The third degree cost most than the second one, the fifth more than the third. The cost rises faster than the temperature does,“ Alley said.

Alley believes that the sooner we address the environmental concerns created by global warming, the better off the world will be. He said it is much easier to tear something down than it is to build something back up.

“Building is harder than breaking, so when we look at the possibilities of what happens from cranking-up CO2,” Alley said while pointing at a temperature graph, “it could be a little better than that, and could be a little worse than that, but we do not see any way that cranking-up CO2 will turn Earth into Eden.”

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