Today’s post covers the problems we have with using fossil fuels for most of our energy needs. I also briefly review some possibilities of what we can use for energy in the future and what you can to today to help.
Greenhouse gases are formed by both natural and man made sources. They allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere, but they absorb the heat and trap it in the atmosphere.
Three of the major man made greenhouse gases contributors are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide makes up by far the largest amount, depending upon your source and how recent the report is, it seems to make up around 75 to 85% of the total. Methane is present in much lower amounts although it is a more potent greenhouse gas (source).
The burning of the fossil fuels: oil, coal and natural gas are the primary source of the human contributed carbon dioxide as well as the burning of wood. The U.S. contributes 25% of the carbon dioxide emissions. Methane comes from landfills, coal mines, oil and gas operations, and agriculture. (source)
Before the industrial revolution the amount of carbon dioxide in the air was 280 parts per milliom (ppm). Now – the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is almost 385 ppm. In 2007, it increased by 2.4 ppm. (source) It has been estimated that the threshold of 450 ppm is where we could have really big problems. (National Geographic, Oct. 2007, p. 32) At the current rate it will take a little more than 3 decades to get there. The average global temperature has already gone up 1 degree Fahrenheit.
Already the three great ice sheets – on Greenland, East Antarctica and West Antarctica are melting and could raise the planet’s sea levels by more than 200 feet. One third of the population lives within 300 feet of sea level could end up under water if global temperatures keep rising. (Scientific American, Feb. 2008, p.60)
What can you do?
One pretty simple thing most people can do now is change your lightbulbs from incandescent to fluorescent if you have not yet done that. They are more expensive but use less energy and last much longer. If every household in the U.S. replaced one light bulb with a fluorescent one, ‘it would prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that from nearly 800,000 cars. It would also save enough energy to light 2.5 million homes for a year.’ (Source) Even better when LED light bulbs become more readily available – buy those instead.
Currently hybrid cars and solar panels are financially out of reach for most people. Hopefully, in the not so far off future will have more options for more fuel efficient cars, plug-ins, etc. Replacing all old appliances with newer more energy efficient is not something most can afford either, if the current appliance is still functioning. Weather-proofing a house is one way to reduce fuel usage, if you can afford it.
Many other suggestions I’ve seen for saving energy are also not very practical for many people. For example – hanging clothes outside to dry instead of using a dryer. This won’t work for people in apartments, neighborhoods with ordinances against it, places where it is too rainy and cold, places where the clothes could get stolen or destroyed by people, kids or animals. In many places it is also either too hot or cold most of the year and things are too far away for riding a bicycle to be very practical most of the time.
In the future
In the future other sources of fuel will have to be developed. Some of these are listed below:
– seems promising. In the U.S. lots of land in the west would need to be covered with solar panels and technology to store and transport the energy would have to be developed. (Scientific America, Jan. 2008, p.64)
– wind turbines are another potential source of clean, renewable energy. Wind turbine energy is currently being used in many states in the U.S. and in 2005 generated 17.8 billion kWh of electricity (source).
– this involves the piping of hot water or steam to drive a turbine. Currently it is difficult and expensive finding the reservoirs. Better technology could bring the price down. Another option is the use of geothermal heat pumps, but there has not been a lot of investment in it. Some countries do make use of geothermal energy to heat their houses though. (Discover, April 2008, p.20)
– are made from plants such as corn and sugarcane. In Brazil they have been using ethanol derived from sugarcane to fuel nearly all their cars since the 1980’s. But growing and harvesting sugarcane is labor intensive may lead to deforestation. In the U.S. many people want to use corn to make ethanol, but corn requires lots of herbicide and fertilizer, can result in erosion problems as well as use up land set aside for conservation and its use as biofuel increases food costs among other problems. Other options are making ethanol from the plant parts people don’t use for food – those high in cellulose – but the technology isn’t quite there yet to make it very efficient. Research into using algae for fuel is also taking place but has a long way to go before it will be viable. (National Geographic, Oct. 2007, p. 38)
– some groups think that more nuclear power should be used to replace fossil fuels. Others think it has too many risks of accidents associated with it along with the problem of how and where to store the waste. (Discover, May 2008, p.29)
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