During the summer of 1996 I turned 17. Like everyone in my grade I was ecstatic to be, finally, old enough to get my driver’s license. At that age a license is freedom to a teenager.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, so learning how to drive in Garden State traffic was an adventure. But with a modestly priced used car and a job as a valet, I could afford to drive that made my life much more fun and free.
Best of all, in 1996, gasoline topped out around 89 cents for a gallon of unleaded. At that price getting five bucks gas money from a friend for regular rides to school was something to be thankful for.
Over the years the gas prices eased over one dollar per gallon until at around $1.25, gas prices started to seem steep. Then, I can recall vividly, one spring, when I was in college, as the weather turned bright and warm and the beach started to become a very real prospect, gas prices started surging over $1.50 per gallon and seemed to climb at an alarming rate of a dime per week.
People drive more during the summer and gas prices climb to match the greater demand. It’s as predictable a rule as any. Eventually supply increases to match demand and the price starts to drop.
By winter, when people are not driving as much, the gas prices return to a more reasonable rate. That year, however when people began talking seriously for the first time of gas costing more than $2.00 per gallon, when the summer was over the prices failed to drop back below $1.50.
It seemed that every subsequent year this continued and the average yearly price of gas climbed twenty to thirty cents until in New Jersey, a place where gas prices are lower due to the multitude of nearby refineries, the price of gas rose over $2.00 and stayed there. Prices began to rise at alarming rates, sometimes jumping ten to twenty cents overnight.
Last summer when I went to Europe and lost track of this trend, I was shocked to come back after three months absence and find gas at $3.19 per gallon.
Being abroad did give me some perspective, however. Europeans have been spending well over $4.00 per gallon in most nations for quite some time-but finally this caught up with America.
So what happened? Did the grave predictions of years past finally catch up with this nation and at long last the oil was starting to run dry? Not really.
Oil is a precious commodity and it is, inexorably running out. But the recent price hikes have been the result of a combination of man-made circumstances.
Oil prices respond to the laws of supply and demand like any commodity. In recent years, contrary to popular opinion, supply hasn’t decreased, but rather demand has gone through the roof and the prices have risen accordingly.
As the economies of Europe, Russia and China have kicked into full gear, their oil needs have increased accordingly.
Couple these nations with America’s ever increasing oil needs and suddenly demand begins spiking. The lifestyle obsession in America that spurred many suburbanites to go out and buy gas guzzling monstrosities only made the problem worse.
The existing oil infrastructure throughout the world was not prepared for these increases in demand and could not pump the oil out of the ground fast enough.
Prices have also been influenced by international events. The War on Terror has driven prices up over uncertainty in the Middle East of the oil supply against terrorist attacks.
The height of the panic came after Hurricane Katrina when the port city of New Orleans practically destroyed as point of importation for the southeast. Since the gas crisis of 2005 increased productivity from oil producers have driven the prices down somewhat.
There is, however, a great deal of speculation as to whether the oil companies, foreign and domestic, dragged their feet in reacting to the crisis and enjoyed the high prices created by the artificial shortage.
Gas prices, more than any other factor (sorry Mr. Greenspan) influence inflation. Everything in this country is shipped and almost everyone drives. Because of America’s incredible size, it is necessity for most people to have a car to get to work.
Last year’s crisis cost everyone a lot of money. The cost of shipping anything was past on to customers. Commuters lost money paying more to get to work. Every time gas prices rise, the dollar buys less in goods and services.
I do think, however, that the money lost last year was money well spent. For the first time, Americans are talking seriously about scaling down their energy needs and publicly funding research efforts for the discovery and proliferation of alternative energy sources on a large scale.
We have not run out of gas just yet, but that day is coming down the pike and I welcome the fact that we are finally trying to find our way clear of our dependence on a resource that is linked to political instability and one that won’t last out the century.
The first step in this campaign lies in scaling down energy use. With the prices in gasoline, heating and electricity what they are, it is in everyone’s best interest to decrease use. Turn off a light when you don’t need it, turn off the television and computer when you’re not using them.
These are adages of frugality that people have known for ages but now they really can make a difference by conserving resources and money on utility bills.
In addition-thankfully-the love affair with sport utility vehicles is finally coming to an end. In Europe, where prices are astronomical, I saw very few SUV’s or pick up trucks. Finally the United States is following suit.
They are even starting to sell Smart Cars in this country. Compact cars and hybrid cars that run partially on electricity or ethanol are starting to flood the market. The President has even ostensibly thrown support behind research for hydrogen powered automobiles.
These measures are all excellent ways of conserving the fossil fuels remaining to the planet, but they don’t replace them. Much of the problem that has plagued the world effort to replace fossil fuels has been a misunderstanding of energy production.
Partially because of the efforts of oil industry to block serious funding for alternative energy projects, people have become convinced that alternative energy is impractical and expensive.
Of course any new technology is always expensive until science figures out cheaper and more efficient ways to produce it. Automobiles were expensive before Henry Ford introduced the assembly line.
The practicality of the car was fought for decades by the horse industry because they did not want to lose their monopoly on the personal transportation market.
Fossil fuel companies, likewise, do not want to lose their stranglehold on the world energy market. These industries have powerful friends in governments throughout the world and pay, through lobbyists, to block legislation fir publicly funding alternative energy projects. Their efforts have crippled any serious attempt by the United States to decrease fossil fuel use.
In many countries where oil is more expensive, alternative energy is a reality. European nations are dotted with solar panels, wind farms and geothermal plants that generate precious electricity without using nonrenewable fuel sources and without burning anything, which is beneficial to the atmosphere.
I think the beginnings of any serious effort to completely replace fossil fuels lie in education. An understanding of how energy can be produced, beginning in schools, would create a culture that perceives just how simple and necessary it is to replace fossil fuels. That’s right-it’s actually a rather simple matter to generate electric power.
An electric generator is simply an electromagnetic induction device. During the 19th century scientists discovered that if you move a magnetic field back and forth past coiled wire, it will generate an electric current.
Most generators are basically a turbine-a wheel or propeller like spinning device-connected to an oscillating magnet in order to generate a current.
Anything that will turn a turbine will generate electricity. Traditionally modern society has harnessed the power of collected steam to turn turbines. Steam is created from boiling water and to boil water, as any small child can tell you, all you need is heat.
Most heat for electricity comes from burning-that’s where fossil fuels come in. There are other things that can be burnt, however. Biomass energy comes from burning dead organic matter to boil water.
Methane can also be burnt for this purpose. Both biomass and methane can be harvested from garbage dumps, a convenient way to reduce garbage and replace some fossil fuel energy.
Burning, however, creates toxins that are released into the atmosphere. Biomass and methane have this downside. Another heat source comes from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy has traditionally had a bad reputation. People think of Chernobyl and the China Syndrome when they think of nuclear power.
There are certainly risks and drawbacks to nuclear energy but it has several benefits as well. Nuclear power harnesses the energy of nuclear fission.
Fission is the breaking down of large, unstable atomic nuclei into smaller more stable elements. This happens when large nuclei of elements like uranium and plutonium are bombarded with neutrons.
The large nuclei break down and release a ton of energy in the form of heat as well as more neutrons to keep the reaction going. The heat in a nuclear reactor is harnessed to boil water for the steam to turn a turbine.
Unlike a nuclear weapon, the fission in a nuclear power reactor is controlled by rods on non-reactive material that are inserted into the fuel rods to absorb free neutrons and stop the reaction.
The advantages of nuclear power are that for one thing nuclear energy requires very little fuel to generate a great deal of power. In addition, nothing is burned, which means nuclear power doesn’t pollute the atmosphere. The drawbacks are that nuclear waste material is highly radioactive for hundreds of years.
This requires long-term storage of waste material underground. If waste products are not stored properly, then they can leach into the soil and water supply, poisoning people and the environment. If waste products are stored properly, then there is no concern.
In addition nuclear power plant accidents can have catastrophic results. However, the nuclear power industry has an outstanding track record in this nation of safety. Ever since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl there has been as strong emphasis on safe nuclear practices and oversight.
Another way of boiling water to turn an electric turbine is completely natural. Geothermal energy is basically the harnessing of the earth’s heat to boil water. Geothermal heat is created by the tremendous pressure and friction of the earth’s moving tectonic plates.
Geothermal plants tap into energy by creating conduits into the earth that allow geothermal heat to rise where it can be collected to boil water. The drawback of geothermal heat is that it can only be harnessed in volcanically active regions like Iceland or Hawaii.
Up until now the methods of energy production that I have mentioned have all harnessed energy in the production of steam. Steam is not a necessary component of production however. Any form of kinetic energy can turn a turbine. Hydroelectric power harnesses the motion of water through a river or dam to generate power.
Hydroelectric does require a water source, however, and often dams and hydroelectric plants can have a negative effect on fish populations that live in these water sources.
Scientists have worked for years on ways to harness the kinetic energy of the ocean in the form of tides and waves for power production. This is problematic as ocean power is not as regular as a river or dam and salt water corrodes machine parts.
Wind power, however, has none of drawbacks of any of the above methods. The wind is free, renewable and clean. Basically a wind farm is a series of windmills that use the wind to turn electric turbines.
The only problems with wind power are that the wind is not regular and does not produce an enormous amount of energy. In order to be really useful wind farms need many turbines.
Wind power is definitely a reality in Europe as windmills can be seen throughout the continent. In the United States, some feel wind farms are an eye sore and what wind farms do exist are off-shore where wind is plentiful and no one has to look at them. The United States needs to increase its implementation of wind power.
Open plains, mountain ranges and coastlines all have a tremendous amount of wind that should be harnessed for energy production. Moving vehicles of any kind can also have wind turbines attached to them to harness the moving air. This power would take some of the load off of the fossil fuels and make vehicles more efficient.
Solar power is the greatest untapped resource for power generation. Solar power is origin of almost all other power on earth. Solar power harnessed by plants in the form of photosynthesis becomes the chemical energy of plants and animals. Fossil fuels are really nothing more than decayed organic matter from millions of years ago, which means they are ancient solar energy unleashed in your car’s engine or a power plant.
There are several ways that solar energy can be applied. Passive solar energy is the use of the suns heat to heat a home or cook food. Homes can be built to use passive solar power by having large windows to harness the greenhouse effect. Transparent vessels of water placed in the sun can hold heat for hours, allowing a solar house to be heated at night.
The same hot water can also be used in a solar shower, instead of a hot water heater heated by fossil fuels. I own a solar oven, which in the middle of a sunny day can broil a hamburger or pork chop in under an hour without burning my food or consuming any energy.
Active solar energy uses the sun’s rays for more traditional energy production. One method is to focus the sun’s rays through mirrors or lenses on a fixed reservoir of some liquid. Usually a liquid with a high heat capacity is used so that it will remain hot for hours and be capable of energy production even at night.
The heat of the reservoir is used to boil water in order to create steam and…you know the rest. Solar panels generate electricity using light reactive cells.
Solar panels are expensive but they can pay for themselves. Energy produced by solar cells is energy you don’t have to pay for. In fact, if you produce more solar electricity than you consume, in most places by law the power company has to buy the excess from you.
Solar power is more practical in some places than others. Places with dry climates and not much to block the sun are perfect for solar power. Homes built in places like Arizona,
New Mexico, Florida or California should have far more solar power than they already do. The deserts of the world should be mobilized for energy production on a large scale.
Countless megawatt hours of power are wasted everyday in the Mojave, Sahara and Gobi. Solar may be expensive to implement at first but if it becomes more popular that will drive the price down and on a long enough timeline, it pays for itself. We can’t afford not to take advantage of this energy source.
When people think of alternative energy they think of fantastic unimaginable and unlimited power sources. It is just this perception that is the problem.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age nuclear fusion has tantalized scientists with the potential to be just such a resource. Nuclear fusion theoretically has the potential to turn water, garbage or even dirt into tremendous electric power.
However, fusion takes incredible energy to start a reaction and we have no clue how to harness it. Unfortunately the “Mr. Fusion” from Back to the Future many never come to be. Science is seeking other such miracle energy sources wherever they can find them.
But in the meantime, we still have to deal with today’s energy crisis. Tomorrow’s alternative energy may not be discovered yet but we are not even fully implementing the energy already available in the world.
We need to stop being close minded about where our energy comes from. Learn all you can about alternative energy. Install a solar panel, drive a smaller car, TURN THE LIGHT OFF! In addition, find out where your local politicians stand on America’s energy policy.
The environment and energy need to become voting issues or this nation will not wean itself off of fossil fuels until they are gone and light’s go out around us.