America’s energy future: Coal, gas, solar, water, wind or what?

Consumers. People are consumers. That’s what we do. Consume. And consumption at its essence is no better typified than in the home.

It was expressed in America Revealed, Episode 3, “ELECTRIC NATION,” a 2012 Public Broadcasting System broadcast, that in America in the typical home, on average, can be found 26 different electronic devices. Everything from washers, dryers, refrigerators and dishwashers to televisions, computers, fans and alarm clocks. And each of those appliances as well as others runs on electricity.

To feed a nation that has a seemingly insatiable appetite for electric power, according to the show’s presenter Yul Kwon, nationwide, there are nearly 6,000 power plants providing the power to help America meet its current and growing energy requirements. “And each one needs fuel so it can supply power 365 days a year. Today, they use a mix of energy sources, from nuclear to renewables like solar and wind; from hydro to natural gas.”

Bituminous coal

It is one essential, natural but non-renewable resource, coal, available in vast quantities to meet electric demand that, in fact, “supplies nearly half of America’s electricity,” Kwon remarked, adding, “With our vast reserves, it’s no wonder America is still so reliant on the simple black rock to power the grid, even though coal-fired power plants are among the biggest air polluters in the U.S.”

Another of America’s fossil-fuel finds is natural gas. Of all the fossil fuels available, natural gas, of course, is the cleanest-burning of the bunch. And like coal, it too, is in abundant supply.

“Major gas shale deposits can be found in 28 different states,” Kwon noted. “If you add them all up you get a gas reserve that’s even bigger than the world’s largest oil reserve in Saudi Arabia.”

The growth in domestic natural gas drilling, meanwhile, has been phenomenal, being virtually non-existent in 2005 compared to what it is today, “supplying 20 percent of our natural gas needs,” according to Kwon.

But drilling for that gas has been controversial; said controversy surfacing apparently over the means by which natural gas is extracted from the subsurface shale deposits in question, that is, via the drilling process involved, in this case, what’s referred to as hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.”

As it may relate, Kwon cites the following exchange between two well-known figures: Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

Kwon declared, “In 1931, Thomas Edison confided to his friend Henry Ford. ‘We are like tenant farmers, chopping down the fence around our house for fuel, when we should be using nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy: sun, wind and tide.’”

And to think this was in 1931.

Does such insight foretell what’s in store regarding America’s energy-production future? Is the future bright for wind? What about solar?

There has been extraordinary growth of wind-power as of late. It’s “America’s fastest-growing renewable resource,” according to the America Revealed show presenter. In fact, coast-to-coast no fewer than 36,000 wind turbines are a definite driving force in America’s energy picture.

And not to be forgotten is photovoltaic technology or solar cells.

In America between 2010 and 2012, an additional 100,000 residences were outfitted with photovoltaic systems, enabling those in the private-citizen sector embracing this technology to be far more energy-independent.

The aforesaid renewables – wind and solar power – are, of course, subject to the vagaries of Mother Nature. In coming to terms with that reality it is apparent that the case that continued reliance on power derived from the burning of fossil fuels is still strong and will likely remain that way for some time.

Published by Alan Kandel

1 thought on “America’s energy future: Coal, gas, solar, water, wind or what?”

  1. This article is leaving out the biggest elephant in the room, Global Warming or, if you prefer, Climate Change.

    I write for young readers and, as a result, often focus on issues that will affect their future as adults. My most recent book, Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, addresses the topic of this post from the post-Fukushima perspective.

    After describing in considerable detail the events in Japan of March 11, 2011, including the displacements and environmental damage from the triple meltdown and multiple explosions, the book asks the question why when the risks are so high (even if engineering can make them manageable in the future) would any government include nuclear energy in its future mix.

    The answer is that global warming could have even more serious consequences and nuclear produces no CO2. (See for example my review of The Flooded Earth by Peter Ward I leave open the question of what future policies should be, because so much will depend on factors that we can’t foresee now and on the success or lack of success of other energy sources, especially renewables. I tell my young readers, who will be facing this question in the 2030s and 2040s, that the choice will be theirs, and it will be as complex and difficult then as it is now.

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