To answer that question, we need to start by discussing fossil fuels-what they are, where they come from, how they are used and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Within this context, the pressing need for alternatives becomes quite clear.
What are fossil fuels?
Most fossil fuels are formed from the remains of long-dead creatures and plants. Buried over the course of hundreds of millions of years, these carbon-based deposits have been converted by heat and pressure over time into such combustible substances as crude oil, coal, natural gas, oil shales and tar sands. A smaller portion of fossil fuels is the handful of other naturally occurring substances that contain carbon but do not come from organic sources.
To make more fossil fuels would require both the creation of new topsoil filled with hydrocarbons, and time-lots of time. Given estimates of current fossil fuel reserves worldwide, it’s not possible we can wait out the problem, and continue our dependence on fossil fuels until new reserves are built. At current consumption rates, the reserves of oil and coal and other fossil fuels won’t last hundreds of years, let alone hundreds of millions of years.
As for creating more, experts have pointed out that it can take close to five centuries to replace a single inch of topsoil as plants decay and rocks weather. Yet in the United States, at least, much of the topsoil has been disturbed by farming, leading still more experts to the disturbing conclusion that in areas once covered by prairie, the past hundred years of agriculture have caused America’s “bread basket’ to lose half of its topsoil as it erodes thirty times faster than it can form.
The Advantages of Fossil Fuels in Energy Production
There are many reasons why the world became dependent on fossil fuels, and continues to rely on them. For example, it has so far been relatively cost-effective in the short run to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity at strategic centralized parts of the grid and to deliver the electricity in bulk to nearby substations; these in turn deliver electricity directly to consumers. These big power plants burn gas or, less efficiently, coal. Since so much electricity can be lost over long-distance transmission, when power needs to be concentrated more in one region than another, the fuels are generally transported instead to distant power plants and burned there. Liquid fuels are particularly easy to transport.
Thus far, fossil fuels have been abundant and easily procured. Petroleum reserves worldwide are estimated at somewhere between 1 and 3.5 trillion barrels. Proven coal reserves at the end of 2005, as estimated by British, were 909,064 million tons worldwide. Coal, furthermore, is relatively cheap.
Perhaps the simplest reason why the world continues to depend on fossil fuels is that to do anything else requires change: physical, economical, and-perhaps the most difficult-psychological. The basic technology for extracting and burning fossil fuels is already in place, not only in the large power plants but at the consumer level, too. Retrofitting factories would be cost-prohibitive, but perhaps even more daunting would be replacing heating systems in every home, factory and building. Ultimately, however, the true resistance may be our nature. We humans tend to resist change in general, and in particular those changes that require us to give up longstanding traditions, alter our ways of thinking and living, and learn new information and practices after generations of being assured that everything was “fine” with the old ways.
Why Do We Need Alternatives?
If there are so many reasons to use fossil fuels, why even consider alternatives? Anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to the issue over the past few decades could probably answer that question. If nothing else, most people could come up with the first and most obvious reason: fossil fuels are not, for all practical purposes, renewable. At current rates, the world uses fossil fuels 100,000 times faster than they can form. The demand for them will far outstrip their availability in a matter of centuries-or less.
And although technology has made extracting fossil fuels easier and more cost effective in some cases than ever before, such is not always the case. As we deplete the more easily accessible oil reserves, new ones must be found and tapped into. This means locating oil rigs much farther offshore or in less accessible regions; burrowing deeper and deeper into the earth to reach coal seams or scraping off ever more layers of precious topsoil; and entering into uncertain agreements with countries and cartels with whom it may not be in our best political interests to forge such commitments.
Finally, there are human and environmental costs involved in the reliance on fossil fuels. Drilling for oil, tunneling into coalmines, transporting volatile liquids and explosive gases-all these can and have led to tragic accidents resulting in the destruction of acres of ocean, shoreline and land, killing humans as well as wildlife and plant life. Even when properly extracted and handled, fossil fuels take a toll on the atmosphere, as the combustion processes release many pollutants, including sulfur dioxide-a major component in acid rain. When another common emission, carbon dioxide, is released into the atmosphere, it contributes to the “greenhouse effect,” in which the atmosphere captures and reflects back the energy radiating from the earth’s surface rather than allowing it to escape back into space. Scientists agree that this has led to global warming, an incremental rise in average temperatures beyond those that could be predicted from patterns of the past. This affects everything from weather patterns to the stability of the polar ice caps.
Clearly, something must change. As with many complex problems, however, the solution to supplying the world’s ever-growing hunger for more energy will not be as simple as abandoning all the old methods and beliefs and adopting new ones overnight. Partly this is a matter of practicality-the weaning process would take considerable investments of money, education and, most of all, time. The main reason, however, is that there is no one perfect alternative energy source. Alternative will not mean substitute.
What needs to change?
It seems simplistic to say that what really needs to change is our attitude, but in fact the basis of a sound energy plan does come down to the inescapable fact that we must change our way of thinking about the issue. In the old paradigm, we sought ways to provide massive amounts of power and distribute it to the end users, knowing that while much would be lost in the transmission, the advantages would be great as well: power plants could be located away from residential areas, fuels could be delivered to central locations, and for consumers, the obvious bonus was convenience. For the most part our only personal connection with the process would be calling the providers of heating fuel and electricity, and pulling up to the pumps at the gas station. And the only time we would think about the problem would be when prices rose noticeably, or the power went out.
There are people who have tried to convince us that there is no problem, and that those tree-hugging Chicken Littles who talk about renewable and alternative energy want us all to go back to nature. More often than not these skeptics’ motivations for perpetuating this myth falls into one of two categories: one, they fear what they don’t understand and are resistant to being told what to do, or two, they have some political or financial stake in enabling our fossil-fuel addiction.
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