Understanding Modern Energy 1 – What it is and where it comes from.

Welcome to the new Blog by Renewables Now Loveland.

Thank you for visiting this Blog.  My name is Richard and I was a professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies for many years, even writing textbooks to try and highlight the options and possibilities of sustainable technologies and sustainable living.

Since we’re talking about renewable energy it would be good to start with a basic understanding of energy overall.  Don’t worry, it won’t be a grim discussion on physics, but we do need to understand why renewables are a big issue and why they should be seriously considered as we move into the energy needs of the 21st century.

Our modern world with all its wonderful technologies exists only because we found wonderful sources of energy that allowed the technologies we take for granted to be made.  If you could take a Greek or Roman scholar from the past and throw them into the world of revolutionary America (1776), they would understand how the technology worked.  Even the guns and canons being used would be comprehensible to those ancient scholars.  Bring them 242 years further forward (2018) and those same scholars would conclude that our world must work on magic.  The great leap forward was possible because we found high energy sources that allowed technological leaps forward.  One of the first was the use of coal, then gas and oil to heat and light our modern world as well as provide energy for transportation.

Even today, most people do not comprehend the amazing enormity of what happens all the time.  For most, electricity is just a socket on the wall – behind that socket is a stream of electrons – made by a power station – that run through wires into our homes and businesses.  For most of the time during our technological world of the last 200 years, electricity was made by burning ‘something’ to heat a boiler of water to produce steam under pressure that would spin a turbine.  This turbine produces the electricity we take for granted. Most of the environmental problems we face today come from what was, and still is, being burned to heat the boiler.  Other problems stem from what is used as an energy source to provide us with transportation as we use to move around so effectively (or not as gridlock becomes the norm).

Between tens and Hundreds of millions ago, plant life that decayed in anerobic conditions (like swamps, of which there used to be a lot more around the planet back then) preserved the energy from photosynthesis captured within the plant structure.  Over time this plant mass was transformed by geological processes into Coal, Oil, or underground Natural Gas (as opposed to surface gas from present day swamps) – the fossil Fuels (FFs).  These high-quality energy sources were used to create electricity or to power our transports, with Natural Gas (NG) used to run furnaces for heat and industry and cooking ranges, and today replacing coal in many previous coal-fired power stations.  Of course, anything that can spin a turbine creates electricity, so many large rivers were damned to allow water to flow across the turbines creating hydro-electricity.  Those were the big four for many years until the advent of nuclear power (after WWII) when the heat from decaying radioactive chemicals were used to heat the water in the boiler (same basic idea – heat water to produce steam).

In a nutshell, the big problems are that all this plant material laid down over millions of years is limited.  We have been using it so fast and in such enormous amounts that it is no longer the plentiful source it once was.  Burning all this material is the same as burning wood in a campfire – it produces lots of smoke – and since the FFs are concentrated energy, the smoke and emissions are many times more concentrated as well.   Those who grew up in the post WWII years will recall the thick killer grey-smogs that plagued our cities and towns.  We have historical accounts of the horrors of coal pollution since the late 1800s from Coal fired power plants all around the growing industrialized countries of the world.  The reason we don’t see the intense grey-smogs anymore is because of the clean air act of 1970 (here, and also in other industrialized countries).  Coal burning had to be regulated and the power plant output of smoke had to be treated.  Auto-emission also had to be treated (using catalytic converters on the exhaust) to reduce the intensity of the emissions.  The problem of auto-emission is the production of photochemical brown-smog.  All carbon sources fuels produce smog chemicals and ground level ozone pollution.  So when we hear from carbon lovers about what is bad about carbon, my answer is always, what’s so good about pollution?   In the 1970s there was a big push to move away from FFs to renewable energy that didn’t burn something to produce electricity, instead using technology that directly captured the energy of the sun or its derivatives (e.g. wind, ground heating) – sources that would last as long as the sun burned.

We’ll end this blog post with the caveat that there is no perfect energy capture or generation system.  What we will do in subsequent blog posts is explore all the options and recognize those that are clearly better for our health and the health of the environment, and also those that will promote a sustainable world of equity rather than a world of limitation and strife.