‘Energy independence’ and ‘green energy’ are two phrases that often get thrown around in discussions regarding the future of energy in the United States. These two phrases are commonly used together, so it’s easy to overlook the details when people tie one to the other. Yet, the sad reality is that the U.S. cannot achieve energy independence anytime in the near future by focusing solely on renewable energy, and we need to accept the use of fossil fuels.
In 2011, renewable energy consisted of approximately 14.3% of total produced electricity. The largest renewable energy source was hydroelectric power, which accounted for 6.4%, but it has little room to grow further. Facing constrictive geography, wind power accounted for only about 3%. It can also be unreliable and very expensive to start up.
Nuclear power is a tempting method of producing energy given that carbon isn’t a negative consequence. However, two hurdles may be too big for the industry to overcome: fear of a nuclear leak and the price to build and maintain a new reactor.
Solar power presents the greatest opportunity to move toward green energy simply because the sun’s light and heat produce more energy than humanity would ever need. What is preventing its widespread use, however, is feasibility. At this time, solar panels are not efficient enough to be practical on a nationwide scale, obtaining only 15-20% efficiency. Solar panels using innovations such as multi-layering will one-day make them very useful and practical, but producing these cells and making them cost-efficient could take decades.
When it comes to what you put in your car, ‘green energy’ isn’t as simple as you think. Biofuels do not save much gasoline and are a huge burden on world food prices, likely to take up about half of total U.S. corn production by 2015. A more viable option is biofuel based on Brazilian sugarcane, but this would require shipment to the U.S., resulting in the release of tons of CO2 by transporting ships. Nor would it reduce U.S. dependence on foreign nations for energy.
Others point to electric and hybrid cars, but the math isn’t simple with these vehicles either. Hybrids are still more expensive on average than their counterparts, and Electric Vehicles (EVs) are even pricier. Disregarded is the discussion on what resource batteries would come from. Lithium, the primary ingredient in batteries for cars, computers, phones, etc., is already very highly demanded, and looks only to increase. Almost certainty, Bolivia will be the greatest future producer of lithium. Obtaining the lithium from its deserts is not a clean process, and it will arguably make the U.S. even more reliant on a foreign nation for its transportation needs.
Those serious about energy independence must recognize that at least in the short term, fossil fuels remain a critical part of our infrastructure. The U.S. is the ‘Saudi Arabia of coal,' with enough coal to last approximately 200 years. With the increase in biofuels and natural gas, the U.S. will soon be a net exporter of petroleum products, if it is not already.
Anyone insisting on dramatic changes within the next few years is advocating the impractical, if not the impossible. Coal will continue to be the largest source of energy in the U.S., and gasoline will continue to power our cars. Even when renewable energies become more feasible, petroleum will remain necessary for things such as plastics, fertilizers, and fuel for planes, trains, and ships.
Energy independence and green energy will take time to converge. Solar and wind power are currently too impractical, and most people won’t be interested in an electric car that needs several hours of charging to go more than 300 miles. This does not undermine the importance of these technologies, but instead acknowledges their current limitations, which will likely be overcome in the future. On some level, no matter which technologies we use in the future, the U.S. will be somewhat reliant on foreign assistance in energy production, whether it is German production of wind turbines or Bolivian lithium. That being said, the promise of cheap power from sources such as solar panels, fast-charging batteries, and hydrogen fuel cells will eventually be fulfilled.
We just need to have some patience.
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