The Energy Problem

Robert Coolman is a guest web-writer for Energy and Environmental Science. Robert is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Below he provides some context to the bigger picture of “the energy problem”, and the importance of different approaches to solving such a complex, multi-faceted problem. Enjoy!

Our modern problems with energy sustainability can be rounded down to four separate (but related) issues. Any technology aimed at improving energy sustainability should address one or more of these problems:

  1. Abundance: We need an energy source that’s renewable or at least won’t run out in the foreseeable future
  2. Demand: In order to meet fluctuations in demand for energy, we need to be able to turn our energy supply on and off at will. For energy sources that don’t have this feature, we have to store their energy for later. The other half of this problem is shifting demand e.g. running the dishwasher only while there’s a renewable surplus.
  3. Infrastructure: We need a way of getting renewable energy to work with current infrastructures such as the electric grid and all the vehicles that runs on carbon-based fuel
  4. Pollution: We need to consume energy in a way that won’t increase the amount of greenhouse gases (or other pollutants) in the atmosphere. If we put stuff into the atmosphere, we have to take it out.

Suppose you found yourself with the means to build a household system consisting of a photovoltaic solar panel, a water electrolysis machine to produce hydrogen, a hydrogen storage tank, and a hydrogen-powered generator. If made large enough, such a system could power your entire home day and night. While such a system addresses all the above problems, there’s a catch… Over the lifespan of the system there’s a chance that the amount of energy the system produces will be less than what went into manufacturing it from recycled or raw materials. This brings us to our 5th issue:

  1. Net Energy: In order to be ‘green’, a technology must make more energy available over its lifetime than the amount of energy that went into making it. For a technology offering anything less, its users would have been better off just using the energy they had to begin with.

Lastly, there’s another category of energy problems that technically have nothing to do with sustainability. In fact, the addressing technologies sometimes count against sustainable energy use. While ‘net energy’ is important to consider for people who have regular grid access, it matters much less to those without energy access to begin with.

  1. Access: Technologies such as pocket solar panels probably aren’t going to produce more energy over their lifespan than what went into making them… but they provide gadget-charging capabilities to professionals who lack regular grid access such as forest-fire fighters, soldiers, wilderness researchers, etc. Is the tech green? No. Is it worth making? Yes. Similarly, the ‘net energy’ problem need not dominate the discussion over renewable-energy access to people who don’t even have a grid infrastructure. Imagine how lives will be improved if people in Sub-Saharan Africa can be helped to harness the sun and wind.

I hope this has clarified why research into energy must continue and answered some of the questions over “Why can’t we just do ____.” Renewable energy is a multi-faceted problem that will require many technologies to become a reality. I hope these insights will help you now and into the future. Thanks for reading!

By Robert Coolman

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