Capturing and Storing Energy: From Fossil Fuels to Renewable Resources
One of the most interesting challenges in energy production is not how to find energy sources, which are abundant, but how to capture and store the energy that is available. For years, energy capture and storage has focused on the availability of fossil fuels and how those resources could be translated into usable energy sources. However, the demand for energy is so incredible and the known fossil fuel energy reserves sufficiently limited that the United States must explore alternative energy sources. Moreover, the United States is not the only country that is hampered, politically, economically, and socially by its energy dependence; instead many countries, especially those that lack relative wealth or access to their own fossil fuel deposits are in even more vulnerable positions. Fortunately, there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels that countries can explore. Hydropower, wind power, solar power, geothermal power, and biomass power all offer potential solutions or partial solutions to the world’s energy problems.
Historical Use of Fossil Fuels
In order to understand where energy is transitioning, it is important to understand the history of fossil fuels used for energy. The use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, for energy has an extremely long history. Coal has been used since at least 1100 BC for energy. In the Middle Ages, coal, which could be transformed into energy through fire, was used in forges, smithies, lime-burners, and breweries (IER, 2014). By the 1400s, people could build coal-safe chimneys in their homes and use coal for heat. By the late 1500s, coal was the major heating source for buildings, particularly in cities (IER, 2014). When used for heating, coal replaced firewood, which was a renewable resource. This use of coal is linked to the industrialization that occurred throughout much of the western world, particularly the United States, in the late 1800s.
Like coal, oil has a long history of usage, though many of its uses were not linked to energy. For example, as early as 3000 BC, oil was used in medicines, adhesives, caulks, and roads (IER, 2014). By 1000 BC, the Chinese had figured out how to refine crude oil and use it for lamps and home heating. However, the widespread use of petroleum for energy did not occur until the late 1800s, when petroleum became the widespread replacement for whale oil in lighting. The internal combustion engine for automobiles in the early 1900s represented the first real use of a petroleum product for energy.
Natural gas also has a long history of historic usage. The Chinese used natural gas to fire evaporators to make salt from brine. However, natural gas was considered a nuisance by early oil-well drillers because of transportation difficulties associated with it. Once steel pipelines could be utilized, natural gas could be transported over long distances. The first such long-distance pipeline was built in 1925 (IER, 2014).
While fossil fuels have provided an abundant source of energy, they have also presented challenges in their use. The most obvious challenge is getting the fossil fuels from the ground to storage facilities. Coal could be mined, but coal mining, especially modern practices, can present significant environmental challenges. Oil and natural gas both could naturally escape from the ground, but in order to use them in widespread applications, humans had to devise ways to remove them from the ground. Then, they had to figure out how to convert those three resources from potential energy sources to energy. Initially, this conversion meant burning the fuels for heat; however, the real reliance on fossil fuels began to grow once people realized that fossil fuels could be converted into electrical energy, not just heat.
Capturing and Storing Energy from Oil
Transforming petroleum into energy is a complicated process. Oil is located under ground and must be pumped to the surface for extraction, and then it is transported, generally via pipeline, to petroleum processing facilities. There are three general technologies that can be used to convert oil into electricity. In conventional steam technology, oil can be burned to heat water, which generates steam to turn a turbine and create electricity. In a combustion turbine, oil is burned to create hot exhaust gases, which spin the turbine. In combined-cycle technology oil is burned first to turn a combustion turbine, then the exhaust gases are used to heat water in a boiler, creating a conventional steam engine (Pace, 2000).
Capturing and Storing Energy from Coal
In a coal-processing plant, the process of converting coal to energy begins with prepping the coal. The coal is pulverized into a fine powder, which is mixed with hot air and blown into a firebox, where it provides the most heat. Water is bumped into the boiler, where it is turned into steam by the heat from the burning coal. This steam then turns the blades to a turbine, which is connected to a generator, where magnets spin inside wire coils to produce electricity (Duke Energy, 2014).
Capturing and Storing Energy from Natural Gas
As with the conversion of oil into energy, natural gas is often converted into energy using a two-step process. Natural gas powers combustion turbines, which suck in air and mix it with the natural gas to create a fireball. The fireball produces hot gasses that move the blades of the turbine. The turbine spins and powers a generator, which converts the mechanical energy into electricity. The exhaust gasses then convert water into steam, which is used to power a steam turbine (CPS Energy, 2014).
The Political, Social, and Economic Implications of Fossil Fuels
Because fossil fuels are located in the ground, countries that have their own fossil fuel reserves have a political and economic advantage over countries that do not have their own fossil fuel reserves. Therefore, countries that are rich in fossil fuels may have an economic and political advantage over other countries. However, it is not always a simple process; being oil rich can actually make countries vulnerable as other powers might fight to control their land, and, therefore, control their fossil fuel resources. The United States has a significant amount of fossil fuel reserves, and the process of fracking as a means of fossil fuel extraction has only increased the amount of fossil fuels available. However, while known world oil reserves have been increasing, approximately half of the world’s oil reserves will be depleted by 2030. Moreover, as consumption increases, fossil fuel reserves will be depleted more quickly. Though it is impossible to predict the date by which fossil fuels will be exhausted, what is known is that fossil fuels are finite, non-renewable resources, and that countries cannot plan long-term energy strategies without examining other, renewable sources of energy. Additionally, these sources of renewable energy can be implemented in areas without fossil fuel reserves, which can mean that countries have access to power without the economic, political, and social repercussions that accompany fossil fuels. In fact, while the United States still remains heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, that is not the case in many other countries, both industrialized one and emerging nations. “Other countries have made far more concerted efforts to reduce fossil fuel use than the United States and have some impressive numbers to show for it. Of the countries that rely most heavily on renewable electricity, some, like Norway, rely on that old renewable, hydroelectric power. But others, like Denmark, Portugal and Germany, have created financial incentives to promote newer technologies like wind and solar energy” (Rosenthal, 2013).
One of the most readily available sources of power is water. Water has long been used as a source of power for mills, with the power of the water being converted into mechanical energy. For the generation of electricity, a dam is built on a large river that has a drop in elevation. The dam stores water behind it, and there is a hole at the bottom of the dam wall for water intake. The water falls through a penstock inside the dam to a turbine propeller, which is turned by the movement of the water. This turbine moves to an electromagnetic generator, producing electricity. Water can also be used and then pumped and stored for re-use during peak power usage (U.S. Geological Survey, 2013).
The research questions associated with hydropower focus on several areas. First, hydropower has typically focuses on rivers; is there a way to use hydropower for oceans, seas, lakes, or other large bodies of water? Can hydropower be effective in flat areas? Can hydropower create larger stores of electricity or simply enough storage to meet peak usage? Does the creation of hydropower have its own political implications because of struggles over water rights?
As with the previously discussed types of electricity generation, wind turbines work by spinning a shaft, which is connected to a generator that creates electricity. However, wind can also be used directly for mechanical processes, such as the powering of mills, providing energy without being converted to electricity. Furthermore, wind energy provides a significant way of supplementing other electricity sources. “Single small turbines, below 100 kilowatts, are used for homes, telecommunications dishes, or water pumping. Small turbines are sometimes used in connection with diesel generators, batteries, and photovoltaic systems. These systems are called hybrid wind systems and are typically used in remote, off-grid locations, where a connection to the utility grid is not available” (U.S. Department of Energy, 2014). The research questions associated with wind power focus largely on the fact that wind flow patterns and speeds vary tremendously across the globe. Is wind power a viable solution, or partial solution, in areas without traditional high winds? Do offshore and on land wind turbines produce similar results? Is there a practical way to store wind energy or does the energy need to be used once captured and transformed into electricity?
As the name implies, solar power involves converting energy from the sun, which comes in the form of heat and light, into electricity. Solar power employs the use of various types of crystals, including silicon and copper-indium-gallium-selinide to turn light into energy. These crystals are capable of producing electric currents when struck by light. This electricity is then used, generally in localized, small-settings, to provide electricity. Furthermore, although solar power has generally been limited to sunny-day usage, the advent of lithium ion battery storage systems to capture electricity in residential solar systems means that solar power can be stored for use during rainy days or nighttime periods. Clearly, solar power has tremendous potential because of the widespread availability and renewable nature of solar power. However,
“Right now, solar energy only accounts for a tiny portion of the U.S.’s total electricity generation, because it is more expensive than alternatives like cheap but highly polluting coal. Solar power is about five times as expensive as what people pay for the current that comes out of the outlets” (Locke, 2008). This expense may one of the most significant barriers to widespread adoption of solar technology. In addition, it is important to understand that the crystals required to utilize solar cells are developed through very advanced technology. Emerging nations may be able to utilize wind and water power relatively easily through basic mechanical generators, but may not have the technology to grow crystals for use in solar cells. What this suggests is that solar power may come with its own political and social implications, despite the ubiquitous availability of sunlight. The questions associated with solar power are as follows. Can cheaper crystals be utilized to convert light into electricity? Can solar power be stored in an effective an efficient manner? Would larger lithium ion battery storage systems be viable storage solutions in large-scale applications? If storage systems can be effective, can solar power be used effectively as a power supplement in traditionally cloudy or rainy areas? What are the barriers to crystal growth that emerging nations face, and would it be more effective for them to purchase crystals from foreign companies or to establish fab units for the crystals?
One of the more promising uses of renewable energy, which, at least theoretically is accessible regardless of location, is geothermal energy. However, because the heat under the earth’s surface varies widely by region, geothermal energy is more practical in some areas than others; for example, in the United States, the southwest region has far greater geothermal energy stores than many parts of the central south region. Like other forms of electricity production, geothermal energy uses heat to convert energy to electricity.
“The most common current way of capturing the energy from geothermal sources is to tap into naturally occurring “hydrothermal convection” systems where cooler water seeps into Earth’s crust, is heated up, and then rises to the surface. When heated water is forced to the surface, it is a relatively simple matter to capture that steam and use it to drive electric generators. Geothermal power plants drill their own holes into the rock to more effectively capture the steam” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009). Geothermal power plants have three basic designs. The first design sends steam from the earth directly to a turbine. The second design pressurizes very hot water to turn it into steam, and then sends it to a turbine. The third approach uses hot water to heat a liquid with a lower boiling point and then uses that steam to send to the turbine (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009).
While there is a tremendous amount of potential geothermal energy, there are special concerns related to its use. Seismically active areas provide the greatest potential energy. The primary question is whether using those resources can trigger additional seismic activity. Is air pollution a significant concern with some types of geothermal energy? Is direct use of geothermal heat a practical solution to energy concerns? It appears to be, given that Iceland already uses geothermal heat to heat most of its buildings.
Finally, biomass power provides an intriguing energy alternative. Biomass is basically waste, and this waste is burned to create heat. It not only is renewable, but it can also deal with some of the pollution problems associated with waste by destroying the waste. For industrial use, biomass energy comes from wood, crops, agricultural residue, food waste, and industrial waste (Renewable Living, 2012). Biomass can also be used in homes or small business and is fueled by wood pellets, which are composed of by-products of wood manufacture that cannot be used elsewhere. Biomass is considered carbon lean, producing heat with much less pollution than burning fossil fuels. It can be used anywhere and is readily accessible. The questions associated with biomass concern pollution and waste storage. In order to be a successful means of energy on an industrial scale, what types of changes need to occur in the way that waste is processed, ensuring the availability of biomass without risking the burning and usage of caustic substances that would create air pollution? What are the unique storage opportunities linked to biomass?
CPS Energy. (2014). How is electricity made from natural gas? Retrieved February 17, 2014
Duke Energy. (2014). How do coal-fired plants work? Retrieved February 17, 2014 from http://www.duke-energy.com/about-energy/generating-electricity/coal-fired-how.asp
Institute for Energy Research. (2014). Fossil fuels. Retrieved February 17, 2014 from http://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/energy-overview/fossil-fuels/
Locke, S. (2008, October 20). How does solar power work? Retrieved February 17, 2014 from Scientific American website: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-does-solar-power-work/
Pace Energy and Climate Center. (2000). Electricity from: Oil. Retrieved February 17, 2014
from Pace University Website: http://www.powerscorecard.org/tech_detail.cfm?resource_id=8
Renewable Living. (2012, July 24). How does biomass work, and why do I want it? Retrieved
February 17, 2014 from: http://www.renewable-living.com/how-does-biomass-work-and-why-do-i-want-it/
Rosenthal, E. (2013, March 29). Life after oil and gas. Retrieved February 17, 2014 from the New York Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/sunday-review/life-after-oil-and-gas.html?_r=0
Union of Concerned Scientists. (2009, December 16). How geothermal energy works.
Retrieved February 17, 2014 from: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/how-geothermal-energy-works.html
U.S. Department of Energy. (2014). How do wind turbines work? Retrieved February 17, 2014
from Energy.gov website: http://energy.gov/eere/wind/how-do-wind-turbines-work
U.S. Geological Survey. (2013, March 6). Hydroelectic power: How it works. Retrieved February 17, 2014 from USGS website: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/hyhowworks.html
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