Solar Thermal solar concentrator
This solar thermal engine uses concentrated sunlight to run a Stirling cycle engine to generate electricity. Similar approaches are being used to crack water into hydrogen.

Solar Hydrogen Economy: Why We Need It Now

The world stands at a critical crossroad: one that leads towards an untenable energy future or a more sustainable tomorrow.

By Warren D. Reynolds

World Permanent Oil Crises
In Chinese, the word "crisis" or "wei-chi" translates into "danger + opportunity". We are certainly living in "revolutionary" times which provides lots of opportunities. Today's energy systems did not arise just through the hidden hand of market forces; although, markets played an important role. Technology advances also played a major role. There are three concerns that compel us to rethink U.S. energy strategy--our environment, our economy and our security.8,1,5c

Our addiction to fossil fuels (coal and oil) is literally killing us. Fuel combustion from automobiles and power plants is the primary source of large numbers of the health and crop-damaging and global warming air pollutants. Oil alone is responsible for smog, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and harmful volatile organic vapors (VOCs). This urban air pollution is indirectly responsible for killing an estimated 310,000 Europeans and 50,000 Americans each year.2a-d To this, we must add the regional and global destruction of forests, crops and fish by acid rain. For example, over 50% of the Black Forest in Germany is denuded and the soil pH is so acidic from the acid rain and VOCs that it will not support new saplings.3a In addition, green-house gases and its global warming consequence are causing harsh droughts, devastating floods and decline in crop yield.

Health effects of air pollution range from minor irritation of eyes and upper respiratory system to chronic respiratory disease, heart disease and, lung cancer. For example, air pollution has been shown to aggravate the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. Both short-term and long-term exposures have also been linked with premature mortality and reduced life span.3b

In San Jose, Costa Rica, the problem of smog is dramatic since the entire central valley is adversely affected. A survey has shown that 60% of the tourists have no desire to return due to high levels of air pollution. The "San Jose flu" is the nickname given for a sore throat due to air pollution. There is a major international effort being initiated to assist Costa Rica in making a rapid transition to the Solar-Hydrogen Economy.

Carbon emissions from power plants are projected to increase by 45% between 2000-2025 due to proposed construction of new coal-fired plants. However, a renewable electricity standard of 20% would reduce the growth in power plant carbon emissions by 59% by 2020. For the automobile, if we add hybrid vehicles to the U.S.fleet with an average fuel economy of 55 mpg by 2020, each vehicle would eliminate 60 tons of global warming emissions.4

The global warming due to carbon emissions has a more sinister effect on the earth’s surface. Prof. Oechel (San Diego State University) has stated that "as the frozen Arctic melts and exposes more of the Arctic Ocean, there is less white surface to reflect the sun’s heat back into space. Thus, the more darker open water there is to absorb the heat, the floating ice melts even faster. More than a third of the summer sea ice has disappeared in the past 30 years". In addition, he states "as the global warming thaws and dries out more and more of the vast tundra, old decayed vegetation releases carbon dioxide which warms the atmosphere even more". It is a never ending increasing annual cycle until the tundra supply is exhausted.5a

The urgency of global pollution and health effects requires that in 10-20 years, we had better have moved to a level of 50-70% replacement of fossil fuel by solar energy to avert human and ecological disaster.5b,c The question remains:"Can we phase out fossil fuels before 2025 ?"

Population and Energy Growth
In 2004, the U.S. consumed 99.7 quad BTU (quadrillion BTU, or 1015 BTU) of all energy, for a population of 270 million people or 0.37 quad per million people (6). Residential energy consumption for 2004 was 11.4 quad BTU (gas and electric).6 The U.S. has 8% of the world's population yet consumes over 25% of the world's energy supply to maintain its lifestyle. Our accustomed lifestyle will automatically be reduced as the price of energy goes up. This is already happening in regional "pockets" within the U.S.

There has been more than a doubling of the world's population since 1950, but the global economy has increased 6-fold from $6 trillion to $37 trillion.7a The population growth has been responsible for roughly half of the growth in global demand for goods and services since 1950. The other half has been rising affluence of the major nations. Even a small percentage increase in population adds up to an enormous additional burden on the Earth's natural systems and resources. In effect, the global economy, as now structured, is outgrowing the Earth's ecosystem.

We see the signs of this stress on the ecosystem due to our large fossil energy consumption. We have collapsing fisheries, rising temperatures, more destructive storms, eroding soils, shrinking forests, disappearing species and falling water tables. One can go on down the list. These are all manifestations of increasing stress from a global economy that is outgrowing its support system.

Energy Options
In 2005, the world produced 425 quad BTU (1015 BTU) from petroleum (primary level), coal, natural gas, nuclear fission, and renewable sources (hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind). This breaks down as follows:5b

Petroleum 36.8%
Coal 25.2%
Natural gas 26%
Nuclear 7.5%
Renewable 3.6% (made up of hydroelectric 2.4%, biomass 0.17%, solar 0.60%, wind 0.03%, geothermal 0.43%)

Although, biomass is a "renewable" it is also a carbon-based fuel that can be burned directly or converted into other carbon-based fuels such as ethanol to generate carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. One might argue that since the carbon dioxide came from a biomass that it would return to grow plants making it a zero balance on carbon dioxide. However, the atmospheric half-life of carbon dioxide is greater than two years yielding an impact on the total reservoir of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This leaves nuclear and the remaining renewables ( hydroelectric, solar, wind, geothermal and tidal) as our only non-carbon energy options.7b

1. Nuclear Power
As recently as the 1970's, there was almost universal agreement on the notion that nuclear power was the energy source of the future. This high technology power generator was seen as the inevitable replacement for fossil fuels. Thousands of nuclear reactors, with generating capacities as high as 4,000 gigawatts (109 watts) were projected worldwide by the year 2000 according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.9

The 1980's witnessed a virtual worldwide collapse of orders for new nuclear power plants. The previous 10 years (1970-80) had been marked by frequent technical mishaps, serious accidents, huge cost escalations, and a rapid decline in public acceptance of nuclear power. Since 1987, many European countries have abandoned the use of nuclear energy.10a,b Austria(1978), Sweden(1980) and Italy(1987) voted to oppose or phase out nuclear while Ireland prevented a nuclear program there. Poland stopped the construction of a nuclear plant. Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden decided not to build new plants and intend to phase out nuclear power. Germany has agreed to shut down all nuclear power plants by 2020.10b Switzerland has had a moratorium on construction of nuclear power plants for 10 years. Electricity planners were beginning to favor faster and cheaper efficiency improvements over commitments to massive centralized nuclear power stations.10a

Today, nuclear power has fallen far short of expectations. Just 343 gigawatts of nuclear power are actually in use which is less than 1/10th of the amount expected. Currently, nuclear power provides about 7% of the world's electrical demand. Over the past 25 years in the U.S., no nuclear power plants have been built while a growing number of aging reactors are retired. These massive centralized units are now dinosaurs that is costing the public hundreds of million dollars to phase them out.10b

The reasons for the collapse of nuclear power systems include: safety problems, inability to dispose of nuclear waste, and the potential uncontrolled proliferation of fissile materials in the hands of terrorists. In the late '80s and early '90's, The Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Monju breeder (Sea of Japan) nuclear incidents led the death knell of the nuclear industry.10a As serious as these problems are, there is a secondary and more fundamental failure of nuclear energy to establish itself as an economically competitive means of generating electricity. By taking into account the cost of uranium mining, processing, isotope enrichment, and conversion to nuclear power rods, there is only a net 3% margin over cost at the current electric rate.10c However, with Government subsidies, it was a little more profitable for the nuclear power companies. Thus, nuclear fission power is no longer an option.

Controlled nuclear fusion, i.e. hydrogen fusion, is also not an option. In 1950, Dr. Edward Teller theorized the existence of nuclear fusion. However, even with heavy Government research subsidy in the intervening 50 years, there has not been any demonstrated sustainable controlled nuclear fusion power source.. Nuclear fusion is now waiting on advances in superconducting magnets and new alloys for high temperature containment. Both of these are large technical obstacles. In addition, there is only a 100 years’ supply of the lithium-tritium fuel. These problems are not expected to be overcome in the foreseeable future. Government funding for nuclear fusion has declined over the past 5 years and is expected to decline in the future.11 Even with massive Government funding, nuclear fusion would not expected to be commercialized until after 2060 if at all. Thus, nuclear fusion will NOT be available when the remaining fossil fuel supply is exhausted. We now have to actively develop other energy options while we still have sufficient fossil fuel to make the transition.

2. Renewables
Renewable energy has become big business. In 2004, global investment in renewable energy set a new record of $30 billion.12a A major transition to renewable energy is already in motion in Europe and Japan with the U.S. lagging far behind. At the current rate of growth of the Solar-Hydrogen Economy, in 15 years we will see 30% of the world's energy as renewable energy for electric power production, heating, cooking and transportation.

The key to a reliable, diversified solar energy system based on renewable resources will be the use of hydrogen as a major energy carrier and storage medium. In the short term, deriving hydrogen from natural gas for the initial generation of fuel cells would allow the easy transition to the Solar- Hydrogen economy

Currently, the U.S. is safely using 9 billion of cubic feet per day of hydrogen for all sorts of petrochemical and food processes and rocket propulsion.13,8,1,5c


Times Article Viewed: 11586
Published: 29-Mar-2006


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