Energy Use and Perils

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Energy Use and Perils

Edwin L. Drake Strikes Oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania...350
Hoover Dam...352
Atoms for Peace...354
1975 State of the Union Address...359
Energy Policy Act of 1992...363
"The Dam"...365
Energy Policy Act of 2005...370
Study on Energy Supply Security and Geopolitics...375

Energy is described as an invisible ingredient in every product. Although it is not a tangible substance, energy moves the machines that harvest, transport, and process Earth's raw materials. Energy contained in light heats and illuminates the spaces where people live and work, and it drives the tools of civilization. Energy is essential to food production, especially in modern industrialized agriculture. In a sense, energy is food. Counting pesticides, fertilizers, and transport, about 10 calories of energy from petroleum are used to supply each calorie of food energy consumed in the United States.

The amount of energy used by modern industrial society is unprecedented. Uninterrupted energy supplies are essential to a modern economy. Even a slight shortfall can cause an industrial economy to stagger. Military and political conflicts, therefore, swirl around nations rich in petroleum. As discussed in "Study on Energy Supply Security and Geopolitics," the world's largest energy consumers—the United States, Europe, Japan, and other industrialized nations—cannot supply their own oil needs. Thus, they are engaged in political and cultural tension with those nations that can, including Russia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and others.

This combination of non-negotiable need and distant supply is fundamentally unstable. But chronic political-military insecurity and war are not the only kind of harm that arises from energy addictions. Severe human and environmental costs are also associated with extracting and burning fuels.

First, Earth's fuels are extracted. Most electricity is currently produced by burning coal. Most coal is produced by strip-mining, which often involves complete destruction of the overlying landscape.

When fuel burns, air pollution results, contributing to some 50,000 to 100,000 early deaths annually in the United States. Sulfur combines with water and falls as acid rain, sickening forests and marine life. Vehicles spew even more pollution than power stations. The resulting smog envelops major cities such as Los Angeles. All fossil fuels, including clean-burning natural gas, contribute to global climate change, which endangers weather systems.

An alternative is nuclear power—a greenhouse-friendly energy source that breaks up atomic nuclei rather than combining carbon with oxygen. But nuclear power has its disadvantages, including the high cost to create it; the highly radioactive wastes it produces; the danger of a catastrophic accident, such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union; and the power plants' vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Renewable energy sources, also greenhouse-friendly, have their limitations too. It can be difficult using sun, wind, water, and other renewables to satisfy modern industrial energy needs.

The world's energy appetite is much larger than it needs to be, however. A large fraction of the energy demand actually consists of energy waste. For example, 70 percent of the raw heat energy produced at a typical coal-fired (or nuclear) electric plant simply goes up the chimney as waste. Energy conservation and end-use efficiency is key to any workable energy future.

The long-standing idea of cheap, endless energy is ending, threatening multiple forms of crisis. Painless solutions should not be expected.