APS News

Energy Alternatives Vital To Meet Future Demands

The world population will have to increasingly rely on all forms of energy to meet future energy demands, according to speakers at a Monday morning session at the 1996 Joint APS/AAPT Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Clinton Administration promotes the development and deployment of renewable energy resources and technologies such as photovoltaics, wind, solar thermal, biomass, geothermal and hydropower energy options, with particular applications being tailored to certain local situations and needs.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, scientists in the U.S. began examining ways to make new products more energy efficient. The result: the U.S. doubled the efficiency of most new products and reduced energy bills by close to 50 percent. Arthur Rosenfeld, senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy, discussed new scientific strategies for improving the energy and economic savings even further. "The potential for future savings through energy efficiency is even larger if we change utility profit rates," he said, pointing out that in California, it is far more profitable for utilities to sell efficiency than to sell raw energy.

Improving technological performance and reductions in associated energy costs have enabled renewables to be low-cost options for generating power under certain conditions. Also driving their increased deployment are environmental concerns, future energy security, and the recognition that renewables are competing for a total target market ranging in the trillions of dollars, according to the DOE's Allan Hoffman. The World Bank has estimated that over the next 30-40 years, developing countries alone will require 5 million megawatts of new generating capacity, compared with today's total world capacity of about 3 million megawatts, at a capital cost of between $1000 and $2000 per kilowatt.

"The environmental implications of that much capacity using fossil fuels, even in the more benign form of natural gas, are severe," said Hoffman. "If we are to minimize adverse local and global environmental impacts from the inevitable powering up of developing nations, renewable forms of non-polluting and non-greenhouse-gas-emitting systems must be widely used." He predicts a gradual transition to a global energy system that is largely dependent on renewably energy within 100 years, with hydrogen possibly emerging as an important energy carrier to complement electricity because of its ability to be used in all end-use sectors and its benign environmental characteristics.

According to Rosenberg, several promising new strategies are ready for implementation, including the use of cooler roofing and paving materials, and shade trees to reduce air conditioning load, reverse the urban heat island effect, and reduce smog. The DOE will showcase various commercially available renewable technologies at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, this summer, including photovoltaics, solar/thermal dish generators, fuel cells, and alternative fuel vehicles. In addition, three new energy efficient technologies have recently been developed: high-frequency ballasts, compact fluorescent lamps, and low-energy windows.

Energy efficient windows were first introduced commercially in the early 1980s, and Rosenberg estimates cumulative volume sales since then at about 1.7 billion square feet, with a cumulative savings of about $1.8 billion. Recent improvements have resulted in a new design for these windows, consisting of three glazing layers, two coatings, and a filling of argon or xenon gas, providing excellent optics and durability at a low cost to manufacturers. In the future, he expects the commercial availability of energy efficient windows with electric chromates that allow for clear glass as well as adjustment of light.

John Sheffield from Oak Ridge National Laboratory postulated that with the likely depletion of most fossil fuels by 2100, alternate energy sources will be developed according to the region's indigenous resources, and that in many regions, fusion energy will probably be one of the technological goals. Based on the World Bank population projections, he believes that all alternative energy sources will be needed to meet future energy demands, and thus supports continued investment in fusion energy research. He estimates the first fusion plants could become operational around 2050, most likely in those countries, such as Japan and Europe, that have already deployed substantial nuclear power and will need more as cheap fossil fuel becomes less available.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin