Title: After Oil: Powering the Future
Author: Michael Parfit
Published: August 2005 in National Geographic

Overview: After the author spent $15,000 on a small solar electric system for his island home he describes the feeling of “free” energy as one equating to freedom. With his somewhat novel investment in renewable energy the author turns his focus to the rest of the world and finds that renewable energy is not at all uncommon, especially Europe. How does the US compare?

Details: The American public appears to be stuck in a rut of dependence on fossil fuels while putting an ever increasing reliance on future technological projects that will (hopefully) make our energy worries disappear. Unfortunately, it appears that technologies like hydrogen are far from becoming efficient since more energy is used to separate the hydrogen from water than is created by burning it. Until technology advances, experts say we must use every type of available alternative energy: biomass, wind, solar, tidal, and nuclear.

Nonetheless, becoming increasingly reliant on renewable energy sources has its disadvantages, such as replacing that energy when either the wind dies down or the sky becomes cloudy. When natural sources of energy fluctuate large amounts of power must be available almost instantaneously to prevent blackouts.

Even though the European continent surpasses the U.S. in the amount of power generated with wind, it only equates to replacing 35 large coal power plants.

It is clear that the U.S. is far behind Europe but critics claim that without government initiatives the US is not likely to catch up. Many want to leave the energy problem to market forces; however it was the government that has swayed most major technological revolutions in the past: jet engines, satellites, computers and the internet. Worse still, many fear that without a progressive energy policy and with an increasing price of oil, we will become dependent upon dirty energies like coal, shale, and tar sands.

Without a progressive federal energy policy in the US many states are taking action with progressive energy policies, including subsidies for alternative energy sources and tax rebates for hybrid cars. (see Email 4 Section e)

Three Points of Personal Interest:

1. When a home solar system produces a surplus of energy, the energy will go out into the power grid, spinning the power meter backwards.

2. A solar panel the size of Vermont would be needed to supply enough solar energy for the entire U.S.

3. Denmark generates 20% of its energy from 3,000 megawatts of wind power. 50% of Brazil’s auto fuel comes from ethanol that is derived from U.S. sugarcane. 78% of electricity in France is provided by nuclear reactors.