How the United States Can Lessen Its Dependence on Fossil Fuels
While the debate over the precise date when peak oil will arrive continues, some experts argue that the world has already passed this milestone and the worldâ€™s growing hunger for energy resources will inevitably deplete them entirely regardless of the precise date involved. Against this backdrop, identifying ways that the United States can lessen its dependence on fossil fuels represents a timely and essential enterprise for the nationâ€™s security at home and abroad. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature to explain the significance of this problem and ways the United States can incorporate renewable alternative fuel sources such as wind and solar power into its current energy grid. Finally, a recommendation concerning a viable strategy to reduce Americaâ€™s dependence on fossil fuels and the rationale in support thereof are followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning the need for the United States to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
Significance of the Problem
At present, oil, coal and natural gas are the three most significant sources of fossil fuel energy that are used by the developed countries of the world, and there has been little economic incentive to identify viable replacements for these resources since they are all relatively cheap and the infrastructure that is required for transporting and using them is already in place (Deal, 2010). The list of renewable alternative energy resources that could replace these fossil fuel resources is well known to most Americans, with solar and wind power representing two of the most commonly cited by experts today. In addition, other renewable energy resources such as biomass, hydrogen cell or tidal power as well as hydro- and geothermal power have also been mentioned as potentially viable replacements for fossil fuels. Indeed, some experts even suggest that it may be possible to harness the sunâ€™s energy by collecting it in outer space and beaming back to collection stations on earth.
By contrast, the 800-pound gorilla in the renewable resource room — nuclear energy â€“ which also has the most to offer — appears to have lost much of its appeal in recent years. This diminished interest in nuclear energy is despite a proven track record of safe operations in the vast majority of its applications around the world due to rare but high-profile incidents such as Japanâ€™s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that was severely damaged by a major earthquake in 2011 or the Chernobyl meltdown incident in 1986 in the former Soviet Union, both of which resulted in the release of radioactive emissions that adversely affected surrounding human habitations.
Moreover, even if the entire international community launched a Manhattan Project-level initiative right now, there may not be enough time left to fully develop and deploy sufficient alternative energy initiatives to completely replace the enormous amounts of fossil fuels that are currently being used by the United States and other heavily industrialized countries. Further exacerbating the current overreliance on fossil fuels is the growing demand for energy from the so-called â€œBRICâ€ counties (i.e., Brazil, Russia, India and China) as well as other countries with rapidly burgeoning middle and upper classes.
Against this backdrop, identifying the most suitable renewable energy resources is certainly essential for protecting the nationâ€™s interests and ensuring the well-being of its citizens, but time is running out and there are a number of constraints in place that limit investments in these alternative technologies, including most especially the continuing availability of cheap oil from the Middle East. In addition, the seeming torpor that has gripped Americaâ€™s political leadership when it comes to renewable energy has been replaced by a concerted effort to derail the most promising renewable resources, including solar power.
Indeed, even while this paper was being written, President Donald Trump took the extraordinary action of invoking expensive tariffs on imported solar equipment, including solar panels. For instance, according to a report from Eckhouse, Arinatter and Martin (2018), â€œIn the biggest blow to the renewable energy industry yet, the U.S. will impose duties of as much as 30% on solar equipment made abroad, a move that threatens to handicap a $28 billion industry that relies on parts made abroad for 80% of its supplyâ€ (para. 2). These newly imposed duties on imported solar equipment are expected to cause the loss of tens of thousands of job in the renewable energy sector and this initiative continues the current administrationâ€™s track record of ignoring the harsh fossil fuel realities that are facing the world today, including its recent withdrawal from the Paris climate control agreement and reversal of several Obama-era power plant emission regulations (Eckhouse et al., 2018)..
Even under optimal circumstances, however, renewable energy technologies remain constrained by a number of technological and logistical factors that will require resolution before any of these alternative energy sources can replace a significant percentage of Americaâ€™s fossil fuel energy needs. Wind energy, for example, requires a far higher initial investment compared to fossil fuels, the technology is completely reliant on climate patterns, wind farms are widely regarded as eyesores as well as harming local wildlife, most especially birds that are simply chopped to pieces when they wander into the turbine blades (Advantages and challenges of wind energy, 2018). Likewise, other potential renewable energy sources such as solar and biomass power are still far more expensive than their fossil fuel counterparts and current indications suggest that even massive economies of scale in production will not offset these differences anytime soon.
Some indication of the severity of the problem can be discerned from the breakdown of current energy sources used by the United States and other industrialized nations as depicted graphically in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Current global energy resource mix
Source: Based on tabular data in Deal (2010), p. 11
As can be seen from Figure 1 above, fossil fuels still account for the vast majority (84%) of energy that is being used around the world today. Given that the fossil fuel handwriting is on the wall for all to see, it may be difficult for some observers to understand why so little progress has been made in this area in recent years. After all, it is just a matter of time before fossil fuel resources are depleted to the point where they are no longer commercial viable for extraction, and the worldâ€™s 8 billion people are in no mood to wait a couple of centuries for alternative energy resources to replace them.
The circumstances that have tended to drive the interest in developing alternative energy resources in recent decades tend to vary based on the exigencies of narrow geopolitical interests rather than the realities that are facing the worldâ€™s population. For example, following the Arab Oil Embargo in 1973, there was an enormous amount of interest generated in identifying alternative energy resources, and the U.S. government sponsored numerous expensive projects to this end (Deal, 2010). Once the embargo was lifted and the oil began flowing freely again, though, the corresponding interest in developing alternative energy resources experienced a significant decline and the glut of cheap fossil fuels on the market since that time has further dampened serious interest in developing alternative energy resources among government agencies and investors alike.
Complex problems, of course demand complex solutions and identifying viable replacements for fossil fuel sources is certainly no exception. In fact, the potential for selecting an inappropriate or less than optimal alternative resource for development may result in further delays that the worldâ€™s population can ill afford. Furthermore, the fossil fuels industry causes far more deaths each year than the rare nuclear power plant incidents have caused over the years. Nevertheless, there has not been a new nuclear power plant completed in the United States since the Watts Bar 1 in Spring City, Tennessee, began operations in spring 1996 (Status of nuclear power in the United States, 2017). Notwithstanding this lack of progress in developing the nuclear energy industry, there are still 109 plants operating safely across the country that provide nearly 10% of the countryâ€™s energy needs today.
Despite the severity of the challenges that are involved, there is one viable renewable energy resource that is available right now that can help the United States lessen its current reliance on fossil fuels â€“ nuclear energy — as described in the recommendation that is outlined below.
Based on the current energy scenario in the United States, it is recommended that at least 100 new nuclear power plants be constructed in the United States over the next 10 years. There are several arguments in support of expanding nuclear power plant operations. First and foremost, besides the tens of millions of deaths that are caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuels each year, workers in the fossil fuel industries, most especially coal mining, suffer some of the highest mortality rates of any profession today. Furthermore, nuclear power has a proven track record of safe operation (the two high-profile incident cited above notwithstanding) and is highly cost competitive with existing fossil fuel sources. In sum, it just makes good sense for Americaâ€™s policymakers to use the best of what is available until superior options are developed and deployed.
The clock is ticking loudly, but the research showed it is not ticking loudly enough to attract the attention the problem of dwindling fossil fuel supplies demands. Unless action is taken now, the potential for the United States to simply run out of energy in the foreseeable future is very real, but waiting for this worst case scenario is not a legitimate option. The research also showed that of the potential renewable resources that are available, nuclear power stands out head and shoulders above the rest. In the final analysis, it is in the nationâ€™s best interests to aggressively pursue nuclear power technologies today to avoid the unthinkable in the future.
Advantages and challenges of wind energy. (2018). U.S. Department of Energy. Retrieved from https://energy.gov/eere/wind/advantages-and-challenges-wind-energy.
Eckhouse, B., Netter, A. & Martin, C. (2018, January 23). President Trump slaps tariffs on solar panels in major blow to renewable energy. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/ 5113472/donald-trump-solar-panel-tariff/#.
Deal, W. F. (2010, September). Wind power: An emerging energy resource. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 70(1), 9-12.
Status of nuclear power in the United States. (2017). American Physical Society. Retrieved from https://www.aps.org/policy/reports/popa-reports/energy/fission.cfm.