Power Production and Shortages in America
by Andrew Cochrane, Jason Callendar, & Harry Mack
Over the years, the use of energy has become a necessary component of the American way of life. For decades, Americans have relied on fossil fuels to fuel cars and to provide electricity for homes. However, power shortages will soon become a major problem in America. Almost all non-renewable energy sources will become depleted in less then a century. America will soon be forced to alter the power production infrastructure to run off of renewable and abundant sources of energy. Energy consumption is a problem in America, and resources are running out. There is no perfect solution; however, nuclear power is a realistic solution that offers a glimmer of hope. Energy shortages will soon become a major problem in America due to the rapid depletion of energy sources, but consumption rates continue to increase. America alone accounts for 25% of the world’s total energy demand. Population growth is expected to account for a 1.5-2% increase in world energy demand every year for several decades. Several experts have said that Americans should cut back on their personal energy consumption, however, the statistics show that even a tremendous drop in demand (as much as 20%) will be off-set by population growth in 20 years (Weisz).
The world is running out of several key resources. World oil production is expected to peak and then begin to fall off in the next 25-55 years. Natural gas shortages already exist in America. The world supply is expected to run out in the next 45-60 years. Yet, demand for natural gas continues to increase by 3% every year. To compound the problem, 58% of the fossil fuel reserves exist in the politically troubled countries of Russia, Iran, and Qatar. This distribution of resources could raise several political and economic concerns for American consumers.
Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel available. However, the coal supply is predicted to last only 90-120 years (Weisz). The environmental impact of burning fossil fuels adds to the overall problem: the burning of coal releases several hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere. The combustion of coal releases high levels of carbon dioxide, which is a direct contributor to the greenhouse effect. Hydroelectric power was once viewed as an environmentally safe alternative to burning fossil fuels, however, many parts of the world do not contain the water sources necessary to operate a hydroelectric plant. Many experts also blame China’s extensive hydroelectric infrastructure for playing a part in the widespread flooding across the country, so hydroelectric power cannot be a solution for all parts of the world (Batstone). Luckily, there is a realistic solution to America’s current problems with energy. There is both a positive and a negative side to the solution. On the negative side, it is a fairly complex four-part solution. On the positive side, it can realistically be achieved with the right support and determination. However, the process must begin today, because the CEO of a major energy company has been quoted as saying that it would take his company at least 30 years to change the entire energy infrastructure and remain financially stable (Batstone). If the supplies are expected to run out in 50 years, the process should begin today. The first part of America’s solution to energy shortages would be to simply cut energy consumption. This could be accomplished several ways, all of which must be orchestrated by the government. The first place to start would be to educate the public about problems concerning energy and why they should be concerned about it now. One way to cut usage of petroleum would be the integration of alternative and hybrid powered vehicles. This integration will only be accomplished if these automobiles are more economical then traditional vehicles. The government should waive taxes on hydrogen fuel for the first five or ten years and provide tax breaks for people using energy efficient cars to encourage the use of those cars. Also, the government should offer tax breaks and incentive packages for industries that use energy efficiently. Finally, the government should provide tax breaks for people who own energy efficient homes. However, although is would help, Americans can not cut their energy demands to the point where production will not be a problem. The second part of the solution entails the research, development, and integration of energy production from solar power. Solar power, which includes wind power, is a “freebie” resource that has no detrimental effects on the environment. Everyday, the earth receives a certain amount of solar power that needs only to be captured and converted to electricity. Currently, the systems that harness solar energy are expensive and inefficient. The government must provide grants to organizations working to develop and build more efficient solar power converters. Solar power will not be enough to offset other forms of energy production, but it can ease the burden. The third and fourth step would involve nuclear power. The third step would involve the government building, or assisting the building of, several fast-breeder style fission reactors. Nuclear power production involves the manipulation of an atom’s nucleus and the subsequent release of energy. This energy is released in the form of heat. This heat turns water into steam, which turns a steam turbine, which then creates electricity. America currently operates fission reactors using the 235 isotope of Uranium (a.k.a. U-235). U-235, which is highly-enriched U-238, makes up less than 1% of all uranium on earth. U-238 is non-reactive and can not be used for normal fission reactions because standard fission reactors only split the nucleus of U-235 atoms. However, this reaction yields several radioactive products that are dangerous to people and the environment. Some of these products include strontium 90, cesium 137, barium 140, and plutonium. Strontium, cesium, and barium must be stored for only 600 years before they are safe, but plutonium can remain extremely toxic for thousands of years. Radioactive waste must be stored for thousands of years before it is no longer hazardous. However, fast-breeder reactors use high-velocity neutrons to fission atoms of U-238. When the U-238 undergoes fission, it yields plutonium. The creation of plutonium can greatly extend the usefulness of uranium as an energy source. These reactors are known as breeder reactors because they actually create more usable fuel then they consume. Breeder reactors can also be used to consume some radioactive materials found in nuclear waste. This would greatly help to reduce the amount of waste that must be stored, which has become one of the largest problems associated with nuclear power production (Deitrich). The fourth step is a long-term solution. The government should sponsor and/or encourage the research and development of fusion based nuclear reactors. A fusion based reactor combines two atoms together instead of splitting atoms. Fusion reactions only take place when lightweight atoms are heated to the point of becoming plasma. In the plasma state, nuclei are separated from their electrons. Normally, nuclei repel each other because they both have positive charges. However, when the plasma is heated to extreme temperatures (100,000,000oC), the atoms are moving so quickly that they collide and combine to create a heavier atom. This fusion of atoms releases tremendous amounts of energy. The main problem with fusion reactors is the difficulty in containing a substance with a temperature of 100,000,000oC. This is three times the temperature at the center of the sun and would melt any substance known to man. Therefore, the plasma must be magnetically contained. This is done with powerful electromagnets that push the plasma into itself. Fusion reactions power the sun and hydrogen bombs. The fusion reaction takes place between two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium (H-2), and tritium (H-3). Deuterium is naturally found in seawater, whereas tritium is not found on earth but must be formed from lithium. Luckily, lithium is also naturally found in seawater. Very small amounts of each atom are found in seawater, but one barrel contains enough of these atoms to produce as much energy as the burning of one-fifth of a barrel of oil (Deitrich). Fusion reactors are still in the experimental stage, but the University of Princeton has developed a fusion reactor that creates more energy then it consumes. The government should encourage this type of research and push for the ability to begin building a commercial fusion reactor by the year 2050. Since fusion reactions can be fueled by seawater, they are a realistic and practical long-term solution. Fusion reactions could power the world for centuries to come. This four-step resolution is the best solution because it is the only realistic solution left. Fossil fuel supplies will be exhausted in just a matter of decades and American industry and lifestyle will be left crippled if other forms of energy production can not bear the load. Conserving energy and cutting demand is helpful, but population growth alone offsets any cutbacks, so such an action would only delay the inevitable. Solar energy is also great and should be taken full advantage of. However, it is inefficient and often impractical. Solar energy can not do the job alone. Nuclear power is the only plausible option remaining. Fast-breeder style fission reactors should be built today in order to generate power and consume the large amounts of nuclear waste being developed by ordinary fission plants. Fusion reactors must also undergo research and development so commercial reactors will be ready to build by the year 2050 and the systems changed by 2080. Americans are rapidly exhausting the supply of fossil fuels, but there is a solution that offers a glimmer of hope. The solution will not be cheap or easy, but it is necessary. America must start today, before it becomes necessary. Consumption needs to be cut as much as possible, solar energy needs to be fully developed, fast-breeder style fission reactors need to be built today, and fusion reactors need to be fully operational in the near future. If America succeeds in doing these things, it will be possible to dodge the bullet on the upcoming energy crisis.
Batstone, David. “Time to go Nuclear?” Sojourners 33 (2004): 17. American Humanities Index. EBSCOHost. J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, 1 Oct 2003.
Deitrich, Walter. “Nuclear Energy”. World Book. CD-ROM. World Book, Inc., Standard Edition, 2000.
Weisz, Paul B. “Basic choices and Constraints on Long-Term Energy Supplies” Physics Today 7.57 (2004): 47-52. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOHost. J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, 1 Oct 2003.