Series: Introduction to energy alternatives (Part 1)


There are so many proposals for new energy sources these days, and the debates and details can be a bit difficult to follow. Partially, this is because there is a lot of ‘apples-to-oranges’ comparisons made, and plenty of glossing over of uncertainties. Wouldn’t it be dreamy to have a way to poke through this, and make sense of the data that exists? The idea of this column is to help with just that.

I’m a scientist. A chemist, to be more precise, one that does a lot of figuring out how to power things and how to minimize the energy those things use. I won’t bust out a bunch of chemistry here, though, because it isn’t necessary. What I hope to do is guide you a little bit in understanding the numbers and units relevant to energy, conventional and alternative. I hope that it arms you to pick apart arguments, and to understand what looks like incredible inertia in getting anything new on line.

Maybe you come to an article like this one thinking “They told me there would be no math!” Well, there won’t be much: little more than ratios and comparisons  using the ratios, but the effort to understand the distinctions we make should make it a bit easier to compare the proposals we hear for new energy sources.

If you follow along, you’ll discover the meanings of numbers reflecting carbon footprints, and why one energy source may have hidden disadvantages that don’t show up at first glance. We’ll think about how much energy and power we use (and how these things are not the same) and come away with metrics for comparison.

I’ll use everyday examples like ovens and cars and light bulbs and hair dryers. Stuff you know. We will discuss electric cars, oil, coal, solar, and wind. We’ll see why it has been so attractive to just extract stuff out of the ground. Technical things don\’t have to be remote, abstract or boring.

Ultimately,  one measure that will come to the fore will be dollars. We need to compare what things will cost, even when there are compelling reasons to switch to different sources. We live in a world driven by dollars, and if policy is ever to help, it must consider this. The usefulness of subsidies and taxes and regulations are beyond my area of expertise, and I am not interested in descending into political debates.

As a scientist, I see it as my job to discuss with you the truth as well as it is known, or knowable. If I suggest that a subsidy or tax might be needed, I am not advocating either, necessarily. I am just trying to make the numbers work. We as a society will have to decide things like this. The only rational way to do this is to honestly count the cost. That will involve understanding what the numbers are, and what they mean.

I hope you will join me. Parts may seem technical and dry at times, but I promise that I will try to tie them back to things that we all care about passionately: having a good life for ourselves, our posterity, and the global community in a way that respects the natural world and understanding what it takes to make it so.