Capturing and Storing Energy: From Fossil Fuels to Renewable Resources
One of the most interesting challenges in energy production is not how to find energy sources, which are abundant, but how to capture and store the energy that is available. For years, energy capture and storage has focused on the availability of fossil fuels and how those resources could be translated into usable energy sources. However, the demand for energy is so incredible and the known fossil fuel energy reserves sufficiently limited that the United States must explore alternative energy sources. Moreover, the United States is not the only country that is hampered, politically, economically, and socially by its energy dependence; instead many countries, especially those that lack relative wealth or access to their own fossil fuel deposits are in even more vulnerable positions. Fortunately, there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels that countries can explore. Hydropower, wind power, solar power, geothermal power, and biomass power all offer potential solutions or partial solutions to the world's energy problems.
Historical Use of Fossil Fuels
In order to understand where energy is transitioning, it is important to understand the history of fossil fuels used for energy. The use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, for energy has an extremely long history. Coal has been used since at least 1100 BC for energy. In the Middle Ages, coal, which could be transformed into energy through fire, was used in forges, smithies, lime-burners, and breweries (IER, 2014). By the 1400s, people could build coal-safe chimneys in their homes and use coal for heat. By the late 1500s, coal was the major heating source for buildings, particularly in cities (IER, 2014). When used for heating, coal replaced firewood, which was a renewable resource. This use of coal is linked to the industrialization that occurred throughout much of the western world, particularly the United States, in the late 1800s.
Like coal, oil has a long history of usage, though many of its uses were not linked to energy. For example, as early as 3000 BC, oil was used in medicines, adhesives, caulks, and roads (IER, 2014). By 1000 BC, the Chinese had figured out how to refine crude oil and use it for lamps and home heating. However, the widespread use of petroleum for energy did not occur until the late 1800s, when petroleum became the widespread replacement for whale oil in lighting. The internal combustion engine for automobiles in the early 1900s represented the first real use of a petroleum product for energy.
Natural gas also has a long history of historic usage. The Chinese used natural gas to fire evaporators to make salt from brine. However, natural gas was considered a nuisance by early oil-well drillers because of transportation difficulties associated with it. Once steel pipelines could be utilized, natural gas could be transported over long distances. The first such long-distance pipeline was built in 1925 (IER, 2014).
While fossil fuels have provided an abundant source of energy, they have also presented challenges in their use. The most obvious challenge is getting the fossil fuels from the ground to storage facilities. Coal could be mined, but coal mining, especially modern practices, can present significant environmental challenges. Oil and natural gas both could naturally escape from the ground, but in order to use them in widespread applications, humans had to devise ways to remove them from the ground. Then, they had to figure out how to convert those three resources from potential energy sources to energy. Initially, this conversion meant burning the fuels for heat; however, the real reliance on fossil fuels began to grow once people realized that fossil fuels could be converted into electrical energy, not just heat.
Capturing and Storing Energy from Oil
Transforming petroleum into energy is a complicated process. Oil is located under ground and must be pumped to the surface for extraction, and then it is transported, generally via pipeline, to petroleum processing facilities. There are three general technologies that can be used to convert oil into electricity. In conventional steam technology, oil can be burned to heat water, which generates steam to turn a turbine and create electricity. In a combustion turbine, oil is burned to create hot exhaust gases, which spin the turbine. In combined-cycle technology oil is burned first to turn a combustion turbine, then the exhaust gases are used to heat water in a boiler, creating a conventional steam engine (Pace, 2000).
Capturing and Storing Energy from Coal
In a coal-processing plant, the process of converting coal to energy begins with prepping the coal. The coal is pulverized into a fine powder, which is mixed with hot air and blown into a firebox, where it provides the most heat. Water is bumped into the boiler, where it is turned into steam by the heat from the burning coal. This steam then turns the blades to a turbine, which is connected to a generator, where magnets spin inside wire coils to produce electricity (Duke Energy, 2014).
Capturing and Storing Energy from Natural Gas
As with the conversion of oil into energy, natural gas is often converted into energy using a two-step process. Natural gas powers combustion turbines, which suck in air and mix it with the natural gas to create a fireball. The fireball produces hot gasses that move the blades of the turbine. The turbine spins and powers a generator, which converts the mechanical energy into electricity. The exhaust gasses then convert water into steam, which is used to power a steam turbine (CPS Energy, 2014).
The Political, Social, and Economic Implications of Fossil Fuels
Because fossil fuels are located in the ground, countries that have their own fossil fuel reserves have a political and economic advantage over countries that do not have their own fossil fuel reserves. Therefore, countries that are rich in fossil fuels may have an economic and political advantage over other countries. However, it is not always a simple process; being oil rich can actually make countries vulnerable as other powers might fight to control their land, and, therefore, control their fossil fuel resources. The United States has a significant amount of fossil fuel reserves, and the process of fracking as a means of fossil fuel extraction has only increased the amount of fossil fuels available. However, while known world oil reserves have been increasing, approximately half of the world's oil reserves will be depleted by 2030. Moreover, as consumption increases, fossil fuel reserves will be depleted more quickly. Though it is impossible to predict the date by which fossil fuels will be exhausted, what is known is that fossil fuels are finite, non-renewable resources, and that countries cannot plan long-term energy strategies without examining other, renewable sources of energy. Additionally, these sources of renewable energy can be implemented in areas without fossil fuel reserves, which can mean that countries have access to power without the economic, political, and social repercussions that accompany fossil fuels. In fact, while the United States still remains heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, that is not the case in many other countries, both industrialized one and emerging nations. "Other countries have made far more concerted efforts to reduce fossil fuel use than the United States and have some impressive numbers to show for it. Of the countries that rely most heavily on renewable electricity, some, like Norway, rely on that old renewable, hydroelectric power. But others, like Denmark, Portugal and Germany, have created financial incentives to promote newer technologies like wind and solar energy" (Rosenthal, 2013).
One of the most readily available sources of power is water. Water has long been used as a source of power for mills, with the power of the water being converted into mechanical energy. For the generation of electricity, a dam is built on a large river that has a drop in elevation. The dam stores water behind it, and there is a hole at the bottom of the dam wall for water intake. The water falls through a penstock inside the dam to a turbine propeller, which is turned by the movement of the water. This turbine moves to an electromagnetic generator, producing electricity. Water can also be used and then pumped and stored for re-use during peak power usage (U.S. Geological Survey, 2013).
The research questions associated with hydropower focus on several areas. First, hydropower has typically focuses on rivers; is there a way to use hydropower for oceans, seas, lakes, or other large bodies of water? Can hydropower be effective in flat areas? Can hydropower create larger stores of electricity or simply enough storage to meet peak usage? Does the creation of hydropower have its own political implications because of struggles over water rights?
As with the previously discussed types of electricity generation, wind turbines work by spinning a shaft, which is connected to a generator that creates electricity. However, wind can also be used directly for mechanical processes, such as the powering of mills, providing energy without being converted to electricity. Furthermore, wind energy…