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The Curious Future of Renewable Energy
These days there seems to be a lot of energy put into the problems of energy - how to create it, how to cut back on it, how to control it - and how to make sure it doesn't control us.
And the problems are not insubstantial. The United Nations says that one in five people on the planet still lack access to modern electricity. Three billion of the world's 7 billion people rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for heating and cooking.
U.N. estimates also are that energy accounts for about 60 percent of global greenhouse emissions, which in turn has a long-term impact on the climate (how, how much and how soon is a whole other discussion).
If the problems loom large, the ideas for solutions are numerous and varied.
In a project funded by the U.S. Air Force, researchers at Brown University found that, because of their flexible wings, bats save 35 percent of inertial energy by drawing the wings closer to their bodies on the upstroke. That could certainly become a new energy source for airplanes.
The U.S. Energy Department announced earlier this week (April 24) that it was making up to $5 million available to develop "plug and play" photovoltaic - or solar powered - systems "that can be purchased, installed and operational in one day." The hope is to lower the cost and complexity of solar power for the average homeowner.
Solar power is among the many sources of renewable, or sustainable, energy being pursued around the world, along with the potential for using the power of water, wind and modern biofuels.
Global investment in renewable energy projects could hit $7 trillion by 2030, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance report released earlier this year. Some of the greatest beneficiaries of those global projects will be Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, according to ArabNews.com.
And one of the bigger players could be Saudi Arabia, where the minister of petroleum and mineral resources in 2010, Ali Al-Naimi, said, "Saudi Arabia aspires to export as much solar energy in the future as it exports oil now." To do that, Saudi Arabia has a goal of
installing about 1 gigawatt of solar power each year for the next couple of decades.
A single gigawatt can power about 750,000 homes. At least, that's what the U.S. military said earlier this month in announcing that the Defense Department (DoD) had set a goal of developing 3 gigawatts of renewable energy by fiscal 2025 - one each by the Air Force, Navy and Army.
Which sounds good, until you consider that
the DoD estimates it used around 819,000 billion BTUs in fiscal 2010, which works out to just over 240,000 gigawatts.
But, you've got to start somewhere. Under
mandates both from Congress and the executive branch, the federal government
has been working to reduce its energy usage and carbon footprint for much of
the last decade. Much of that effort has to be shouldered by the Defense Department, which acknowledges it accounts for about 80 percent of the government's energy consumption, spending about $15.2 billion in fiscal 2010.
That effort as well as a long-standing knowledge that change is coming has spurred several projects over the years, designed to look at new fuels or ways of saving on old ones.
The Navy, for instance, is already trying out biofuels for ships. The Air Force has set a goal of acquiring half of its domestic aviation fuel from alternative fuel blends within the next four years. And the Army is using wind, solar and geothermal energy at a number of sites,
with at least six bases attempting to use only as much energy as they can produce.
Other efforts target more efficient energy uses. About 18 months ago, NASA awarded contracts to three teams - Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Boeing Co. - to come up with designs for "leaner, greener flying machines for the year 2025." The designs were announced earlier this year, with Boeing showing a blended wing design, Lockheed Martin a box wing and Northrop Grumman a "flying wing." (Read
more and see concept images.)
The Federal Aviation Administration has also set into motion several initiatives to develop ways to significantly reduce noise, clean up air quality and improve energy efficiency with air traffic operations across the country by 2025.
But how much of this makes an impact, and how much gets done as the U.S. and world economies wax and wane is still very much part of the global energy discussion.
Even the Assistant Secretary in charge of operational energy programs at the Defense Department, in a report signing off on whether the current year's budget met reduction targets, said the goals were hard to judge because dealing with the future of energy is such an enormous task.
"Across the Department of Defense, we generally do not have a clear understanding of how energy is being consumed at the point of use and, therefore, are unable to make well informed resourcing decisions," said Assistant Secretary Sharon E. Burke.
But she promised: next year will be different.
- AJ Plunkett is a veteran reporter and editor based in Virginia with more than 27 years of experience. As a reporter, she's gone from covering the oil industry and Navy in South Texas, to military and defense industries of Hampton Roads, to the budget battles fought in the halls of the Pentagon and Congress. She has followed stories to Saudi Arabia and Somalia, as well as across the United States.
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