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- Your Health in a Pill
- What Will Happen to America’s Coast Lines?
- The Data-ization of our Feelings
- What Comes After Oil?
- Futurenet: What Lies Beyond the Clouds?
- A Self-Driving America
- The Promise or Danger of Virtual Reality
It has been brewing for almost a decade, finally exploding in 2014 and 2015: the discovery of natural shale reserves in the United States has nearly halved the cost of gas from where it was seven years ago. This relatively new way of producing oil has helped steer the country away from unstable crude sources, and has allowed the U.S. to operate with a degree of stability and independence that has been, for the most part, unprecedented. Although there is rational speculation that the shale oil boom will end, that gas prices will climb again, and that the methods of production—extracting oil from the earth’s solid stone core—have severe consequences for the environment and surrounding community, shale’s noticeable and sudden effect on our economy has perhaps opened the doors to alternative energy innovations once relegated to the realms of science fiction.
In fact, as gas prices drop, there has been a noticeable growth in sales of plug-in cars, which means, for some drivers, a dramatic shift from direct oil consumption. According to Bloomberg, while hybrid sales have gone down in the past few months, the still-small market of plug-in vehicles has grown nearly as quickly. And although plug-in cars still use traditional energy sources, the commotion over completely electric vehicles points to an increasing demand for independence from traditional gas sources. However, for plug-in cars to lose their perception as luxury items, America’s roads would need a major boom in plug-in stations along highways for extended driving, or else the vehicles may never become the omega fuel source designers hoped they might.
However, today’s greatest victim of being perceived as a luxury energy good is our most abundant natural resource: solar power. Despite tax credits that go to users of solar power and those who install the infrastructure, and dropping prices approaching traditional oil costs, solar power is still treated with a degree of skepticism. But despite these hurdles, solar continues to take a larger share of America’s energy pie—and as the technology evolves, perhaps spurred by the emergence of the magic material graphene, it could become a dominant player in our energy economy.
Last year in Woodbury, Minn. a solar panel farm promised to offer power to residents at a cost similar to that of traditional energy; as experiments like these continue, the cost of solar could eventually undercut the rising cost of oil. And as tax credits continue to make solar energy grids a tangible possibility for mass audiences, we’ll likely begin to see more and more solar farms and gardens pop up across the country. A report from Deutsche Bank has suggested that within the next few years, the developing technology will allow for solar power that’s just as cost-effective as traditional fossil fuel.
But the stability of an alternative energy source like solar will not stop scientists from engineering alternative and even surreal ways of repurposing our byproducts into useable energy. The instinct to repurpose or convert is perhaps just as telling as the desire to jump toward sustainable, alternative forms. Last year the mayor of London announced that his city would begin work to use heat generated by the Tube to heat houses in London. Meanwhile. researchers at the National Institute of Technology in Rio de Janeiro were working to develop a system for converting garbage in landfills into fuel without emitting carbon dioxide in the process. Similarly, a handful of farms in the U.S. have been able to convert manure into electrical power, and Milwaukee has made inroads to a smaller energy footprint by repurposing citizens’ garbage. One scientist in Europe even theorized that jellyfish could one day be used to power electrical grids.
These almost bafflingly unusual measures are manifestations of our desire to discover a reliable, sustainable form of energy. And in the meantime, shale oil production has taught us that there is no shortage of ways to re-engineer the production of energy or reinvent the industry in a few short years—and that, in a bind, a diligent mind can find a way to extract oil even from the earth’s stone core.
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