Our future does not include an energy monoculture
1 : the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land
2 : a crop or a population of a single kind of organism grown on land in monoculture
3 : a culture dominated by a single element : a prevailing culture marked by homogeneity
For over a century the developed world has experienced an energy monoculture, particularly for transportation. We've relied largely on internal combustion engines powered by fossil fuels for far too long. Monocultures are not sustainable or desirable over the long term. Biological monocultures almost inevitably come to bad endings. The infamous Irish Potato Famine of the mid nineteenth century, was caused by a fungus that almost completely wiped out the potato crop that was the main food staple of the Irish people at the time. Whenever a region is dominated by a single crop, any infection that the crop is not resistant to, can easily wipe it out.
Monocultures aren't just damaging to biological systems, but to any system. In American mainstream media a monoculture has developed in recent years as a large proportion of media outlets, be they radio, television, or print have been gobbled up by a few large companies. As this happened the output of all them has become more and more alike. In recent years as digital technology has allowed people to start providing there own information and entertainment through video, blogs and podcasts, the descent of the traditional centralized media has begun it's inexorable decline into irrelevance and eventual extinction.
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The energy monoculture is now also on the downhill slope of its life cycle. Our use of fossil fuels over the past century and a half has fed the most rapid period of technological development in human history. The incredibly low cost of extraction, and ease of use, has facilitated this. At the same time it has also led to tremendous damage to our environment. In the span of less than two centuries we have released into our atmosphere countless tons of carbon that took hundreds of millions of years to lock up in the Earth. The limited supplies of fossil fuels aren't going to run out in the short term, but demand for those supplies is constantly climbing, especially in developing economies like China and India. Even without exhausting supplies of fossil fuels we need to reduce consumption just because of the environmental costs.
As we've already experienced several times over the last few decades, the petroleum monoculture can easily have a dramatic negative impact on our economy. In the 1970s we had two oil slowdowns from the Middle East. In 2005 a single storm, Hurricane Katrina, disrupted oil supplies to the United States. Clearly the very concept of having a single centralized energy supply, while benefiting from economies of scale, is too unstable and potentially destructive. Also, as we move beyond the era of petroleum, it doesn't appear that there will be any single magic bullet that will replace it. Given the problems of monocultures this is probably a good thing.
In the coming decades, energy supplies will become vastly more diverse and optimized for the regions where they are generated. The biggest problem with energy is trying to store it between the time it's generated and the time it's used. Fuels are just energy storage media, and the biggest advantage petroleum has over virtually all other storage media is that the energy is already generated as it comes out the ground and in a stable storable form. Nature has done the energy transformation over the past 100-million-plus years and it also has very high energy density. Moving forward, in the realm of transportation, there will be a separation of energy generation and energy storage.
Energy generation (more accurately transformation, since it can neither be created or destroyed) will be expanded and diversified. Electrical energy today is primarily transformed through combustion of fossil fuels, or transforming kinetic/potential energy in hydroelectric dams, and then immediately transmitted over power lines. Hydro power is relatively free of air pollution although building dams does create other problems and increasing demands for potable water from our ever expanding population are showing the limits of this source.
We are already seeing moves to new sources of energy that are essentially infinitely renewable. Solar, wind and tidal power will all become increasingly efficient and useful in the future. However, tidal power is obviously not very useful in a place like Kansas, just as solar is not very helpful in Alaska or Seattle. Energy will increasingly be transformed locally using whatever means are best suited to the local environment. Coastal areas could use either wind or tidal power. Sunny southern regions could use solar. Western states could use geothermal energy from Yellowstone.
Liquid fuels remain desirable because of their relative stability, and compatibility with existing delivery infrastructures. Here, diversity will also be the rule in the future. Ethanol produced from corn is the popular choice at the moment along with biodiesel from various oil crops. Both fuels are likely to become increasingly common although the source is likely to be very different. Fuels produced from cellulosic biomass by various means will gradually replace the current processes as the means of breaking down the cellulose are improved. This too will not necessarily produced everywhere. The bulk of biomass means that transforming it to a liquid biofuel at the source and then transporting the liquid is the better solution.
In spite of its difficulties, hydrogen has some advantages too. It has decent energy density, making it a good storage medium, and as renewable electricity sources become more available, it will be increasingly cost effective. Fuel cells will get cheaper and more efficient, and internal combustion engines, especially rotaries and maybe even turbines will get optimized to run on hydrogen. New means of storing hydrogen will also come along making it cheaper, lighter and safer. Chemical batteries are the most common form of storing electrical energy today but they continue to have poor energy density by comparison to just about all the media. They also take a long time to charge. As with hydrogen, advances like like lithium batteries are helping battery capacity and life to improve. Further improvements in cost and safety will undoubtedly come as well.
What we will see for the foreseeable future is more diversity. Because of higher energy costs and environmental concerns, people will run down to Whole Foods for a gallon of organic milk in a battery powered electric vehicle that doesn't need a long range instead of hopping in the Escalade. We'll use hydrogen and series hybrids for longer commutes. We could even have an plug-in electric vehicle with an ICE/generator fueled by hydrogen for tremendous range. Electricity will come from a wide variety of sources. Long haul vehicles can be powered by cellulose derived biofuels. None of these is likely to be the solution to every problem. All of them together will be part of the solution. Let's not bicker over which is the best, because all have a place. Let's work on making all of them better. Maybe some breakthrough will all one solution to come out on top, or maybe not. If we develop all of these paths, we will be less susceptible to problems, or attacks on any one source. A single hurricane, blizzard, embargo or terrorist attack is far less likely to have widespread consequences. In the meantime, let's use every tool we have to reduce energy consumption and clean up our environment.
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