New energy sources may still be out there

Published 9:18 pm Wednesday, July 19, 2017

In 2006, Charley Reese, one of the nation’s most popular newspaper columnists, predicted the catastrophic consequences of running out of fossil fuels.

Reese wrote: “Our economic growth has been powered by cheap fossil-fuel energy. ‘Cheap’ is the operative word here. Subtract cheap fossil-fuel energy, and the life we know will be altered drastically – perhaps, if we don’t prepare for it, catastrophically. For 99 percent of the time man has been on Earth, he has had to rely on human and animal energy, with some assistance from water and wind.

But our cheap fossil-fuel energy is on the verge of running out. According to essayist Wendell Berry, 99 percent of the oil burned has been burned in the lifetime of people still living. Something that took nature thousands of years to create is being consumed in decades.

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I wrote my own column that year refuting this pessimistic viewpoint. I wrote: Columnist Charley Reese has predicted impending global depression as we run out of fossil fuels. He’s wrong. Necessity is the mother of invention and human technology is way ahead of the game.

Two diametrically opposite viewpoints, one predicting disaster, the other predicting progress. So 10 years later, who was right? That would be me.

Not only do we have no energy crisis, but we have more ways to create energy than we know what to do with. Adjusted for inflation, fossil fuels have never been cheaper.

As long as the sun keeps shining, we will never run out of energy. Just one hour of the total solar radiation hitting the earth could fuel our entire planet for a year. It’s just a question of capturing it. At that, we are advancing in leaps and bounds.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that 161 gigawatts of renewable energy production was installed in 2016. Wind and solar was 122 gigawatts of that.

Total electricity production in the world is 6,000 gigawatts, 65 percent of which is fossil fuels, which equates to 3,900 fossil fuel gigawatts.

Assuming our current rate of renewable energy global growth and a transition to electric cars, the world can completely replace fossil fuels in 35 years.

Wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy are proving to be competitive alternatives to fossil fuels.

In 2016, the U.S. installed 16.4 gigawatts of new wind and solar compared to nine gigawatts of new natural gas production. The  U.S. retired 11 gigawatts of old coal and gas plants.

Renewables are now about 20 percent of total U.S. electricity production and growing rapidly.

Meanwhile, hydraulic fracking has debunked any notion of “peak oil.” Indeed, it looks like we have an inexhaustible supply of fossil fuels, without even touching coal.

Day in and day out, for billions of years, plants have been capturing the energy of the sun. How naive to think mankind could exhaust billions of years of photosynthesis in a few centuries.

The granddaddy of U.S. renewables, nuclear, is practically dying because natural gas, wind and solar are by far less expensive.

As wind and solar become real industries, the technical innovation will accelerate. At the current rate of innovation, wind and solar could become the least expensive form of energy production in five or 10 years.

Who would have thought that 10 percent of our gasoline would come from corn?

Tesla and others have proven that electric cars work and could replace the gas car, if we are patient enough to waste a few hours a year recharging on long trips.

I am a global warming agnostic, but if these dire predictions are true, the world could become carbon-free in a generation and not miss a beat. In fact, the end result would probably mean lower-cost energy since wind and solar have far lower variable costs than fossil fuels.

The U.S. hasn’t even scratched the surface with rooftop panels. Experts predict that if all our roofs had solar panels, they could supply 40 percent of the nation’s electricity consumption.

The new solar project in Sumrall is 590 acres and will produce enough power to charge 8,000 homes. At that rate, 73,750 solar acres could power the whole state. Half that if we use our rooftop space. That’s 40,000 acres, only one-thousandth of our land.

Panels may soon be obsolete. Thin film solar laminates one-eighth inch thick are coming soon. Imagine a car covered in a solar laminate recharging itself while driving down the road or sitting in a parking lot.

Meanwhile, it would only take one thousand square miles worth of wind turbines to supply all the electricity in America. That’s the size of our smallest state, Rhode Island. America is four million square miles. That doesn’t include all the off-shore room for wind turbines.

All of these fantastical possibilities are just with our existing technology. But the Internet is creating an explosion of technological progress the likes of which the world has never seen. Who knows what other energy sources we will discover over the next few decades?

Fracking has led to an explosion of cheap natural gas, which we have now learned to liquify and transport. Gas is rapidly reducing global dependency on dirty coal. Clean renewables are booming. Advances in storing renewable energy are around the corner.

Meanwhile, we may have produced just enough CO2 to offset the coming ice age. Human ingenuity combined with God’s providence is an amazing thing to witness.

Wyatt Emmerich is a columnist, writer and publisher in Jackson. He can be reached at