It is now understood that no human activity is environmentally benign and without environmental consequences. Even people living as simple hunter-gatherers, without any significant technology, have an impact on their environment. The animals they hunt and plants they gather and/or cultivate change their environment, as does the waste resulting for cooking, heating, eating and living.
No energy source is benign. Even a simple fire used by a hunter-gatherer creates pollution and consumes resources. Therefore, our goal should always be to use the least amount of energy that we can to achieve our goals.
Every watt of electricity that we can avoid using is our best investment in the future. We can achieve real energy savings by improving the efficiency of how our homes are heated and cooled, by how our water for bathing is heated, how our food is preserved and cooked, how our homes and clothes are cleaned, how we transport ourselves through the world and by how we work, learn and play in our daily lives. That is half the battle. We also need to figure out the best way to produce the power that we need.
In 1850, William Rankine first used the phrase “The law of the conservation of energy” which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed and can only be transformed from one form to another. Simplistically stated, all of the energy that our society uses, except nuclear energy, comes from the sun. Fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal are actually solar energy stored by plants and animals over millions of years.
Every day our sun bathes our world in electromagnetic radiation which illuminates our world and physically heats it, thereby causing the winds, the waves, and the rain. We currently rely on stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels, wood and other biofuels to power much of our world. In 2018, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory published its findings that in the United States, only 0.949% of energy comes from solar, 2.53% comes from wind, 2.69% from hydro and 5.13% from biomass. Therefore, only 11.3% of the energy used in the United States is presently from renewable sources.
Each method that we use to power our world has its own impact on the environment and resources, especially when scaled up. The key is to work at minimizing the amount of energy that we need, and then to choose the energy production methods that provide us with the most amount of total energy over time versus the amount of energy, materials and pollution needed to make them.
Today, while many people are concerned about the environmental, they are equally or more concerned about the economic and environmental costs of shifting our world from relying on fossil fuels to relying on renewables. In fact, concerns are often raised about the pollution from producing raw materials used in solar panels and wind-turbine blades such as copper, concrete, aluminum, indium and other materials.
A Norwegian University of Science and Technology life-cycle analysis of a wide-scale global rollout of new wind, hydro and solar power plants examined whether shifting from coal and natural-gas power generation to renewables would increase or decrease certain types of pollution. The Norwegian study concluded that wind turbines require up to 14 times the iron needed for fossil-fuel power generation, and solar photovoltaics require up to 40 times the copper that traditional coal, oil or natural gas-fired power plants require.
While these conclusions seem very damning for renewables, the study also reflected on the ongoing environmental and economic costs of operating using fossil fuels. Over time, the environmental impact of extracting raw materials and making renewable-energy capture systems declines, and the average pollution decreases. The study assumed that solar, wind and hydropower will make up 39 percent of total global power production in 2050 and will require 1.5 giga-tons of bulk raw materials for construction. The researchers found that pollution went down for renewables versus burning fossil fuels, and that the toxics associated with the materials for the renewables are far less than those that result from burning fossil fuels. This requires us to design renewable concepts for durability, as wind and solar-power generation requires little or no additional raw material over their lifespan for maintenance, whereas fossil-fuel-fired power plants require a constant supply of fuel.
The key for our society is to learn how to improve the designs of energy-capture technology so that the total quantity of those materials needed for renewables will become much less than is needed today.
To this end, Omachron Science Inc. has developed a wide range of wind and solar technologies, energy-storage technologies, improved lighting, heating and air-conditioning systems, desalination and water-treatment systems, as well as equipment and processes for recycling plastics, metals and glass.
All of these technologies use 50% to 95% less energy than traditional processes. It’s a good start to “Making More with Less.”