Course Information and Course Goals

The window of the world's energy economy being driven by the rampant use of fossil fuels is beginning to close. Awareness of this window closing, however, is slow in coming to both the general public and especially to elected officials. It is now the year 2013 and the US still has no reasonable energy policy. This is a strong indication that no one is really concerned with this issue. That lack of concern is a significant mistake.

In March 2012, the Environmental Defense Council issued the following statement:

    Our nation's top energy priority must be the rapid expansion of energy efficiency and renewable energy resources. These are the quickest, cleanest, and most sustainable solutions to meeting our energy needs, while curbing global warming and other serious pollution problems

This statement above remains mostly a voice in the wilderness.

Reasonable estimates suggest that world wide fossil fuel production will dwindle to 10% of its current values in the next 25-40 years (depending on overall pricing). Accelerated fossil fuel dependence in India and China will only serve to shorten, perhaps dramatically, this depletion timescale. Currently, 87% of the world's energy generating capacity is fossil fuel dependent. Thus, optimistically, we have about 40 years left to move from a fossil fuel based energy economy to a sustainable energy economy.

This can be accomplished but only if we start a long range plan right now - not 10 years from now - that will likely be too late. Thus it is not to great of exxageration to state that this is the most pressing problem of our times - yet who actually believes this?

Emerging technologies such as solar photovoltaic cells, improved wind turbines, advanced gas turbines, hydrogen fuel cells, efficient biomass co-generation facilities, improved energy storage capacity in batteries, and ocean thermal electric conversion heat engines, offer us a wide array of choices for alternative means to derive energy. Yet each of these new forms of energy generation has a different environmental and ecological impact in terms of material and land usage and thus this array of choices needs to be evaluated objectively and fairly.

The focus of this course, therefore, will be to examine competing alternative energy technologies from the physical, social, economic and humanistic point of view, all within a context of regional energy production in the United States. Currently each form of alternative energy has a passionate set of advocates that insist their form is the "solution". The reality is that regional mixtures of different technologies are the only real solution - there is no one answer. The problem is complex at all levels. There are engineering challenges, infrastructure challenges, political challenges, economic consequence, and cultural impediments.

The main goals of this class are to:

  • To critically analyze various aspects of our national and regional energy policy especially the vehicle of the RPS (renewable portfolio standards)
  • To gain an understanding of the cost-benefit ratio of various alternative energy sources to see what is feasible in individual regions within the US and what is not.
  • To understand some of the various obstacles associated with actual implementation of production line alternative energy facilities.
  • To do simple calculations regarding the cost of energy usage and the required infrastructure to deliver a certain amount of power.
  • To gain an understanding of how difficult it is to overcome culture barriers, knee-jerk reactions and the prevalent NIMBY attitude to actually come up with a working solution.