L. David Roper
One often reads that fracking for tight oil and shale natural gas will make the U.S. energy independent. That is false. I have done a study of energy independence for the U.S.; the results are available at roperld.com/science/USEnergyIndependence.pdf.
Tight-oil extraction in the U.S. will peak at about year 2020 and natural-gas extraction in the U.S. will peak at about year 2025, and both will then fall very rapidly. So, neither of them will supply energy for the U.S. for very long after that. U.S. importation of petroleum is high; about 3 billion barrels per year. We have to move very rapidly to other energy sources to achieve energy independence.
Uranium imports for producing nuclear energy have exceeded domestic extraction since about 1981. U.S. extraction of uranium oxide is less than 5 million pounds per year, and its imports are about 55 million pounds per year. So, the U.S. is not energy independent with nuclear energy and never will be.
U.S. coal extraction has been falling rapidly for the last five years. It needs to continue that decline, since burning coal for producing electricity is a main cause of global warming. The decline could be increased by charging a fee for dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere similar to the way we charge a dumping fee at trash dumps. (That would be a dumping fee, not a tax.)
The only way energy independence for the U.S. can occur is through renewable sources, mainly solar energy and wind energy.
U.S. electricity generated by renewable energy in the U.S. has been growing exponentially, with an increasing exponential time constant since the early years of the 21st century. At that growth rate, renewable energy will exceed the electrical energy gotten from each of natural gas, coal and nuclear before year 2025 and will exceed the sum of all three before year 2030. The growth time-constant could be increased by government action to speed up renewable energy growth; Germany has set the example, and China is beginning to do that.
We need to quickly move from electricity produced from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to renewable electric energy to achieve energy independence. Government incentives need to cause transportation to go electric quickly, as China is now doing. We need a massive project for crossing the country with electric trains for fast long-distance travel, instead of by airplanes. We need a massive project for installing many fast charging stations, similar to what Tesla is doing, for electric cars and more incentives for replacing fossil-fueled cars by electric cars.
We need a massive project to install solar photovoltaic panels on roof tops and over parking lots across the U.S, and a massive project to install large wind turbines in all areas where wind speeds are sufficient. An excellent place for wind turbines and solar farms is on sites where mountain tops have been removed to mine coal; such could provide much-needed income and low-cost energy for local residents.
Rapidly moving from burning fossil fuels for energy to renewable energy has many positive features:
» In addition to not emitting global-warming gases into the atmosphere, renewable-energy sources do not emit other air pollution that harms human health.
» Renewable-energy sources do not pollute soil, water tables and waterways.
» Renewable-energy sources are more visually attractive.
» Renewable-energy sources are not centralized, which makes them more secure and democracy enhancing. U.S. soldiers do not have to excite terrorism against the U.S. by occupying other countries to secure sources of energy.
» Renewable-energy sources enhance citizens’ morale because people are happier when they know that the way they live does not degrade the future for their descendants; instead it enhances it.
L. David Roper is professor emeritus of physics at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg. This commentary first appeared in the Roanoke Times.