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Updated 25 Mar 2007

For as long as civilization exists, energy will be an issue. How to apportion what is available is the tipping point of our time. The issue is shifting to the limit imposed by nature. Within a few generations, humanity will exhaust all stores of enegy and be left with solar and nuclear power sources.

Meanwhile, among the basic causes of violence, terror and war is energy supply. America's voracious appetite for energy has upset the balance among societies--a balance already delicate. For example: Oil is the main reason we are in the Middle East; we import some 60% of our needs. And our presence in the Middle East brought on 9/11. Our support for Zionism also led, in effect, to Intifadas. The connection is clear.

Traditional petroleum reserves will essentially begin to run out in the second third of this century. Tar sands can be mined to extend the era of carbon fuels. Conversion of coal to liquid and gaseous fuels will similarly extend the era of carbon fuels into the 22nd Century. But each of these will come at a significant cost to the environment and landscape. Alcohol is renewable, but it takes acreage needed for foodstuffs. And how will that square with the population explosion now in progress?

Whatever that situation, by 2050 synthetic and other sources of energy must shoulder much of the needs of humankind. Renewable, (sustainable) fuels such as alcohol from grain will necessarily become more important, not because the politicians care, but because they will become economical. Similarly, woody biomass can be converted to liquid fuels.

Of the renewable liquid fuels, alcohol has the most promise. In the US, corn is converted to alcohol, producing 30 extra calories or so for every 100 calories consumed. That is an energy balance of 1.3. Using sugar cane instead of corn, Brazil does rather better, achieving a balance of 8.3, producing over 700 calories for every calorie consumed. Neither of these methods is a panacea, however. Suitable farm land could be better used in other ways. Research is now focusing on cellulosic alcohol that can be made from fast growing trees, grasses, and the like at a theoretical energy balance possibly as high as 16.

Solar and wind power are here now and growing with much less damage to the landscape and biomass. They too are ultimately limited by the solar budget. It may be that the solar budget can be enhanced eventually a bit by using the Moon as a collector / redirector, but it too has a limit. It is not yet even pie in the sky, and may never be. Research on more effective solar-energy conversion is making only slow progress for a variety of reasons.

The Bush focus on hydrogen, while it may have some use, will not be the humanity savior that he would like it to be. The basic problem with hydrogen generation is that it takes power, power that could be better used directly. Its energy balance is less than 1.0.

Nuclear-fusion power could be a relative panacea, but there is little money going in that direction at present. And it is fraught with the waste problem.

If all this doesn't put population control into proper context, nothing will.


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