Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Sustainable Energy Challenge

On Tuesday October 26,George Crabtree, a UIC Distinguished Professor of Physics, Special Advisor on Energy, and Senior Scientist Distinguished Fellow, Argonne National Laboratory spoke on energy in the sustainability movement.

Throwing out a few figures in the beginning, Crabtree explained that the U.S. supports foreign economies by importing 350 billion dollars of oil a year. Also, two thirds of our carbon emissions are sourced from automobiles and power plants. If this continues, we will face the harsh consequences of changing weather patterns, agriculture cycles, and coastal land. A main barrier is the cost and level of sustainable energy technology. Renewable energy technology has far to go- it is developed far below potential causing high prices compared to the accessibility of fossil fuels.

What is the definition of sustainability? Taking into account the wide vision of sustainability, each individual can have their own definition. Crabtree uses three main points:

  1. Lasts a long time
  2. Does no harm
  3. Leaves no change
Using this definition, Crabtree explains how different energy sources rank:

Solar Energy (electrons) completed the definition. Although solar energy creates a fully sustainable energy chain, the one bad aspect is building the source does not fit in the chain. Other barriers that are being researched are cost and storage.

Carbon Dioxide has it's alternatives but it is not ultimately ideal. To make Carbon Dioxide sustainable, it must be stored underground for 400-1000 years under high pressure and temperature to allow it to "relax." The main concern is undetected leakages. 

Nuclear energy (Uranium) is similar to Carbon Dioxide. To reach full relaxation, Uranium must be stored underground for longer than Carbon Dioxide.

To replace conventional oil, cellulosic biofuels and electricity have been developed. Using renewable to the extent of conventional oil to support the grid, it must be transitioned to carry huge amounts of renewable energy long distances.  The strongest wind and sun sources are on the south west side of the nation while the demand is strongest on the east. 

It seems we have a grasp on the problems that need to be solved- Crabtree states that we are at the dawn on a new era. Technology has been developed to design new materials and chemistry for specific tasks by building structures atom by atom while predicting their behaviors. 

Besides the physics of energy, it is crucial as ever to look at lifestyles. Although the city center produces the most carbon emissions, per person the suburbs emit much more. For any change to occur, education must be implemented; this education includes legislators, regulators, governments, businesses, urban planners, and private individuals. 

How does UIC tie into the Sustainable Energy Challenge? 
Energy education, research and development, and implementation are the answers. 

George Crabtree left the crowd with minds spinning and the urge to run to the nearest library to get a book on energy. He opened a new concept to us all- be knowledgeable, know the life cycle of your resources. We get the most energy by being more efficient. Less is more, Europe has proven that and we need to bow our heads and follow. 

UIC Sustainability course to look forward to:

Physics 116: Energy for Future Decision-Makers
Tuesday/Thursday 9:30 am
Professor George Crabtree

UIC Summer Institute
Sustainability & Energy
August 7-19, 2011
*covers the whole energy picture- urban planning, business, policy, etc...

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