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Sustainable Energy

Where are the career opportunities for technical professionals in powering our future?

By Nancy J. Mellem

Did you hear? America uses a lot of energy. It's true. The world uses a lot of energy too, and the reality is that none of us are going to stop consuming energy anytime soon. As a matter of fact, people will certainly be using even more energy in the future. I'm sure you're not surprised by my prediction. But unfortunately, this is a problem because fossil fuels come in finite quantities.

It doesn't really matter whether or not you believe in saving the planet. The reality of the situation is going to dictate that mankind seeks out sustainable energy sources. We're feeling the pinch already at the fuel pump and when heating our homes. Although strides have been made when it comes to water, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy sources, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Hydropower & Wind

The U.S. is currently generating 80,000 megawatts of hydroelectricity (10% of U.S. electricity) at existing sites, but we've identified 5,677 other sites with an undeveloped capacity of 30,000 MW. Finding these additional sites has been the work of the Wind & Hydropower Technologies Program. Despite the untapped potential, however, hydropower's share of electrical production is expected to decline from its current 10% to about six percent by 2020.

Until or unless the environmental impact of dams on fish populations and water quality issues can be addressed, those 5,677 potential sites may remain untapped. The Department of Energy held a Hydro R&D Forum in 2001 to establish the goals that need to be reached in order for this renewable source to be utilized.

The Program's report regarding the potential of wind energy is tantalizing, "Good wind areas, which cover six percent of the contiguous U.S. land area, have the potential to supply more than one and a half times the current electricity consumption of the United States." The main stumbling blocks they cite are the storage and transport of the collected electricity, and the potentially prohibitive start-up costs of installing a turbine (or several).

Read more about the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind & Hydropower Technologies Program at www.eere.energy.gov/windandhydro. For jobs within the Department of Energy go to www.energy.gov/about/employment.htm.

Solar

A combination of photovoltaic cell efficiencies and drop in wattage costs has caused the global photovoltaic industry to expand. In 1992, the global manufacturing of solar cells was at 58 megawatts, and it has grown to approximately 400 megawatts a year at this time. "The price of photovoltaic panels has dropped from $100 per watt in the 1970s to the current price of approximately $3 per watt," according to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.

Solar energy has become a viable option for corporations and individual homeowners alike, but it hasn't risen to the point of being "standard equipment" in either situation. Since solar energy has the smallest ecological and environmental impact, the question is, "why isn't it standard equipment?" Perhaps it will be more in the consciousness of today's graduating civil engineers than it has been in previous generations—hint, hint.

For more information about solar energy, visit the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) at www.nesea.org/buildings/info/solarelectricity.html.

Geothermal

Tapping into Mother Earth for energy is hardly a new idea. You'd have to go back in time a very long way to find the first human who dipped a toe in a natural hot spring before taking the plunge. As drilling technologies and our understanding of the construction of the Earth have developed, however, we've grown a bit more sophisticated in the way we utilize this energy source.

Three varieties of geothermal power plants have been developed based on the temperatures and pressures of the reservoirs that are currently being tapped. About 7,000 megawatts of geothermal electricity are in use worldwide each year, and the U.S. produces 2,700 megawatts of that—electricity on a par with burning 60 million barrels of oil.

On a smaller scale, geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) are available to the individual homeowner to both heat and cool the house. The costs involved in installing GHPs are still a bit steep, and GHP development will have to see some kind of per unit cost reduction before it enters the realm of "potential standard equipment" that solar energy is starting to enjoy.

What is the growth potential for geothermic energy? The Geothermic Education Office says, "Thousands more megawatts of power than are currently being produced could be developed from already-identified hydrothermal resources. With improvements in technology, much more power will become available. Usable geothermal resources will not be limited to the ‘shallow' hydrothermal reservoirs at the crustal plate boundaries. Much of the world is underlain (three to six miles down), by hot dry rock—no water, but lots of heat. Scientists in the U.S., Japan, England, France, Germany and Belgium have experimented with piping water into this deep hot rock to create more hydrothermal resources for use in geothermal power plants. As drilling technology improves, allowing us to drill much deeper, geothermal energy from hot dry rock could be available anywhere. At such time, we will be able to tap the true potential of the enormous heat resources of the earth's crust."

For more information about geothermic energy visit the Geothermic Education Office (GEO) at http://geothermal.marin.org.

Biopower

Biopower is the least green of the green energy options. It is the process of burning biomass (in the form of plant and organic matter) in place of fossil fuels. It's the least green because it still involves the process of burning something and creates emissions. What makes this option sustainable is that the plant matter is constantly being replaced (at least, in the ideal situation) and the fuel is referred to as carbon dioxide neutral because the plant life consumes as much carbon dioxide during its life as is released when it is burned.

In order for biopower to reach it's full potential as a "green" energy source, the production of energy crops needs to be carefully monitored to ensure a low impact on the environment. Any gains made in biopower use will be sacrificed if energy crops are grown in the same unsustainable fashion that food crops are grown today.

Strides are being made in the field of bioengineering to create hybrid, fast-growing trees, shrubs and grasses that can be planted on idle agricultural land. This has the additional benefit of creating natural habitat for many animal species.

For more information about biopower visit the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) at www.nesea.org/buildings/info/solarelectricity.html.

Nancy J. Mellem is a contributing editor for Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers magazine.

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