Future on a razor

While our energy future crumbles, millions of us are studying options, 10s of 1,000s of research teams and new firms are showing alternative ideas, but we’re on a razor’s edge.

Most of our first efforts to bring better energy options are failing. Corn ethanol seemed to be an excellent idea until we learned its downside was food inflation, land depletion and greater ocean dead zones. Willy Nelson’s biodiesel company is quickly going broke while feedstock prices soar. New hydro dams may be far too destructive to waterways already saturated with solids and pollution. Along with political hot air, wind may not have the global force to meet our needs, though it’s important. If photovoltaics cover everywhere, silicon might still remain only a supplemental solution. Unless we stumble into a new era of physics or magic, nuclear plants face uranium depletion and cannot prove atomic waste won’t kill us.

Extreme prices and conservation will function until our economy slows to a standstill. With or without tar sands, Arctic discoveries or high tech drilling, gasoline at $10 or $20 a gallon might be less than a couple decades away. If all its costs were factored, oil might already cost this or much more if we included bringing billions of tons of carbon to the surface and into the air. And the blood cost of oil is already too high.

Water is too often ignored while we study energy options. Producing ethanol, for instance, can more than double the water consumption of an acre of corn. More than 40% of all fresh water consumed in this country is used by power plants; both fossil-fuel and green-fuel power plants withdraw more than 100 billion gallons of fresh water each day. Groundwater is being used at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Air pollution is consuming water too. Our largest freshwater sources in glaciers are melting nearly 2 feet per year faster than the 1980s and will disappear as soon as 2050. And once again, our daily habits are costly. More than 50% of the water applied to lawns is lost. Just lost.

But I’m not discouraged.

Easier to fix but usually last on the list, we still pile in cars to drive inefficiently at the same time of day to work in 100s of millions of poorly designed buildings that devour our coal and natural gas reserves.

Maybe our next energy option should be staying home.

How sharp is that razor? Fleets of hybrid and electric vehicles won’t save us if we cannot deal with scarce water. The Bureau of Economic Geology in Texas calculated water usage, consumption, and withdrawal during petroleum refining and electricity generation in the United States.

Each mile driven with electricity consumes about three times more water per mile than with gasoline!