When the price of conventional energy gets high, the perpetual motion freaks and tree-huggers emerge from their hiding places. They prey on the public, peddling outlandish alternative energy technologies that have no future because they cannot compete economically with conventional technologies unless propped up by tax incentives, carbon credits, or temporary energy supply shortages. 2008 exposed many of these questionable technologies by teasing them out in the summer when U.S. retail gasoline prices hit a national average of $4.10 per gallon. The carpet was then pulled out from under these technologies as gasoline fell to $1.60 per gallon by December.
I cover trends and technologies that have a legitimate future in a world whose ever-growing need for energy is forcing us to become more creative in how we generate, store, transport, and consume energy. The following partial list (the first part of three) illuminates stories I examined in 2008 and some predictions of where the future of energy technology is going.
10. The Mechanical and Energy Engineering Department at the University of North Texas (UNT) puts its first semester of courses into the books (see “About I Have the Power!”)
Shameless plug? Perhaps. Future trend? Absolutely. My university was the first in America to recognize the importance and uniqueness of energy engineering as a legitimate undergraduate field on par with established, conventional engineering disciplines. Energy engineering departments have existed elsewhere in the world for years, but America had to wait until late 2007 for a domestic university to offer an energy engineering degree at the undergraduate level. Now UNT is waiting for the academic accreditation standards to catch up with us, which will certainly happen as other schools follow our lead by offering energy engineering degrees of their own.
9. Second-generation superconducting wire goes live on the grid in New York City (see “2G YBCO Superconducting Wire May Improve Grid Security”)
A new high-temperature superconducting material called YBCO, which costs less while carrying more energy than first-generation BSCCO material, was successfully installed into the grid. A resilient national grid with large superconducting sections is an inevitable American infrastructure improvement. The superconducting grid will reduce energy losses for long distance transmission, delivering and concentrating electrons from remote renewable energy resources to sites of consumption.
8. International organizations call for ethanol production reductions to curb high food prices (see “Fuel, Food, Security - Pick Two”)
2008 alerted consumers and politicians to the dangers of utilizing food crops for fuel production as ethanol companies scrambled to capitalize on record high oil prices to sell their products. For a short while ethanol appeared competitive with fossil fuels in a temporarily energy-starved market. Biofuels (perhaps even ethanol) are here to stay and will definitely be one part of the world’s future blended energy supply. However, the detrimental impact these fuels posed on food prices in 2008 permanently forced producers to look for alternative feedstock that can be grown on land that does not interfere with food production.
Stay tuned. This list will soon be continued.