The reality of some "eco-friendly" alternative energy sources.

The problem we are facing regarding environmental challenges, such as climate change, is not solely the onset of such dramatic shifts in global trends, but is the ill-devised approach to dealing with these issues.

Lets take the example of carbon dioxide emissions that have been linked to climate change and may very well be the amplifier of global warming. The approach that major stakeholders are taking doesn’t seem to be so much as a move to cleaner, more sustainable fuels than it is a move from oil-reliant technologies, and the reliance on foreign energy sources. This kind of mentality seems to be driven primarily by international politics and the fact that reliance upon international energy sources is not politically or economically stable.

The question begs, why not resort to alternative fuels that will allow nations to be independent of one another? Well, with that kind of mentality driving innovation we may find ourselves falling backwards in our greenness and the greenness of our energy technologies, by resorting to less viable energy sources, that in fact can be even more harmful to human health and the environment either directly or indirectly.

One very important concept to understand before we proceed is that we will not be running out of oil any time soon (just over 42 years – not a lot though). This may come as a shock, but it is true. What we will be running out of is economically viable sources of oil and other fossil fuels. What this means is that oil will still exist past the “oil crisis”, but will not provide the desirable return on investment from extracting such fuels as oil, and tar sands. This concept is referred to as the EROI or Energy Return On Investment. In this case, investment not only means financial, but also energy investment.
After all, as it costs money to make money, it costs energy to get energy. Lets start off with oil, which has an EROI of 1:20 globally. This means that for every unit of energy spent to extract crude oil, 20 units of energy are gained. This doesn’t seem too dire, but consider that it used to get 1:60 a couple of decades ago.

With the current EROI of oil in mind, lets take a look at some of the alternatives to crude oil and how it measures up. Now, you will notice that I will not be discuss wind energy, or solar energy because neither technology is really being given much attention by the big energy companies who hold just short of a monopoly on the market. Because of that, advancement of these technologies is not moving at the speed that would be accomplished had there been a stronger focus on these truly renewable, sustainable, and unlimited sources of energy.

As for some of these new technologies that are being labeled as “green”, “environmentally friendly”, or “Eco-conscious,” in fact still derive their energy from not so green sources, or non-viable environmental resources. Lets take ethanol for example, which is an extraction of corn through a distillation process. This fuel source has an EROI of close to 1:1, which is not at all viable. We’d be better off preserving the energy that goes into growing, farming, and cultivation, which by the way is done by machines that run dirty inefficient fossil fuels. In addition to the ill-planned “greenness” of ethanol production, cutting into food staple yields for fuel production creates a tight food budget, driving up food costs, and placing a greater demand on other grains. Not to mention that these grains are often transported long distances consuming energy in the process and affecting fuel prices, and the cycle goes on.

But it’s a cleaner fuel, well not really…First, as mentioned the processes that are in place to cultivate and produce ethanol are run on dirty fossil fuels. That combined with the fact that the EROI for ethanol is 1:1, not only have we NOT decreased the amount of green house gases, but we are doubling it with this process.

Secondly, there is no infrastructure such as pipelines to transport ethanol, so it must be trucked around the country, in diesel operated trucks. I think the picture is clear there.

Thirdly, what about the actual combustion of ethanol? Is it really cleaner? Well, No! Yes, the burning of ethanol produces less green house gases, but it also produces Volatile Organic Carbon (VOCs), and Nitrous Oxides (NOx). VOCs, like formaldehyde and acetic acid, both known carcinogens and menthol , a hazardous pollutant are released from ethanol.

As for electric cars (not hybrids), this is truly an interesting case, since people tend to see them as pristine machines, that have zero emissions, which is true up until you reach the charging station, which derives its energy from coal and other fossil fuels. In the US, close to 50% of energy production is from coal burning plants. Coal as a source of energy in electrical power plants has been going on for a long time and is trying to be phased out, but because of its high EROI, which is about 1:80, there is such a strong inertia to give up such a highly polluting source of energy in favour of technologies, such as solar (EROI 1:20) or even things such ethanol (EROI; 1:~1).
We are actually fall ing back in a carbon heavy energy consumption, after moving from coal to oil, then to natural gas, and ethanol, we are turning back to coal, and tar sands (EROI 1:3), which are very carbon heavy and very dirty, and greenhouse gas heavy polluters.

The real solution to our environmental challenges is to focus on truly renewable sources of energy like wind, tides, and solar. We must also understand that we’ve allowed ourselves to dip into such a lazy, wasteful state of living that it will be close to impossible to sustain our way of living, and the mentality that “if I can afford it, its all good” because that will only drive us to be more greedy, and to struggle to upkeep this standard of living.

If we looked at things such as our resources, food, water, energy, etc, as being a bounty and a blessing from Allah rather than some thing we have attained through hard work, we will have a more natural view of the world, where things have a nature beyond the dollar amounts we tag them with, and thus we may be more inclined to preserving this earth and the bounty herein for our children and grandchildren to come.


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