Energy transitioning

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

China has made renewable energy one of the seven pillars of its most recent five-year development plan. In the U.S., fracking for natural gas and oil, tar sands oil and deep-ocean drilling have risen to prominence.

A new International Energy Agency report urges governments to increase their use of renewable energy, set a price on carbon emissions and cut fossil fuel subsidies. Continued use of fossil fuels is seen as a threat to energy security, economic well-being and the environment.

Chatham House prepared a report for Lloyds that accepts the reality of peak oil and suggests business plans should prepare for a transition to a low-carbon economy.

For many, an energy transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources is seen as inevitable. What remains unknown is when and how such a transition will occur. Renewable advocates tend to believe wind, solar, biofuels and other non-carbon sources will play a major role in our energy future. Yet, energy alternatives are dependent on fossil fuels for their construction and maintenance.

While natural gas prices are low and attractive, it is not clear how much gas can be produced from fracking at affordable prices. According to Gail Tverberg, a major reason why natural gas prices dropped in North America is that there is insufficient infrastructure to use the expanded supply. It takes time to build natural gas-fueled cars and trucks and the essential refueling stations. This, too, would require fossil fuels and increase our investment in a fossil fuel infrastructure.

Robert Hirsh, author of the Hirsh Report of 2005, believes our current problem is that of a shortage of liquid fuels. With our huge investment in equipment using liquid fuels, any disruptions in supplies are likely to produce panic, shortages, inflation, recession and unemployment, as they did in the 1970s.

Annual global oil production has remained flat at around 82 million barrels per day. A drop in U.S. oil consumption was offset by increased consumption in China and India. As demand increases, prices will rise, sustaining interest in solar technologies as their prices continue to fall.

Ken Zweibel and leading solar advocates remind us that the solar resource is huge. He points out that modern PV systems have a one- to two-year payback. Since panels degrade slowly, he expects them to last up to 50 years. He indicates the cost to run an electric vehicle is essentially the cost per kWh.

A University of Illinois freshman engineering student has converted a motorcycle from gas-powered to a battery-fed electric motor. He will make a presentation about the conversion process and demonstrate the vehicle’s performance at this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair Aug. 11-12 at Ogle County Fairgrounds, in Oregon, Ill. Other student projects from Rock Valley College will demonstrate an electric cart, a bio-fueled stove for Third-World applications and a small hydro project installed at the college campus.

The students will join others at the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair making the renewable energy revolution happen. Several local people, including Dave Lewis and Ken Gallenbeck, will showcase their electric vehicles.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the June 20-26, 2012, issue

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