Large woody plants first appeared 370 million years ago. These were plants that could grow larger year by year. By 360 million years, these early trees proliferated over the world. There was only one land-mass during this time, which we now call Pangaea. However these new trees couldn’t fully decompose. Bacteria and fungi couldn’t break down the hard wood. As a result, wood piled up on each other and was slowly buried. These stacks of compressed logs created coal. By 300 million years ago, fungi and bacteria had evolved enough to start breaking down wood. The process wasn’t overly efficient, but it started. Over the next 210 million years, they improved. 90 million years ago almost all woody plants fully decomposed before they could be buried.
Nearly all hydrocarbon reserves today began as woody stems. 60 million years worth of trees became coal deposits. Since around 300 million years ago, no new coal deposits were made. Partially decomposed plant matter, mostly wooden stems, became oil. Oil, being less dense than water, slowly moved up. It naturally gathered in reservoirs, floating atop groundwater and trapped under nonporous stone. All of it began as trees or plants. Hydrocarbons are no longer deposited in any large amount under the soil. This means the world has stopped trapping plant-based carbon underground. The oil already underground continues to concentrate as a result of natural processes, but that’s all there is. It’s a finite resource that won’t be replenished.
Current energy is polarized in regards to energy source. Fossil fuels are energy rich and easily transported, making them an excellent fuel source. On the other hand, burning them increases atmospheric carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbs and releases heat more readily than oxygen or nitrogen. This makes it a greenhouse gas, so it contributes to global warming. Environmental activists adamantly oppose any increase in carbon dioxide while non-activists aren’t as concerned. Both groups are correct in some aspects and incorrect in others.
Scientists use experiments to determine if a gas has global warming properties. The experiment is quite simple. Glass boxes are set on tables next to each other. A bright lamp shines into each. The bottoms are painted black, to absorb light. Different gases are put into each box. For example, they could have nitrogen in one box and carbon dioxide in the other. They let the boxes sit there for half a day and measure the temperature in each. Then they switch the tables around and do it again, just in case one bulb produces more light than the other. A box with pure carbon dioxide will heat up more than nitrogen. The reason this happens is because everything releases heat. Put your hand near a fire and you can feel heat radiating off of it. This is called blackbody radiation. Your body radiates heat. The room around you radiates heat too. This heat is typically in the microwave to infrared range and is much weaker than visible light. A gas such as carbon dioxide absorbs more microwave and infrared light. Once hot, it radiates this outwards. Some of it moves further out into the atmosphere and some moves back to the ground. This is how a greenhouse gas increases planetary temperature.
The environmentalist argument isn’t that carbon dioxide is increasing. Throughout hundreds of millions of years, Earth’s atmospheric composition has always changed. The valid issue behind the environmentalists’ argument is that the carbon dioxide level is increasing faster than it ever has. This is concerning because nobody knows exactly what that means or what it will do. That’s a valid concern. Unfortunately, extremists have latched onto environmental science and transformed uncertainty into certain doom. Climate science is real and legitimate when it demonstrates facts through experiments. With that said, it is woefully incomplete. It doesn’t have a complete understanding of planetary systems, planetary generated heat and solar radiation. So it can make claims, such as carbon dioxide is a green house gas, but it can’t reach a meaningful conclusion on the eventual outcome on a planetary system.
The most compelling argument against environmental alarmism is data. Examine raw data of temperature measurements. The earliest data comes from 1880. Global warming started at 1880. That’s the earliest reasonably accurate data we have. This doesn’t directly correlate to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Carbon dioxide levels started a rapid increase in 1960. Both sides agree that the world has been warming, but this is not a new trend. The earth’s temperature fluctuates quite a bit over the millennia. Even in the relatively recent past, geologically speaking, we’ve had periods of glaciers. The truth is that the world is warming at a rapid pace but the numbers are well within normal fluctuation range. The rapid part is concerning, but not to the level of destroying the economy.
There are arguments for and against fossil fuels. The arguments for are they are available, portable and energy dense. This makes them convenient. Our modern society depends on the energy it provides. Fossil fuel electric generators can be rapidly adjusted to meet the current electric needs. This is important because the energy grid must balance production with consumption. In order for electricity in an outlet to remain at the right voltage, they have to adjust the amount produced to the amount consumed. If there’s too much or too little then poorly designed appliances break or don’t work properly. The amount of electricity varies depending on the time of day, day of week and season. More energy is used during winter for heating and more is used during the day. Generation from fossil fuels can be adjusted to meet those changes.
During the mid-1900s, nuclear energy has also become available. Nuclear energy is a fission reaction in Uranium or Plutonium. This means a neutron hits an atom’s nucleus and triggers a change. The atom splits apart and releases neutrons. The mass of the final particles is less than initial mass. That difference in mass becomes energy, following Einstein’s famous equation. There are arguments for and against nuclear energy. The arguments for it are that it’s very efficient and inexpensive. The arguments against it are potential failures and nuclear waste. Safety is definitely a concern. Nuclear advocates will often point to skewed data, such as the number of accidents in the USA. When worldwide data is considered, it becomes murky. Some nuclear reactors have been built in natural disaster areas, such as on a geologic fault or next to the ocean. The reactors are built as safely as possible, but there will always be the possibility of natural disaster that causes a catastrophic failure.
The second problem with nuclear energy is the waste. There are arguments on both sides of this. One group says that the radiation will last a long time. In this case, the cost of storing the material for hundreds of thousands of years outweighs the energy savings. The other side says that the worst of the radiation will fade relatively quickly. Both sides are correct. In a CANDU reactor, spent fuel consists of U-238 (95.5%), Pu-239 (1%) and Fission Products (3.5%).
To understand the impact of each, you must understand half-life. Consider Polonium-218, which has a half-life of 3.1 minutes. If you had 1 gram of Polonium-218, in 3.1 minutes half of it would decompose into other elements. So you would have 0.5 grams of Polonium-218. Another 3.1 minutes later, half of that decomposes, so you are left with 0.25 grams of Polonium-218. The shorter the half-life, the faster it emits radiation so isotopes with low half-lives are the most radioactive.
In nuclear waste, fission products generally have very short half-lives. So they decompose very rapidly and release a lot of radiation. There are so many different isotopes that tracking their decomposition chains becomes a nightmare. Most of the isotopes are very rare in nature, and that means they are extremely unstable. So after fuel comes out of the reactor, it remains hot and radioactive for some time. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, which makes it more stable. Plutonium is useful, so it can be removed from the waste and used in other applications. It’s used in nuclear weapons but also for nuclear batteries in long-range space probes.
The last item in nuclear waste is Uranium-238. U-238 has a half-life of 4,468,000,000 years. It’s still radioactive, but it has relatively low levels of radiation. The long half-life is both a blessing and a curse. When U-238 breaks down, it becomes Thorium-234 and Helium. Thorium breaks down into other isotopes, eventually becoming Lead-206, which is stable. The cascade of decompositions is called a decomposition chain. Some isotopes in the decomposition chain last seconds while others have half-lives in the hundreds of thousands of years. The problem with U-238 lies in the decomposition chain. Because U-238 has a long half-life, it breaks down slowly. It takes time for that to work down the decomposition chain. So a pure piece of U-238 has relatively low levels of radiation. 4,000,000 years later, it has ten times more radiation. This comes from the decomposition of other isotopes in its decomposition chain. If they store it in a long-term facility that’s designed with this in mind, it should be alright. The issue comes from potential harm to future generations, millions of years of future generations. If it’s stored with this in mind, then it will have no effect on future generations. Remember that Uranium is a mined ore. This is already found under the ground in natural ores. These ores are more unsafe than a well designed disposal site. When you compare the two, safe underground disposal has the potential of improving the land.
Nuclear power has the advantage of being inexpensive, plentiful and relatively safe. It also produces no carbon dioxide. The disadvantage is that you can’t turn it up and down easily. It takes several weeks to change the output of a nuclear reactor. This makes nuclear unsuitable for fluctuating grids. Grid operators typically use nuclear for constant electric demand then use faster responding generators for variable demand.
Some areas have plentiful sources of water and rivers. Dams have been used for thousands of years. If you are interested in history, search for Roman dams which helped feed their aqueducts. Hydroelectric dams are excellent sources of power. The dams contain a plentiful source of water, which provides a lot of potential energy. It can be increased or decreased as needed, replacing hydrocarbon fueled electricity generation. Like other energy sources, hydroelectric generations has problems. Dams can break, flooding areas and killing people. This doesn’t happen often, due to better engineering, but the potential is always there. There are environmental concerns with dams. First, the flood basin changes surrounding terrain. The weight of the water can trigger landslides. The movement of river life can be interrupted. Dams stop silt movement, since they act as a large settling tank. This affects downstream ecosystems and farming.
Geothermal energy is where a hole is bored into hot rocks in the Earth’s crust. They drill two holes then crack the stone between them. They move water from one pipe into the other then generate power from heat. Power output can be changed in a matter of hours and, once operating, costs are very low. It has a few downsides, but not many. First, there’s a large upfront cost when drilling the holes. They may find that the rock isn’t as hot as they predicted, which halts the entire operation. Additionally, if the rock isn’t warmed by a magma inclusion, the rock will cool down over time.
Fossil fuel, nuclear and geothermal generators use heat. Each reactor boils water to create steam. They drive turbines with the steam, generating power. Water is a little simpler. Hydroelectric dam generators use the flow of water to spin a turbine, generating electricity. Wind power spins a turbine, like hydroelectric dams. There’s not much to wind turbines, just big windmills on tall poles. Once built, energy is nearly free. However wind turbines only last about twenty years. (Though newer designs may last longer.) Disposing the old turbines is troublesome, and they are prone to breaking down.
Solar is a different kind of energy capturing system. The principal is simple. Light hits a surface and knocks an electron out of an atom. A semiconductor junction keeps the electron on one side. This potential difference becomes a power source. Initial solar panels were inefficient, but efficiency has grown. Current average solar cells are about 26% efficient. High end multi-junction solar cells are 45%. There’s an initial cost to install. They have a fair lifetime, usually dropping to 80% efficiency after 20 years. A large problem with them is disposal. Since they utilize semiconductors, they sometimes contain toxic chemicals like arsenic. So they can’t be dumped into a landfill. There’s also normal wear and tear. They can break, get covered in dirt and are less efficient in hot climates.
Solar and wind power don’t provide steady energy, and that’s the largest disadvantage. Power use on a grid fluctuates which uses a lot of fossil fuels. If you add unstable power generation, the grid will fluctuate more than normal. Typically fossil fuel generators make up for this. So the more wind and solar you add to the grid, the more fossil fuels are consumed. To stabilize the grid, grid scale power storage is needed. The problem is that this either isn’t available or is very expensive. There are new potential products coming to the market, but they aren’t yet proven. One common method of storing power is through pumped hydro storage. This uses a storage lake atop a high hill and one at the bottom of the hill. During times of excess power, they pump water from the bottom to the top. During times of need, they let the water fall down through a turbine. It has an end-to-end efficiency of about 50%.
Home scale power storage is far simpler. There are plenty of options, such as battery systems, gravity storage, flywheels and compressed air. Some people have proposed electric cars battery packs can be used for this purpose. (That will drastically reduce the battery life.)
If grid-scale power storage is impossible, then the next option is to adjust demand to balance natural fluctuations. Facilities can be set up near large power stations. These facilities could produce energy-intensive products, such as aluminum or ammonia. (Aluminum is refined with electrolysis and there are processes that produce ammonia from air, water and electrolysis.) Another option is to take excess power and convert it to hydrogen through electrolysis. If a power company did this, then it could use inexpensive nuclear energy and compensate for grid fluctuations with hydrogen production. Hydrogen can then be used as portable fuel.