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Whose Earth Is It?

Earth Day provides us an opportunity to stop and consider the impact man is having on our planet.

Earth Day provides us an opportunity to stop and consider the impact man is having on our planet. We know that the some seven billion of us are taking a toll on Mother Earth, but what is in question is the magnitude of that toll. The first “Earth day” was held April 22, 1970, which means we have now dedicated a total of 43 days to the earth. A little history is in order.

Gaylord Nelson, inspired by the anti-Vietnam War movement and shaken to his knees by the impact of the infamous Santa Barbara, California, oil spill in 1969, was moved to kick off Earth Day. His goal was to elevate environmental consciousness at the national level. After all, if actions were not taken, humankind would be at risk.

 Consider the following predictions from that first Earth Day that shocked a concerned public into action:

“The world has been chilling sharply for about 20 years. If present trends continue, the world will be about 4 degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but 11 degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.”

— Kenneth Watt, ecologist

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100 to 200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next 10 years.”

— Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

“Air pollution ... is certainly going to take hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few years alone.”

— Paul Ehrlich

“By the year 2000, if present trends continue, we will be using up crude oil at such a rate ... that there won’t be any more crude oil. You’ll drive up to the pump and say, ‘Fill ‘er up, buddy,’ and he’ll say, ‘I am very sorry, there isn’t any.’”

 — Kenneth Watt

Nelson went on to promote “national teach-ins” to educate and raise awareness of environmental issues. With a staff of 85, he promoted Earth Day events across the country. That trend continues, so that today, the Earth Day Network promotes thousands of Earth Day events and actions worldwide each year.

The earth, of course, has been around a lot longer than us humans. Depending on the paleontologist one listens to, Homo Erectus evolved in Africa about 1.7 million years ago, while modern man has been working his way around the globe for only the past 57,000 years. But the epoch of humanity is just a blip when compared to the age of Mother Earth. The most recent earth eras — the Cenozoic, the Mesozoic, the Paleozoic and the Protozoic — total 2.5 billion years. And the earth is much older than that. So the earth has some definite staying power when compared to us relative newcomers. I expect the earth will still be doing quite fine after all we humans are long gone.

So we might look at Earth Day as “Human Day.” I suspect our real goal is not to save the earth but to make sure that what we do to the earth doesn’t do us in.

Let’s take a look at fossil fuels. These sources, which were billions of years in the making, will have been consumed in a mere thousand years. So whether in this decade or that, this century or that, we have certainty that mankind, ultimately, will face a low fossil fuel, low carbon emission future.

It would behoove us to take a more pragmatic view of energy. Let’s treat our fossil fuels as precious resources and consume them in a measured way while we build out renewable resources. This way, we won’t run off an economic cliff because of excessively high energy prices.

Looking back at the impact of shifting plate tectonics, incoming meteorites and major volcanoes, one gets the feeling that man’s long-term impact on the weather of this planet might not be that significant.

We had a close shave not that long ago. What if those volcanoes in Iceland that spewed out ash and disrupted air travel had kept sending up plumes of ash in increasing volumes for millennia? Then we would have experienced massive global cooling and dropping ocean levels.

I know what you are thinking: Rick, get on with whatever point you are trying to make.

So here we go. The media should not have to resort to covering doomsday predictions to get us to do what is right for humans and for the environment. We have major decisions to make in the coming decades. These decisions will have a big impact on humanity, even if they provide only a glancing blow to Mother Earth.

What are we now doing that is taking us toward a low carbon future?

  • Global movement toward grid-scale wind
  • Burgeoning local, regional and bulk storage solutions
  • Grid-scale and local solar, whether thermal or photovoltaic
  • Customer solutions lowering energy consumption and shifting load
  • Developing smart bulk grids to accommodate the above
  • Closing down inefficient, highly polluting coal plants.

What are we doing which is delaying the inevitable? A massive build out of gas-fired generation, mostly because gas is (temporarily) cheap.

What are we doing which is taking us backward? Moratoria on building new nuclear plants while mothballing or shutting down existing nuclear plants.

What can we accelerate? Carbon sequestration and coal gasification.

What big energy roll-of-the-dice is in our future? Nuclear fusion. This will likely be a dud, as we have already invested billions and decades in fusion research, and we are nowhere near commercialization.

Where might we invest our research dollars? Market forces are now driving down the cost of wind and solar. We must develop lower cost ways to address the intermittent and off-peak nature of wind and solar by finding ways to store off-peak power.

I’ve been investigating existing technologies that convert water to hydrogen and oxygen gasses. We could transfer our electricity to load centers and convert electricity there to storable hydrogen. We could then convert hydrogen back to energy via turbines or fuel cells.

The Energy Storage Association (ESA) tells me that electricity can be converted into hydrogen by electrolysis and then stored and re-electrified with a round-trip efficiency of up to 30% or 40%. Not good, but not bad. The ESA predicts that we could bring that round-trip number up to 50% as more efficient technologies are developed.

Recently, I’ve been corresponding with Lukas Grond, a specialist in sustainable and smart energy with DNV KEMA. Lukas shared that 11 leading companies in Europe have joined forces to create the newly established North Sea Power to Gas (P2G) platform. Grond, secretary of the P2G platform, sees “the establishment of the North Sea Power to Gas Platform as an important step in the transition towards a sustainable energy system.”

I am predicting that by 2050, electrolysis techniques will enable us to convert off-peak power to hydrogen so that hydrogen will provide a significant impact on our energy portfolio.

Unless we have great breakthroughs in human longevity, I will not be around in 2050 to know if this prediction comes to pass, but my grandsons, Ben and Brady, will be here. I am calling the energy community to work together in a sensible way to assure that our grandchildren can live in a world with a healthy global economy underpinned by availability to low-cost and reliable energy sources.

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