The Need for Energy Diversification
We must be willing to evolve
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The need for renewable energy is imminent. Even those who do not believe in climate change are aware that our reliance on fossil fuel is ending. The principal question has been, “Which is best?” Electrification generated by solar and wind have been the front runner, but is it our best option? The infrastructure in the United States is fragile; and the materials to build the much-needed batteries are limited as well as conflicted, meaning the way we mine these materials violate humanitarian laws.
Furthermore, if we rely on one form of energy, and that system fails, we will have widespread blackouts, where no one will have access to light, safety, or the ability to cook or refrigerate food.
There have been countless papers on geothermal, hydrogen, biogas and even bladder pumps as resources, but which should we be focusing on?
All of them.
We, as a society, cannot rely on one source for our energy needs. Our consumption is only increasing and our demands continue to expand with each passing year as technology advances. What we need is energy diversification. But we need to be smart about it.
We cannot install solar, wind, geothermal, or hydrogen lines where it does not make sense; we need to approach this strategically. The best part is we already know what to do. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of papers and countless consulting hours spent on this topic. What we lack is initiative. We just need to move forward.
Let’s start with the simple, solar and wind. If the sun shines most days of the year and the wind blows, install it, then be prepared with effective storage to supply electricity for the days when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. We do this now in California. The only problem being, we cannot hold the charge indefinitely, so we dump it. Yes, dump it. This is called negative pricing. In limited situations, electricity was either released into the ground or we paid our neighboring states to take it off of our hands.
Basically, electricity is a rare commodity in two respects. First, it has no shelf life and is therefore consumed immediately. Second, power plants can’t always be easily stopped and started again like some production lines. It may be cheaper for a power plant to pay you to consume more power than ramp up and down, explains Craig Morris, co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.
This is not a common practice. In fact, it is rare, but it does happen. Fortunately, in recent years certain companies are using this surplus green energy to generate hydrogen gas, so we are moving in the right direction.
Our secondary obstacle is the battery itself. Lithium-Ion (Li/Ion) batteries are used in almost every electrical device and power source we have. Everything, from scooters, to computers, to our phones, is all Lithium. What most people do not realize is that lithium is a rare element. There are conflicting articles stating we have an abundance of Lithium and those that state we are running out of Lithium. We still need massive amounts of it, and it still needs to be mined.
According to an article published by Investing News on April 24, 2023, there are 9 top producers of Lithium.
- Australia, Mine Production is 61,000 Metric Tonnes (610,000,000,000)
- Chile, Mine Production is 39,000 Metric Tonnes (390,000,000,000)
- China, Mine Production is 19,000 Metric Tonnes (190,000,000,000)
- Argentina, Mine Production is 6,200 Metric Tonnes (62,000,000,000)
- Brazil, Mine Production is 2,200 Metric Tonnes (22,000,000,000,000)
- Zimbabwe, Mine Production is 800 Metric Tonnes (8,000,000,000)
- Portugal, Mine Production is 600 Metric Tonnes (6,000,000,000)
- Canada, Mine Production is 500 Metric Tonnes (5,000,000,000)
- United States, Mine Production is Withheld to avoid disclosing proprietary company data
The other obstacle is cobalt. Although not as rare, it is a conflicted mineral mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, meaning that the way it is extracted violates our moral and ethical standards. These “artisanal” miners are freelance workers doing extremely dangerous labor for the equivalent of just a few dollars a day according to Siddharth Karaa fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and at the Kennedy School. If we want to congratulate ourselves on being “sustainable,” we absolutely cannot use cobalt mined through slave labor.
End of Story.
So, where do we go from here? We have limited lithium that we extract through the means of mining, which causes environmental damage. And we use cobalt, which is also mined with the added distress of slave labor. To be honest, as humans who rely on energy heavy technology, nothing. We can do nothing in the immediate future. But we can develop alternatives. There are think tanks at this moment inventing new batteries that do not use cobalt; some do not use lithium either. This is all relatively new and in development. It will need peer review, testing, and scaling. But we are getting there. In the meantime, we need alternatives: hydrogen, biogas, geothermal heat pumps, hydroelectricity, and wave technology all come into play. Will they work everywhere? Of course not. But if we think strategically and plan, we can figure the energy enigma out.
Below are some energy alternatives that can alleviate the stress of only having an electrified grid as our energy source. As we progress toward additional technologies, we will have the luxury of picking and choosing which forms are best and which should be phased out. Below are a few examples of alternative energy resources.
“Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind.”
-United States Department of Energy
When I first began discussing H2, I was met with quite a bit of criticism. Most of it from the electric industry folks, which I understand as they were financially invested in electric being the one and only power source. Fast forward a few years and now some of my critics have approached me saying, “Have you heard about Hydrogen Fuel Cells? They’re amazing!” I try to hold a solemn face. Yes, I know about hydrogen. Green H2 can be generated by solar and wind by splitting the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules in water. This gas can then be stored indefinitely, until it is passed through anodes and turned into energy.
“Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) use electricity to power an electric motor. In contrast to other electric vehicles, FCEVs produce electricity using a fuel cell powered by hydrogen, rather than drawing electricity from only a battery.”
-United States Department of Energy
There are some drawbacks, but hydrogen is a viable renewable energy source and we are simply asking that you pick what works best for you.
“Biogas is a mixture of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrocarbons, primarily methane (CH4) gas, from the biological decomposition of organic materials.”
–American Biogas Council
Not necessarily the best alternative due to the methane content, but we do have an excessive amount of agricultural waste that will release methane gas directly into the atmosphere if it is landfilled. Capturing that gas and using it as a reasonable alternative when other methodologies are not available or viable.
Geothermal Heat Pumps
“Geothermal energy is heat energy from the earth—Geo (earth) + thermal (heat). Geothermal resources are reservoirs of hot water that exist or are human made at varying temperatures and depths below the Earth’s surface.”
-United States Department of Energy
Geothermal taps into the energy of the Earth in order to heat or cool your home. This is achieved by drilling production wells into a geothermal reservoir, which generates steam to turn a turbine, which then drives an electric generator creating electricity. It is a renewable form of energy that strictly relies on the Earth’s heat. The only drawbacks being the relatively high cost and land needed for the system. Again, we are looking at all forms of energy based on where they are needed and what makes the most sense. This would be ideal in an area with large open spaces and natural hot springs.
Hydroelectricity and Wave Technology
“Hydroelectric energy, also called hydroelectric power or hydroelectricity, is a form of energy that harnesses the power of water in motion—such as water flowing over a waterfall—to generate electricity.”
-National Geographic Society
Hydro works well and generates electricity, but it does come with the disadvantage of doing damage to the environment, biodiversity, and landscape, which is a fairly high price to pay when striving for sustainability.
“Wave energy technologies, also known as wave energy converters (WECs), capture energy directly from the surface motion of ocean waves. WECs can be deployed at offshore, nearshore, and shore-based locations and are intended to be modular and deployed in arrays.”
-Pacific Northwest Laboratory
Wave technology is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, where the technology is being utilized and scaled up as a renewable energy resource when installed in the proper environment.
Where do we go from here?
We must consider that the technology we have today will evolve. Some will improve, others will not. But we cannot adhere ourselves to one form of energy. This would be a disaster waiting to happen. It is inevitable that one day the supply chain fails, the resources depleted, or the system breaks down.
We will only become energy independent if we install numerous microgrids and look at all available forms of energy, even ones that are not particularly net zero at this time.
We must be willing to evolve.
Wendy E. Nystrom MA, CRIS, ENV SP
1. Capturing Energy from Waves. (Accessed July, 2023). Tethys. https://tethys.pnnl.gov/technology/wave#:~:text=Wave%20energy%20technologies%2C%20also%20known,modular%20and%20deployed%20in%20arrays/
2. Definitions. (Accessed July, 2023). American Biogas Council. https://americanbiogascouncil.org/definitions-3/
3. Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles. (Accessed July, 2023). U.S. Department of Energy.
4. Geothermal Heat Pumps. (Accessed July, 2023). U.S. Department of Energy.
5. Hydroelectric Energy. (Accessed July, 2023). National Geographic. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/hydroelectric-energy/
6. Hydroelectric Energy: The Power of Running Water. (Accessed July, 2023). National Geographic. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/hydroelectric-energy-power-running-water/
7. Hydrogen Program. (Accessed July, 2023). U.S. Department of Energy. https://www.hydrogen.energy.gov/
8. Pistilli, Melissa. Top 9 Lithium-producing Countries. (Apr. 24, 2023). Investing News Network. https://investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/battery-metals-investing/lithium-investing/lithium-production-by-country/
Wendy Nystrom is an Environmental Subject Matter Expert and the host of Environmental Social Justice (ESJ), an online webcast that bridges the chasm between environmental and climate experts and the general public.
She holds a MA/BA Combined degree in Geology/GeoChemistry from Boston University and a Certificate in Sustainability from UCLA. She has spent her career focused on pollution, environmental risk management, professional liability, and climate change where her combined knowledge in science, technology, and risk has provided her with a unique view into companies’ exposures and prevention practices.
This evolved background is what ultimately triggered her desire to focus on sustainability using communication and outreach to focus on advancing existing technologies to reduce our negative externalities and enhance sustainable development as well as social justice / DEI.
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