In this age of rising fuel prices and increasing pollution, efficient use of energy will bring prosperity and better quality of life. Since energy is required for economic production and all other activities, mastering the efficient use of energy carries the promise of rising national power.
How do we improve energy efficiency? There are two fundamental solutions. The first one requires using less existing energy to do more productive work. The second involves switching to cheaper, renewable, and less polluted sources. Both solutions are being pursued in the world today, but the progress varies greatly from one country to another.
The first solution requires a change of culture and habits, but that will take years, maybe decades. In the meantime, we can employ technology to squeeze out the last drop of wasted energy out of our activities. The second solution will necessarily take a long time due to entrenched interests in the fossil fuels of oil, coal and gas, which together account for 90% of world energy consumption. The challenges are very daunting indeed. In the US, the current obsession is with how much fuel can be extracted from the ground, rather than how to consume less and save. That is why the US is less efficient than other countries in energy use.
As you know, fossil fuels require burning to produce energy and heat. At the same time, they release soot, greenhouse gases, and some poisonous gases, too. Due to this double edge, better efficiency essentially means more energy delivered by machines, and less pollution added to the environment. This logically leads to three courses of action concerning fossil fuels:
First, regarding oil, emphasis should be placed on the transport sector because it consumes close to 70% of world oil production. Despite continuous improvement in fuel consumption of autos, ships and airplanes, it becomes increasingly difficult to squeeze out further fuel savings in the gasoline or diesel engine. The option that remains is to reduce the weight of transport vehicles by switching to strong lightweight materials such as carbon fibers and composites. For instance, the average auto weighs 3000 pounds that must carry the driver averaging only 140 pounds. However, it’s the driver who goes places and pays for the oil. Doesn’t it make sense to lessen the deadweight of the car to save fuel? How much oil can be saved if the average weight of the car is reduced by just 10%? While the auto industry is rather slow in adopting lightweight materials, Boeing has made a high profile by using composites in its new 787 aircraft.
Second, regarding coal, emphasis should be placed in reducing consumption for two reasons: Coal is dirtier than the other two fossil fuels, and it can be substituted if we have the will to overcome entrenched interests. The three main uses for coal are: electricity generation, steel production, and cement production. They involve burning coal to make steam out of water to turn the turbines (electricity), and to heat the industrial furnaces (steel and cement). Nowadays, solar and wind are gradually replacing coal for electricity generation. Being the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas can also replace coal for steel and cement production.
Third, natural gas tends to be viewed by the oil and coal industries as a newcomer threatening their survival because it is cleaner and abundant. Natural gas is mainly used for house heating and cooking, but in recent years, more is used for electricity generation as a substitute for coal and oil. In addition, compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are used to replace oil in ships and trucks, requiring only some modifications of the diesel engine. Compared with oil for auto transport, natural gas has two weaknesses: It lacks a convenient distribution infrastructure like retail gasoline stations. Besides, it is heavy to carry for it must be liquefied or compressed for storage in steel containers. That is why natural gas appeals mostly to buses, delivery trucks, and special purpose vehicles that go to a central depot for refills.
Now let’s consider the second solution. As far as road transport is concerned, all the inefficiency and pollution problems of fossil fuels can be solved with just one brave stroke: electrification. Of course, it cannot be achieved overnight, but is happening with faster pace now. In Japan and Europe, rail transport has accomplished almost total electrification since the mid 1960s. In China, rail electrification has been proceeding with breakneck speed in recent years. The result is that the bullet train has brought near extinction to the steam and diesel locomotives. In the auto industry, despite initial difficulties, four manufacturers have emerged for electric cars: Nissan (Japan), Tesla (USA), BYD (China), and General Motors (USA). In the hybrid area, Toyota has already established a firm lead, followed by several other companies eager to grab a share of the growing market.
The evolution of mechanized road transport can be seen in two distinct phases driven by fuel efficiency. The first transition was from coal to oil in the early 1900s. The second one happening right now is from oil to electricity and natural gas. The reason for the first transition was higher efficiency delivered by the internal combustion engine as opposed to the steam engine. In the second transition away from oil, energy efficiency again provides the momentum, but more complicated factors are involved this time. They include: rising oil prices, limited availability of fossil fuels, increasing pollution, and new renewable energy being commercialized.
Compared with land transport, sea transport has gone through even more advanced evolution in mechanization. It first went from coal to oil, then surprisingly, to nuclear power in the military sector. Since the 1960s, the American and Soviet navies have adopted nuclear propulsion in their aircraft carriers and submarines. There are good reasons for solar and wind to be used on ships, too: large surface area on board, no shadows cast by trees or buildings, and plenty of wind at sea.
As always, a new kind of technology once again emerges to alter the efficiency equation. This is the dawn of renewable energy such as solar and wind besides several others. Most of the renewable sources can be applied to the generation of electricity, thus making the electric motor the wave of the future. The adoption of renewable energy is inevitable although facing various obstacles along the way. Their unbeatable strengths are: low price because sunlight and wind are free, renewable as long as the sun exists, little pollution for the environment, and totally sustainable for the future.
We do have a clear choice for increasing energy efficiency. The best choice is to gradually substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy. Do we have the will to do it given all the entrenched interests in fossil fuels? Remember the two biggest challenges: unrelenting rise in oil prices, and increasing pollution of the environment. It’s impossible to solve both without adopting renewable energy. Each country has a unique way to deal with these two challenges. Some choose to move ahead and look toward the sun. Some may still prefer to look down and continue to drill and dig. Within this decade, it won’t be hard to separate the winners from the losers in the pursuit of fuel efficiency.