Alternative Energy Sources
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1992, 1(2), 5-6. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

A study released by the American Gas Assn. suggests that increased research and development of natural gas and alternative sources and a freer energy market could cut the nation's carbon dioxide emissions by 10% by the year 2000. The study advocates dropping state and local free market "barriers" such as those requiring emission scrubbers for electric power plants, or mandatory use of coal. Instead, it relies on higher efficiency appliances and doubling the use of renewable sources-including solar, geothermal, biomass and wind-while increasing use of natural gas by 40% by 2010. This would reduce oil imports and increase domestic employment in both the oil and gas industry and in energy conservation and renewable energy. The study estimates the creation of from 200,000 to 400,000 new jobs in renewable energies and energy conservation alone. Persons in the coal industry, however, say that it would merely shift jobs to other sectors. [Parrish, M. (1992, May 1). Energy coalition pushes an 'alternative future'. The Los Angeles Times, p. D2.]

The Danish government is pushing ahead with one of Europe's most ambitious alternative energy projects-a pro gram that would make Denmark the first country in the world to use wind power as a significant contributor to its national electricity grid. At the present, only California has installed greater wind-power capacity. Denmark is in the final stages of an initial expansion that will triple its wind power by the end of the next year to cover nearly 10% of its electricity requirements through wind energy. Denmark and California together produce 90% of the globe's wind-generated electricity. [Marshall, T. (1992, April 7). Danes no blowhards on alternative energy. The Los Angeles Times, p. H4.]

According to Greg Rueger, general manager of the nation's largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the newest generation of wind-power turbines already can match fossil fuel facilities on price. Rueger estimates that the newest, third-generation windmills, if mass produced, could make electricity at a lifetime cost of S.S to 6.S cents per kilowatt-hour in good wind areas. That compares with 7 cents an hour for a new gas/oil filed plant in the PG & E service area. Solar generation still costs around 10 cents per kilowatt hour, although that too is dropping. A recent project may have produced equipment that lowers the cost to 8 cents. [Dillin, J. (1991, March 14). The Christian Science Monitor, p. 26.]

Edison and Texas Instruments recently announced a solar technology breakthrough. A relatively low-cost solar photovoltaic cell has the potential to provide one-third of an average home's electricity using a 10-by-10 foot rooftop panel! [Bryson, J.E.(1991, May 19)Change is in the wind- and the sun. The Los Angeles Times, p. M5.]

A biomass plant, operated by Delano Energy Co., takes 700 tons of prunings, fruit pits and waste wood a day from nearby orchards and burns them in a state-of-the-art furnace that emits fewer emissions than an old-fashioned wood-burning stove. The resulting heat is used to make steam that drives turbines. Enough electricity is generated to serve the needs of about 30,000 California households a day. The Delano power plant produces energy at a cost of roughly 8 cents per kilowatt hour, making it close-to competitive with coal (about 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour) and natural gas (5.5 cents). But the biomass plant was only able to get financing in the first place because state incentives encouraged utilities to buy power from such plants at rates above market levels. More dollars are needed for help in construction of such plants. Biomass plants are among several so-called renewable energy technologies that proponents argue hold the greatest promise for replacing the fossil fuels and imported oil this country uses to generate power. [Lee, P. ( 1 99 1, March 26). Interest in alternative fuel sources heats up in U.S.. The Los Angeles Times, pp. Al, A8.]

A new $700 million Federal fund has authorized a six-year demonstration program to explore magnet power for trains . This type of train would have no locomotive but would be lofted above its track by a magnetic cushion and propelled by a magnetic wave. These trains would travel at a very high speed, with high efficiency and with little or no wear. Demonstration trains in Germany have established a speed record of 273 miles an hour over a test track. Planners in Florida hope to build a 14 mile maglev (magnetic levitation) train route from Orlando airport to Disney World. The downside is that this Florida track is estimated to cost S500 million. This technology is not cheap; that is the present fly in the ointment. [Browne, M.W. (1992, March 3). New funds fuel magnet power for trains. The New York Times, pp. C1, C11.]

A discovery by nuclear scientists at the Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory at Culham, England has convinced scientists that fusion power will be generating virtually limitless amounts of cheap, pollution-free electricity in the 21st century. Unlike fission reactors, which split atoms to produce energy, the Torus reactor pushed atoms of deuterium and tritium together to generate a temperature of 200 million degrees C. In future years, scientists will face challenges of designing, building, and paying for a working fusion reactor, as well as containing impurities. International cooperative efforts are now in the works to face future research challenges. If the necessary money can be mobilized (approximately 3 billion pounds), the reactor could become operational in the 21st century. [MacLeod, A (1991, November 20), Fusion power future looks bright. The Christian Science Monitor, p. 12.]


Developing low-cost, pollution-free energy constitutes a major challenge to research agencies, including research universities. When these efforts pay off, resources traditionally directed to energy could be redirected to social issues, health care and education.

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