Dreaming of space exploration? You’re better off riding bikes

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Some 350 million years ago, life came out of the ocean and exploded on land, beginning to store massive amounts of atmospheric carbon in fossils

Computer models show that returning that carbon back to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is inching Earth towards the prehistoric climate. The planet was warmer and greener back then but the sea level was higher than it is today and hurricanes may have been more violent. Should we stop using fossil fuels?

Energy stored in coal, oil and natural gas helped develop industrial agriculture that is feeding the 7.8-billion human population of Earth as compared to only one billion 200 years ago. It gave us modern homes, cars, airplanes, health care and smartphones. Fossil fuels are currently providing 80 percent of the U.S. energy supply. Since 2019 the shale industry is making the U.S. the energy-independent biggest producer of oil and natural gas in the world. 

However, fossil fuels are a limited resource. If we continue to burn them at the current growing rate, they will be exhausted by the end of the century. It may be good news for climate but, if we run out of fuel, freezing in winter will become a bigger problem than sweating during hot summers. Cautious use of remaining fossil fuels, accompanied by better access to wind and solar power, would provide security in that respect.

The Green New Deal calls for the national mobilization to quickly move to zero carbon emissions by switching to electric cars, electric home heating, and replacing power plants that burn coal and natural gas with wind and solar installations. It may seem like a step in the right direction but a closer look leaves some questions unanswered.

The industrial project of that scale needs an enormous amount of energy. Where would it come from if not from burning vast additional amounts of fossil fuels?  

Will China follow suit?

If such an energy industry were to support an exponentially growing economy, how fast will it run out of land available for harvesting wind and solar power? 

What will happen to commercial aviation, sea navigation and space exploration? 

Renewable clean fuel for transportation can be provided by electrolysis of water that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen currently used for transportation is extracted from fossil fuels because water electrolysis is more expensive as it needs an enormous amount of energy. Nuclear power plants would be more useful than windmills in that respect. 

The U.S. policy on nuclear power has always been controversial. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter, out of safety concerns, banned reprocessing of spent fuel by the nuclear industry. The hope was that other countries will follow suit. They did not, putting the U.S. in a precarious position, with nuclear waste accumulating inside our nuclear power plants until this day. 

Indian Point nuclear power plant provides 25 percent of electricity consumed by New York City and adjacent Westchester County. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered its closing by April 2021. It will result in the hike of electricity cost and the loss of more than 5,000 jobs but will do little to safety. Nuclear material will have to be guarded indefinitely inside the facility that will no longer serve any useful purpose. 

The Green New Deal is mute on nuclear energy. Meanwhile, the space efficiency of a nuclear reactor for electricity production dwarfs the efficiency of wind and solar installations. One gigawatt nuclear power plant occupies the area of a shopping mall, while a gigawatt solar farm needs the area of Manhattan. 

Cutting energy use is contrary to the law of evolution that brought our civilization to existence. Our primitive ancestors managed to adapt to dramatic temperature changes causing sea level rise and fall by hundreds of feet. So can we without grounding airplanes and killing cows. 

Powerful energy industry that mindfully uses all available forms of energy is the only guarantee of survival amid political turmoil and uncertainties of the Earth climate. If we curb our energy production we will lose economically and militarily to our adversaries and will become helpless against forces of nature unleashed by climate change. 

Eugene M. Chudnovsky is a distinguished professor of physics at the Graduate School and Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY), where he teaches an Energy course and conducts research for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect positions of the CUNY or DOE. 

Tags Andrew Cuomo Carbon carbon emissions Carbon sequestration Climate change Energy global sea levels Global warming Jimmy Carter Nuclear power renewables sea level rise Solar energy wind energy

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