What’s in Our Energy Future?

Did you know that the largest single consumer of electricity in California is the water industry? Today, water and energy are inextricably linked. But what does the future hold for us? It promises to pose an even greater linkage between these two public utilities.
The primary cause for a greater energy requirement for the water industry is desalination. There are two big reasons why. First, desalting — using any current technology — is very energy intensive, with power demands far beyond what a backwash pump or even an ozone generator requires. The second reason is more subtle, but very important nonetheless. Water is very heavy, and lifting it from sea level to our customers will take a lot of power.
Right now, we take advantage of the vertical position of our water supply, allowing it to fall through turbines to generate the greenest and most flexible of all electrical production methods: hydroelectric power. If our water comes from the sea, we lose this — and we need additional power to lift the water to our customers. It’s a huge energy double-whammy.
Add to this the underlying infrastructure problem: our big transmission mains start up in the hills where our current water supply is; the little pipes are the ones by the beach. We will probably face an enormous cost associated with re-plumbing our major water systems, essentially to reverse the direction of flow.
In my Chemistry lecture this week, we explored nuclear chemistry, including a quick look at nuclear power. Nuclear fission is a great source of energy, and it is widely used in Europe; the United States lag far behind the Europeans in terms of the amount of electricity derived from this source. Environmental concerns — one quite legitimate (safe disposal of spent fuel) — are once again the main reason for this.
Today’s photo will probably be familiar to most of you. It’s from the very fun movie, “Back to the Future.” If you haven’t seen this, I highly recommend it! Pictured on the left is Doc Brown, who has invented a time machine — out of a DeLorean automobile! Not surprisingly, the time machine requires a ton of energy. Where does the Doc turn? To nuclear fusion — not the same thing at all as our power plants of today.
Fusion is the energy source for stars. It is limitless, for all practical purposes, and even garbage could conceivably be used as a fuel supply.
Imagine what a limitless energy supply would mean to the people of Earth! No leaking oil platforms; no high gasoline prices; no reliance on countries that wish the USA harm for our vital energy supplies. Accompanied probably by dramatic reductions in power costs, so that every human had economical access to all the energy they could possibly use. And no one would blink an eye at the energy cost of desalinated water — this would also end the shortage of water world wide.
Fusion technology remains just beyond our technical capabilities. However, lots of smart folks are working on this, and I am confident that we will see widespread use of fusion within the next few decades. And it will transform our planet and Humanity.

2 Responses to What’s in Our Energy Future?

  1. avatar Robert says:

    Nuclear fusion is already in our technical capabilities, with aneutronic reactor technology it is believed to be a reality in a near term.

  2. avatar Steve McLean says:

    I certainly hope so, Bob. But I still recall how much trouble Doctor Octopus had containing his fusion reactor — even with his extra mechanical hands! http://graphics2.jsonline.com/graphics/owlive/img/jun04/dococ_063004_big.jpg

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