Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Alternative Energy Hype #1

Each year I teach my students about the two major biogeochemical cycles (carbon and nitrogen) and their ecological importance. We discuss the human impacts on these cycles through the use of fossil fuels or other activities, and we also of course talk about alternative sources of energy. I assign a small research project which they work on in groups. They have to learn in some detail the idea behind and specifics of a particular source (wind, solar, bio, etc.). Then they have to present it to the rest of the class with some sort of visual illustrating efficiency, costs, etc. I believe developing these other sources of energy is crucial to our future (solar and nuclear seem the most promising to me; solar is the ultimate renewable energy, nuclear is pretty close and is extremely efficient). It's important that today's students develop an understanding and appreciation of these endeavors. However, as we attempt to develop and manage the processes required to access, store, and utilize these sources of energy it's also important to ensure that these processes actually are beneficial, actually are in some real way better than fossil fuels. Some processes have unacknowledged, unpublicized side effects or costs; others are having suprising impacts where we didn't expect. There are a number of misconceptions floating around that need to be clarified. This will be the first in a series examining some of the major players: biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrids, and nuclear.

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