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Rensselaer Alumni Magazine Spring 2006
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Feature Articles President's View At Rensselaer Class Notes Features Making a Difference Rensselaer Milestones Staying Connected In Memoriam
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Although renewable energy sources are a tiny fraction of the world’s power supply, providing about 2 percent of the primary energy used, they are increasingly becoming an important solution to clean and affordable energy. While coal usage has decreased marginally, consumption of every other major energy source has increased markedly.

A Change in the Weather
It is 2010. The world is experiencing an increasingly volatile climate with disastrous consequences. While temperatures in Africa and Asia exceed 90 degrees for days at a time, blistering cold weather plagues much of Europe, North America, and Canada. Violent hurricanes are commonplace in Central America and the Caribbean. Drought persists in agricultural regions in Europe and in eastern North America.

The abrupt climate changes take their toll as famine, disease, and weather-related disasters destabilize the geopolitical environment, eventually leading to armed conflict over food, clean water, and energy supplies.

A far-fetched scenario? Perhaps. But Peter Schwartz ’68 points out that recent scientific findings on global warming and its effects on climate change suggest that the world could be on the cusp of such a cataclysmic event.

“There is an urgent need to make a huge change [in our energy strategy],” says Schwartz, an internationally renowned futurist and business strategist who formerly headed scenario planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group.

Schwartz was co-author of the Pentagon-sponsored report released in late 2003 that posited this scenario. Built on the research of leading climate experts, the report revitalized the global warming debate in Congress.

“The findings raised the sense of urgency of the climate-change issue. Our research, sponsored by the Pew Center on Climate Change, concluded that the main leverage is in reducing fossil-fuel burning, especially coal,” Schwartz says.

Compounding the threat of global warming are the rising concerns of world energy shortages fueled by growing demand, an increasingly volatile political world, the succession of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 that knocked out oil production for months, and evidence of a global depletion of petroleum resources. Some energy experts suggest that traditional oil production will reach its peak within the next two decades and then plummet in an irreversible decline.

“I think the [oil production] system is starting to show that there is going to be a resource crunch sometime in the next 15 or 20 years,” says Percy.

Economic prosperity depends upon energy. Power is essential to producing food and a variety of everyday products, and to running automobiles, mass transit systems, homes, industries, offices, hospitals, stores, and the many other building blocks of a vibrant economy. In general, fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — provide more than 85 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). But oil is really the lifeblood of America’s economy, supplying more than 40 percent of the U.S. total energy demands and nearly 100 percent of fuel for transportation.

Still, Percy says we’re not in an oil crisis just yet. “Obviously, the world economies have been able to absorb the much higher prices and seem to be growing fine,” he says.

Percy also shares Schwartz’s sense of urgency in addressing global warming by cutting the use of fossil fuels, which release heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Percy, who co-chaired the Climate Change Task Force under President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, was an author in a recently published United Nations report on the state of the world’s ecosystems. The report, called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, involved nearly 1,500 scientists worldwide.

“It was really about assessing the state of the planet. The bottom line was that the global ecosystems are under tremendous pressure and as the world economy continues to expand — as we hope it does because there are so many impoverished people — that stress will grow and that stress is both a threat and an opportunity for business,” he says. “The threat is obviously of potential regulation or making it difficult to obtain raw materials. But on the other hand, those who have new technology to help solve some of these problems will have great opportunity.”

The Power of Wind
Although renewable energy sources are a tiny fraction of the world’s power supply, providing about 2 percent of the primary energy used, they are increasingly becoming an important solution to clean and affordable energy. Wind, in particular, has become the world’s fastest-growing power source, according to DOE. General Electric, which bought bankrupt Enron’s wind assets in 2002, expects to sell $8 billion worth of wind turbines in 2006 and 2007 globally.

“We’re sold out,” says Victor Abate ’86, vice president for renewables at GE. “We’re going to ship more than 2,100 wind turbines this year alone.”

Compounding the threat of global warming are the rising concerns of world energy shortages fueled by growing demand, an increasingly volatile political world, the succession of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 that knocked out oil production for months, and evidence of a global depletion of petroleum resources.

Today’s highly efficient industrial-grade wind turbines are a far cry from the old-fashioned windmills that once pumped water for farms. Some farms use the big industrial-grade wind turbines that Abate talks about. Each turbine has a generator the size of a mobile home that sits on top of a tower, which typically reaches 240 feet high. The generator is driven by a set of three blades that spans 100 meters in diameter, the length of a football field. Built mostly on farmland, coastal areas, and in the ocean, each turbine produces from 1.5 megawatts up to 3.6 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 2,000 homes.

“The world wants this,” Abate says. “For every wind turbine you install, you offset natural gas, oil, and coal. There are no carbon emissions. Wind energy is clean.”

The global installed base for wind is expanding at a rate of about 17 percent a year, according to Abate, and rapid worldwide growth is projected to continue as more countries turn to wind.

In the U.S., some 28 states now have wind farms that feed electricity into the local grid. Many of these states have incorporated renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which require a certain amount of electricity to come from renewable sources. New York’s RPS calls for 24 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2013. In Arizona, that figure is 15 percent by 2025, and in California it’s 20 percent by 2010.

“If you look at the RPSs in place today, they’re driving about 22 gigawatts of renewable investment over the next several years. Each gigawatt is about $1 billion worth of business,” says Abate. “That’s driving a lot of these wind farms, and a lot of investment in renewables in general.”

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