Sustainable Energy Challenges

Energy in Engineering at Cornell

Central to the question of whether we can achieve a stable, secure and sustainable future is our relationship to energy.  Meeting increasing global energy demands and the relationship of supplying this energy in an environmentally, ecologically, socially and economically acceptable manner present some of the most daunting challenges facing humankind during the 21st Century. Put simply, providing access to clean, affordable energy is an essential element for societal and economic development

The amount of energy humans are consuming in the world today is rapidly approaching 500 EJ per year which would be equivalent to burning 1 billion barrels of oil every 4 days or to providing 15 TW of power on a continuous basis.   About 85% of this primary energy comes from fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil;  the infrastructure for providing it when and where we need it enormous.  In the U.S. alone we are consuming almost ¼ of the world’s total annual energy produced (100 out of 460 EJ) and we import more oil than any other country.   By the end of 2013, only China with 4 times the population of the U.S. will have passed us in total energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Nonetheless, as important as energy is, we often take the services it provides for granted in our everyday lives. Flick the light switch and the lights come on, hop in the car, turn the ignition key and the engine comes  on allowing you to drive somewhere, turn on the air conditioner on a hot day and get feel cool, or plug in the battery of our cellular phone so you can use it on your way to work.   And we're less aware of energy's indirect role in our lives.   For example, in the U.S. the thermal energy we need just for providing hot water and heat for our homes and buildings amounts to over 20% of our total energy budget and our modern food production requires massive amounts of energy for fertilizer, harvesting, processing and transporting to market. 

It is almost certain that fossil fuels — both conventional and unconventional — will continue to provide the majority of our energy sources through mid- 21st century.  But, because fossil fuels are depletable that is we are consuming them at a rate that far exceeds their replacement rate, a long term solution is inevitably needed.   During this century growing concerns about the effect of fossil fuels on the global climate as a result of the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases they emit as we burn them to produce energy, may cause us to manage carbon emissions on a massive scale. What strategies that will be necessary to confront the coming energy challenges while not exacerbating the global climate change?   We could reduce carbon emissions by either replacing fossil fuel combustion with carbon –neutral alternatives or by capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide they produce.  Neither will be easy or cheap to achieve without a shift in national and international priorities and policies. Eventually, we need to transition completely from relying on finite fossil fuels to using renewable resources.  This transition will require that we develop and deploy renewable and perhaps nuclear resources on an enormous scale, and that we must develop much more efficient ways that we use energy.  The table shown below lists some options and trade-offs.

While most universities are actively engaged in energy research, Cornell is unique in organizing efforts in a larger sustainability context  with a vision that focuses on creating new connectivity in three general areas – energy, environment, and economic development – because we can’t solve the energy challenge without looking at the big picture.  In addition, Cornell has made a commitment to achieve a zero carbon future for its campus by deploying its Climate Action Plan over the next 40 years.  "Energy" is one of the six major research initiatives in the College of Engineering at Cornell.  More than 50 faculty members — one fifth of the total faculty in Engineering — consider energy and sustainability to be a part of their research or teaching interests. Cornell University offers more than 50 courses related to these topics. 

These web pages provide a starting point for learning about the energy research and educational opportunities in the College of Engineering at Cornell.  Descriptions of the Energy Institute multi-disciplinary research and educational programs are included along with an index and links to a variety of Cornell energy courses  and external web sites.  Additionally, this site provides a gateway to the broad and diverse group of Cornell faculty who are at the frontiers of energy and sustainability research and a listing of news and events related to energy and sustainability at Cornell.

Strategy

Sustainable ?

Good for climate?

Potential

                                    Comments

Conservation and efficiency

Yes

Yes

Short and long

The only short (and long) term solution that is an all-around win: saves money, saves energy, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Many technologies are available now. 

Traditional Oil & Gas

No

No

Short

Highly efficient energy sources, require little energy to produce. Combustion emits CO2 but not as much as coal .

Coal

No

No

Short

Abundant, familiar and inexpensive, but ... mining can be environmentally destructive and may produce significant ground water pollution. Traditional methods of use emit more CO2 into atmosphere than other fossil fuels. Countries with  large future energy needs -- US, Russia, China, and India -- are also the ones with the largest coal deposits

Non-traditional hydrocarbons

No

No

Short-medium

Includes tar sands, shale gas and oil, oil shales, gas hydrates. Very abundant, but require large amounts of energy and fresh water to produce. May be very polluting. Tar sands are economic today using local natural gas deposits for processing.

Biofuels

Yes

Yes, if done sustainability

 

Short-medium

Many feedstocks require large amounts of energy, land, nutrients and fresh water and contributes to soil erosion, may compete with food for the same natural resources. Corn grain ethanol requires almost as much fuel to produce as the fuel it yields; Ethanol from cellulosic biomass is more promising. 

Hydroelectric

Yes

Yes

Short

Already near maximum capacity. Silting, local ecosystem and microclimate changes among the downsides

Nuclear Fission

Yes with breeder technology

Yes

Short

Three main challenges facing  public acceptance remain  safety, waste management, and proliferation , though new reactor technology promises some improvement.

Nuclear fusion

Yes

Yes

very long

 Technology still in formative stages -  Not ready for deployment

Solar

Yes

Yes

medium-long

Rapid technological strides now being made with PV, intermittent source, could begin to contribute very significantly by mid-century

Wind

Yes

Yes

Short – medium

Technology available today. Interruptible supply siting present challenges. Some of the best resources are far from population centers; requiring new infrastructure and transmission over long distances

Geothermal

Yes

Yes

Short-medium

Feasible today in geologically active, high grade areas ( eg. In western United States, Iceland.) but new technologies needed for lower grade areas

Carbon capture and sequestration

No

Yes

Short-medium

Technology available now, but will increase cost of electricity by 75-100% (Metz et al. 2005), requires extra energy for capture and sequestration, may not be feasible in transportation sector. Uncertain whether it can be deployed in time and at the scale necessary to make a difference to greenhouse gas accumulation in atmosphere