The last two years have been a wakeup call for humanity: Decades of dire warnings from experts in nearly every scientific discipline have converged on us seemingly all at once. We are mired in a global pandemic that has exposed weaknesses in — and created major interruptions to — the supply chains for food, fuel, labor, and goods. We’ve experienced significant weather events and shifts in seasonal weather behavior that can only be attributed to the human impact on climate change. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. Plastic pollution is choking our oceans and land. The list just goes on and on.
Scarcity is the root of all our major problems
For generations, most of the world’s problems have been attributed to the scarcity of resources — who has it, who doesn’t, and what means will be undertaken to control it or obtain it. Wars, inequality, hunger, and economic turmoil ultimately boil down to the haves and the have nots on a global scale.
Now, likely as an outcome of this overall scarcity, a Central European conflict instigated by Russia upon the nation of Ukraine is leading towards massive increases in global petroleum and natural gas prices, in addition to causing potential interruption of about 25% of the world’s grain supply that is locked up in Russia and Ukraine.
As just one opinionated technologist, I won’t presume to have solutions for all of the world’s extremely complicated economic and geopolitical problems. But I believe that individual nations can take specific actions to minimize these impacts on their own citizens.
What to do about the fuel
Let’s start with petroleum and natural gas — two resources that are not renewable, in limited supply, and controlled by a limited number of nations.
In addition to being the world’s largest source of fuel, petroleum is used to make products such as plastics, polyurethane, solvents, and hundreds of other applications. We also need to find ways to replace it in the petrochemical industry.
Even assuming we can eventually switch many vehicles to EV-based propulsion, there is also the issue of the aviation, marine, and commercial transportation industries needing a viable fuel source.
Previously, I have discussed the use of plant waste, or biomass, to produce biofuel, including aviation and aerospace (bio aviation/jet fuel/rocket fuel) and marine and biodiesel fuels. Many plants are potentially suitable for the production of biofuel, in particular bio aviation fuel.
Hemp, which was legalized for cultivation with restrictions in 2018 as part of the Farm Bill, is an extremely good candidate for doing this because, as a crop, it has many different applications.
Hemp cultivation does not require chemicals or irrigation. It proliferates with a very high yield — it takes about four months for a stalk to reach maturity, and it is possible with efficient farming techniques to produce 500 to 1500 pounds of hemp biomass per acre.
Overall, experts have concluded that “meeting US demands for oil and gas would require intensive cultivation of only about 6% of the land area of the 48 contiguous states, or just over 116 million acres”, according to the Great Book of Hemp by Rowan Robinson
Hemp fibers can be used not only for biofuel but also for textile and hundreds of other manufacturing uses, including biodegradable hemp plastic.
Hemp produces very high-quality cooking oil, and its seeds are very high in protein, making it ideal for food industry applications such as hemp milk, hemp oil, hemp cheese substitutes, and hemp-based protein powder — all of which we will need as plant-based proteins become more and more incorporated into our diets. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, one acre of hemp can yield an average of 700 pounds of grain which can be pressed into about 22 gallons of oil and 530 pounds of meal.
Which hemp cultivars we would use for these purposes is really up to the scientists and the agriculture industry — but some of the most promising candidates in terms of oil yield are likely to be currently classified as marijuana due to their THC content, as from a legal perspective, anything over 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis is no longer considered to be industrial hemp.
I have long been a proponent of the federal decriminalization or legalization of marijuana for its many therapeutic and pharmacological properties, which have been investigated academically in other nations, such as Israel, a world leader in this area. Initial pre-peer review studies by the University of Chicago under grants from the National Institute of Health suggest that CBD is a potent anti-inflammatory agent and antiviral treatment.
Assuming these observations are conclusive, CBD and other cannabinoids have the potential to be the best treatment yet for COVID-19 and other viral diseases, among other debilitating ailments, which along with existing and future vaccines, would help combat the current labor (and ultimately, supply chain) problems associated with the pandemic by reducing the duration of illness or preventing or even halting serious illness entirely.
While we would need to likely spend hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars of research on all of the potential pharmaceutical applications, as marijuana contains hundreds of compounds for investigation, our first step towards energy independence may very well be the wholesale legalization of marijuana, not just expanding hemp production from the original Farm Bill.
At the very least, a large-scale hemp industry would employ millions of people across multiple sectors, from food and industrial applications to fuel and pharmaceuticals.
What to do about power generation
But biofuels address only part of the overall energy independence challenge. The United States’ power-generating infrastructure is largely based on non-renewable energy.
Keep essential appliances, electronics, and equipment running during power outages with these electric backup generators.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2021, the United States generated about 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Approximately 60% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas), with 19% attributed to nuclear and 21% to renewables.
A report released by the US EIA in March of 2022 forecasts an upward trend towards the use of renewables as 44% of the country’s total power generation capacity by 2050.
However, with the future of Russian oil and natural gas exports to the West now in question, the EIA’s model will require major recalculations. In particular, how will this supply shortfall impact our previous calculations from a scarcity perspective? But complex economic models aren’t needed for us to conclude that if we don’t make some changes to how we generate power, the future of the climate and global economy looks less than promising.
We will need to look at renewables such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal. To accommodate the renewables, nations like the United States will need to build two-way electrical grids, not just the traditional Transmission System Operator and Distribution System Operator model we have been using for more than 100 years. Modernized, distributed smart grids — built on open source technologies — will need to be implemented, such as the ones France’s RTE and the Netherlands’ Alliander are building.
Renewables are essential. But we need to face that 800-pound gorilla. While we can supplement the world’s energy requirements with renewables, it is highly unrealistic to think we can supplant coal and natural gas with them. Any discussion of eliminating the fundamental fuel sources for large-scale power generation on a global basis needs to include nuclear.
In 2010, I postulated that Barack Obama could have been the Nuclear President. Twelve years later, my position is unchanged. According to the US Energy Information Administration, there are 93 nuclear reactors distributed among 56 atomic power plants in 28 states, generating approximately 800,000 Mwh of energy. As stated earlier, that represents about 19% of the energy consumed in the United States.
Back of the envelope calculations, based on current monthly nuclear energy output figures tracked by the EIA and 4 trillion kilowatt-hour consumption estimates indicate that we would need between 200 or 300 or so new reactors to replace all fossil fuel electricity in the United States, and perhaps as many as 860 new reactors to replace fossil fuels for all domestic uses, including transportation and heating/cooling.
This assumption is based on the existing power generation infrastructure being fungible and on current power output per reactor (many of which are 50-year-old designs), without modern efficiencies of innovation being applied such as breeder capability and modern construction techniques which may permit smaller (and much safer) designs.
While total replacement of the coal and natural gas power generating infrastructure entirely with nuclear may be unrealistic, if we do these calculations and build models with increased use of renewables and a modernized grid into consideration, it may be possible to achieve our energy goals with considerably fewer new nuclear plants.
The safety discussion needs to be had, but I think at this point, we are well beyond NIMBY-ism as a divisive element to hold back new nuclear reactor buildouts. The modern designs used by the US Navy and tested by the government at DARPA and other agencies are virtually meltdown proof and have many new safety enhancements that make them extremely safe to operate.
The arguments from those who protest nuclear energy’s use have been debunked, many times. Would we need to heavily safeguard these plants from the potential enemy military, terrorist, and cyberattacks? Yes. But we need to do this for all of our infrastructures anyway. Is sustainable, commercial nuclear fusion a possibility in the next 30 years? Recent developments indicate that it could happen. But we need nuclear fission as a bridge technology to get us there.
Ending the status quo
Now is not the time for partisan arguments or preserving the status quo of powerful and influential industries about how we approach the situation. We are now at an inflection point where the country’s economic wellbeing and national security are at stake.
We’ve seen in decades past critical strategic decisions made and accelerated paradigm shifts in technology occur due to pressing needs, such as in wartime. With the world in crisis and energy scarcity being the most pressing topic affecting virtually everything, we again need to make some important choices about how we proceed.
The first step is to realize that the status quo is no longer an option. We need to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources. The time for partisanship is over; we need to come together and make this shift happen.
We have the technology available to make this happen, but it will require a concerted effort from all sectors of society. The government needs to provide the necessary regulation and incentives to make it happen, while the private sector needs to invest in the research and development of new technologies. And everyday citizens need to do their part by making choices that help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
This is not going to be easy, but we must act now.