Facts of the Matter
Energy crisis about more than gas prices
There is more to the global carbon crisis than the increasing cost of gasoline.
On one hand is the dwindling supply of petroleum, on the other is carbon dioxide emissions.
Petroleum is the driving force of the world economy, but there are other carbon-based fuels. They all produce carbon dioxide and will not help to solve the carbon crisis.
Some experts say that there is enough coal, natural gas, oil shale, tar sands and methane hydrate ice to last for several hundred years, even given a growth in energy demands of countries such as China and India.
Others experts dispute this and claim that the reserves of coal and natural gas have been vastly overstated.
What about mass transit?
Take the proposed Honolulu rail system. HECO says that the system will not place a burden on their electrical generation facilities. But 90 percent of Honolulu's electricity is generated by burning oil, and we get 99 percent of our fossil fuels from foreign sources, no longer from Alaska as in the past.
Mayor Hannemann says that mass transit is "all about reducing our dependence on (fossil fuels) and using alternative forms of energy."
The problem is that those alternate energy options are not available yet nor in the foreseeable future.
HECO plans to offset the use of imported oil by burning garbage (euphemistically called "waste-to-energy"), cultured palm oil and other biofuels, but the carbon footprint is still there.
Do electric and hydrogen powered vehicles relieve petroleum dependence?
That depends on how the electricity and hydrogen are produced.
Hydrogen must be produced from water by electricity. Batteries for electric vehicles must be recharged by electricity. Electricity that is generated by burning carbon-based fuels therefore does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
There may be even more emissions overall since every energy conversion is less than 100 percent efficient. Although electric vehicles are very efficient at using the energy stored in the battery, energy is lost in transmission of the electricity from the source to the vehicle. Energy losses on a large electrical system range from five to eight percent.
Hydrogen-burning internal combustion engines are not pollutant-free. Although they are touted for producing only water as an exhaust, there is still the nitrogen oxides that are produced during the high pressure combustion inside the engine.
At the most fundamental level the sun is the source of all energy on Earth. Fossil fuels are solar energy stored in the remains of geologically ancient carbon.
Unless alternative energy can be developed - whether it be solar-based such as photovoltaic, photothermal, hydroelectric or wind, geothermal, tidal or nuclear - the future will not be without carbon emissions.
Optimists predict that photovoltaic and photothermal technology can provide all of the U.S. energy needs by 2030.
Pessimists claim that civilization is doomed as petroleum shortages wreak economic and military havoc.
The truth is that no one knows for sure how much carbon remains, and no one can predict breakthroughs in alternative energy technologies.
There is little doubt that these developments will come, the only question is how soon, and will it be soon enough.
Richard Brill, professor of science at Honolulu Community College, teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. E-mail questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org