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Asses the contribution renewable energy could make in securing North Americas

energy future (15)


When discussing the possible contribution renewable energy could make in securing North
Americas energy future it is important to look at it from two angles- the continuing extent of
potential for the use of fossil fuels and the potential for an increasing use of renewable
energy.
Lets examine the former first. According to Greenpeace in 2008, 80% of global energy
demand is met by fossil fuels. The unrelenting increase in energy demand is matched by the
finite nature of these resources. This is a fair point; as the population of North America
increases and living standards continue to rise; energy demand increases per person
(especially in places like Mexico where development is happening rapidly). Non-renewable
energy sources are just that- non-renewable and thus are unable to continue to expand
infinitely to supply that growing demand. Several countries have already reached peak oil and
USAs production has been falling drastically since around 1970 up to the given point of 2007
(see fig.3). Figure 2 shows that in 2010 all three countries were nursing an energy deficit in
crude oil and Canada and the USA in all 3 listed sources (crude oil, natural gas and coal) by as
much as 17,920 thousand barrels/day (crude oil in the USA). This has already had an impact
on the energy security in the area, making it increasingly vulnerable with: short term
dependence on imported natural gas, a growing dependence on China and India and others
on imported oil creating a very competitive market which the poorer areas of the region will
find hard to afford (again Mexico for example). This whole energy infrastructure is highly
vulnerable to terrorist attacks and piracy when passing through choke points, etc. ( coming
from China/India the map in fig.4 shows several piracy hotspots with attack figures as high as
111 reported attacks in 2008 as well as multiple choke points that coincide with oil flow and
the path imported fossil fuels might take). President Bush himself expressed concern over
this an emphasises the importance of trying to meet as much of the United States imported
energy needs as possible from within the block in order to reduce dependence on imports.
On the other hand Canada and USA are major players in the global petroleum industry and
there are still some other options- all 3 have recently discovered potential untapped fossil
fuels in oil shale (across vast swathes of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado) and tar sands for the
US and Canada (with extensive sand deposits in Alberta) while Mexico has significant offshore
oil in the Gulf of Mexico (fig.7) ;which may reduce the sense of necessity that may have forced
them to step out of their comfort zones and explore renewable energy options more deeply.
Then again, even the US Department of National Intelligence does not believe that
unconventionals will not be able to commensurate with demand. these fossil fuel
alternatives are also unconventional and technically difficult to mine not to mention the
environmental question. When we talk about non-renewable energy sources we immediately
think fossil fuels. Fossil fuels when combusted produce greenhouse gasses which are emitted
into the environment and contribute to the greenhouse effect. With the ever growing threat of
global warming and climate change linked to this; there is an increasing need to control
carbon emissions including through binding political contracts like Kyoto. Even now oil
exploitation is currently banned in the ANWR and the Rand Corporation report in view 1
highlights some of the environmental concerns and the WWF/Cooperative banks concludes
that is its simply wrong. This makes traditional energy sources politically difficult. Nuclear
power is not a part of this particular problem, being largely clean and green but it does have
its own risks and problems. Though figure 5 suggests that Mexico, Canada and USA are all
commercial nuclear powers and figure 6 shows that Canada at least has significant potential
in the form of uranium resources (23% of global production); no new nuclear power plant was
constructed by the USA between 1996-2008 and many nuclear plants constructed in the
1960s and 1970s have either been shut down or will be decommissioned soon. Planned

reactors (31 in the USA but just 2 in Mexico) tend to replace older power plants going off-line
rather than their nuclear capacity. There have also been some serious concerns over the
disposal of radioactive waste resulting in large scale protests impassioned by NIMBY issues.
While there are NIMBY issues with schemes like wind and HEP (both are large, ugly and take
up space, etc.) there also many advantages that could generate support from
environmentalists and the general public; some more than others. Biofuel has expanded in
North America especially in the USA but is one of the most controversial sources as most
biofuel comes from processed food crops and as a result impacts agriculture. Increasing food
prices in 2007-2008 were partly blamed on the rapidly rising use of food crops and biofuel
feedstocks. In 2007 tortilla riots broke out in Mexico as people protested against rising maize
prices and there are global concerns over the ethics of the industry. There is talk of so-called
second generation biofuels that could break the link with food crops but there are many other
sources without these issues in the first place. Namely in the fact that the energy produced by
most other renewables is clean, green and carbon neutral as well as free in the case of solar
power ( which just needs sunlight) and wind power (which just needs wind) for example.
Figure 9 shows us that North America has significant renewable energy potential for solar,
wind and geothermal harnessing with the map showing that over half the area when split
vertically has an average wind speed over 5mps; all down the West coast from Canada to
Mexico there are areas of high geothermal potential, and, while the whole bloc has solar
radiation of over 1800kW/h per square metre, a certain area of Mexico has and exceptional
2400kW/h per square metre. Many suitable hydroelectric sites have already been developed
but other technologies could be expanded significantly. It is true that considerable investment
is needed to move towards a greener future; in some cases fossil fuels remain cheaper than
renewable alternatives but with a combined GDP of $16.8 trillion, some of that money could
certainly be wisely invested (even if Canada and the USA had to shoulder the brunt in order to
allow for Mexicos NIC status). In addition not only will a large proportion of the invested
money come back in savings in the more distant future but costs are likely to converge in the
future due to improved technology and possibly rising fossil fuel costs. The economist, a very
reputable source, tells us wind power is taking on natural gas, which has risen in price in
sympathy with oil. Wind is closing in on the price of coal, as well. Solar energy is a few years
behind, but most modern systems already promise wind-like prices. Indeed, both industries
are so successful that manufacturers cant keep up
Figure 10 shows one possible future renewable scenario for electricity generation in North
America. Projections showed a 5x increase in renewable energy in 40 years with 3800TWh/a
production in 2050 up from 750 TWh/a in 2010 while the combined energy consumption of
Canada, the US and Mexico is currently 4325TWh/a. This would suggest that if we were just
able to keep our already high energy usage at this level then renewable energy could play a
much bigger role in providing for it- up to 75%. The economist says the green message-use
less energy- wont solve the problem unless economic growth stops at the same time. If it
does not (and it wont), any efficiency savings will soon be eaten up by higher consumption
per head. This is a fair point but if we dont ask people to use less energy but rather to use
different energy, perhaps a different green message is plausible. Overall, I believe that
renewable energy could make a significant contribution to the North Americas energy future
in the energy transition predicted in view 6, if only people would open their minds to its huge
potential, and looking at the state of fossil fuels; they may soon be forced to.