We need to evolve spiritually and reconnect with all that is.
We need to change our world view. Without doing this there is absolutely no hope for a better sustainable world. We view ourselves as disconnected individuals competing with everyone and everything for the resources that we believe we need.
We are all part of the same whole. When our actions affect the whole negatively, they affect us negatively. We may see some apparent short term gains, but in the long run our fate is the fate of the whole, everything that is.
We need to shift our focus towards the well being of everything that is, for the entire universe, and then for our planet, and then for our country, and then for our local community, and then for our families, and then for ourselves.
The Bibles’ Genesis story describes the separation of man from God. When Adam disobeyed God, he was afraid and embarrassed. This story is metaphorical. When we do something that in some way harms other beings, we feel embarrassed to admit what we have done, especially to those we have harmed. We feel afraid of retribution. We build a psychic barrier between ourselves and all that is.
This process is self-reinforcing. Isolated from all that is, isolated from spiritual sustenance, we feel empty and hungry. We acquire to feel secure. This drives us to take actions without considering the well being of others.
Isolation from all that is isolates us from each other. We are not isolated physically, but emotionally. We do not feel what others feel. We can not empathize and are more willing to inflict pain on others. We would not willingly inflict pain if we felt the pain we inflicted. We do not feel the joy of others. We are missing so much joy.
Reconnecting is a challenge. In order to be willing to drop the psychic barrier that separates us from all that is, we have to feel that we do not have anything to hide. That can only happen if we are 100% honest with each other and willing to admit and ask forgiveness for our misdeeds. The fear of retribution and social ostracism makes this extremely difficult.
We can make it easier for each other by being non-judgmental and forgiving. This allows others to feel safe and removes the need for a psychic barrier. The more heinous the crime against us, the more we need to forgive. Allowing those individuals to reconnect with all that is, will allow them to feel their victims pain. This will be a more effective deterrent to doing harm than any physical punishment we could humanly inflict.
This will be difficult. Our survival depends upon it. Without reconnecting with all that is, we will not be able to fully adopt the world view that is necessary to achieve a sustainable future.
We need to address population and poverty.
The earth has a finite carrying capacity. It can only support so many human beings at one time. Exceeding the earths’ carrying capacity is harmful to all living things. It is not a sustainable condition and will eventually lead to a painful population crash via starvation and disease.
Population and poverty go hand in hand. With the exception of immigration, all developed countries have a negative population growth. Population is still growing in developing countries where poverty is epidemic.
The global elimination of poverty will result in global negative population growth. The human population will begin to decline globally naturally. Couples will simply have fewer than the 2.1 children that are necessary to replace them and as a result the population will shrink.
The elimination of poverty globally requires a combination of a more equitable distribution of resources and growth of the global economy. Growth of the economy is traditionally tied to an equal growth in energy consumption however there are some exceptions. Energy is one major issue we have to successfully address in order to achieve a sustainable future.
We need to address energy needs with conservation and renewables.
Energy production has to shift from non-renewable polluting fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, to sustainable non-polluting energy sources such as wind power, solar power, geo-thermal power, tidal power, wave power, ocean thermal power, ocean current power, hydro electric power, and bio-fuels.
Energy conservation can reduce the size and expense of this task and shorten the time frame to its’ completion. Energy conservation can take many forms, energy efficient building designs, more efficient transportation, designing our cities to be more energy efficient.
For example, more compact cities with less urban sprawl reduce the transportation energy costs. Designing mixed residential-business neighborhoods, rather than segregating residential and business into separate zones, reduces transportation energy costs by allowing goods and services to be produced and distributed where they are consumed.
One way this may be accomplished is to design apartment buildings with a mixture of residential, office space, and retail space. Put the retail space at street level, office space directly above the retail space, and then living space above the office space. This allows the office space to serve as a noise buffer between retail and other business activity on the street level and affords residents at least a third story view.
Heat produced by lighting or equipment in the business space and office space can be readily vented to the exterior during the summer but allowed to rise in the winter reducing the residential heating costs. The residential units above the office space act as insulation reducing the office space and retail heating costs.
Until our energy production is 100% renewable and non-polluting, there will be a trade-off between the needs of reducing poverty to reign in population expansion and environmental harm caused by utilizing polluting energy sources. We must eliminate poverty and stop population growth as soon as possible, even if it means some increase in energy production and pollution in the short term.
Between 1974 and 2006, the ratio of economic output to energy consumption doubled in the United States. Japan still produces twice as much economic output per unit of energy consumption than does the United States, so there is still much room for improvement in the United States.
Many of the renewable energy sources available to us are intermittent in nature. Germany has invested heavily in solar and wind generation. What they have found is that the geographical distribution of wind generation capacity and solar has provided overall reliable generating capacity. We have a much larger land area here in the United States, so there is even more opportunity to exploit geographical diversity.
The electric power grid must be upgraded in order to make heavy use of renewable energy sources. Converting to ultra high voltage DC transmission can rectify many of the existing grid deficiencies.
To do so we must substantially upgrade our power grid. Using ultra-high voltage DC transmission instead of high voltage AC transmission greatly reduces power transmission line cost and losses while improving capacity and reliability. It also allows the non-synchronous interconnection of grids.
Power transmission lines experience two primary sources of loss. The resistance of the wire causes the wire to heat up and the voltage to drop and power to be lost as heat. These losses are often referred to as “copper losses” even though most transmission lines utilize aluminum conductors. The second loss is via electromagnetic radiation.
A third source of power loss is via coronal discharge but this loss is negligible compared to copper and radiative losses in AC high voltage power transmission lines.
With AC power transmission, radiative losses increase with frequency and voltage. Copper losses decrease with voltage. Thus the design operating voltage of an AC transmission line is a trade-off between copper losses and radiative losses. Losses are also higher in 60 Hz transmission lines used in North America as compared to 50 Hz transmission lines used in some other parts of the world.
With DC transmission there are no radiative losses. This allows the voltages to be raised higher reducing copper losses. Line capacity is higher with a DC transmission line because the average voltage equals the peak voltage. With AC transmission the peak voltage is 1.414 times the average voltage and so the line must be operated at a lower voltage level, equating to lower capacity.
Another advantage of DC lines is there are no losses related to power factor. With AC lines, the load can cause the current to be somewhat out of phase with the voltage. This lowers the power that can be transferred. With DC lines, no power factor issues exist. DC current can’t be out of phase with voltage because there are no phases.
DC transmission is also less affected by space weather. Solar activity induces ultra low frequency current in transmission lines that can destroy transformers at the substations on either end of an AC line. However, in a DC line, these very low frequency currents do not adversely affect the DC/AC conversion equipment at the substations and thus the lines are much less vulnerable to space weather.
Given that the Earth’s magnetic field, which protects us to a degree, is declining in strength, converting our power infrastructure to DC transmission lines now can avoid outages during a future magnetic reversal which is likely to occur.
DC lines also lend themselves well to intercontinental power transmission. The radiative losses of AC lines are extremely high when they are run for long distances under oceans because the conductive salt water acts like a partially shorted secondary winding of a transformer. DC lines suffer no radiative losses and this is particularly significant for undersea power cables.
At voltages above 2 megavolts, coronal discharge losses increase to a level where they compete with copper losses. It is not advantageous to operate DC lines above two megavolts. Sweden operates the worlds highest voltage DC transmission line at 1.6 megavolts.
We should convert our transmission lines to ultra high-voltage DC, interconnect the east and west continental grid via DC transmission lines and consider intercontinental connections. A high voltage undersea transmission line would be practical across the bearing straight.
DC interconnections do not have the problems with cascading grid collapse that plague AC lines because the DC/AC conversion equipment can adjust voltage, phase, and power levels instantaneously. Thus interconnecting the eastern and western grids in this manner would not decrease grid reliability. Converting the entire transmission system to DC transmission would greatly enhance reliability and capacity.
In order to utilize renewables to meet our energy needs, we need increased capacity and reliability of the grid system. It is needed to provide geographical diversity to offset the intermittent nature of solar and wind power generation. Increased capacity will also be required as renewable generated electricity displaces fossil fuels in many applications such as home heating and providing heat for industrial processes.
Load leveling facilities will be required to cover the variable nature of electricity generation from renewable sources.
The switch to renewables will require load leveling facilities. Pumped hydro and Redox Flow cells are potential solutions. Pumped hydro involves pumping water from a low reservoir to a higher reservoir during periods of excess power production, and then allowing that water to flow through turbines to generate power when demand exceeds production. A Redox flow cell is a type of battery in which rather than having solid electrodes and a liquid electrolyte, there are essentially liquid electrodes and a solid ionic membrane acting as the ion transport medium. Redox flow cells use electrodes of liquid vanadium-sulfate in different oxidation states. The power capacity of the cell can be scaled to megawatts. Storage capacity is determined by the size of the vanadium-sulfate storage tanks. This makes this type of cell a practical battery for utility load leveling.
Other options involve the use of smart meters and variable rates so that individuals and businesses have financial incentive to defer loads which can be deferred during high demand periods. Smart appliances which can communicate with the utility can make this more effective than relying on human adjustment alone. Many energy intensive industrial processes can be scheduled for off-peak times and interrupted during a power emergency via automatic load shedding facilities.
We need to re-explore the nuclear option. Fast spectrum reactors can burn existing long term nuclear wastes. New technologies can address safety issues.
The rate at which renewables can be scaled up is not infinite. We need to consider other non-renewable energy sources that might be less harmful than burning fossil fuels with the attendant increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and resulting global climate change, acidification of the oceans, and other negative environmental consequences.
We have created a huge amount of long lasting nuclear waste. We owe it to future generations to eliminate this waste rather than leaving an ecological disaster that future generations will have to address. 95% of the energy generation potential of the original uranium ore is still present in nuclear waste. The spent fuel, laden with transuranic elements will need to be isolated from the environment for at least 20,000 years.
Fast spectrum reactors can greatly reduce the volume waste, extract the remaining energy content, and reduce the time that the waste must be isolated from 20,000 years to 300 years.
Conventional light water moderated reactors generate transuranics during their operation and burn only a small percentage of their fuel. Only select nuclear isotopes can fission through the absorption of slow “thermal” neutrons. Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 are the most common fissile elements. All transuranics can be fissioned with fast neutrons.
Fast spectrum reactors can burn the transuranics and extract the energy potential remaining in existing spent fuel. Transuranics are the portion of nuclear waste that has a long half-life. Fission products have a short half-life. This is how this process transforms a 20,000 year problem into a 300 year problem. Extracting 19 times the amount of energy from the waste as we did from the initial uranium fuel eliminates the need to mine additional uranium.
A controllable “safe” fast spectrum reactor design exists.
Conventional fast spectrum reactors are difficult to control. Accelerator driven reactors eliminate the potential for a runaway reaction by operating at subcriticality. The reactor is designed so that the neutron gain is 97% of that required for criticality. Remaining neutrons are supplied by a particle accelerator.
The output of the accelerator does not increase with reaction rates. There is no potential for a runaway nuclear reaction. If power is lost the reaction stops.
A fast spectrum reactor with on-site pyrometallic fuel reprocessing eliminates transportation of high-level nuclear waste. Uranium, plutonium, and other transuranics are not separated from each other. They are made into fuel and re-used in the reactor on-site. There is no isotopic purity of the uranium and plutonium. The potential for fuel to be diverted to weapons is eliminated.
The fast spectrum / pyrometallic reprocessing fuel cycle extracts nearly 100% of the uranium or thorium ore energy potential. All of the transuranic isotopes can be used. U-238 can be burnt as well as U-235 and Thorium-232. All existing transuranic waste elements can be burnt.
High grade uranium ores can provide energy for several hundred years with conventional reactor technology. The fast spectrum pyrometallic fuel cycle can extend that to several thousand years. Using lower grade ores, economical with this fuel cycle, can extend nuclear fissions usefulness to millions of years.
Controlled nuclear fusion is the Holy Grail of energy production.
The Holy Grail of energy production is controlled nuclear fusion. There is no melt-down potential, no potential for the large scale release of radioactive materials. Minor releases of tritium is the worst case scenario for a fusion power plant accident. Enough deuterium exists in the earths oceans to provide power for the next 15 billion years.
Science problems associated with controlled hydrogen fusion have been solved. Engineering, financial, and political problems remain. Nuclear fusion plants breed tritium from lithium. There is some question regarding whether the worlds lithium supplies are adequate.
Existing fusion reactor designs utilize deuterium and tritium. These elements are relatively easy to fuse. There are advanced fuel cycles that do not create neutrons and which can produce electricity directly rather than requiring thermal conversion, however, these fuel cycles require higher temperatures and densities than we can presently produce.
Energy production is the human activity most damaging to our environment. Energy is also the predominant limiting factor to economic growth. For both of these reasons clean renewable energy production should be our highest priority.
Most current food production is also not sustainable and environmentally damaging.
We pave over fertile flood plains for housing and commercial development. Then we burn or cut down forests and irrigate deserts to grow food. We over-water and leach minerals out of the soil. We over-fertilize using petroleum derived fertilizers, and turn streams, rivers, and river deltas into huge oxygen depleted death zones extending hundreds of miles out to sea.
Flood plains are fertile because past floods have deposited minerals from weathered rocks upstream. Flood plains will flood again. Rich soil of flood plains should be farmed.
Farmers often grow the same crop year after year which depletes the soil. Over-watering further damages the soil by leaching out minerals. Petroleum derived fertilizers replace lost minerals, a practice which is not sustainable. The leached minerals and fertilizers flow into streams and rivers causing surface algae blooms which deplete oxygen below the surface. We eat the food we grow or feed it to animals, produce waste which usually is inadequately processed, dumping more nutrients into the streams, rivers, and oceans.
We must use our land intelligently. Farm land that is suitable for farming such as flood plains instead of converting forests and deserts into farms. Rich naturally irrigated soil reduces the need to fertilize and irrigate. More complete processing of our sewage can allow the reuse of minerals. We need to stop animal waste from livestock from entering streams and rivers.
Drip irrigation is used in Israel where water is scarce and expensive. Water sensors are buried at a depth corresponding with the depth of the crop roots. When the soil is sufficiently dry to require irrigation, water is dripped into the soil until the sensors detect it and then it is shut off. Dripping rather than spraying reduces evaporative losses. Watering to root depth prevents minerals from being leached out of the soil reducing the need for fertilizers.
Soil can be rebuilt through the use of compost, mulch, manure, and other organic fertilizers. Nitrogen fixing crops such as alpha or clover can be grown and then plowed back into the soil.
Meat production is extremely land intensive and environmentally damaging. We need to raise animals in a way that limits the harm to the environment. The greenhouse effects of methane , cow farts, are two hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide.
We need to minimize environmental damage caused by resource extraction.
Extraction of resources environmentally damaging. We do additional damage when we discard the products produced from those materials. We need to eliminate our waste streams and reduce resource extraction by recycling everything. Recycling is often energy intensive. That limits the degree to which we can recycle. Addressing our energy supply needs will make it possible to increase the percentage of recycled materials and reduce environmental harm.
We need to consider the environmental costs of resource extraction and minimize the damage to the environment and use the extracted materials as efficiently as possible.
This article was intended to be a summary statement of the major problems we must overcome on the road to sustainability and to present some potential solutions.
This article was not intended to be specific, detailed, or exhaustive. I will elaborate on problems and technological or procedural solutions in future articles.
The single biggest challenge we face is to change our world view from one of being isolated individuals competing for limited resources, to a connected focus on the well being of all living things.
Many people oppose movement towards sustainability because they believe it means we must lead a simplified marginal life. In my studies of the issues I have come to the conclusion that all of the resources we need to live a full comfortable life in a sustainable manner exist.
After more than three decades of being immersed in technology, there are things to be said for a simpler life style. Complexity takes away from the human experience of interacting.