Friday, October 22, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty? A Look at Renewable Energy and First World Demand

There are many basic presuppositions, conclusions and concerns within the circle of well-known figures studying Peak Oil, ecological degradation, resource constraints and the financial ramifications of these things. These conclusions and concerns form a body of commonly accepted “received wisdom” within this circle, and they frame the discussions regarding the seriousness of our energy and environmental predicament and the appropriate response to that predicament.

But those within the circle must beware of the tendency to form a closed society or “ghetto” that is cut off intellectually from the larger society. In view of the seriousness of the energy, economic and environmental challenges facing us, I think it's valuable to engage intelligent decision-makers within the mainstream in order to start and maintain a conversation regarding these challenges. (That is one reason why I like doing interviews – that I may ask, “Are we starting to see the same things?”.)

Thus I recently found myself conducting an interview with Dr. Slobodan Petrovic, a professor who is part of the Electrical Engineering and Renewable Energy programs at the Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT). Dr. Petrovic recently returned from a humanitarian mission to Tanzania, where he and several students from OIT designed and installed several small-scale solar photovoltaic projects for schools and hospitals. (You can read about it here.)

During our interview, we discussed small-scale renewable energy installations, the present peak of global oil production, and renewable energy prospects in the United States. My questions were as follows:

  • Tell us a little about your renewable energy work on the African continent.

  • It sounds like your work concerns renewable energy solutions applied at a local scale (neighborhood, district, or village) rather than a national scale. What constraints exist in African nations that prevent the execution of large-scale renewable projects scaled at a national level?

  • Do you see such constraints at work here in the United States, particularly in economically depressed areas? Why or why not?

  • Given the present contraction of the global economy and the continued decline of its resource base, what do you believe the most likely direction of renewable electric energy generation will be in the U.S. over the next 20 years?

  • Do you believe that renewable energy technologies have a good chance of supplying a major portion of present U.S. energy demand in the near future? Why or why not?

  • Is it possible that the U.S. will have to do some permanent "load shedding" in the near future in order to cope with a drastically lower availability of energy? What form would such permanent cutbacks take, and how can local neighborhoods prepare?

  • What resource constraints affect current renewable technologies, particularly regarding strategic minerals located in poor countries with large indigenous non-European populations?

  • In a time of economic contraction and resource depletion, what advice do you have for people who want to be engineers?

A podcast of the interview can be found at the Internet Archive, here. Feel free to listen and see whether we adequately answered the questions I posed above. Also, for those who live in the Portland metro area, Dr. Petrovic will be giving a talk in the near future on his work in Tanzania. I will post details as they become available.

1 comment:

Aimee said...

Big questions! I look forward to listening to the podcast