One of the greatest engineering challenges for the future will be to develop less environmentally damaging sources of energy while simultaneously reducing total energy consumption through better energy efficiency in the home, in transportation and in industry.
Since 1850, energy use has risen 80 times, with the unacceptable production of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen as by-products. We now use more fossil fuels per year than nature produces in a million years. Fossil fuels, as a result, dump more than five billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Developing new energy sources and improving existing ones represent major challenge worldwide. Improved combustion processes and emissions controls are needed. Innovation and political will are needed to develop practical solar and geothermal generation, wind power and biomass generation. Hydroelectric power should be developed where the environmental changes can be accepted. Perhaps the greatest opportunity is to develop ways to reduce energy use in resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and in the home and work place. There is widespread agreement that improvements in energy efficiency can be made more economically than developing new supplies of energy. Several forms of energy conservation represent important opportunities:
- Energy efficient construction in homes and the work place through the use of better insulation, more efficient lighting and better use of sunlight and passive solar energy.
- Greater use of co-generation – combined production of heat and electricity in industry. Only one-third of the steam energy in a conventional power plant is converted to electricity; much of the remaining steam energy can be used for heating and other industrial purposes.
- Better furnaces in industry. E.g. China and India use four times the energy to make one ton of steel as Japan. US steel plants could reduce their energy use by 40%.
- Smaller, more efficient automobiles. Better yet, greater use of mass transportation systems using electricity from non-fossil sources.