This is part one of a three-part guest blog series from Claire Scoggin, director of the Wiess Energy Hall at the Museum of Natural Science in Houston. For more from Claire, check out the Beyond Bones blog.

The recent election and rising gas prices have raised the topic of energy to a higher level of importance for most Americans. Whatever it takes to make us examine what is required to produce the energy we crave in this country is good because it causes us to consider our responsibilities to the world today and to future generations.

Theodore Roosevelt, years ahead of his time, was an instrumental force in initiating wise conservation of our resources.

"In utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the Nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight... The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life."

Address to the National Editorial Association, Jamestown, Virginia, June 10, 1907.

The importance of the resources used for the production of energy show that Teddy Roosevelt was especially correct in predicting that conservation of resources would affect every other problem in our lives.

Yet for a long time in this country, people who were environmentally conscious were considered to be just a bunch of fanatics who were against economic growth for the sake of saving a few wild animals or trees. Fortunately, conservation has recently become a major issue as people are finally raising their heads and saying, “What are we doing?”

Most agree that it is practical to use some of our natural resources for the betterment of humanity, but a mature society looks out for its future generations. The word “sustainability” has become widely used. In the context of energy, it means the ability to supply our current needs without compromising the health, safety and environment of future generations.

The issue of energy and its global environmental, economic, and political ramifications is one of the most controversial issues facing our government today.

It is vital in a democracy for the citizens to be able to distinguish facts from verbal manipulation. How do we know what information we need to know in order to evaluate the information presented to us? Energy is a multi-faceted topic and requires clear criteria to evaluate the sources of energy such as solar, wind, fossil fuels, geothermal etc.

Below is a tool to use to compare energy sources.

Sources of Energy Analysis

What do we need to look at in order to evaluate an energy source?

  • Is it used for electricity or transportation?
  • What per cent of our power comes from this source today?
  • Understand the processes involved – study the science.
  • If the source is for electricity, will it steadily supply the base load or is it best for peak load? (Base load is the amount of electricity needed all the time in a steady supply. Peak load is energy that can come from intermittent sources during just the peak times of day when the most electricity is used – from about 4-9 p.m. )
  • Resources required to supply the fuel on a continuous basis
    • Source (fossil fuels, biomass, wind, solar etc)
    • Availability of resource
    • Cost of resource
    • Procedures for producing resource
    • Our relationship with the nations providing the resource if a high percentage cannot be provided domestically
    • Current and future global competition for resource
    • Cost of transporting resource
  • Cost of production - per KWH produced if for electricity
  • Energy Production Facility

o Front end costs to build production facility

o Time required to build facility

o Are building materials domestic or foreign?

o Other resources required to process

o Ability to shut down and restart plant

o Maintenance – speed of equipment deterioration

o Personnel needed and training involved

o Cost to rebuild and how often this will be necessary.

  • Transportation requirements – is the resource near the market and distribution facility?
  • Environmental effects
    • Carbon footprint

o Effects on local environment and wildlife

o Pollution – Air, Noise, Water

  • Safety factors – effects of a natural or man-made disaster
  • Waste produced and storage necessary
  • Precedence – historical perceptions
  • Regulations – local, state, federal and international
  • National security issues involved
  • Changes on the horizon
    • Technology – research and development
  • Criticisms