A Closer Look at Energy and Resource Engineering

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The United States is, by far, the leading user of the world's energy resources. With only 4.8 percent of the world's population, the United States uses 25 percent of all the energy generated on the planet. The burning of nonrenewable and highly polluting fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, accounts for 89 percent of our raw energy consumption. While the rest of the world derives about 20 percent of its energy needs from renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, solar, and wind power, only 4 percent of U.S. energy needs are provided by these sources. Being a world economic power and a nation that enjoys a very high standard of living requires the use of massive amounts of energy, but just how long can this country depend upon sources that pollute the earth and atmosphere and will by used up in as little as 75 years? Perhaps our failure to exploit energy sources that exist plentifully within our own borders and are well within our technical reach is a reckless and shortsighted endeavor. At present, we cannot free ourselves from our energy dependency on other countries because, aside from coal, the energy resources that we most use lie outside our national borders.

In the 1950s, the government and scientific community assured the nation that the ambitious pursuit of nuclear power technology would make energy so plentiful and cheap that we could literally disconnect our home power meters. Atomic-powered automobiles, planes, and durable goods were all advertised as being the wave of the near future. Today, nuclear power supplies the United States with only 7 percent of its energy needs and none of the promised nuclear-powered consumer goods have been developed. Power from nuclear reactors has turned out to be much more expensive than conventional sources, and both the disposal of radioactive waste, some of which has a half-life of 10,000 years, and the dismantling and disposal of older plants are logistical and financial nightmares. Public opinion about nuclear power has never been particularly strong, and the construction of these plants has become prohibitively expensive. No new plants are slated to be built, and more than half of the facilities operating today will be shut down within the next 20 years. At present, and well into the foreseeable future, nuclear power is not an alternative energy option.

National energy policy was jump-started in the early 1970s because of the oil embargo by the OPEC oil cartel. The government created many plans and laws designed to make the U.S. less energy dependent on foreign countries. Measures aimed at energy conservation, the development of alternative energy sources, and technological advances in designing energy-efficient machines all proved successful. During the next several years, overall use of oil dropped several percent, automobile gasoline efficiency standards were created, and solar, wind, and geothermal power were vigorously researched.

In the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush downplayed the need for a national energy policy based on anything but economic expansion and the continued use of nonrenewable fossil fuels. The Gulf War in 1991 was not about the restoration of "democracy" in Kuwait, for there was never any, but a well-coordinated international effort to keep the political balance of oil-producing nations in favor of the largest industrial nations. Will international aggression become even greater when fossil fuel supplies become scarce?

Recently, the United States has been pushing a more sensible national energy policy agenda that will meet and exceed many of the objectives set in the early 1970s. National transportation policy now calls for a reasonable mix of public transportation and national highway projects. Fuel economy standards are again on the rise and by the years to come, automobiles running on propane and other gases will be mass produced. Federal funding of research into alternative energy has also been expanded. What this country needs is a clear vision of its present and future energy needs, and it appears that we are moving in the right direction again.

Most energy and resource engineering workers are employed in the private sector. Equipment manufacturers employ engineers, physical scientists, and laboratory and installation technicians to research, design, build, and install many machines and devices. A large segment of the energy manufacturing industry are builders of heating and cooling systems. The petroleum industry also employs a large number of workers in the United States. While there has been a slowdown in oil and natural gas production, the refining and distribution sectors of the industry offer many job opportunities. Energy consulting firms also comprise a big share of the energy employment market. Companies specializing in petroleum, chemical, and mining engineering, as well as firms involved in developing alternative energy technology, are leaders in this area. Many small, start-up solar and wind power companies operate around the nation.
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