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Hesburgh Lecture on energy details peril of fossil fuels
Dr. Edward Maginn
Dr. Edward Maginn

By Christina Leslie | Correspondent

Labeling the necessary reduction in atmospheric concentrations a “global moon shot problem” that needs to be addressed over the next 30 years, renowned University of Notre Dame professor Dr. Edward Maginn called for cleaner and more efficient worldwide power sources during a lecture Oct. 12 in Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft.

“Stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations will require 20 terawatts of carbon-free power,” Maginn told a meeting co-sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of the Jersey Shore in CBA’s performing arts auditorium. Twenty terawatts would equal the energy consumed by two million American homes per year, and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are believed to trap heat in the atmosphere and in turn, warm the planet.

Maginn, the university’s departmental chair in chemical and biomolecular engineering, addressed alumni of the South Bend, Ind., university and the public on the topic of “Powering the Planet in a Carbon-Constrained World.” The presentation was an installment in the Hesburgh Lecture Series, named for Congregation of Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, university president from 1952 to 1987.

Maginn, who joined the faculty in 1995 and earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Iowa State University and a doctorate in the subject from the University of California at Berkeley, discussed the current reliance upon non-renewable energies such as oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power, over renewable energies such as those derived from sunlight, wind and water.

For example, though coal is a cheap and plentiful resource that fuels more than 40 percent of the world’s electricity, coal-fired power plants emit climate-altering greenhouse gases into the environment daily. Though controversial in many portions of the country, coal still holds an important place in the Midwest, he said, explaining that utilities in the Midwest often ration natural gas in the winter months, reducing the flow to businesses in favor of residential customers.

Using the unit of measurement of a gallon of gas, which also is the equivalent of 13,000 AA-size batteries, or 4,000 iPhone batteries, Maginn stated that in order to live our current lifestyle in the United States, people use the equivalent of seven gallons of gas per day. Worldwide, consumption is the equivalent of only 1.6 gallons per day.

Energy consumption planet-wide is large, as well, totaling 13 billion tons of oil per year, the equivalent to 17.6 terawatts, or 17.6 trillion watts.

“The developed world has not used more energy in the last 10 years, but there has been a big increase in China,” Maginn stated. “The rest of the world will need 23 terawatts to run the planet by the year 2035 due to population growth and growth in the gross domestic product [GDP] in developing nations.”

During the address, the professor explained how rapid population growth and quality of life in nations such as China, Russia and India is taxing the earth’s capacity to support its inhabitants.

The world is becoming more efficient, he continued. The GDP, which is the monetary value of all the goods and services produced over a specific period of time, is expected to double by 2035, but energy demand will be increasing by only 30 percent, with virtually all this energy growth coming from fast-growing countries like China and India.

Maginn noted that approximately 1.3 billion people currently do not have access to electricity. The better off people are financially, the more electricity they tend to use. Two billion people today around the world are considered middle class; in 15 to 20 years, the total will approach five billion.

Fossil fuels currently dominate primary energy sources, and about 80 percent of these sources are from coal, oil and natural gas. Maginn expects strong growth in renewables, “but even so, changes in the energy mix take long periods of time,” he said.

But fossil fuels are plentiful, Maginn said. “We have more oil than you can shake a stick at,” he stated. “For each barrel we use, they find two. The known resource reserves dwarf the world’s likely consumption out to the year 2050 and beyond.”

“With regards to shale gas, the U.S. is like the Saudi Arabia of fossil fuels,” the professor added. “India, Russia and China also have enormous fossil fuel reserves. We will run out of oxygen before we run out of fossil fuels.”

Air pollution in the form of sulphur particulates, especially in modern-day China, are a problem, and that country’s carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. Maginn stated, “To stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 450 ppm [parts per million], up from 300 ppm in 1950, we must bring online 20 terawatts of carbon-free power over the next 30 years.”

“We could meet future energy demands with fossil fuels, but with great effort,” Maginn said, “for we would need to build one new power plant every two days for 25 years.”

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