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by Josh Zeisel

As we go further into the Republican primaries and towards the presidential election, the talk inevitably lands on the economy, gay marriage, and various other social issues that we put up on a pedestal, ignoring an incredibly pressing matter. Wars are and should be a crucial topic amongst the candidates, but let’s face it, when we talk about wars we are actually just talking about oil. You do not see the United States fighting wars in Europe anymore, do you? No, because Europe isn’t an oil hot-bed like the Middle East. And usually after we fight those wars, we leave little good in our wake. But what about our energy problem?

We can spend that money on alternative energies and never be reliant on oil imports again. Even if you do not believe that global warming exists, you have to admit that it is better to not use the limited supply of oil and use an alternative. From here on out I’m not going to call these newer methods “alternative energies” because they should be primary energies. They will just be called “energy sources.” Using oil goes against a critical part of what makes us human: we are a species of advancements.

Unfortunately, advancements in energy sources has not progressed as fast as cell phones have, even though energy moves all around us, wherever we are. Take a minute to think about where you live. Think about what nature provides you with every day. I work on Long Island and live in New York City and there are at least three different viable energy source options I encounter on my commute.

Solar energy is the most obvious option, though its efficiency will diminish in the winter months. The angle of the sun that the 40º north latitude experiences in the winter is too shallow for a solar panel to be efficient, but this is only because of the present technology available. It is hard to believe that one of the plants in my apartment can thrive with the little amount of light that it receives in the winter time while it would be considered impossible for a solar panel to perform the same task.

“Oh, but Josh, it’s warm inside your apartment so that’s why your plant grows during the winter.” Yes, that is true, Loyal Inclusive Reader, but the amount of light the plant receives is the same as if it were inside or outside the apartment. If it didn’t get any light it would die, no matter its location inside or out. Further, the resistance of a wire increases as the temperature decreases. This is because copper or any other material that a wire might be made out of shrinks when the temperature goes down. And as we all know, resistance of a wire is proportional to the inverse of the area of the current carrying structure. Or, if there is more space for the electrons in an electric current to occupy,  there is less resistance. The classic example is water flowing through a pipe. More water can flow through the pipe if the pipe is wider.

This only strengthens my argument. If you are a football fan in a northern climate you'll want to sit in the seats that are in the sun rather than those in the shade because they are warmer. The same goes for that solar panel. The panel is warmer because it’s in the sun, which means the current carrying wires aren’t as cold as the surrounding air and the resistance stays low.

If you’ve heard of superconductors you will know that a superconductor actually decreases resistance at lower temperatures and is usually kept incredibly cold to operate properly, about 400ºF below zero (absolute zero, the lowest possible temperature, is about -400ºF). Superconductors would be great for a northern climate like New York, especially the models under development which do not need to be cooled to such low temperatures.

The last two points are admittedly far-fetched. The resistance of a wire does not increase significantly in cold temperatures anyway. The copper will only shrink in size 9 millionths of an inch per every degree Fahrenheit cooled per every inch of material cooled (2 inches of material will shrink 18 millionths of an inch, 27 millionths per 3 inches, etc). A lower gage wire can also be used to allow for more current to flow freely. Superconductors probably do not need to be used on a solar panel either. Yet, the fact that advancements in these technologies are being made is the main point.

The next two energy sources have to deal with the natural flow of fluids. Every single day of the year the wind blows and the tides roll in and out. These two effects -- powered by the sun and the rotations of the earth and the moon -- are natural effects that humans can interact with to produce energy without the use of any type of ignition or chemical reaction.

A naysayer once told me that that the efficiency of a wind turbine is too low to be cost effective, but there was never a good explanation, since one doesn't really exist. Efficiency is defined as the ratio of the output power to the input power. It’s understandable that the machinery that turns the moving wind into electricity may have low efficiency, but humans are not creating the input power like they do when they burn fossil fuels. There is no wasted byproduct when it comes to wind or tide energy. As long as the sun does not burn out and the moon doesn’t fly away these effects will be available.

A few years ago, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) wanted to construct a wind farm off the coast of the eastern end of Long Island (near the Hamptons) in the Atlantic Ocean. The farm was to be placed 13 miles from the coast, but the plan was met with resistance by the local residents. The towers were unsightly and would have ruined the pleasant skyline. At 13 miles from the coast, a tower has to be about 100 feet high to be at the horizon level. Anything above this is seen above the horizon. A typical wind turbine tower is about 300 feet high.

The residents would be able to see such a structure, but at that distance it will only look like it is a few inches above the horizon. Hardly an undesirable sight, but LIPA could move the towers another 4 miles out or move them closer to New York City where less resistance would be met. Luckily, Consolidated Edison (ConEd), the leading energy supplier of New York City, teamed with LIPA teamed to continue the plan. Tide water turbines would only be unsightly to the fish.

Who are the best people to undertake the funding and investments in new technologies? The first thought would be that taxpayers would need to fork over their hard-earned dollars, but the oil companies themselves should be leading the way. Oil companies should not consider themselves solely in the business of oil anymore, as they did a hundred years ago. They should consider themselves in the energy business.

Companies like Exxon/Mobil and BP should be investing the billions of dollars in profits made every year in energy research. They should be looking forward, building business plans that incorporate new technologies: new technologies that could be exported to other parts of the world, which would create more capital and profits as we continually burn through fossil fuels. But every minute that they stack their money and keep depending on such a diminishing good, the longer we suffer.

Image courtesy of Mountain/\Ash

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Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]