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ND alumna Thompson discusses alternative fuel sources

Ashley Charnley | Monday, April 14, 2008

Chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News and Notre Dame graduate Anne Thompson discussed the importance of engineering environmental stability and criticized the current forms of alternative energy in a lecture in the Jordan Auditorium at the Mendoza College of Business Friday.

Thompson said the environment has recently become a hot issue with the American public.

“It was clear that this was an issue that was going to impact all our lives,” she said. “The environment was no longer a ‘fringe’ issue. It was no longer the shaggy domain of environmentalists who wore Birkenstocks and crunched granola.”

Fueled by rising gas prices, the search for alternative fuels to replace coal – currently responsible for over half of the United States’ energy – and oil has become more expansive.

“Even the coal producers concede that the ability to capture and store carbon dioxide could be 20 years away, and certainly billions and billion of dollars away,” Thompson said.

Thompson said one alternative source of fuel that is “gaining popularity” is wind energy, currently responsible for less than 1 percent of the country’s energy. But Thompson said wind power is unfeasible because it produces very little energy, it is unpredictable and there is no way to store the energy produced.

“The even bigger challenge with wind power is how do you get the energy those wind turbines create out of the plains of west Texas or along coast lines to the city and towns beneath them?” she said.

Solar power is another popular suggestion as a source of alternative energy. According to Thompson, a new solar power plant recently opened in Boulder, California. It covers 300 football fields of area and powers only 14,000 homes.

“Again, it faces many of the same problems that wind does,” she said.

One form of energy that seems more promising is wave energy, which harvests energy from ocean tides. Thompson said researchers are having difficulties finding the technology to convert energy from the ocean into usable fuel.

“There are all kinds of experiments going on around the world on wave energy,” she said.

Thompson was also critical of bio-fuels such as ethanol, saying they are costly as well as difficult to mass-produce.

“Forests do nature’s work of capturing carbon dioxide, they are nature’s best defense of carbon dioxide along with oceans,” she said. “But when you clear those forests to grow crops for the bio-fuel, you are actually destroying that defense system.”

While Thompson said all of these alternatives to coal power have potential to be efficient energy sources, the question of cost often comes up. According to Thompson, the cost of transportation is often one of the biggest problems alternative fuels face.

To illustrate the severity of the environmental problem, Thompson cited the United Nations’ predictions for the world in 2020.

According to Thompson, by the year 2020, Africa will have 75-250 million people who struggle to find water. This makes the rapidly changing climate an international security issue as countries fight over resources, Thompson said.

Thompson said she believes “green” lifestyles can stay popular and that people want change. She cited her experience in Costa Rica where she visited Earth University, a school that educates students on how they can promote environmentally safe practices, as an example.

“Green, for the imaginative, will not be a burden, but it will be a launching pad for ideas, business plans, and forward thinking industries,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s lecture entitled “Green is the ‘new black,’ but will it stay in style?” was part of the lecture series “Ten Years Hence Speaker Series.”