Fueling our Lives

Fueling our Lives

Ian Wallace, Columnist

How Energy Problems Lie at the Source

Energy: It’s in our homes, stoves, and boats, and it’s used to make every product made by humankind.  However, not every type of energy is the same; using the wrong source of energy is often at the root of problems society faces.  One would never buy a nuclear reactor to roast chicken in your oven, nor would one buy a coal-powered steam engine for your car in the 21st century.  While such examples of energy misuse may seem ridiculous, far more relevant examples of improper energy use exist today, many resulting in dire consequences.  

Indoor Charcoal Cooking.

Solid fuels such as wood and coal make for an enjoyable barbeque, but in densely populated, impoverished nations, using cheaper, solid fuels instead of liquid or gas alternatives such as propane, are proving deadly.  In Haiti for example, a small island country in the Caribbean, indoor cooking with charcoal has attributed to a high rate of Tuberculosis and Carbon Monoxide levels, especially in women who traditionally cook most of the family meals in the country.  To solve the looming health crisis, groups like the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves are operating partner companies in developing regions to donate propane cook stoves and fuel to provide cleaner fuel for the human respiratory system.

Hyman Rickover

One of the greatest challenges for navies over the past century has been refueling their ships in the middle of the ocean and trying to hold the thousands of gallons of fuel on board.  For Captain Hyman G. Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Submarine,” fossil fuels were clearly the improper source of energy, as it required constant refueling. In 1955, the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, was fitted with a reactor as part of a nuclear power experiment during the Cold War.  Today, with the high cost of building a nuclear power plant, nuclear reactors are most commonly found on aircraft carriers and large submarines, which can travel for ten years without stopping to refuel. The growth of nuclear energy has stagnated in power grid use after the fallouts in Fukushima and Chernobyl, but for isolated navy vessels, a leak has a lesser impact on the open seas.

However, for shipping companies who do not need to stay on the water for a decade at a time, the lower up-front cost of engines designed for Heavy Fuel Oil (bunker fuel) is still a more viable option.  Unfortunately, this means using 2,000 times the sulfur in diesel fuel and using nearly 150,000 tons of fuel annually per ship. Recently, companies like SkySails have found an inexpensive solution by selling remotely adjustable sails to help save fuel on cargo ships.  the result is a more proper use of energy that is both cheaper and more efficient. According to Skysails, a container ship using SkySails uses about five eighths the fuel of a traditional ship while traveling downwind.

Ultimately, while the aforementioned energy solutions are not universal, many of our problems in modern society are clearly traceable back to the source.  


This article is one of many on solving real-world problems through ingenuity.  For more on energy and transportation solutions, see “Climbing the Summit of Oklahoma City,” “The Economics of Airline Travel,” “The Ropeway Revolution,” and “Breaking the Ice” in The Global Review.