This activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards: Content Standard E: Science and Technology—Understanding About Science and Technology; and Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives—Types of Resources; Populations, Resources, and Environments; Science and Technology in Society.
An energy profile created in the above activity can give students a clear picture of where their energy comes from and how it is used now. However, when it comes to energy supply and demand, nothing is static. Local needs are constantly changing. National and international events can have serious impacts on energy supplies and prices. Sometimes short-lived phenomena have temporary ramifications, while at other times, events can have long-term consequences. As the article states and as any energy analyst will attest, communities and nations need to plan for the future.
To help your students understand some of the many implications involved in policy decisions about energy, present them with the following profile of a fictional community as it faces some of these decisions. After learning about the energy challenges facing "Millwater," your students will fill the roles of committee members assigned to explore energy options.
1. Read "The Energy Future of Millwater" (below) aloud to the class.
2. Ask your students to brainstorm some alternatives to overhauling the coal-powered plant. Make a list on the chalkboard or a pad of easel paper of the options they mention. Prompt them to consider others, so that a final list would include solar, wind, geothermal, biopower, hydropower, and fuel cells, as well as traditional energy sources such as coal, natural gas, petroleum, and nuclear power.
3. Divide the class into groups and assign each group to research one of the energy options on the class list. Perhaps a matrix, with "types of energy sources" listed along with the "Y" axis and "advantages" and "disadvantages" along the "X" axis will help them organize information about various energy sources.
In assessing the impacts of an energy source, students need to consider many factors. Use of a particular source, for example, involves the entire process from extraction through processing to delivery and end use, and in some cases, waste disposal. Factors include not only potential availability of a resource but also economic, environmental, and social considerations. Under these general categories, here are some more detailed questions for your students to consider about each resource they assess:
Availability: Is the resource renewable or nonrenewable? If nonrenewable, how long are reserves expected to last? Where does this resource come from? Is it domestically supplied or does it come from another country? Is the supply reliable? For instance, is the political situation of a foreign supplier stable? Is it possible to use this resource on a large scale? If renewable, is the technology available to make use of it?
Environment: How much disruption of the environment is involved in the extraction, production, delivery, and use of the resource? Is there a risk of environmental accidents or catastrophes such as oil spills or nuclear accidents? If the landscape is damaged during extraction, is reclamation possible and cost effective? Is there a problem with waste disposal or storage? Is pollution abatement technology available and cost effective?
Social Factors: Is there a traditional bias in favor of or against this resource? Are jobs likely to be generated or lost if this particular resource is used? Are there health/safety risks associated with the use of this resource?
Economy: All of the above factors relate to dollars and cents as well. So questions need to be asked about the costs involved in locating, extracting, producing, transporting, and using the resource. Are costs involved in regulating the use of the resource? Would the use of a new resource affect other sectors of the economy? What would happen to the infrastructure supporting the coal-powered plant, for instance, if a switch were made to wind energy? How would commerce between states be affected? Has use of this resource been subsidized either directly or indirectly? For instance, have all the costs involved in the use of fossil fuels–including pollution costs–been factored into their pricing, or should the government give tax incentives to those involved in the production or use of alternative energy sources?
4. Students can consult some of the websites and other references listed in the article, including information from the U.S. Department of Energy and materials provided by various energy industry groups. As they gather information, make sure your students keep track of the sources they use and are aware of the potential for bias. Encourage them to take note of discrepancies in data that might be motivated by such a bias on the part of a particular group.
5. Once your students have completed their research, hold a mock town meeting. Have each group assign a spokesperson to report on the energy resource it has investigated. Hold a class discussion on realistic alternatives for Millwater's energy future.
The Energy Future of Millwater
Millwater is a town of about 35,000 people located approximately 70 km from a major city. It straddles the banks of a small river. Originally the center of a farming community, the town has seen numerous changes since electricity first lit up street lamps in the late 1800s. Once little more than a crossroads town with a few retail establishments and a grain mill, more businesses and manufacturing plants have been moving to the area since World War II. So today, in addition to large dairy and fertilizer plants, a tire factory, a concrete and pipe manufacturer, a regional hospital, medical research firms, several software companies, a large printing plant, and a community college are major employers. Restaurants, hotels, and service stations provide benefits to residents and visitors alike.
Although railroads have always played a role in the town's commerce, highway construction has allowed even more convenient access to cities near and far. Since the 1950s, when highway construction accelerated rapidly, Millwater's population has been growing at a steady rate. Single-family homes and townhouses, many of them "all-electric," have been built on what used to be the surrounding farmland. Many of the area's residents now drive 70 km to jobs in the city. At the same time, as the population has grown, so has the number of retail establishments, including a major shopping mall on the outskirts of town.
But there are a few problems with this picture of progress. The cost of gasoline has risen dramatically, and the power plant that supplies electricity to the town is not keeping pace with the growing demand. It is old and in need of a major and costly overhaul. A group of local citizens has demanded that the town consider alternatives to the coal-powered plant.