If you ask just about anyone what the greatest crisis of the 21st century is, they'll tell you that it's energy. Whether they directly express concern about energy or not, every response will have something to do with it, in fuel costs, electricity prices, and so on. As the world produces energy, billions of tons of pollutants are released into the atmosphere and environment. This pollution is a result of the methods we use, and have always used, to produce energy. From the beginning of time, energy has been harnessed in the form of fire - a method that is the most prevalent today. In all the hundreds of thousands of years fire has been used, we still have not changed the basic principle of the method in which we get our energy - a resource is consumed, and energy is extracted, in exchange for altering the chemical properties of the fuel. Fossil fuels are the backbone of the global economy - they power fleets of trucks, airplanes, ships; in fact, every method of global transportation is completely dependent on fossil fuels.
There are many reasons for this - first, fossil fuels are cheap, and the infrastructure has grown around it for a very long time. The ability to extract energy from them is easy. The fuel is easily distributed and can serve to power equipment that is miles away from a ground-based power plant. Basically, fossil fuels allow you to carry your energy in a package, and extract it when it is needed, regardless of the location.
But what about pollution? And what if this miracle resource, fossil fuel, dries up? Scientists have been estimating running out of fossil fuels since we have begun using them. While we have no idea when they will run out, the problem is that we are endangering our own lives in the process of giving ourselves economic growth - what good is economic progress if we're all dead from either rising oceans, toxic atmoshpere, or undrinkable water? So you don't think fossil fuels are something we're going to have to worry about any time soon - global warming won't really concern us for another few centuries. But what then? We drown? We choke on our own air? We kill off plants that are necessary to live?
Alternate energy solutions are everywhere. But the thing is, most of them aren't even long term solutions. Bio-diesel, bio-fuels such as ethanol, and all other derivatives that require combustion result in pollution. Yes it lowers energy costs in the short run, but does it change a thing in the long run? Not a bit. CO2 is emitted by every organic derivative fuel that we possess. Because of the very nature of consuming organic molecules, we emit greenhouse gasses. Want a good example of what greenhouse gasses can do under the right (or wrong) circumstances? Check Venus.
On top of that, in order to sustain the US's current energy demands, we would have to burn more ethanol than you could get if you converted ALL of America's farmland into strictly ethanol producing corn fields. So figure a more than double increase in agricultural productivity to sustain the US on ethanol and plant derived fuels.
So what does that leave us with, if we exclude all organic energy? Well, there are a few other sources out there. Nuclear power, for example. We have yet to master the art of nuclear fusion, unless it is in concordance with causing large-scale destruction. The feasibility of fusion on a small (read: non-stellar) scale is not even known. We can rule that one out for the forseeable future. And aside from that, where are we going to find large amounts of deuterium or tritium? Ionizing water? If we turn all of our water into helium we won't do ourselves much good. I suppose we could mount giant Bussard collectors on some space stations, but the amount of fusable hydrogen we would have to capture would be enormous, and most of the solar system's loose hydrogen is collected by the gas giants and the sun - not to mention solar wind blows most of it away anyways. If we could blanket the entire solar system in a magnetic field, perhaps we could collect enough to maintain our current energy demands - but despite those less-than-slight difficulties, we still haven't even sustained a fusion reaction!
So, nuclear fission, perhaps? Nuclear fission is the process that powers every nuclear reactor on the planet today. The release of neutrons from radioactive isotopes of Uranium and Plutonium heats water which drives turbines, turning generators and delivering electricity to the consumer. But once the radioactive metals decay, and their useful supply of neutrons is dissipated, we are left with tons of radioactive waste that is less useful than a pile of rocks, and a good deal more dangerous. We can bury them beneath the surface of the earth, and all that is required is a few hundred thousand years before they are safe to approach. On top of that, uranium and plutonium aren't renewable resources either. The Golden Rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules - in this century its black gold, in a fission powered world, it would be Uranium. To top the whole problem off, nuclear reactors can create radioactive materials that are quite good at producing weapons of mass destruction - on the order of destroying the entire planet. Whereas fossil fuels have the potential to slowly kill us, nuclear fission can kill us off in a manner of minutes. Simply creating a network of distribution for radioactive elements to supply power stations creates a network of distribution that criminals don't have to work hard to infiltrate. Skimming handfuls of fuel off of shipments will allow for the building of an atomic bomb in short order.
So what's left? We have a few choices - hydrogen fuel, and natural resources such as sunlight, wind, and hydro power. Let's address hydrogen first. Hydrogen is seen as mankind's Holy Grail for energy problems. If the fuel cell is mastered, humanity will be free from the burdens of energy crises. But the problem is, there isn't a great deal of hydrogen floating free in Earth's atmosphere. The answer by scientists is simply to make it - with water. Everyone knows the formula for water is H2O, two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. So we must have a huge supply of hydrogen on the earth, since 70% of its surface is water. Well, thats true. But it takes considerable energy to extract the hydrogen from water - the conventional method is through electrolysis (no, not hair removal.) An electrical current is produced through an electrolytic solution of water. This current creates free molecules of both Hydrogen and Oxygen - if we capture both, we can combine them in a stoichiometric ratio and create energy later on, storing the fuel much in the same way as gasoline does now. There are a couple problems with this - first, is small scale use of hydrogen - not many people want a canister of liquid hydrogen sitting in their trunk. Gasoline is bad enough, but the potential for explosion of 1000psi of pure hydrogen is enough to make anyone think twice.
So, the solution would obviously be to develop battery powered forms of transportation, that can take energy from a power grid provided by a hydrogen powered power plant. This could possibly work - but again there is that mysterious problem that scientists seem to ignore. Where do we get the energy to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen? Fossil fuels? Well, that is self-defeating. All the benefits of hydrogen would be for naught if we made our supply by burning dino-juice to create useable hydrogen - in fact, our fossil fuel requirements would increase, because we cannot extract 100% of the energy from the hydrogen that we put in to extract it in the first place. Many people say once we have a hydrogen fuel system in place, we can use the power from the hydrogen power plants to split more water. That would be possible, however there's a problem. The though of using hydrogen in a power plant to make hydrogen that is used in the same powerplant is called something by scientists. It's called a perpetual motion machine, and any true scientist you talk to will agree that perpetual motion is impossible - the energy it takes to extract hydrogen from water is greater than the energy gained when it is recombined to form water. On top of that, when you detach a hydrogen ion (H+) from water and give it an electron to make it hydrogen gas, you get a molecule of hydroxide (OH-.) You might recognize the main ingredient of Drain-o as Sodium Hydroxide - the hydroxide ions are what make it so effective. We also create hydronium ions - the same thing that gives Hydrochloric acid its potency. These two combine with each other to form water - but only in pure distilled water with no problematic ions that can create toxic and insoluble wastes. That adds the energy cost of distilling the water in the first place - hardly a cheap solution. Clearly, hydrogen in itself is not a feasible source of energy.
What about natural resources for energy? Windmills, solar panels, hydroelectric dams. Well, those are great resources - they don't pollute as they are used, they generate power that is renewable and doesn't require a fuel source. What is the problem with this source then? Well, in order to meet the US' current energy requirements, the entire Mid-West would have to be covered in solar panels. It's hard to grow food under an opaque shield. Windmills would have to be literally everywhere to generate any considerable fraction of the requisite power. On top of that, wind isn't constant and predictable, and sunlight is very easily removed by clouds. It would be easy for clouds to cover a quarter of the Mid-West, and then say goodbye to your Playstation game you hadn't saved since level 3. We could store the energy in batteries - a few hundred billion of them - each containing lead and acids and toxic compounds. What we can see is that, while they provide power at minimal cost, the feasibility of using these things solely to power the world is minimal.
But what about hydroelectric dams? They are a great resource and can provide useable power for many - but there simply isn't enough moving water in the US to provide us with enough energy. If we dammed every river, not only would we have water allocation problems all over the continent, but we cannot even predict the change in weather patterns by such an event. Hydroelectric dams seem to create the biggest bang for the buck, but they have problems because they rely on scarce resources - namely, land, and rivers.
So where does that leave us? Well, we'll have to make the transition to natural forms of energy as fuel costs continue to skyrocket. More windmills, solar panels, dams, etc, and, in my own estimation, we'll see a giant increase in the number of geothermal plants (extracting heat from the earth's core,) which are a pollutionless and fuelless method of generating power.
Once you get a natural source of energy going, then you can use it to generate hydrogen and phase out the fossil-fuel forms of transportation - gasoline is so wonderful because its transportable. If you can find a way to generate the hydrogen with the help of another renewable energy source, we might have something good on our hands. But until that day comes, we'll be stuck on fossil fuels.
In short, ethanol won't last long. There isn't enough production, and you don't lose the drawbacks of fossil fuel - pollution. It may produce less, but not none.