For decades, scientists, environmentalists, and individuals across the globe have struggled with the dilemma of how to continuously provide reliable, available energy without damaging the environment beyond repair. This is a complex problem with many questions but few answers:
- How long will the Earth’s available fossil fuels last?
- Are there better ways to burn oil, coal, and natural gas?
- Are we damaging the environment irreparably with emissions and refinery wastes?
But the main question that all are searching for the answer to – are there better energy sources that provide more reliable, cleaner energy?
Current Sources of Power
The old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” is nowhere more applicable than in man’s thirst for cost-efficient, readily available sources of energy. Without a seemingly endless supply of energy, civilization as we know it would cease to exist.
The industrial revolution of the late 1700s would never have taken hold without the introduction of modern steam engines that made manufacturing machines practical, spurring economic development, factory employment, and the trade of goods produced.
As production increased and demand grew, the need for more sources of energy grew as well. Over a period of decades – even centuries – many sources of power have been discovered, created, and developed.
Fossil fuels are classified as naturally existing decayed organic materials that in time transform into crude oil, coal, and natural gas. The bonus of fossil fuels is that they are there for the taking, although they are more prevalent in certain geological areas, making some countries or regions more capable of producing them in large quantities.
Downsides to fossil fuels:
- They can be expensive to extract
- Some fossil fuels require extensive refining to produce end products such as gasoline
- Burning fossil fuels can be detrimental to the environment and human health through the emission of hazardous byproducts such as carbon dioxide, commonly viewed as a cause of climate change
There are varied opinions on how limited the supply of fossil fuels is below the Earth’s surface, but it almost certainly is not an unlimited resource.
The advent of nuclear power plants was at one time hailed as the solution for cleaner electrical power without the emissions created by burning coal or oil.
A major negative impact of nuclear power is the byproduct of radioactive waste, which is extremely hazardous to humans and the environment.
Water-driven turbines that generate electric power may appear to be the solution to clean power, with no emissions or impact to the environment, and a nearly unlimited source of continuously renewable energy.
Since most hydroelectric plants are constructed using dams and reservoirs for water sources, there may be environmental impact for areas above or below the dam site, impacting land use and available water supplies for agriculture.
Alternative Energy Sources
Man’s creativity and powers of observation have combined to discover new sources of energy, providing solutions to environmental issues and greatly reducing our dependency on fossil fuels.
As early as the 16th century, windmills have been used as an energy source for such critical tasks as pumping water and grinding grain in mills. Massive sails and blades capture wind to turn grinding wheels and pumping equipment with no fuel, no emissions, and no environmental impact.
Today, huge wind blades are constructed to capture the kinetic energy of wind, transforming it to mechanical energy to power electrical generators that produce electricity. Excess power generated can be stored in banks of batteries to provide power when there is no wind available.
Advantages of wind energy:
- Minimal upkeep – only periodic maintenance is required
- Cost-effective – no fuel is required, although initial investment in land and equipment can be considerable
- Renewable energy source
- Totally green – no emissions
Disadvantages of wind energy:
- Reliance on wind, which may not always be present
- Potentially hazardous to wildlife such as birds
- Some may consider them unsightly
- Wind farms may require deforestation in some areas
Solar power is by far the most significant alternative source of energy being implemented and refined today. Due to the availability and reliability of sun as a resource, solar panels are seen with increasing frequency on residential and small business rooftops. Cost of commercially available solar panels has dropped as efficiency has improved.
For commercial use, large farms of solar panels have been constructed to harness the sun’s power and generate electricity for distribution and sale. There are two methods of utilizing solar power to generate electrical power:
Photovoltaic cells can be used to transform solar energy directly into electricity. This is the type of solar power more commonly used by small businesses or residences.
Solar turbines are another major method of generating electricity from solar energy. Mirrored surfaces transfer heat to a heat collector, which in turn is used to heat water and generate steam that drives the solar turbine, creating electrical power.
Downside – although solar energy is a renewable source of power with no emissions, the process of manufacturing solar panels generates considerable potential for pollution.
New Energy Sources
Science never stands still, and new power sources are continuously being sought and investigated for potential.
As recently as 2017, Army scientists discovered a reaction between water and an aluminum nanomaterial that produced hydrogen. This alone could hold significant potential as a cost-effective energy source, possibly to power fuel cells of the future.
Scientists in two continents have recently independently discovered a way to generate fusion power with plasma fuel, which could be a breakthrough in generating a virtually limitless supply of clean energy, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels in the future.
Dedicated scientists and the increasing focus on renewable sources of clean energy will continue to be a driving force for creative thinking and investigation into new energy sources.