The biggest generation issue humanity faces today concerns energy. We have awesome technologies and more on the way, but what is lacking is the proper energy infrastructure necessary to power it up. What energy sources are the best for long-term sustenance of humanity?
Energy sources are shrouded with misinformation (mistaken false information), disinformation (intentional false information) or basic ignorance/lack of legitimate information. There are major political divisions over this issue with some entirely focused on oil/coal, some focus entirely on solar/wind, some on using very little energy, some on a little of everything. Many debates have become almost ridiculous, especially from many politicians that lack basic scientific understanding to make such decisions (I sometimes cringe when I hear many such arguments from some non-scientific people, but I cannot blame them as this is a multifaceted issue with no easy answers).
Unfortunately, it is problematic. I paraphrase one of my physics professors who answered a student’s question over what can we do to combat climate change “I lack the energy anymore to argue with people like politicians over basic laws of physics when it comes to energy crisis.” This guy with multiple degrees in physics/astrophysics literally stands there saying “I give up. I give up losing sleep over this.” It just goes to show how ridiculous things have become to the point that even qualified people may become powerless in the face of oncoming destruction. I feel there are too many political decisions being made over things like what scientific programs to fund by people that have little or no knowledge of what they are deciding on. It is like me walking into a court one day and telling the judge I will take over & handle his cases for the week with very little understanding of the cases or even the court procedures. I have never even seen an actual court case live — it is like a politician lacking basic scientific knowledge trying to make scientific decisions. It sounds absolutely absurd, but it is how things work when it comes to politics.
I want to look at the pros and cons of the top 5 energy sources when considering their efficiency, effectiveness, and their environmental byproducts.
Before I go any further, I should mention this is a global issue that impacts everybody. Too many people look out only for themselves and the country they live in and are concerned with only their own lifetimes. I guess these people forget about their children, grandchildren, and other future generations. From what I believe, that is ultimate selfishness. It is my primary criticism of people because the reality is decisions they make impact every person globally. Earth is the only planet we have at the moment along with future generations of humanity so there is no room for selfish short-term focus.
Problematic Energy Sources
First, I want to quash a couple energy sources that have very low sustenance & too many dangerous byproducts. It is time to move away from these and to eliminate.
A substance that is difficult to mine and even more dangerous to the environment than oil. I will quickly go through the life-cycle. Coal is a culprit to the miners, who must go deep into the mountains to dig it out. It often leads to lung cancer, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) and chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease (NIOSH & CDC, n.d). Our lungs are not built to breathe any amounts of such dangerous substances even if a mask gets rid of 95% of the pollutants. There are also other dangers of deep mining, such as tunnel collapses. As an alternative to digging, often companies blow entire mountaintops off that contain coal, which damages local towns as the dangerous particles become airborne. Most people who do the labor in these mines or live around these mines are lower class people that lack the proper healthcare to overcome these health issues they may acquire from the mining work they do.
Next is the transportation to a power-station facility, where the coal is burned. Mercury, sulfur dioxide, lead, arsenic, carbon dioxide, other acids are all byproducts (UCS, 2011) and may be released into the environment. Much of the carbon dioxide, mercury, etc gets captured, but a lot of it is not. The burnt coal ash is also dangerous so it supposed to be reused in things like bricks and paint, but a lot of it is simply dumped like regular garbage (PSR, n.d). Some countries like China and India may simply dump it as they lack the technology capability to reuse it. Often, the pollutants like mercury are simply dumped in the rivers, damaging the wildlife and fishes. Those same fishes might end up in somebody’s dinner dish or simply swimming in them can be dangerous.
We already see the impacts of climate change. Yet 40% of the electricity globally (USA at ~38%) comes from coal and is continuing to rise year after year (Worldcoal, 2013). This is not sustainable in the long run. I understand that there are technologies that can capture a lot of the pollutants (called ‘clean coal’), but it is extremely expensive to integrate, and developing countries don’t have access to such technologies. Even if you were to capture 100% of the pollutants, it won’t stop the dangers of underground mining and the explosives used in mountains. This does not even take into account deforestation where miles of precious trees may be pulled out completely from the roots. It is a low efficiency energy source, and there are much better cleaner more efficient options for energy.
We use this in everything from cars to heating to ovens to ships to electric powerplants. Oil brings up underground pollutants whether drilling in deep or shallow waters. The dangers of oil spills during transportation might take decades to clean up. Trucks used for transportation also pose a danger on the roads with accidents. There are other dangers of oil spills that impact plants, fishes, sea mammals, other animals. Many people consume these animals, and the pollutants also goes up the food chain from fish to fish. Beaches might also become dangerous to humans and other animals alike. Most countries don’t have oil wells in their own backyards, and so there will be high transportation rate for oil, raising the risks on spills. We have only looked at the dangers of transportation so far.
The powerplants for refining the oil gives off dangerous substances like carbon dioxide. As documented for decades now, this air pollution directly impacts the local communities and rises into the atmosphere to wreck further havoc to global average temperatures.
Worse than the powerplants are the cars, trucks, and other vehicles on the road. These are perhaps the biggest causes for pollution, but also the toughest obstacles to overcome as the global population keeps rising (more cars on road). There are simply too many car companies globally to convince them all to figure out ways to lessen their pollutants. Even if you were to force them to do it with laws, they will simply move their business to the developing countries that have bigger issues than air pollution (namely survival). What is fuel efficiency to a country that cannot even financially afford to feed its own people? It is just an unfortunate lose-lose situation for everybody except the car companies that are primarily concerned with their profit margins.
Acid rain may be one of the effects of high air pollution, but often pollutants might just circulate in the air. In India, for example, pollution might circulate as smog. Sadly, some politicians might not even know how dangerous it is or if they do, they often pass it off as just smoke or fog. Delhi, India has perhaps the highest air pollution on Earth (economist, 2015), and I know that many people -including local politicians- there called it ‘dhumus’ (‘fog’ in Hindi). It is NOT fog but much of it is air pollution. One of the reasons why the average life expectancy is low in India is due to the air pollution. People are starting to change though as they recognize the issue (if only it did not take decades!).
Most countries also rely on oil for transporting other goods, such as food, clean water, and other resources essential to various regions. Globalization is a big part of that as nations become more and more linked together financially.
At the end of the day, changing is often easier said than done. Especially for developing countries like India and China, they do not have the technology to keep up with the energy crisis with a quickly growing population. Coal is perhaps the easiest substance to draw energy from to keep with their growing needs so of course, I do not blame them. On the other hand, I also recognize the limitations of Earth. There is only so much punishment nature can take before things start catching up. I will always place Planet Earth before any individual nation because Earth is the only home we humans have at present.
What are feasible solutions to the biggest issue we face today? Sadly, there is no clear magic spell to make it go away. I will propose what I believe are the 5 best alternative energies to coal and oil. The #1 solution I will propose is shrouded in misinformation and incorrect science. As a science guy myself and a thinker, I will address the misinformation the best I can with counter-arguments. At least from the science perspective – engineering and aeronautics are out of my realm.
5. Wind power/hydroelectric
Wind turbines harness the power of air, which causes the generator behind the turbines to spin. Hydroelectric dams harness power of flowing water, which causes the generators to spin. The principles being employed here are the same for both with the exception of the medium being employed (air versus water).
I put these two together because they rely entirely on three things: location, location, location. These energies are completely clean, renewable, and built on very simple mechanisms of physics, but there are limitations. Hydroelectric is worthless if you are away from moving water source. Wind power is worthless if you’re in a location where you get low winds or if the winds are too inconsistent. If put in a location with inconsistent winds, the energy output becomes too unreliable to be worth the cost. In the right location though, these are definitely feasible.
The reason why I don’t put wind power higher on this list is because there are issues with wind turbines. Birds. Noise. You won’t get reliable energy output annually to make a consistent difference in the energy needs of humanity. I realize though there are simple ways to overcome these issues by building entire wind farms on windy seas away from people or up in higher altitudes with fast winds away from most birds. Britain, for instance, has multiple off-shore wind farms miles away from coastlines providing energy year around. Just one of those farms, London Array, provides over 630 MW of power yearly (London Array Offshore Transmission Assets)! To put it into perspective, that single wind farm outputs as much energy as today’s coal plant (UCSUS). That powers over 250,000 homes on average yearly (JSOnline, 2008). Again, it all comes back to location. Many countries do not have the same luxury. We just need to figure out a way to harness the wind power of high altitudes; that can further change the dynamics of wind power.
As far as hydroelectric goes, dams are expensive to build and could change the entire landscape of an area. It is not suitable for most locations and electricity is too difficult to move efficiently across long distances so this is probably ideal mainly for nearby areas.
4. Next up on the list is using the oceans. For instance, water tides shift daily and waves are nonstop day and night. Some places even get massive powerful waves on a regular basis, such as around Hawaii. Also, unlike solar power, waves provide both day and night. What if you were to use that to run underwater generators for electricity?
At the moment, there are few water tide farms that use the power of tides to run underwater generators (Wikipedia). They are worthy of consideration in the long run as tides are much more predictable by the hour and day than any wind and much more affordable than massive hydroelectric dams. In fact, water tide generators can be placed on every bridge, every underwater pillar, every boardwalk, ever pier, every ship, every shore, and anything in or touching the sea for nonstop energy. Location becomes much less relevant than wind turbines for this clean, renewable source of nonstop endless energy.
Much like wind turbines for birds, these can be deadly to fishes. There are also larger fishes and mammals like whales that may have limited sight so they may not see the spinning tide generators. Perhaps you might be able to put safety nets or walls to block out water animals from reaching these tidal farms. Another issue is animals that rely on acoustics for communication and movement, such as dolphins, would also be in danger as these spinning generators would generate underwater vibrations as they rotate. Perhaps you can build away from where dolphins normally dwell. I would say animals is only true issue (these would also require regular cleaning & maintenance but what energy source does not require maintenance?) Overall, it is a great energy source that must be used more than things like coal & oil that ultimately do significant more damage to people & all other animals than water turbines would to fishes.
3. geothermal – Use the Earth. The power of the Earth is tremendous. It can move entire cities through earthquakes OR ripple through entire cities like hurricanes OR destroy entire cities through volcanoes. In the same manner, vents send out waves of hot energy from deep within the Earth. One of those vents are geysers. A geyser is simply hot water steam being expelled from Earth. Steam can also be found if a pipe is drilled a mile down (RenewableEnergyWorld).
Why don’t we use this more? The biggest issue is the initial costs being high to build a geothermal facility, but after that is renewable energy that will continuously regenerate with zero emissions. There are limitations as the number of geysers and geothermal vents are limited globally, but we should make use of what is available. There are very few problems I can think of other than limited location. Maybe energy transmission would be difficult as these are often far away from cities (Energy Informative, 2013). This is not like oil where you can just send tankers to move oil back and forth. Storing & transmitting electricity is currently inefficient so I would agree this is definitely problematic.
Overall, I think it is still worth the money. As transmitting electricity gets more efficient over time, the system can be upgraded every few years or so until it pays for itself through effectiveness & clean renewable energy.
2. solar energy – Use the Sun. The energy of the sun is renewable, clean, and emits zero pollutants. Once the panel is put into place, it may be used for decades with minor maintenance. The largest solar powerplant is expected to provide 750MW of energy in India (Hoium, 2014). It is large enough to provide electricity to over 4 million US homes, but the average house in India uses much less energy since most people do not own power appliances like laundry & dryer. In practice, it might be many more houses than 4 million.
The efficiency rate is still under 20% on average for most consumer solar panels (National Academy of Engineering). It continues to rise from year to year as the graph below shows, but much of it is still under research from different companies/types of panels. One of those materials being researched is called perovskites, which is expected to replace current photovoltaics (Wang, 2014). Research first then mass production takes years and many resources before it can be put on the market for consumers.There are also ideas of placing massive solar sails in space to directly capture massive amounts of sunlight 24/7 without having to take into consideration the rotation of Earth. Of course, the issue is how would you transfer that electricity back to earth? Transporting large batteries back & forth is not feasible unless if the batteries can store enough energy to be worth rocketing back & forth. One possibility I can think of is placing large mirrors in space to reflect sunlight to something like light receivers back on Earth. The energy would be tremendous at the receiving end as it would be focused into powerful beams, but I am not sure if we are technologically at that stage yet.
The issue lies entirely in the manufacturing if done improperly as it often is the case in China and other places. Taking shortcuts in the manufacturing can be more dangerous than most energy sources out there. The manufacturing of a solar panel uses something called Sulfur hexafluoride, which may be the most dangerous greenhouse gas known if released into the atmosphere. It is 23,900 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide (Sciencedaily). “The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change considers sulfur hexafluoride to be the most potent greenhouse gas per molecule; one ton of sulfur hexafluoride has a greenhouse effect equivalent to that of 25,000 tons of CO2” (Mulvaney, 2013). Manufacturing must be done properly by qualified people and regular inspections or any benefit of solar energy is trivialized by releasing this gas. If manufactured as it is supposed to, solar power is perfectly safe and without a question the second best option available.
1. nuclear power – Use the universe. Solar energy uses the power of the sun, but how about you make it yourself here? On the large scale, there is nothing more powerful than the power of the suns – or more specifically nuclear fusion. As you probably learned in junior high or grammar school, nuclear power includes both nuclear fission, where you split a high-mass atom, and nuclear fusion, where you collide low-mass atoms together into a single atom. Both give off tremendous energy as a byproduct.
I am already at 3,000 word count so more on nuclear power next week as it requires in-depth analysis & explanations.
As you may notice, the top 3 energy sources on this lists are provided naturally by the Earth, Sun, and quantum physics (power of the Universe). This is what the Universe uses so why don’t we learn from the Universe? Clearly, I would argue these sources are sustainable in the long run if these are the processes that work throughout the universe. Some of these may not be technologically or financially feasible, but most of them are. Even nuclear is absolutely feasible more so than any other energy resources on this list, but nuclear energy is for next week.