It seems you can’t turn on a TV or read a newspaper without seeing a mention of alternative energy sources—but all that information can be confusing. When you Google the words “Alternative Fuels”, over 2.3 MILLION search results appear. We don’t know many Mamas with the time to peruse that many items, so we’ve put together a few cheat sheets on energy sources. Happy Reading!
Fossil Fuels Fact Sheet
Fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas—are America’s foremost energy source. Together, fossil fuels comprise more than 85% of all the energy in the United States, nearly two-thirds of our electricity and almost all of our transportation fuel.
In recent years fossil fuel consumption has been involved in many heated debates, focusing on several issues. One of these issues is pollution. In order to convert fossil fuels to usable energy, they must be burned. Burning in turn releases carbon dioxide into the air, which is a major pollutant. Vehicles are a major source of this.
The demand for energy is another issue surrounding fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are formed from decayed plants and animals, and take millions of years to form. Because of this, fossil fuels are a limited resource. With our demands for fossil fuel based energy increasing everyday, and with a limited amount of fossil fuels available, we may run out of fossil fuels in the next 50 years, according to some estimates. This timeline adds emphasis to the need to research alternatives to fossil fuels in order to decrease our dependency on and the overall demand for fossil fuels as energy.
- The technology is established.
- Cheaper than alternatives, however as technology improves, prices for alternatives will decrease.
- Many new regulations seek to combat the environmental impact fossil fuels have.
- Natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline in vehicles.
- Despite new environmental regulations, fossil fuels are still a major pollutant.
- Accessing fossil fuels disrupts natural ecologies.
- Dependence on a non-renewable energy source may leave the country vulnerable in the event of a shortage.
As we become more aware of the environmental impacts of fossil fuels and the implications of continuing our current usage, it is important to look at ways that we can all decrease our fossil fuel energy consumption.
Renewable Energy Fact Sheet
Renewable energies differ from other types of energy specifically because they are theoretically unlimited. Renewable energy comes from sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, tides and biomass.
The Sun puts out enough energy to meet the world’s power needs several times over; the problem is converting that energy into usable power. The most recognizable method is photo-voltaic cells. These are the solar panels commonly mounted on houses. Even though they are effective they can be costly. There are however other low-tech methods available. One example is solar ponds, a simple, inexpensive method for harvesting solar energy.
- Abundant—the Sun produces almost incomprehensible amounts of energy.
- Available—solar technology exists and improves all the time.
- Non-polluting—solar energy burns nothing and contributes no carbon to the atmosphere.
- Expensive—for the time being solar panels and large-scale solar projects cost more than fossil fuels.
- Expansive—requires are larger surface area relative to others sources of energy.
Wind turbines are becoming more and more of a fixture in the United States. Wind turbines are one of the most direct and simple forms of power. The wind moves the blades of the windmill and turns a turbine, generating electricity. The technology exists and is getting better, however it does run into some natural hurdles. Wind farms are most efficient in windy areas, sparsely populated areas, which are limited.
- Geographically dependant—only certain locations are prime for wind power.
- Expensive—costly relative to fossil fuels.
- Other—Some believe wind farms are visually polluting; some are concerned about injury to birds.
Hydroelectric power is already used extensively it the United States. It involves damming a flowing river, which then powers a turbine, generating electricity. An example would be Hoover Dam. Hydroelectric power provides much of the power in the United States. It is effective, and cheap once the initial cost of the dam is recouped.
- Available—We use hydroelectric power everyday in large quantities.
- Non-polluting—Produces no emissions.
Recreation—Dams create reservoirs that are valuable public assets.
- Destructive—Can flood interesting areas and disrupt natural ecosystems.
- Expensive—Requires a huge initial investment
- Disruptive—Can cause international strife, and conflicts between states.
Tide power today is an experimental undertaking. It works on the premise that water much more dense than air, and therefore carries much more energy. There are several different ways to harness tidal energy. First, and the one most in operation today, is creating a barrage, which is like a dam on the waterfront. This forces the incoming tides to power a turbine. A new, more experimental way is to basically put a wind turbine under water, in an area with high current flow. These are small enough that they can be privately funded and is fast becoming dominant.
- Unlimited—There will always be tides.
- Non-polluting—Produces no emissions or greenhouse gases.
- Unobtrusive—Unlike wind farms there are no visible turbines.
- Experimental—The technology is still being developed
- Geographically dependant—Must be near required currents.
- Costly—Because of high initial costs tidal power is much more expensive than fossil fuels.
Biomass is any source, plant or animal that can provide energy, examples would be burning wood for heat, or using biodegradable wastes for the same purpose. Perhaps the most known would be ethanol as fuel for cars. At first glance biomass mass might not seem much better than fossil fuels, because it emits greenhouse gases. However, proponents say that the carbon dioxide produced by biomass is offset by the amount of carbon dioxide biomass absorbs as it grows.
- Non-Wasteful—Can reposition waste sources into useful energy.
- Available—Biofuels like ethanol are rapidly becoming available all over the country.
- Carbon Neutral—in theory biomass’s carbon absorption offsets its carbon emissions when burned.
- Polluting—Burning biomass is cleaner, but it still contributes greenhouse gases.
- Expensive—Biomass thus far is not cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
- Resource-intensive—growing crops to create fuel is resource and labor intensive.
Hydrogen Power Fact Sheet
Although hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it is not easily harvested or harnessed. Hydrogen as an element has several important qualities in addition to its plenitude. It is the most basic of atoms, consisting of a nucleus of one proton and one neutron, while one electron orbits the nucleus. Hydrogen is the lightest of all elements, and well known for its buoyancy. Hydrogen is also very volatile but, if stabilized, it may make an excellent fuel. Hydrogen stores an immense amount of energy and can be harvested from such sources as fossil fuels and ocean water among others. The technology for extracting hydrogen is still being researched and developed, and improvements are being made.
Currently the most promising and safe technologies being developed are hydrogen fuel cells. These produce power by reacting hydrogen with oxygen; amazingly, the only emission is water. At this point, all major car companies are investing in fuel cell projects and several test models are already in production. A fuel cell engine can be very useful; it is much quieter and produces no unpleasant emissions.
Of course, no fuel is perfect and hydrogen is no exception. Hydrogen is still more expensive than fossil fuels, and lacks the existing infrastructure that exists for petroleum fuels. The switching over to what is known as the “hydrogen economy” would be a substantial undertaking, one that the United States has not prepared for. Some people also worry about hydrogen’s safety record, it can be extraordinarily explosive, although pure hydrogen is non-reactive. Fuel cells also create a reaction without explosions.
- Abundant—In fact, there is more hydrogen than anything else in the entire universe.
- Efficient—Hydrogen is more energy dense than fossil fuels.
- Clean—Hydrogen fuel cells produce no emissions other than water vapor.
- Infrastructure—Hydrogen lacks the network of gas stations, pipelines, and refining facilities that petroleum has.
- New—the technology is still being developed.
Nuclear Energy Fact Sheet
Nuclear energy is generated by two reactions, either fission or fusion. Fission involves splitting two atoms, whereas fusion works by colliding two atoms to create one nucleus. Currently fission is the only technology available. Heat is generated by the nuclear reaction which in turn boils water to produce steam in order to power a turbine. The fuels used in nuclear reactors are uranium and plutonium.
Proponents argue that nuclear energy is clean– producing no air pollutants, readily available and safe. Even the environmental movement is divided. Nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases and therefore does not contribute to global warming. If nuclear power became more widely used, dirtier powers sources would not be necessary.
Detractors say that nuclear energy is unsafe and produces toxic waste that is hard to contain and store. It is also fundamentally the same as fossil fuels because uses limited resources, uranium and plutonium, to create energy. Detractors also point to the major disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
A unique concern with Nuclear energy is the possibility of “dirty bombs” manufactured with spent nuclear fuel. The spent fuel could either be refined into weapons grade material, or just used as the weapon itself.
- Clean—produces no Greenhouse Gases.
- Abundant—Uranium is found in the US in sizable quantities.
- Available—nuclear power plants and the technology exists to start large scale production.
- Difficult to store—nuclear waste is difficult to dispose of and remains radioactive for thousands of years.
- Security Risks—spent fuel might be used in the manufacture of weapons.
- Non-Renewable—Uranium deposits are limited.
- Dangerous—there is a potential for mishaps and disasters.