Alternative Energy Part 1: Fossil Fuels

I know I haven’t had a good post in a while, and I’m going to try to pick up my pace over the next few weeks. Life has been hectic, and I’m finding it more difficult to formulate topics for blog posts as this is my first crack at a project of this nature. Here’s a more serious post than my past few entries.

Today I wanted to examine some options in renewable energy sources, which will hopefully replace fossil fuels as the main source of energy in the near future. The health of the environment and its inhabitants is heavily dependent upon us converting to renewable and pollution-free sources of energy. Currently, our energy consumption, especially in the United States, is higher than ever. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, electricity consumption in 2009 was 13 times higher than in 1950, amounting to almost 3,741 billion Kilowatthours used in that year alone. As the rate of consumption climbs, we are continuing to tap into sources of energy from natural deposits in the earth that are soon to run dry.

Fossil Fuels:

So to begin with, what are fossil fuels exactly? And what is so bad about them? Fossil fuel sources are coal, oil, and natural gas that is mined and drilled from the earth and burned to extract energy. These fossil fuels were formed over millions of years from animal and plant remains decomposing under heat and pressure. Petroleum, a natural gas, is used in cars and to produce plastics. Natural gas and coal are both burned to generate electricity for heating buildings. In 2009, it was recorded that almost half of the electricity produced in the United States was generated from burning coal (See diagram to the side). Fossil fuels must be burned to extract energy, a process that consequently pollutes the environment with harmful chemicals like sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon. Those three main pollutants alone have far-reaching consequences from contributing to global climate change (carbon dioxide) to causing acid rain (chemicals bond with water vapor molecules to form acidic compounds).

Burning fossil fuels is harmful to humans as well as the environment. They contribute to increased temperatures in cities, creating a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island effect”. Smog, also known as ground level ozone, is commonly found on some of the hotter days in cities, and is caused by Nitrogen Oxides interacting with volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight. Heat and smog cause general discomfort, heat stroke, respiratory problems, and even death.

Atlantic city suffers from urban heat island effect: thermal mapping shows heat

Side note: One of the problems I have noticed in the whole debate over climate change, the environment, etc, is that people fail to understand two crucial points. One: the human-environment interaction. Two: the compounding consequences of our actions upon all aspects of life. What is bad for the environment is bad for humans. So, it’s not just about trying to help the environment and saving nature, it’s also about protecting our health and the health of our children.  When I hear people say they don’t care about the environment, I always want to tell them they better not have children, because it would be a cruel thing to do. The state of this planet will impact the health of our children, so why bring a child into the world to make it suffer in a world full of pollution and disease-causing chemicals. The second point I want to raise is that people naturally have difficulty understand far reaching consequences. The conflict we’re dealing with in the modern age is that our brains are still quite primitive and unable to understand consequences on a global scale; we do much better with direct cause and effect that is obvious. While our brains are still stuck on that scale, our actions have expanded to have global consequences. An example of this is air conditioning. Yes, it is hot, so you turn on the air conditioning. This requires electricity, which means fossil fuels are burning. Fossil fuels contribute to increased temperatures in the area you are trying to cool. This doesn’t happen immediately like the cold air you feel from the air conditioning, it occurs slowly over years, each summer hotter than the previous. The urban heat island effect also impact water quality by sending large amounts of hot water directly into streams and lakes, causing a rise in water temperatures. This impacts the ecosystems, contributing to large oxygen depleting algae blooms in water, massive dead zones in lakes where no plant or animal life can survive, and deteriorates overall water quality. So, most likely, when you turn on the air conditioning, this is not what you think about. All you do is flip a switch or press a button without thinking twice.

Okay, back to before that rant — the use of fossil fuels began with the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s. Coal was, and still is, a cheap and abundant source of energy. Coal and oil are resources that will eventually become depleted, and the big challenge right now is pushing forward new technologies for renewable energy immediately and not waiting until we’ve actually depleted our fossil fuels completely. Coal companies began several years ago toting “clean coal” as a way of reducing carbon emissions from coal plants. This is done by carbon capture, which involves catching the carbon dioxide by-product from burning coal and literally storing it underground. This solution is a dangerous one. Many coal plants are not geographically able to store carbon dioxide, and it is also very risky to have large stores of carbon dioxide underground in the event of an earthquake or other disaster. This is not a viable solution in my opinion, since the consequences of a leak seem to great and at the bottom line, coal is still being burned to generate electricity. Another problem with burning fossil fuels is the lack of efficiency. As these sources are quickly depleted, more energy must be put into extracting them from the earth. If more energy is put into extracting coal and oil than we are getting from them., it is an inefficient energy source. Burning coal for electricity is also inefficient because of the lost energy in conversion and distribution. Coal plants generate electricity that is distributed to a network of electricity lines; during the transfer some energy is lost. Alternative energy sources are more efficient because there is not as much lost energy in production and conversion, and the possibility of on-site electricity production is a viable option.

Alternative energy

The most promising options for renewable energy sources are sun and wind power. Technological advances in photovoltaics, solar panels and wind mills would be able to provide the world with all the energy it needs. There was an article published in Scientific American in 2009 detailing how we actually switch to 100% renewable energy production through using all forms of renewable energy. The article can be found online at Scientific American; its long, but it’s a good read and they make some very valid points to support their argument.

So, this is getting quite long, so I have decided to make it a two-parter. Part two will focus on the options for renewable energy sources and the monopoly big coal and oil companies have on the energy production market.

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