The need to find new types of renewable energy is urgent – oil reserves are running out, and quickly.
The lifestyles that we in the Western world have developed as a result of seemingly plentiful energy resources either have to dramatically change or we need alternative sources to produce the electricity we use in abundance to power our homes, or the fuel that powers our cars and aeroplanes.
There are several different types of energy being produced today. Solar and wind power are now well-known as alternative renewable energies. But what are the other potential energy sources, and how can we convert them to energy, and with what special technology as well as taking into account our energy efficiency?
Coal is relatively inexpensive, and easy to recover, from within coalfields in the US and Russia, but the process of extraction requires expensive air pollution controls, due to the high levels of mercury and sulphur dioxide involved. Coal and the processes involved in its extraction and processing are a significant contributor to acid rain and global warming. Also, coal requires an extensive transportation system in place (also contributing emissions to the atmosphere) which counts against it becoming the major energy resource.
The positive issues supporting the promotion of nuclear energy, and the reason why several European Governments, including the UK, and the US are investing in this technology, is that the fuel used is inexpensive, and the energy generated is the most concentrated. It is an energy type where, the waste produced is very compact, it is easy to transport in its form as a fuel, and it doesn’t contribute greenhouse gases or acid rain effects. However, the reasons not to pursue this course seem to outweigh the positives: there is a potential nuclear proliferation issue, as the world is currently watching in Iran, amongst other places; It requires the resolution of the high-level, long-term waste issues; this technology needs a larger capital expenditure because of emergency, radioactive waste, containment, and storage solutions, and finally there is a large world-wide public lobby against nuclear development.
Once a dam is built, generating power from the build-up of water is inexpensive, but this is quite a limited source of power as it depends upon the continued elevation of the water. In the Western US, the Government has invested heavily in dams.
Other well-known projects, in Scotland, and most recently the Yangtze River in China, are controversial because they potentially threaten human life if they collapse, and certainly affect fish stocks, and create environmental damage for areas that flood surrounding the dam. Unfortunately, all reservoirs eventually fill with sediment, and the rate of this is unknowable.
Biomass is a different type of energy altogether and it is still very much in its infancy, but using renewable, continually-growing plant material seems to be a sensible option. Large areas of agricultural land would have to be turned over to these crops, and using biomass fuel could make a significant contribution to global warming because the fuel has a low heat output, and would need to be used in greater quantity.
This option too seems a tremendous possibility – burning our rubbish and using its byproduct. Again, this is also in its infancy. It is known to have a low sulphur dioxide emission, but the by-product created, known as Flyash, can contain metals such as cadmium and lead.
Hydrogen has first to be obtained by the electrolysis of water, or by breaking down natural gas. It is an energy type which is highly explosive, and must be compressed to be contained and carried. It is also very costly to produce, yet we are seeing the first generation of cars powered by this form of energy.
Fracking or “Induced hydraulic fracturing” is the process of splitting shale rock to release gas and oil. It’s widely used as an energy source in the states and is a becoming a hotly debated topic here in the UK.
The Way Forward
These are some of the potential new forms of energy available. All of these mentioned are beyond the trial stage, and are creating power in some form, pumped back into our power supply, all around the world. There are others, less well-known, still in the development stage. What is clear is that now is the time for research and exploration, using the resources we have, in the most sustainable way we can, in order to thrive in the future. It is in all our interests to explore these options.