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Renewable and Sustainable Energy Sources: The Search for Viable Alternatives to Fossil Fuels

Concerns about the environment have dominated public conversation for many years.  Technological advances and improvements in communication and international travel and shipping have made it possible for nations around the world to become industrialized, and with these advances come the same problems of pollution and environmental damage that have existed in the first-world sector for decades. The world economy runs on fossil fuels, and with fossil fuels comes air pollution and other environmental problems. The consensus in contemporary research is that the use of fossil fuels is causing irreparable harm to the earth’s atmosphere, which is leading to significant changes to our climate. There are many alternative options to the use of fossil fuels in the form of renewable and sustainable energy, tough the current technology in these areas has not produced anything that seems ready to replace our use of fossil fuels. Proponents of renewable energy insist that we must transition to them from fossil fuels as quickly as possible; opponents say that these technologies come with a range of their own problems that keep them from being viable replacements for fossil fuels. This paper will examine both sides of the issue in an effort to clarify each position and allow readers to reach their own conclusions about whether or not alternative energy sources are the solution to our problems.

A century ago, the nation of China existed primarily on an agricultural economy; today, it is the world’s leading nation for manufacturing, and China ships goods and materials around the world. As China has developed, its air and water have become ravaged by the effects of pollution; on some days the government must issue warnings in major cities such as Beijing telling citizens to avoid going outside or to use breathing masks and other equipment if they must leave home (Yang, 2013). China’s industrial and technological sectors grew at an astonishing rate over the last several decades as they raced to catch up with the U.S. and the rest of the industrialized world. The U.S. has been wrestling with pollution problems and other environmental issues for generations, and has developed government oversight agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Legislation at the national, state, and local levels has been established to control and curb pollution output from manufacturers and other sources, and there are some regions where air and water quality in the U.S. that have seen notable improvements as compared to earlier decades. China, by contrast, has allowed its industrial and technological sectors to grow exponentially with few controls over their effects on the environment.

Circumstances such as these have made the issues of pollution, the environment, and climate change a priority for nation around the world, and political leaders from the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and the rest of the industrialized world have attempted to set standards and protocols for the monitoring and control of pollution and environmental damage caused by manufacturing, shipping, and other sectors. It is not just the first world that causes environmental damage, however; emerging economies in the developing world are also trying to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of manufacturing and participation in the global economy. While some nations are being asked to limit the amount of pollution that produce, these nations in the developing world are often allowed to produce unlimited amounts of pollution as they build up their infrastructure and industrial output (Yang). In the long run this imbalance is unsustainable; either the developing world will be forced to comply with global standards, or first-world nations will abandon those standards in order to level the playing field.

It is in this global context that the debate over sustainable and renewable energy is playing out. It seems inevitable that something will have to give, if for no other reason than the fact that supplies of oil will eventually run dry. As alternatives to the use of petroleum, researchers and the rest of the energy sector have been looking to alternative sources of energy; among these are wind power, solar power, biomass fuels, hydrogen power, and even nuclear power. This last energy source is one that generates its own controversy, as the fallout from accidents at nuclear sites is known to be incredibly dangerous and deadly. Supporters of nuclear energy, however, insist that with the right safeguards and use of the technology, nuclear power can supply a significant amount of the world’s energy with relatively minimal risk to the environment. Other alternatives on the list may not pose the same potential risks as can be found with nuclear energy, but each of them comes with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. The following section examines several of the primary types of sustainable or renewable energy sources and offers discussion about the pros and cons of each.

Wind Power

Wind power has been used by humans for centuries; the earliest forms of wind power were harnessed by windmills that converted the movement of the wind directly into mechanical energy that drove the operation of grain crushers and other agricultural equipment. Contemporary wind power is harnessed using large-scale windmills with blades that spin internal turbines. As these turbines spin, they produce electricity which is then sent to various outputs. Electricity from windmills can be stored in batteries; it can be sent directly to machines that run on electricity, or it can be sent to the power grids of local and regional electric companies to be sold off to consumers.

There are few significant downsides to the use of wind power, at least in terms of environmental damage. Windmills make very little noise, and they produce no significant amounts of pollutants. Wind is endlessly renewable, and windmills can be installed in a variety of areas and locations. They are especially helpful on farms and agricultural sites, where they can be built on the same land that is used by cattle and horses for grazing. They can also be built offshore, or in almost any other type of environmental and geographical conditions. The most significant downside to the use of wind power is that it is intermittent and unreliable; when the wind does not blow, the turbines do not produce electricity. Current technology related to the development and use of batteries is still not on par with the output from wind-power sources. Batteries are very expensive and bulky relative to the amount of electricity they can store, so there is little value in trying to harness wind power for the purposes of battery storage. As battery technology improves in the future, however, wind power may become an increasingly viable alternative to fossil fuels for the purpose of generating electricity. (source: Williams & Bloyd, 1997; Congressional Record, 2013)

Solar Power

Like wind power, solar power is endlessly renewable. In most instances, solar energy is captured by some form of solar panel that contains a series of cells. These panels then transfer the energy to a variety of outputs. Solar panels on the tops of houses can be used to heat swimming pools and water for bathing; more advanced panels available for home use can be connected to converters that turn the harnessed solar power directly into electricity. It is not uncommon for individuals with the appropriate solar-power systems to generate more electricity than they can use; like the electricity produced by wind power, this excess electricity ca be sold to local power companies.

Solar power has several notable advantages; the most significant of these is that it produces virtually no pollution. It does have some drawbacks, however; while it is easily used for heating water supplies, the technology needed to convert solar power to electricity is expensive and somewhat inefficient. The same limitations that affect the use of batteries for storing wind power also apply to solar power. Also, like wind, the availability of harnessable solar energy can be intermittent. While solar power does show promise, it will require significant advances in relevant technology before it will be a viable replacement for fossil fuels. (source: Yang; Harvey 1997)

Biomass Energy

Biomass energy is in a different category from energy sources such as wind and solar. While biomass is both renewable and sustainable, it is not pollution-free. Biomass energy comes from several different sources, such as bioethanol and biodiesel. Simply put, biofuels are comprised of carbons that are derived from organic sources, such as plant matter. This is used extensively in countries such as Brazil, which has produces much of the world’s supply of sugarcane (Rosillo-Calle, 2000). Once the sugar has been harvested from the sugarcane, the remaining plant matter can be used in fermentation process that process that produces bioethanol; this bioethanol can be used to power automobiles and other equipment that has been suitably modified for this purpose. While biomass fuel typically produces far less CO2 and other greenhouse gasses and pollutants, it is still not an entirely “clean” source of energy.

Despite this drawback, supporters of biofuels point to examples such as Brazil, and note that they have replaced a significant amount of their petroleum requirements with this sustainable energy source. Some proponents of alternative energy sources believe that the use of biofuels, while not perfect, may serve as a viable intermediary step for transitioning from petroleum, coal, and other forms of fossil fuels. Opponents of these alternatives claim that they are simply too expensive to be taken seriously, and that the world must focus more on issues such as gas mileage and conservation to make better use of petroleum reserves. Regardless of which position makes the stronger argument, the governments of the U.S., China, and other leading industrialized nations are taking the issue seriously enough to be making enormous investments in their renewable and sustainable energy sectors. China is currently the world’s leading producer of components for wind turbines, and is among the largest manufacturers of solar panels for industrial use (Jacobson & Archer, 2012). For a nation that produces such an enormous amount of pollution from their industrial sector, this may serve as a sign that they see the long-term value in renewable energy, even if the short-term outlook is less than positive. It is difficult to say with any certainty which, if any, of these energy sources will replace the use of fossil fuels, or if the answer to the problem has yet to be discovered.

References

Harvey, H. (1997). The energy foundation. Congressional Digest, 76(8/9), 204.

Jacobson, M. Z., & Archer, C. L. (2012). Saturation wind power potential and its implications for wind energy. PNAS, 109(39).

N/A (2013). Federal Support for Wind Power Investment. Congressional Digest, 92(2), 1.

Rosillo, C. F., Bajay, S. V., & Rothman, H. (2000). Industrial uses of biomass energy: The example of Brazil. London: Taylor & Francis.

Williams, G., & Bloyd, C. (1997). Institutional solutions for renewable energy. Renewable Energy, 10(2-3), 309-314.

Yang, H. (2013). Pollution: China’s new leaders offer green hope. Nature, 493(7431).