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Alternative Energy Sources

Nuclear energy

Scientists manipulate the particles that we call atoms to create energy and radioactive material, which on its own, emits energy as part of its decaying process. Today, nuclear energy is the second largest source of electric power in the US, after coal. Pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors are the two main types of generators used to produce electricity. One risk in producing this type of energy is overheating.  If the cooling systems don’t work properly, there is potential danger. This is why nuclear power plants are well supported with emergency systems. Another important fact about producing this energy is that usually, waste products (toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury) are completely isolated from the environment. On the flip side, any company/producer that does not follow safety guidelines can cause a lot of damage to the environment and create a health hazard. There is no cure for humans that have been exposed to a considerable amount of radioactivity. The Chernobyl disaster is a good reminder of how bad things can get. But to have a morbid fear towards nuclear energy is to miss the point altogether. In the long term, fossil fuel creates more havoc in the atmosphere. When they are burned, the resulting emissions are steady elements and don’t decay like radioactive materials. The toxicity of radioactive material decreases over time. 

Renewable sources of energy

Biofuel 
This is a type of fuel that originates from plants and animals (biomass) and their waste products. As living beings reproduce, this type of energy is more sustainable than fossil fuel and a good alternative to petroleum gas. There is a wide range of biofuels, such as ‘wood gas’, biodiesel, ethanol and methane (biogas) but since of late, ethanol and biodiesel have come to dominate the biofuel category. These two are in high demand for the transportation industry because they are of high energy density and in liquid form. Biofuels can also be used for other purposes such as cooking or simply to create heat.

So how are these biofuels made? Ethanol is a form of alcohol and easily made by fermentation, the process used in making wine and beer. The source of ethanol can be a sugar crop such as sugar beet or sugarcane or a starch food (i.e. corn or maize) which breaks down into sugar. Yeast will jumpstart the fermentation process. Ethanol is usually mixed with petrol before being burned in vehicle engines. In the case of biodiesel, natural oils are the starting point. Algae and vegetable oils (i.e. jatropha) can be burned directly in a diesel engine or they can be made to undergo a variety of chemical processes to give the final product.

Water
Probably the best thing about using hydropower is that it doesn’t pollute. There are no emissions, no by-products, no heat generation. It is a relatively cheap source of energy too. This is not an act that fossil fuels and nuclear energy can follow. Some conservationists question whether artificial reservoirs and dams will give rise to environmental concerns but complaints are few and far between and there is really no such danger as yet. It’s a small wonder that hydroelectricity has become a commercial success in different corners of the world. 

Wind
Think of wind energy and you will conjure up an image of a tall tower with huge rotating blades. These wind turbines have a long history although they looked a little different back then. Nowadays wind mills are more advanced and more aerodynamic in structure. The wind turbines have been lifted to greater heights because of the high weed speed (over 100 mph) at high latitudes.

Wind power can be produced through a network of wind farms (large-scale) or through individual turbines (small scale). Unlike with water, there is no reason to think that the source of this energy will run out. The harnessing process is simpler and needs less human intervention. One can argue that wind is not very reliable and not always available but this has not created any big problem. Wind energy is also cost-effective, expect in cases of high demand. Energy produced by the wind turbines is few times the energy consumed in the manufacture and installation, indicating a net energy gain. This gain can be seen a few months into operation. Like with hydropower, wind power is known to have negligible fuel costs and low maintenance costs. Wind turbines don’t need water to generate electricity so it consistently scores over fossil fuel and nuclear fuel. The scope for wind power is vast, in theory, but application is limited by economic and environmental factors. On the whole, the resource (wind) is so much greater than the capacity for its development.

We discussed the positive points of using wind power-and there are many- but it is not fault-free. There have been few complaints of wind turbines leaking hydraulic/lubricating fuel and contaminating the surroundings, especially water. Others decry the towers for ruining the aesthetic beauty of the landscape. Wildlife enthusiasts present a more serious problem. The tall wind towers have caused many fatalities among bats and birds. Migratory birds in particular are thought to be affected by the strong winds caused by the rotating turbines.

Solar energy
Solar energy is the energy that is given off directly by the sun, the star nearest to Earth. Man has benefited from this source since time immemorial, well before he knew to appreciate it.  The sun drives life on earth to the point where we will simply cease to exist if the energy supply was cut off. Modern technologies use solar power for lighting, heating, and transport-even for flight. The mechanism is this: solar power can be stored in the form of energy in solar cells or it can heat a fluid to create steam to run a generator. Solar thermal electricity, solar cells and solar hot water are the three ways in which we use the sun’s energy.

Geothermal energy
Stored beneath the earth’s crust and the sea bed, this is the same natural resource that gives rise to hot springs, which are much sought after for their soothing/healing quality. Geothermal generators were first tested in the early 1900s. In 2007, this energy source supplied less than 1% of the global energy use. This is less than the contribution made by wind energy. California boasts the biggest cluster of geothermal power plants in the world, in an area called The Geysers. Even Iceland has its geothermal plants, however hard that may be to imagine. The energy is clean and considered safe in terms of the environment. There are no chemical processes or conversion. It’s simply accessing a resource that is part of nature. Geothermal energy is renewable because the hot water used to generate energy can be returned to the earth, to continue to give off steam. Unlike solar energy and wind energy, the earth’s heat is consistent and reliable to work with. Power plants can keep on working night and day, in rain and shine. A busy city can be powered with a large geothermal power plant and a small generator works just as well for a rural community. The cost effectiveness of this resource depends on various factors but considerable net gains have been reported by some users.

The problems amount to environmental concerns related not to the form of energy itself but the process of harnessing it. Building power plants can have a negative impact on land stability. Some types of factories release carbon dioxide, nitric oxide and sulphur, three pollutants associated with the greenhouse effect. But the emission levels are almost insignificant when compared to use of fossil fuels. Relevant authorities have tried to fit such industrial areas with emission control systems to minimize polluting the atmosphere.

Tidal wave energy
In the 1960’s countries like Canada, France and Russia have implemented measures to use the tide to generate energy. But tidal waves have a limited application because of their rhythm. It may be reliable as clockwork but is not able to perform efficiently, to meet demands.  Ocean waves on the other hand, are considered to be high on output. These waves are allowed to strike floating devices which in turn are coupled to generators. Like the use of water currents in streams, this technology is yet to be mastered.

 
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