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Renewable Energy Sources

Conventional fuels such as petroleum and coal are at the risk of running out in the distant future. They have been created over years and years, so replacing them is a tough task, especially at the rate they are being used by humans in daily life. We have been brought up to remember that fossil fuels are limited but it is impossible to contain energy use, without crippling economies and making considerable sacrifices. The next best thing is of course, to look at other sources of energy.

Renewable energy is based on natural resources like water, wind, sunlight, the tide, and geothermal heat. This explains why the concept of renewable energy is so popular and why the world has invested in relevant technologies. In 2006, ‘renewables’ amounted to around 18% of the world’s energy consumption, with biomass as the most widely used source. It has surpassed hydropower in a short time.

At the end of 2007, windmills around the world offered a collective capacity of over 94 gigawatts. This is still just around 1% of the global electricity consumption and some countries (mostly EU members - Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Germany, Ireland) tend to use this resource more than others. The interesting point is that wind power has increased more than five fold within the past 7 years. In the US, wind energy is expected to meet about 1% of the national electricity demand.

Biofuel provides an efficient source of energy and reduces carbon emissions. Most scientists agree in principle that biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reports show that this reduction is about 50-60% compared to conventional fuels. Then there are indirect benefits. For instance, biofuels encourage the growth of plants and these absorb carbon dioxide from their surroundings. Brazil leads in the production of biofuels but other countries are jumping into the bandwagon. The US has plans to double its use of biofuels for transport by the year 2012.

Biofuels have received their fair share of negative attention. The sources of biofuel may be innocent enough but the process of converting them into liquid fuel can release pollutants, even greenhouse gases. Producing fertilizers for biofuel crops and powering machinery used to create and transport biofuel are part of the problem. Nitrous gases emitted by burning biofuels have been found to harm the ozone layer. In other words, the advantage of using biofuel is thought to be neutralized by the overall negative effects. There is also concern about the dwindling biodiversity. Corn and sugarcane are being grown extensively because of their value as biomass. This means that there’s less input to the food industry - the US is exporting fewer food items and importing more than before. Forests and wild habitats are burned down to make way for cultivated crops. There is some hope about the so called ‘second generation biofuels’ which rely on cellulose found in plants and are more energy efficient than their predecessors.

There is a lot of controversy on biofuels and their use but the world population seems quite relaxed about the future of hydropower. True, this is a renewable energy source but one must not forget that water, no matter how abundant and free, is a finite resource. Freshwater in particular is limited. Everyday, with every addition to the population, there is more demand for water and an increase in water pollution.  In some countries in Africa, there is not enough water to drink, to bathe and to cook. Desertification is spreading. As such, it is doubtful whether we can continue to rely on water as an ‘easy’ source of energy as we are doing right now. As our dependency on freshwater will only grow, there needs to be a concentrated effort to harness the power of ocean waves. Water conservation is also the key to the future of hydropower.

Geothermal reserves are also considered to be limited by some scientists. Some argue that geothermal energy is not really renewable because certain areas in the earth’s cover may cool off after a long time. According to an MIT report, drilling holes deeper than 10 km into the subterranean rock in the US can meet global energy demands for thousands of years more.

One hiccup with renewable energy is that it’s generally not as reliable as conventional fuels. While biofuels, hydropower, and solar power have done commendable work in the transportation industry and helped rural communities stay on their feet, petroleum remains a favorite among many corporate establishments. The good news for renewables is that oil prices are hitting record highs in 2008. This trend is likely to continue, making the world dependant, more than ever, on alternatives energies. 

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