A Comparison of Methods Used to Produce Electricity
At present, global energy issues will continue to pick up the pace, as the world as increases its consumption of the few non-renewable sources the planet has left. Currently, the price of oil in the world market has been hitting record highs of over $100 a barrel (The Independent). And the trend of increasing consumption of the black resources shows no signs of let-up, as industrial giants China and India are set to increase their economic machines’ intake of the resource known as “black gold” (Independent).
The question posed then is, how do we go about changing the way that energy is harnessed and generated for global consumption? As more and more of the wrold’s population become accessible to the benefits of electricity, the more resources from traditional sources will be used (United States Department of Energy). American energy officials are currently conducting research on how to keep a most abundant source for energy generation in the mix of the American power infastructure, namely the use of coal (U.S. DoE). The challenge for the Energy Department is to address the environmental problems that is associated with the use of coal in today’s power plants (U.S. DoE). New methods of utilizing coal for power generation are currently being undertaken to alleviate the incidence of greenhouse gas emissions when coal is used (U.S. DoE).
Another solution is the development of technology that will trap the gases, thereby stopping these from further worsening the already delicate global pollution concern (U.S.DoE). Natural gas, another traditional source for electricity generation, is currently on the rise as a source for energy (U.S.DoE). A majority of the power plants to be put up by the United States over a 30-year period will be using natural gas as a primary fuel source (U.S. DoE). As a nation with one of the most advanced infastructure in terms of electricity generations, the system must be upodated and modernized to meet the growing demand for electricity (U.S. DoE).
This seeming unstoppable increase in the need and consumption for power has led to a considerable amount of pressure on the world’s energy stocks (Ann-Marie Fleming). The continued rise in the cost of these tradtional sources, the ripple effects of the utter dependence on these sources and the envrionmental issues akin to the use and expolitation of these sources have produced symtoms such as dependence on foreign energy reserves and a lack of security in energy (Fleming). Much of the power that is being generated for industrial, commercial and residential use at present is being harnessed from plants that use fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas, or from nuclear power plants (Matt Dutort & Eric Stiles). The emissions that fossil-fuel based plants do contribute to the global pollution menace. These include the formation of acid rain, that destroy forest cover for various wildlife (Dutort & Stiles).
Another concern attached to the use of traditional sources of energy is the mining of these sources (Dutort & Stiles). Mining or drilling activities for coal and oil reserves can lead to wide-scale environmental degradation and loss of habitat for flora and fauna in the affected area (Dutort & Stiles). A recent concern for the use of traditional sources of electricity is the impact on the economy (Fleming). As the prices for the use of these traditional sources have steradily climbed recently, they have made a considerable impact on the economy of consumers and industry alike (Fleming).
As the prices for these resources go up and the supply continously dwindles, the argument of the use of alternative means of generating electricity has come on board. Even big industrial giants such as the United States hsas come to the realization that the country must develop other form of energy generation facilities (United States Department of the Interior). As the cost of using non-traditional energy sources have continued to climb, prices for the use of renewable energy sources (USDoI). The benefits derived from the harnessing of these new sources of energy is the discovery of new tecnologies in the harnessing of the resource, not in the discovery of a new resource (Fleming). Governments and private entities have allotted huge financial resources for research and development for the application of renewable sources of energy and delivery modes (Fleming).
Companies around the world are working to provide feasible power generation sources , from solar to wind, hydro cell technology, even biomass system production (Fleming). But the responsibility of promoting clean technologies does not only rest in the hands of the corporate world alone (Orlando Sentinel). Government, whether local or Federal, should also take up the cudgels for the environment, or are they doing just that? In Florida, it seems that the legislators are remiss in that aspect (Sentinel).
Tallahasee, Florida legislators killed a proposal of the governor for the state to replicate California’s strict pollution emission statutes (Sentinel). But the lawmakers are of the belief that the governor is misled in the proposal, which seeks to commend companies that follow pollution laws while penalizing wayward ones (Sentinel). Are the legislators aware of the trends in the market today? The trend is not only limited to Florida, but across the Atlantic as well (Sentinel). Germany, by the year 2010, is pushing to reach the goal of having 12.5 percent of its energy requirements to be met by harnessing renewable sources of energy (Sentinel). England’s labor force is predicted to increase by 100,000 new employment opportunities, thanks to its growing “green” industrial sector, by 2015 (Sentinel).
Soaring fuel costs and political instability in oil producing regions, the eventuality of oil wells being fully spent and global climate concerns have raised significant issues on the need for new energy sources (Independent). Replacing oil with the new biodiesel and biofuels has been spreading around the globe (Independent). But recent studies on the use and continued developement and harnessing these “clean” fuels have cropped up (Independent). Issues raised include its impact on land for the production of food, water consumption for irrigation purposes and the actual total of energy that these fuels are actually capable of producing (Independent).
Some of these concerns involve the need to cut down acres of rainforest just to keep with the demand for production of biofuel (Independent). Biofuels are usually produced from agricultural crops such as corn, sugar cane and palm, processed for the production of biodiesel and bioethanol, for petrol powered vehicles (Independent). Presently an estimated 12 million hectares of the world’s arable land, about 1 percent of the planets’ fields, are dedicated to the cultivation of feedstock for biofuel production (Independent). At current levels, this amount of land is insufficient to meet the planet’s demand for this alternative fuel. Land for food production and many forests are being used as well to produce biofuels (Independent).
According Austrian-based International Institute for Appiled Systems Analysis (2008), the world has an estimated 300 million hectares that can be used for biofuel production (Independent). This is a stark and grim picture for the world, because by 2030, the world needs about 200 million hectares of land solely for the purpose of food production to feed the approximately 3 billion people that will be added to the current level of the world’s population (Independent). On top of the redirection of land for food to be used as biofuel production hubs, there is the concern of committing extra water resources and fertiliser use for biofuel production (Independent). Researchers at Stockholm Environment Institute estimate that an excess of 12,000 cubic kilometers of water will be needed to irrigate the crops (Independent). At that rate, this will almost match the flow of all the world’s rivers combined today (Independent).
Fertilser use for the crops is also a concern for biofuel production. Since these fertlisers will be nitrogen-based types, that excess ntirogen will be transformed into Nitrogen oxide, a gas that has about 300 more times more detrimental than carbon dioxide emissions (Independent). Scientists have proven that, given all the data for biofuel produdtion, these have more than equaled-if not surpaessed- the emission capacity of traditional fossil-fuel based energy sources (Independent). For example, diesel produced from the processing of rapeseed, another feedstock for the production of biofuel, has been shown to be 1.7 times than the fossil fuel it seeks to replace (Independent). Given these developments, are there ant more suitable means to produce alternative fuel and energy for consumption?
Solving the curent demand for cleaner energy cannot be solved by proposing one method or source to replace traditional based fuel and energy systems (Dutort &Stiles). It must come from a combination of several methods, such as the use of solar cells, wind technology, hydro, wind and other tecnologies under various stages of research and development (Dutort & Stiles). How much of a contribution do renewable energy sources make to the total power situtaion? And how much do they cost, not only financially, but also in terms of uplifting, or sometimes denigrating, the environment?
Solar power has been used mainly in two applications, for the generation of heat as well as electricity (Energy Information Administration). Thermal or heat energy generated by the use of solar panels have been used in heating water in swimming pools and residential and commercial needs (EIA). Or it can be utilized as a source for heating spaces in establishments (EIA). Harnessing solar power is accomplished in two ways, first is by the use of photovoltaic cells (EIA), and the other is by the use of solar power plants (EIA). Solar power plants accomplish this by using thermal collectors that in turn heat water, the resulting steam from this process in turn will drive a generator to produce electricity (EIA).
Environmental wise, these systems will not have the large effects of traditional methods, since these do not produce harmful wastes and have no need for a cooling system (EIA), unlike nuclear powered facilities. Three of the major types of solar energy harnessing facilities are those that use parabolic troughs, solar dish and solar towers (EIA). A draw back for this type of energy source is that since the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth is not steady, operation of such a facility will be subjected to a number of limitations, such as time of day, weather conditions and seasons of the year (EIA). Another one would be that a large area would be required for the construction of this type of plant, since the sun does not deliver a steady stream of power on the Earth’s surface at any given point in time (EIA).
Wind energy is another type of renewable energy currently under consideration as an alternative energy source. In the United States alone, about twenty local governments have installed an estimated 15,000 wind turbine facilities across te state (Dutort & Stiles). A distinct advantage of constructing wind energy generation facilities is that it can be combined with agricultural use of the land, thus negating ill effects on the land where the facility has been set-up (Dutort & Stiles). Working on the principles of the old-fashioned windmills, thses structures harness the kinetic energy of the wind by making the wind turn the blades of the propoeller on top of the shaft (EIA). The wind, slowed down by the turbine’s blades, flow over the blades, thus creating lift (EIA). The lift generated by the motion of the wind over the propellers’ blades will turn the blades over, and this will in turn a shaft inside the tower connected to a generator, producinfg electricity (EIA).
Again the drawbacks on this type of energy resource is quite obvious. If there is no wind for the turbines to harness, the windmills will not be able to generate electricity (EIA). But new technology turbines can work even at low wind speeds (Dutort & Stiles). If the turbines are not placed or located at optimum sites, these facilities have the tendency to cause major wildlife issues ((Dutort & Stiles). The United States Fish and Wildlife Service aver that when larger turbines are installed, this may be factor in the decline of some wildlife groups (Dutort & Stiles). The construction of wind turbine facilities, aside form contributing to birds ans animal mortality, may even be a cause for wildlife to discontinue their use of several areas for habitat establishment (Dutort & Stiles).
Currently in the works in answer to the rising costs attcahed to the generation of electricity by coal or natyral gas facilities are mini to medium-sized wind turbines (Trading Markets). As the technology of these facilities inprove, it is forecast that their demand will increase (Markets). Wind turbine manufacturers are upbeat given that these turbines have very low generations costs compared to traditional sources of power, averaging only about $ 0.10 per kWh (Markets). But even with their advantage over the competition, manufacturers have to wait for a considerable time before their investements can be recouped (Markets). This is a major concern for manufacturers for wind turbines, as the effects and benefits form the operation of these facilities can take up to ten years (Markets). Also coming into play is the production costs of the turbines, since these facilities utilize a very sporadic resource and the location of these turbines are located in the outreaches of urban centers-their main market for electricity (Markets). Manufacturers can leverage their costs by producing more of the units, thus creating an economy of scale or by farming out its need for smaller parts of the turbines (Markets). At present, the cost of production and utilization of turbines is scaled to the utilities’ demand, but should an imbalance in the cost of the turbines occur in the future, the economy of scale could be disrupted (Markets).
The use of hydroelectric facilities for power generation has increasingly come on track as an alternative source of power (EIA). At present, an estimated 19% of the world’s power needs (U.S. Geological Survey). These plants are usually situated in areas where there are adequate waterways that will power the plants (EIA). Operation of hydroelectric power facilities have sevral advantages. Water, the main driving force for these plants, is relatively inexpensive compared to procuring coal or oil to run the generation facility and for power generation (EIA). Since these plants do not produce any harmful emissions, these outpace the emissions generated by fossil-fuel plants and the thermal cooling needs of nuclear powered plants (EIA).
But again, as is to any energy source, ther are environmental impacts linked to the constrution of hydro electric plants. Dams have to be built on rivers and waterways where the proposed energy facility is to be situated (EIA). These activities will affect in one way or another the areas’ wildlife and plant life when construction begins and when the plant is in actual operation (EIA). Hydro electric facilities also have a limitation in terms of their supply. These plants are heavily dependent on the amount of water or rainfall in the area (USGS). Aslo, as stated earlier, these facilities will require a great amount of land to build these facilities (USGS).
A concern of these land acquisition activities is the impact on wildlife and plants in the area, as discussed earlier. Since the operation of these facilities would entail the damming of the waterway for the water to operate the turbines, this would require the flooding of some or all of the natural habitat of the areas’ endemic species (USGS). Aside from these effects, the amount of money that will be poured into the development, construction and operation of these plants will also play a major factor (USGS). Dams can also impact the flow of the waterways, hence the routes taken by fish using the rivers and steams prior to the construction will ultimately have to be altered for the construction and operation of the facility (USGS).
Another renewable energy source is the use of geothermal energy. These facilities extract the steam from under the Earth’s surface to power generators that will produce electricity (EIA). As is the case of other renewable energy source, geothermal energy facilities prodcue no emissions in their operations since they do not require burning or combustion in their operations (Geothermal Education Office). Land disturbance concerns are also kept at a mininum, since the designs of these facilities can be built as the demand for electricity grows (GEO). With minor investments needed and virtually pollution free, these facilities can provide power for small and developing nations, since the countries utilizing this type of energy generation mode will save on costs of importing oil and coal to operate traditional plants, aside from the attached pollution issues tied in with their operation (GEO).
At present, global electricty generation derived from geothermal power stands at around, 7,000 megawatts, with the United States alone producing 2,700 megawatts of geothermal power generated electricity (GEO). But again there are disdavnatages to the development of this type of alternative energy source, mainly in the location of viable sites to locate the plants (Clean Energy Ideas). In the intial stages for the development of the field, land surveys will be conducted by researchers, then note their discoveries to the contracting company (Clean Energy). The survey alone can be a disintersting factor in itself, as these activities can last for up to several years to conclude (Clean Energy). Often times these companies come out disppointed that the area they wanted to develop , in effect, would not be able to support the operation of a viable geothermal operation (Clean Energy).
Biomass, or using the stored energy of plants and animals, is another promising renewable energy source (EIA). The United States currently produces about 45 billion kilowatt-hours from the sue of biomass power generation facilities, or approximately one percent of the nations total in electriacl sales (Union of Concerned Scientists). This roughly translates to about 3 percent of the nations’ energy requirements (EIA). Not only is biomass a prime source for the methane gas or “landfill” gas that can be used to generate electricity, biomass also has the advantage of the ability to be converted to alternative fuels for vehicles, such as bioethanol and biodiesel (EIA). These fuel by products can be used in addtion to traditional fuels such as petrol or diesel, or used alone (EIA).
The use of biomass, as with the other renewable sources, also have potential pollution problems as well. When the biomass is burned, it releases carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming (EIA). But this is mitigated by the fact that plants absorb about the same amount of the carbon oxide released in the process of photosynthesis (EIA). Biodiesel and bioethanol production from biomass also have inherent problems as well. Biodiesel, for instance, though not as pollutive as petrol, does release 10 times as much nitrogen oxide (EIA).
In the end, global ploicy makers have to come down and really work to find alternative sources of energy, not only for power generation, but for fuels as well for transport needs. Yes, it is a given that finding these sources, developing them and putting them in the mainstream of electricity and power generation will take time, but how long can the world wait? Unitl we hear the news that the oil has run out, or the air we breathe, the water and the land is so irrepably damaged that it is no longer of any use to us?
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