A Comparison of Methods Used to Produce Electricity

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At present, global energy issues are picking up pace as the world increases its consumption of the few non-renewable sources left on the planet. Currently, the price of oil in the world market has hit record highs of over $100 a barrel (The Independent). The trend of increasing consumption of these resources shows no signs of slowing down, as industrial giants China and India plan to increase their intake of black gold” (Independent).

The question posed is how to change the way energy is harnessed and generated for global consumption. As more people gain access to electricity, traditional sources will be increasingly used (United States Department of Energy). American energy officials are researching ways to keep coal in the mix of the country’s power infrastructure, as it remains a plentiful source for energy generation (U.S. DoE). However, the challenge for the Energy Department is addressing environmental problems associated with coal use in today’s power plants (U.S. DoE). To alleviate greenhouse gas emissions from coal use, new methods of utilizing it for power generation are being developed (U.S. DoE).

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Another solution is the development of technology that will trap gases, thereby preventing them from worsening the delicate global pollution concern (U.S. DoE). Natural gas, a traditional source for electricity generation, is currently on the rise as an energy source (U.S. DoE). The majority of power plants to be built by the United States over a 30-year period will use natural gas as their primary fuel source (U.S. DoE). As a nation with one of the most advanced infrastructures in terms of electricity generation, the system must be updated and modernized to meet growing demand for electricity (U.S. DoE).

This seemingly unstoppable increase in the need for and consumption of power has led to considerable pressure on the world’s energy stocks (Ann-Marie Fleming). The continued rise in the cost of these traditional sources, the ripple effects of dependence on them, and environmental issues related to their use and exploitation have produced symptoms such as reliance on foreign energy reserves and a lack of energy security (Fleming).

Currently, much of the power being generated for industrial, commercial, and residential use comes from plants that use fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas or from nuclear power plants (Matt Dutort & Eric Stiles). The emissions from these fossil-fuel-based plants contribute to global pollution. This includes acid rain formation that destroys forest cover for various wildlife (Dutort & Stiles).

Another concern associated with the use of traditional sources of energy is the mining or drilling activities required to extract them (Dutort & Stiles). These activities can result in significant environmental degradation and loss of habitat for flora and fauna in the affected areas (Dutort & Stiles). In addition, there is a growing concern about the impact on the economy of using traditional sources of electricity (Fleming). The prices for these sources have steadily increased recently, causing a considerable impact on both consumers and industry alike (Fleming).

As the prices for traditional resources continue to rise and their supply dwindles, there has been an increasing argument for the use of alternative means of generating electricity. Even industrial giants like the United States have come to realize that developing other forms of energy generation facilities is necessary (United States Department of the Interior). The cost of using non-traditional energy sources has continued to climb, while prices for renewable energy sources have decreased (USDoI). The benefits derived from harnessing these new sources of energy lie in discovering new technologies for their harnessing rather than in discovering a new resource (Fleming). Governments and private entities have allocated significant financial resources towards research and development for applying 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, and even biomass system production (Fleming). However, the responsibility of promoting clean technologies does not solely rest in the hands of the corporate world (Orlando Sentinel). Governments, whether local or federal, should also take up the cudgels for the environment. But are they doing just that? In Florida, it seems that legislators are remiss in that aspect (Sentinel).

In Tallahassee, Florida, legislators have rejected the governor’s proposal for the state to adopt California’s strict pollution emission laws (Sentinel). They believe that the proposal is misguided as it seeks to reward companies that comply with pollution laws while punishing those that do not (Sentinel). However, are these lawmakers aware of current market trends? Such trends are not limited to Florida but extend across the Atlantic (Sentinel). For instance, Germany aims to generate 12.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010 (Sentinel), while England’s green” industrial sector is predicted to create 100,000 new jobs by 2015 (Sentinel).

Soaring fuel costs and political instability in oil-producing regions, the eventual depletion of oil wells, and global climate concerns have raised significant issues regarding the need for new energy sources (Independent). The replacement of oil with new biodiesel and biofuels has been spreading around the globe (Independent). However, recent studies on the use, development, and harnessing of these clean” fuels have emerged (Independent). Issues raised include their impact on land used for food production, water consumption for irrigation purposes, and their actual energy production capacity (Independent).

Some concerns have arisen regarding the production of biofuels, including the need to cut down acres of rainforest to keep up with demand (Independent). Biofuels are typically made from crops like corn, sugar cane, and palm, which are processed into biodiesel and bioethanol for use in petrol-powered vehicles (Independent). Currently, about 1 percent of the world’s arable land – an estimated 12 million hectares – is dedicated to growing feedstock for biofuel production (Independent). However, this amount is not enough to meet global demand for alternative fuel. In addition to using land that could be used for food production or forests, producing biofuels can also contribute to deforestation (Independent).

According to the Austrian-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (2008), there are an estimated 300 million hectares of land that can be used for biofuel production in the world (Independent). However, this presents a stark and grim picture because by 2030, approximately 3 billion people will be added to the current level of the world’s population, and about 200 million hectares of land will be needed solely for food production to feed them (Independent). In addition to redirecting land from food production to biofuel production hubs, there is also concern about committing extra water resources and fertilizer use for biofuel production (Independent). Researchers at Stockholm Environment Institute estimate that irrigating these crops will require an excess of 12,000 cubic kilometers of water – almost matching the flow rate of all the world’s rivers combined today (Independent).

Fertilizer use for crops is also a concern for biofuel production. Since these fertilizers are nitrogen-based, the excess nitrogen will be transformed into Nitrogen oxide, a gas that is about 300 times more detrimental than carbon dioxide emissions (Independent). Scientists have proven that, based on all the data for biofuel production, they have more than equaled – if not surpassed – the emission capacity of traditional fossil fuel-based energy sources (Independent). For example, diesel produced from rapeseed processing, another feedstock for biofuel production, has been shown to be 1.7 times greater than the fossil fuel it seeks to replace (Independent). Given these developments, are there any more suitable means to produce alternative fuel and energy for consumption?

Solving the current demand for cleaner energy cannot be achieved by proposing a single method or source to replace traditional fuel and energy systems (Dutort; Stiles). It must come from a combination of several methods, including solar cells, wind technology, hydro power, and other technologies that are currently under various stages of research and development (Dutort; Stiles). The question remains: what is the contribution of renewable energy sources to the total power situation? Additionally, what is their cost not only financially but also in terms of their impact on the environment – whether positive or negative?

Solar power has two main applications: generating heat and electricity (Energy Information Administration). Solar panels can generate thermal energy to heat water for swimming pools, residential and commercial needs, or to heat spaces in establishments (EIA). There are two ways to harness solar power: through photovoltaic cells or solar power plants (EIA). Solar power plants use thermal collectors to heat water, which produces steam that drives a generator to produce electricity (EIA).

From an environmental standpoint, solar energy systems have a much smaller impact than traditional methods. They do not produce harmful waste and do not require a cooling system, unlike nuclear facilities (EIA). There are three major types of solar energy harnessing facilities: parabolic troughs, solar dish, and solar towers (EIA). However, one drawback to this type of energy source is that it relies on the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface which is not consistent throughout the day or year. This means that operation of such a facility will be limited by factors such as time of day, weather conditions and seasons (EIA). Additionally, constructing this type of plant requires a large area since there is no steady stream of power from the sun at any given point in time on Earth’s surface (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 the state (Dutort & Stiles). Constructing wind energy generation facilities has a distinct advantage in 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). These structures work on the principles of old-fashioned windmills and harness the kinetic energy of the wind by making it turn blades on top of a shaft (EIA). The blades slow down the wind flow over them, creating lift (EIA), which then turns a shaft inside a tower connected to a generator, producing electricity (EIA).

Again, the drawbacks of this type of energy resource are quite obvious. If there is no wind for the turbines to harness, the windmills will not be able to generate electricity (EIA). However, new technology turbines can work even at low wind speeds (Dutort & Stiles). If the turbines are not placed or located in optimum sites, these facilities have a tendency to cause major wildlife issues (Dutort & Stiles). The United States Fish and Wildlife Service asserts that when larger turbines are installed, this may be a factor in the decline of some wildlife groups (Dutort & Stiles). The construction of wind turbine facilities may contribute to birds and animal mortality and even cause wildlife to discontinue their use of several areas for habitat establishment (Dutort & Stiles).

Currently in development as a response to the rising costs of generating electricity through coal or natural gas facilities, are mini to medium-sized wind turbines (Trading Markets). As the technology behind these facilities improves, it is forecasted that their demand will increase (Markets).

Wind turbine manufacturers are optimistic given that these turbines have significantly lower generation costs compared to traditional sources of power, averaging only about $0.10 per kWh (Markets). However, despite this advantage over the competition, manufacturers must wait for a considerable time before their investments can be recouped (Markets). This is a major concern for wind turbine manufacturers as the effects and benefits from operating these facilities can take up to ten years to materialize (Markets).

The production costs of wind turbines also come into play since they utilize a very sporadic resource and are located in the outskirts of urban centers – their main market for electricity (Markets). Manufacturers can leverage their costs by producing more units thus creating an economy of scale or by outsourcing smaller parts of the turbines’ production process (Markets).

At present, the cost of production and utilization of turbines is scaled according to utilities’ demand. However, should an imbalance in turbine cost occur in the future, economies of scale could be disrupted (Markets).

The use of hydroelectric facilities for power generation has increasingly become a viable alternative source of power (EIA). Currently, an estimated 19% of the world’s power needs are met by hydroelectricity (U.S. Geological Survey). These plants are typically located in areas with abundant waterways to drive the turbines (EIA).

Operating hydroelectric power facilities has several advantages. Water, the primary driving force for these plants, is relatively inexpensive compared to procuring coal or oil to run generation facilities and produce electricity (EIA). Additionally, since these plants do not produce any harmful emissions, they outperform fossil-fuel plants and nuclear-powered plants’ thermal cooling needs in terms of emissions generated (EIA).

However, like any energy source, there are environmental impacts associated with the construction of hydroelectric plants. Dams must be built on rivers and waterways where the proposed energy facility is to be located (EIA). These activities will affect the area’s wildlife and plant life during construction and when the plant is in operation (EIA). Hydroelectric facilities also have limitations in terms of their supply. These plants heavily depend on the amount of water or rainfall in the area (USGS). Additionally, as stated earlier, these facilities require a significant amount of land for construction (USGS).

A concern of these land acquisition activities is their impact on wildlife and plants in the area, as discussed earlier. The operation of these facilities would entail damming the waterway to operate the turbines, which would require flooding some or all of the natural habitat of the area’s endemic species (USGS). In addition to these effects, the amount of money poured into developing, constructing, and operating these plants will also play a major factor (USGS). Dams can also impact waterway flow, altering fish routes taken by rivers and streams prior to construction for facility construction and operation (USGS).

Geothermal energy is another renewable energy source that extracts steam from beneath the Earth’s surface to power generators, producing electricity (EIA). Like other renewable energy sources, geothermal facilities do not emit any pollutants during their operations since they don’t require combustion or burning (Geothermal Education Office). Additionally, these facilities cause minimal land disturbance as their designs can be adjusted according to the growing demand for electricity (GEO). With low investment requirements and no pollution, geothermal facilities can provide power for small and developing nations. Countries that use this type of energy generation mode will save on costs associated with importing oil and coal to operate traditional plants while also avoiding the environmental issues tied to their operation (GEO).

Currently, global electricity generation derived from geothermal power stands at around 7,000 megawatts. The United States alone produces 2,700 megawatts of geothermal power generated electricity (GEO). However, there are disadvantages to the development of this type of alternative energy source, mainly in finding viable sites to locate the plants (Clean Energy Ideas).

In the initial stages of field development, researchers conduct land surveys and note their discoveries to the contracting company (Clean Energy). The survey alone can be a disinteresting factor as these activities can last for up to several years to conclude (Clean Energy). Often times these companies come out disappointed that the area they wanted to develop would not be able to support a viable geothermal operation (Clean Energy).

Biomass is a promising renewable energy source that involves using the stored energy of plants and animals (EIA). In the United States, biomass power generation facilities currently produce about 45 billion kilowatt-hours, which accounts for approximately one percent of the nation’s total electrical sales (Union of Concerned Scientists). This amount roughly translates to about 3 percent of the nation’s energy requirements (EIA).

Biomass has several advantages. It is a prime source for methane gas or landfill” gas that can be used to generate electricity. Additionally, biomass can be converted into alternative fuels for vehicles such as bioethanol and biodiesel (EIA). These fuel by-products can be used in addition to traditional fuels such as petrol or diesel or used alone (EIA).

The use of biomass, like other renewable sources, has potential pollution problems. When biomass is burned, it releases carbon dioxide, one of the major greenhouse gases contributing to global warming (EIA). However, plants absorb about the same amount of carbon oxide released during photosynthesis (EIA), mitigating this issue. Biodiesel and bioethanol production from biomass also have inherent problems. For example, biodiesel releases 10 times as much nitrogen oxide as petrol but is still less pollutive overall (EIA).

In the end, global policymakers have to come down and work to find alternative sources of energy, not only for power generation but also for transportation needs. 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? Until we hear the news that oil has run out or that our air, water, and land are irreparably damaged and no longer useful to us?

Works Cited.

Clean Energy Ideas: Disadvantages of Geothermal Energy.

Disadvantages of Geothermal Energy

Dutort, Matt and Stiles, Eric. Promise and Problems on the Wind.


The Energy Information Administration provides information on biomass, which includes wood, municipal solid waste (MSW), and biofuels. This information covers the carbon cycle and photosynthesis.

Visit http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/sources/renewable/biomass.html for information on renewable energy sources from biomass.

The Energy Information Administration provides information on geothermal energy.

Visit http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/geothermal/geothermal.html for information on geothermal energy.

Energy Information Administration’s Hydroelectric” report provides valuable information on this renewable energy source.


The Energy Information Administration provides information on renewable energy sources such as solar energy, which includes radiant/light energy and heat/thermal energy.

Visit http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/sources/renewable/solar.html for information on solar energy.

Fleming, Ann-Marie’s article titled Protecting Our Resources – The Drive for Clean Water, Energy, and Supply Security” highlights the importance of safeguarding our natural resources.

Renewable Energy Stocks Resources

The Geothermal Education Office provides information on the facts of geothermal energy.


The Orlando Sentinel published an editorial on June 27, 2008, titled We Think: Business Should Get Out Front on Alternative Energy Sources.” The article advocates for businesses to take a leading role in the adoption of alternative energy sources.

Click here to read the article.

The Independent published an article titled New Power Generation: Alternative Energy Sources” on January 30, 2008.

New power generation: alternative energy sources

Trading Markets reports that the rising costs of traditional energy sources create a case for small and medium wind turbines.

Visit http://www.tradingmarkets.com/.site/news/Stock%20News/1000886/ for stock news.

Union of Concerned Scientists: How Biomass Energy Works.

Visit http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/renewable_energy_basics/offmen-how-biomass-energy-works.html to learn about how biomass energy works.

United States Department of Energy’s article on electric power.


United States Geological Survey has provided information on the water usage of hydroelectric power.


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A Comparison of Methods Used to Produce Electricity. (2016, Sep 04). Retrieved from


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