Pros and Cons of Every Energy
Which Energies are Most Productive, Environmentally Friendly, and Sustainable
There are pros and cons to every energy source, pros, and cons by which we judge the value of an energy source. Some energies produce more power than others. Some energy types pollute less than others. Some energy sources are readily available while others are scarce. And some energies are readily available, but it is difficult to harness their power. Some are incredibly easy to convert to power, but simply do not provide enough power to be of use. Some require massive tracts of land to produce moderate sums of power.
If there was a perfect energy source, we would be using it universally, but there isn’t. All energy sources have issues, issues we must contend with in order to utilize an energy’s power.
Fossil fuels are the closest thing we have to a universal energy source. Fossil fuels are the most widely used energy source for electric power, transportation, residential and commercial heating purposes, and development/construction/excavation. But, the fact that fossil fuels are not renewable and the fact that fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases — which lead to global warming — means fossil fuels are not the long-term solution, just a short-term answer.
The biggest issue, however, isn’t fossil fuels. The biggest issue we have is the fact that no other fuel sources are even remotely as environmentally conscious, safe, efficient, or transportable.
If the question is, which fuel sources have the best potential to serve our energy needs in the future, the problem is that fossil fuels are going to be extremely difficult to replace.
Clean and alternative fuels — many of them — are neither clean nor alternative. Renewable energies, while novel in principle, is extremely inefficient and renewable energy technologies are extraordinarily limited. In other words, there are no clean nor alternative nor renewable energy sources. In the end, of the energy sources we can harness, fossil fuel is the only viable, sustainable, and responsible energy source.
How Dirty are Clean and Alternative Fuels?
Until recently, there was a worldwide marketing effort to promote “clean” and “alternative” fuels. It turns out; however, clean and alternative fuels are dirty. In some cases, clean and alternative fuels are the dirtiest of energy sources. Some of the fuels marketed as clean/alternative fuels do more to contribute to global warming than any other single source of pollution. The reason being? Some clean/alternative fuels are actually greenhouse gases!
Even those “clean” fossil fuels that aren’t extraordinary polluters have extremely low energy densities. On a volume scale, fuels advertised as clean or alternative provide very little energy in relation to traditional fossil fuels. In some cases, producing alternative fuels actually requires more energy than the fossil fuel generates for the consumer.
In other words, there are a large number of negative-sum alternative fuel markets being held up by government subsidies, monies provided by taxpayers.
Pros and Cons of Alternative Energies
So prevalent are fossil fuels and nuclear power in our minds that we tend to make the mistake of assuming that there are a limited number of “clean” and “alternative” fuels. The fact is, in combination, there are far cleaner and alternative fuels than there are traditional fossil fuel types.
There are three categories of clean and alternative fuels. There are renewable energy sources, cleans fossil fuels, and alternative fossil fuels. And just like traditional fossil fuels and nuclear power, renewable energy sources cleans fossil fuels, and alternative fossil fuels all have pros and cons.
Types, Pros, and Cons of Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy is considered the cleanest of all energy types, far more so than alternative fuels. Renewable energy sources include:
- Wind Power
- Hydroelectric Energy
- Geothermal Power
However, considering all the consequences of renewable energy means taking the carbon footprint of a renewable energy source into account. While renewable energy sources may not pollute the atmosphere to the same degree as fossil fuels, on a local level the consequences of renewable energy sources can be absolutely devastating.
Solar Power Pros and Cons
Large-scale solar farms produce no atmospheric pollution with respect to greenhouse gases. “Unlike fossil fuels such as coal, generating electricity from renewable sources like solar power creates no emissions that are harmful to human health and the environment,” explains Sciencing.com’s David C. Laine.
So, the question is how much space is required for solar panels to heat a home annually. According to EnergyManagementToday.com, “A large fixed-tilt photovoltaic plant that generates 1 GWh per year requires, on average, 2.8 acres for the solar panels. This means that a solar power plant that provides all of the electricity for 1,000 homes would require 32 acres of land.”
In other words, under the right conditions, the space on the roof of a home is sufficiently large for the panels required to provide that home with the solar power it needs for a year. Powering your electric car from home as well, on the other hand, is not really an option if you drive as much as the average American.
Unfortunately, only in parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, California, and Texas are conditions ideal. It is almost impossible for the residents of other states to fully power their homes with solar. That means, in order to power the homes in other states with solar, large solar farms are required.
“Unlike wind energy, solar panels aren’t able to share the land they occupy for other uses,” explains David C. Lane. The fact that solar power requires large tracts of land means the fauna and flora that once occupied the area can no longer do so and are forced out of their habitat. Furthermore, the land covered by a solar farm cannot be used for agriculture nor recreation and there is nothing aesthetically pleasing about solar panels.
Solar farms are no more appealing than open pit mines nor oil derricks. Arguably, quite less so. Nevertheless, solar power will be the future following fossil fuels.
Wind Power Pros and Cons
Unlike solar power, wind power is not a viable option for the future. As The Spectator’s Matt Ridley reports, “You may have got the impression [that] wind power is making a big contribution to world energy today. You would be wrong. Its contribution is still, after decades — nay centuries — of development, trivial to the point of irrelevance.” Ridley then challenges readers to guess to the nearest whole number what percentage of the world’s energy is supplied by wind turbines.
The answer is zero.
Even with huge government subsidies for companies who produced wind turbines for the last 25-plus years, wind power has failed to take off. There are a variety of reasons wind power isn’t catching on, but the primary reason is that wind power is extremely expensive. And many people are wondering if government subsidies will eventually make wind power affordable.
The short answer, who knows. What is known is that thus far subsidies have done nothing to lower the price of wind power and politicians are ready to pull the plug, “The wind power sector is at a critical juncture as the subsidies that have cradled it since its inception in the early 1990s, and underpinned its business model, disappear as politicians enact a long-planned push to make the industry more commercially viable and able to compete with other energy sources.”
There is one problem with wind power that no one seems to be able to work around, space. Like solar power, wind power requires a great deal of space. In order to power 2 million homes roughly 450 square miles of space is required.
Another way of thinking about just how much space would be required to power major metropolitan areas with wind is this: in order to provide wind power generated electricity to Tokyo, Japan, 10,310 offshore wind turbines and over 6,0000 square miles of space would be necessary. New York would require 3,687 wind turbines and 2,400 square miles of space.
The fact of the matter is, the notion of wind turbines powering the world is extraordinarily difficult to imagine. As Ridley explains:
“World energy demand has been growing at about 2 percent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours. If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to be built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000 since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum.
That’s one-and-a-half times as many as having been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.
At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area greater than the British Isles, including Ireland, every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfill the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 percent of global energy needs.”
Hydroelectric Power Pros and Cons
A truly viable alternative energy, hydroelectric dams have a proven track record of success. According to the EPA, “As of December 31, 2016, there were about 8,084 power plants in the United States that have operational generators with nameplate electricity generation capacities of at least 1 megawatt (MW). A power plant may have one or more generators, and some generators may use more than one type of fuel.”
Additionally, there is the potential to make hydroelectric producing dams out of more than 12,000 dams already existing in the United States that are not power generators.
Setting aside the fact that dams are far and away the most destructive alternative energy sources available — dams require an almost complete destruction of massive tracts of land in order to be viable as power producers — hydroelectric power is quite possibly the most efficient and least atmosphere polluting alternative energy source available.
The problem with hydroelectric dams is that while they do provide substantial sums of energy each year, relative to the number of people with energy needs, they cannot provide nearly enough. The Hoover Dam in Arizona, for example, backs up the largest river west of the Rocky Mountains.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, “Hoover Dam generates, on average, about 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year for use in Nevada, Arizona, and California – enough to serve 1.3 million people.”
The populations of Nevada, Arizona, and California combined are 49.5 million. That means the Hoover Dam, the largest in the Western United States, can only generate enough power to provide for 2.6% of the population it is intended to serve.
Geothermal Power Pros and Cons
If geothermal power plants ever become cost-effective, geothermal power would be the ultimate alternative power source. According to Euan Mearns, a geologist and geochemist who was a principal at The Oil Drum, the world’s leading energy blog,
“Geothermal electricity is about as close to a perfect source of renewable energy as one can get. It’s (almost) carbon-free, doesn’t emit large quantities of noxious gases or generate radioactive waste, doesn’t require the clear-cutting of virgin forests, doesn’t take up lots of room, doesn’t blight the skyline (or at least not all that much), doesn’t decapitate or incinerate birds, is replenished by the natural heat of the Earth, delivers baseload power at capacity factors usually around 90% and can even if necessary be cycled to follow load.
It’s also one of the lowest-cost generation sources presently available. No other renewable energy source can match this impressive list of virtues or even come close to it.”
But, there is a major problem with geothermal power. For one, there are very few places on earth where the geothermal activity is sufficient to justify the costs of installing a geothermal power plant. And, many of those places are in inaccessible areas — under the ocean for example, — or in protected areas. The biggest cache of geothermal activity in the United States, for example, is in Yellowstone National Park.
Many of the places that do have the geothermal activity required for a plant and aren’t under the ocean or protected are extremely far from where the power is needed. For example, both El Salvador and Costa Rica have ideal locations for geothermal plants, but they are extremely small countries with populations that do not require a great deal of energy. Many places that do have high energy needs, like Russia, have virtually no viable geothermal caches.
Pros and Cons of Biofuels
While biofuels have been subsidized by countries around the world, in the last year, major shifts in the perception of biofuels have to lead to almost an across the board loss of interest. From environmental issues to the fact that biofuels are, quite simply, poor fuels have led to a reduction in subsidies and major cutbacks in the biofuel sector.
Probably the biggest problem with biofuels, aside from the fact they are extremely low energy density fuels, is the fact that massive tracts of land are required to produce biofuels. “Corn ethanol supplies only about 4 percent of transportation fuel in the United States, yet already requires 66,000 sq-km of agricultural lands, about five to ten-times more land than would be required to derive two-thirds of the country’s electricity from wind and solar.”
In Europe, the economy is taking a major hit because the EU has been cutting back on government subsidies for biofuels. Because there is no real market demand for biofuels, FDI Magazine’s article titled, “Investors lose hundreds of millions as UK biofuels industry stalls,” explains there is a huge backlash from subsidized farmers and other biofuel interests who are criticizing the EU for not continuing its subsidies practices.
But, governments are arguing that the entire premise of the biofuel industry, lower emissions, is not a reality. The Guardian reported in late 2017 that, “Ten years ago biofuels were seen as ideal, low-carbon, replacements for the liquid fossil fuels that power the majority of the world’s transport systems. But concerns grew that first-generation biofuels, made from food crops, were increasing food prices and were often as polluting as fossil fuels when all factors in their production were considered.”
These realities have caused both governments and investors to quickly step back from biofuels.
Pros and Cons of “Clean” Fossil Fuels
The European Union no longer allows distributors of “clean” fuels — gas-state fossil fuels like methane (natural gas) and propane — to use the word clean. Nor can marketers and distributors claim that “clean” fuels are a clean alternative to traditional fossil fuels.
Gas-state fossil fuels, in addition to several of them actually being greenhouse gases, are not actually lower emissions fuels. There is still a huge push to use propane, natural gas, and other “clean” fuels in the United States. But, the rest of the world seems to have become privy to the fact that those fuels have extremely low energy densities. That means tremendous amounts of gas-state fuels are required to obtain the same energy traditionally fossil fuels can provide in much smaller quantities.
While traditional fossil fuels are not ideal, the fact is, many of them are far more efficient and far better for the environment than “alternative” and “clean” and “bio” fuels.