Technology has allowed us to advance the world in many ways, whether it's in new forms of travel, medical discoveries, running the electricity in our homes, or almost anything else. The common trend between all these advancements is that most of them require an energy source as power, from our phone batteries to our cars and beyond.
With the changing climate of the planet, it's become a great concern to know the types of energy available and the impact they can have on our world. Since information is the first step, we've compiled a guide to the different energy sources available.
Nonrenewable vs. Renewable Energy Sources
While there are various individual kinds of energy, most types of energy sources fall into two categories: nonrenewable and renewable. As the name suggests, these two broader categories indicate whether an energy source is available for ongoing use or if we will run out of available resources over time, without a replenishable cause.
Nonrenewable sources include:
These kinds are nonrenewable because the time it takes for these resources to replenish is very long; most of the coal, gas, and oil we use today formed from plants and other resources that are millions of years old. Though they will likely develop again in our planet's future, it will not be at a rate that is sustainable to our consumption; current resources like won't last more than one-hundred years.
Most renewable resources are those that not only occur naturally, but also replenish over a short period, such as solar power, wind energy, geothermal power, hydropower, and biomass, to name a few. While not suitable for all power needs, these energy sources are far more accessible and provide less waste than their nonrenewable counterparts.
So what does each of these energy resources look like up close?
When considering alternative energy sources, solar power is one of the first to come to mind. Through the use of collector panels, it's possible to convert the power of the sun's rays and convert them into electricity. While not every place on the planet gets enough sunlight to use this resource, it's still possible to use solar power to heat water, cool buildings, and overall power electrical systems.
Harnessing the wind to generate power is another one of the types of energy available. The strategy for power generation is to have windmills that generate electricity by letting the wind turn turbines, which then help a generator produce energy. Again, the right environmental conditions need to be in place for this method to be useful, but innovations are developing, making this approach more common.
Nuclear power relies on the energy produced from both fission and fusion—the processes of combining or separating atoms on the molecular level. In many ways, nuclear power is incredibly efficient as it does produce many emissions, and it can also bolster an economy by creating jobs. However, this source has many risks when it comes to nuclear meltdowns, which can damage people and the surrounding environment.
This power resource relies on the natural heat produced within the earth. By using the heat to increase the temperature water, the result is steam, which can then rotate turbines to power generators. This method has the potential to work on both smaller, residential homes and industrial scales. However, it is only useful in areas that have access to this latent heat, such as geysers.
Biomass energy refers to any source that derives power from plants. A common form of biomass fuel is burning wood for heat and cooking, which can be detrimental to the environment. However, using biomass to produce methane and alcohol as a source of automobile fuel or electricity (sometimes known as biofuels) are more sustainable approaches that take advantage of otherwise unused biomass waste.
Dams are often in place for protecting areas from flooding, but they can also produce hydroelectric energy. This method relies on the natural rising and falling of gravity and its effect on the water. When released, the water turns turbines, producing energy for the generator. Again, only areas with available water resources can use this method, but a large dam can provide enough electricity for eight-thousand homes.
Another one of the types of energy sources that involves water is hydrogen. Hydrogen is one of the elements that make up water (and numerous other compounds on earth). In its pure form, hydrogen can serve as a fuel for many vehicles and buildings. Unlike fossil fuels, which are much more common, hydrogen does not produce any harmful emissions into the atmosphere. However, this method does require significant amounts of power from other sources to provide the hydrogen in the first place.
Wave and Tidal Energy
Much like how wind energy uses the natural currents in the air to spin turbines to produce power, wave and tidal energy sources do the same but by harnessing the movement of the ocean, whether it be from the tides or waves. These systems don't produce waste when in use, but it's possible they may impact ecosystems upon implementation. Many countries are researching this method to test its effectiveness.
We mentioned coal, oil, and natural gas earlier as part of the nonrenewable resources group. These methods are the most common energy source used in many countries, and they involve burning these resources to produce energy or converting them into gasoline for vehicles. While capable of producing large amounts of power, they release many pollutants during both use and excavation.
How Do These Sources Fit into the Future?
With the pressing issue of climate change, the need to change how we fuel our industries and daily lives has become more critical than ever. However, while knowing the available sources to us gives us the building blocks for change, it doesn't provide an obvious solution to how to best move forward and protect the environment.
And things stand, there is no one best solution available to us. As mentioned, not all environments are suitable for taking advantage of a source of energy, even with something as plentiful as solar power. Trying to implement one source of alternative energy will ultimately alienate different parts of the planet.
Part of the draw of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources is that we've built systems that work on these sources of energy around the globe. Though it may be easier to continue to use these resources, it will come at a cost to our climate and environment that we likely won't be able to reverse—let alone maintain into the future.
Utilizing Alternative Energy In The Right Places
Since no one of the types of energy sources is the perfect solution, it is a combination of our available options that will ultimately pave the way forward. Areas that are suitable to any one kind of power—solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric—can use these sources instead of fossil fuels.
This approach will allow for not only less strain on the climate but an opportunity to see how viable these options are in the long run. Some options like tidal and wave energy have the chance to impact the surrounding ecosystems, and we can run smaller tests before moving forward with more extensive facilities if possible. Even if we can only operate on a small scale, it's better than solely relying on fossil fuels.
Understanding The Cost
When it comes to nonrenewable resources, the cost of their continued use is obvious: global warming and climate change have been steadily occurring, and we see the results in new ways over time. The cost of switching to alternative energy, on the other hand, comes in the different, but no less concerning, form of financial expense.
To start with, researching these methods takes money, especially when it comes to developing infrastructures that can provide enough power to support large communities—not to mention reproducing said technology for use. With the number of high population areas that use electricity in the world, this undertaking is no small one.
Even though it's for the good of the planet, the financial hurdle has not been an easy one to pass. It's possible that these switches to other types of energy will cause long-term financial strain. However, it's also just as likely the cost will slowly regulate into something lower over time, as these infrastructures become more commonplace.
Continuing To Search For Solutions
Even with the advances we've made into the field of alternative energy, there's still the possibility that other types of energy may come to light. Additionally, the more efficient our technology becomes, the better chances we have of using and producing power with less impact on our climate. No matter what approach we choose to take, integrating alternative energy is more a necessity than a luxury.
Now that you've read through our article, you should have a basic understanding of the kinds of energy and their pros and cons. And that knowledge is the first step to changing the world.