There is no such thing as a free lunch. Every energy source has pros and cons and trying to decide how best to provide the power an economy needs is a complex problem. Many believe that the current energy predicament will be solved by weaning society away from petroleum consumption, but even as people develop new alternative sources, the problems don’t go away; they simply change in nature.
In evaluating alternative energy sources, here are some important factors to consider.
1. Combustion versus noncombustion
The majority of our energy sources produce power through combustion processes (burning) that require a burn chamber, oxygen and exhaustion capacities. From time immemorial, humans have burned wood for fires and the process was simple: Pile some wood, light it on fire and hang around nearby. Modern combustion processes are engineered to be more efficient (modern wood-burning stoves are around 100 times more efficient than open fires, for example), but the combustion processes, regardless of how efficient they are, are notorious pollution sources.
Noncombustion processes, such as solar power and nuclear, don’t exhaust pollutants the same way that combustion processes do, but they entail their own problems. For instance, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels require a lot of energy to manufacture and most of this energy comes from electrical power which mostly comes from coal combustion. So while solar is pollution free in its on-site implementation, it entails a lot of pollution in its manufacture.
Other non-combustion energy sources such as wind and hydropower also require a great deal of energy to manufacture the capital equipment needed to make things work.
2. Raw material issues
Every energy production plant, whether solar or a woodstove, needs raw materials. In the case of solar, the raw materials are free. In the case of a nuclear power plant, the raw materials are uranium rods, which must be meticulously refined and manufactured. In fact, the total cost of an energy process has less and less to do with the raw fuels. Capital equipment is expensive and is usually the most influential component in a cost/analysis equation.
3. The degree of refinement of the energy
Woodstoves provide heat and in a rather coarse fashion. Solar PV provides high-grade electrical energy. Wind power also provides high-grade electrical energy. In the case of the woodstove, the heat is the desired end product and heat is very coarse yet effective. Electrical energy is very refined and convenient. Every energy-consuming process requires a certain degree of refinement of the energy and the refinement itself takes energy. If it’s possible to adopt policies that promote less refined energy, everyone is better off.
4. The level of current technology
It takes time for new technologies to reach the market and it takes even more time for wide-ranging acceptance and use of new technology. People don’t simply discard their current systems because a radical new technology is developed. They wait until their current equipment breaks down or is no longer economical to use before they invest in new systems.
5. Pollution and environmental impacts
Every energy-producing and -consuming process leaves a residue of some kind on our planet. Alternative-energy schemes are not all pollution mitigation marvels. Wood stoves, for instance, can be one of the most polluting energy sources if the wood is burned inefficiently. And different types of pollution cause different types of problems.
Let’s face it; most people are concerned exclusively with economics and are only interested in seeing their net costs decrease for energy consumption. Because of this, the government steps in with taxes, rebates and other forms of subsidies to achieve in the market what they deem desirable, namely lower pollution levels and freedom from foreign oil. If the government didn’t mandate economic changes to the playing field, fossil fuels would never yield alternatives.
And of course, since the government is going to lead the way into the alternative energy future, politics plays a very large role in which alternative solutions get the most play. Green politics is becoming an increasingly powerful and influential part of every government operation.
In conclusion, the decision on which energy source to use is not simple, as there are many factors to consider. Whether it is combustion or non-combustion, the refinement of energy, level of technology, pollution and environmental impact, economics or politics, all play a role in the energy dilemma. Understanding the pros and cons of each energy source is crucial in making an informed decision on how best to provide power to an economy. It is important to weigh these factors carefully, as the consequences of each energy source will affect not only the present but also future generations.
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