Our Future In Sustainable Energy
our future in sustainable energy
I want to talk about our future in sustainable energy. If you listened to the last episode, you’d know about the current state of our climate crisis. So now more than ever we need to do everything we can to move towards a more sustainable future, which brings me to energy. Electricity and heat generation is the largest single source of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the use of fossil fuels in other industries and activities contributing to the problem in a big way.
So whether you’re an individual looking to reduce your personal emissions or someone wanting to see global climate action by corporations and governments (or both) – then we need to understand that our future is in sustainable energy and start moving towards it today.
If you’re new here, the way I like to do this is to identify our problems and then talk about solutions. So the first thing we need to do is figure out why what we are doing now isn’t working. Why is the current way we are using electricity and our energy sources not sustainable?
Why what we have now isn’t working
Reliance on fossil fuels
Right now, we mainly rely on fossil fuel sources for our electricity. In the U.S – energy sources for our electricity come from about 60% of fossil fuels (natural gas, coal, and petroleum), about 20% from nuclear energy, and about 20% from renewable energy (wind, hydropower, and solar). We implement pretty rough and tough methods to obtain non-renewable materials from the earth. Fossil fuels negatively contribute to our air quality and release greenhouse gas emissions – warming our planet and making it completely unsustainable. Which leads us to a future where humankind will not be able to exist.
So like I said, the primary energy sources we use are coal, oil, and natural gas. How do we get them? We mine coal. For oil, we use offshore oil rigs and onshore oil derricks pumps. A hole is drilled into a potential oil patch and pumped out through a long tube. Natural gas is usually found in the same areas as oil and is separated from oil when pumped.
So let’s talk about why the collection and use of these fuels are harmful.
Regarding the human side of things, Derrick pump operators and coal miners are a few of the most dangerous professions in the United States. Fossil fuel production and use harm our air and water, which hurts us. Greenpeace reports that in “the United States alone, air pollution from burning fossil fuels is linked to an estimated 230,000 deaths and $600 billion in economic losses annually.” And research shows that BIPOC individuals had around 1.5 times higher burden for this particulate matter than the overall population. Pipeline development for these fossil fuel projects also often infringes upon the rights and lands of indigenous peoples, which they have had to fight for years, such Dakota Access Pipeline or the Keystone Pipeline.
Besides their greenhouse gas emissions, Fossil fuels are harmful to the environment in other ways as well. Strip mining coal can damage underground aquifers that supply water for drinking and agriculture. And, both underground and surface mining can pollute nearby waters with sediments and chemicals. We know that small oil spills occur in the thousands every year, although we usually only hear about the big ones. But big and medium oil spills are disastrous to our water systems and wildlife.
So right now, we have reached a point where we are fracking to get to deeper oil reserves in our earth. It was hard to pin down a number of how much we frack in the US. But, I saw numbers ranging from near 70-90% of U.S. natural gas and oil wells developed using hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking is the process of “injecting liquid at high pressure into the earth to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. Some might say it is good because it produces natural gas that burns more cleanly than coal and oil and is cheap. And yes, while the short-term reward may be more affordable, cleaner energy – what is the actual cost?
Fracking intentionally causes small earthquakes because, yeah, I mean, they’re cracking open the earth – but it also has been linked to large earthquakes. One of the biggest earthquakes fracking caused was a 5.8 magnitude earthquake near Pawnee, Oklahoma, in 2016, which caused damage even 300 miles away near Kansas city. These quakes occur when they take the wastewater and saltwater from oil and gas production and inject it deep underground – fracturing the earth. But most importantly, fracking can poison groundwater, pollute surface water, and it completely destroys natural landscapes and habitats as the project is built.
Where does sustainable energy come in?
Definition of sustainable energy
Let’s define what sustainable energy is. It is any form of energy that is renewable and clean. Renewable meaning that it is not depleted when used – it is not finite. And clean meaning that it is does not emit any carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. So sustainable energy is a much better way to co-exist with the earth we live on because we are not depleting it of precious finite resources, and its use isn’t negatively contributing to the warming of our planet. With sustainable energy, we are meeting our needs without putting our future selves at risk.
The United States is actually the second leading country in terms of installed renewable energy capacity and renewable energy consumption following China, even though we remain heavily on fossil fuels. A study found that renewable energy could help reduce the electricity sector’s emissions by approximately 81 percent.
Going to the source
My question on this is, instead of going to the secondary source for power – why not tap into the first line? One that is clean and more abundant? When we are using fossil fuels, we are using the power of the sun millions of years in the making. It is all just organic matter that has experienced millions of years of geological and chemical activity underground that we harvest for use.
We can use the power of that big bright star hanging out above all of our heads, the sun, right now through solar panels, wind power, and hydropower. The sun causes changes in the earth which translates into wind power we can harvest. It also causes evaporation and rain collected into rivers and reservoirs that we can harness with turbines – hydropower. And we can harness it directly through solar resources. All of these alternatives would be much cleaner and healthier for us and the planet.
The other power source, nuclear energy, produces clean(er) energy, but not renewable energy. Nuclear energy splits atoms in a reactor to heat water into steam, turning a turbine and generating electricity. It is clean because it produces zero emissions. It also has a small land footprint compared to solar or wind making it a good option. However, the concern is that uranium used in nuclear energy, although as common as tin, is non-renewable. The process produces waste and poses fears of nuclear plants, causing safety issues.
An excellent example of nuclear energy use is in France. France derives about 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy, which results in some of the lowest energy costs in Europe and produces extremely low levels of carbon dioxide emissions per capita. One thing the US has had trouble with is disposing of nuclear waste. France, however, recycles or reprocesses spent fuel. This way, they can recover uranium and plutonium from the used fuel for reuse, reducing waste.
There are still small amounts of highly radioactive nuclear waste that come from this process, though, that needs to be appropriately stored and contained so it doesn’t hurt people or the environment.
Density of uranium
Another thing that throws a wrench in the nuclear energy debate is how dense it is. One uranium pellet is about an inch tall.
NEI reports that “All of the used fuel ever produced by the commercial nuclear industry since the late 1950s would cover a whole football field to a height of approximately 10 yards. That might seem like a lot, but coal plants generate that same amount of waste every hour.”
So the debate on whether nuclear energy is sustainable is definitely still a big question mark.
That brings us back to other sustainable energy sources – wind, solar, hydro, and even biomass or geothermal energy. For the sake of time, we will just talk about wind, solar, and hydropower, though.
Let’s walk through the pros and cons of each of those – starting with the wind.
sustainable energy sources
The wind is the most used energy source for sustainable energy today in the United States. How it works is pretty self-explanatory – the wind blows and turns the blades, which produces mechanical energy that we convert to electricity with a generator. Wind energy is clean, has low operating costs and maintenance, and if planned properly, the land that wind turbines sit on can also be used for farming.
The downside of wind energy is that it is intermittent, meaning if the wind isn’t blowing, there is no power generated. They are visually unattractive, can be noisy, and they are harmful to birds and bats.
When developing wind further, we need to make sure we efficiently use space and implement energy storage of some kind, so the power is more reliable.
Next up on our list is solar. I am equally terrified and appreciative of the sun as it can work with us or against us. The pros of solar are that it works in many different climates. It is becoming much more affordable, surprisingly durable, and solar can give back to the entire energy grid, meaning there is less dependence on each person implementing solar. You can even get paid from electrical companies for the energy you provide to the grid!
But storing large amounts of this energy is difficult, especially as an individual, and usually, the electricity produced is used in real-time. And installing solar that you can use to power your entire home usually requires a professional to come in and do it for you. It takes many acres of land to get larger-scale solar facilities in place. Another consideration is water use. PV solar panels require no water, while CSP, or Concentrating solar power, uses thermal energy and has to have water to be cooled – causing issues in areas that experience drought. But CSP is easier to store and be used day and night. And finally, solar panels are made with hazardous materials and chemicals that could pose serious environmental and public health threats if not handled or disposed of properly.
We need to continue to make solar widespread and available to use and create regulations on disposal or recycling to make this a more viable option for everyone.
Hydropower – or Hydroelectric power creates power when water flows through blades in a turbine to produce electricity. Hydropower is the world’s largest source of renewable power generation. The biggest hydroelectric power plant is the Three Gorges Dam, located in Central China, with a capacity of 22.5GW. If you’re trying to wrap your head around how much 22.5GW could power – about 1GW is the equivalent power of 3.125 Million Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panels, or 412 Utility-Scale Wind Turbines, or even 110 Million LED lights! So hydropower can create some real juice, and it is incredibly efficient compared to other forms of sustainable energy. It is also clean, renewable, low maintenance, and economical for many countries, even remote ones.
But there’s always a but! Hydropower has an environmental impact still. It is costly to build these dams initially, and to get them built involves disrupting habitats, land, and people. They can flood certain areas and block fish and other wildlife from migrating in the waters. These hydropower plants cause oxygen stratification (reduced oxygen in the water), eutrophication, and thermal pollution, disrupting ecosystems entirely. Finally, millions of people from global indigenous populations in developing countries have lost their homes, communities, and livelihoods. Indigenous people were cleared out of their native lands to make way for these large-scale hydropower operations.
More planning and consideration need to go into building hydropower stations to make them safer for the environment. And, Indigenous communities need to be involved in the planning stages and justly compensated if they are affected.
Overall, considering the pros and cons, I believe that renewable energy absolutely blows fossil fuel energy out of the water. I’m confident that if we continue to invest in renewable energy, we have the power to correct some of the problems surrounding it – making it an even better option for a sustainable future.
Can sustainable energy power us?
After reading through a few different studies and articles – I’ll say the answer is yes. One study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory reports their findings that
“renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, (and) in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States.”
They also note that we need to continue to make systems that are more flexible through “technology advances, new ways of operating, evolved business models, and new market rules.” All of which will take an effort by policymakers and our government.
Using varied sources of renewable energy in conjunction with one another will allow us to support ourselves while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and water use. We need to start minimizing our dependence on fossil fuels through conservation efforts and education on using our energy more sustainably. We also need to continue to develop the management technology and infrastructure for renewable resources to ensure a smooth transition. I highly suggest looking at the Green New Deal if you haven’t yet, as it addresses a lot of these needs.
Challenges do exist, but there are so many opportunities ahead.
One opportunity is Power-To-X. Because it will take a long time for us to electrify our world, and we still need fuel for many things – Power- To – X covers “various processes that turn electricity into heat, hydrogen or synthetic fuels.” The hydrogen conversion aspect means that we would have a way to store energy, heat buildings, or even manufacture steel.
Another is distributed generation, or generating and sharing power locally back to the grid through renewable resources is on the rise. The EPA says that “distributed generation can help support delivery of clean, reliable power to additional customers and reduce electricity losses along transmission and distribution lines.”
Biogas technology is developing further. Using digesters to speed up the natural breakdown of plant matter, we can convert plant emissions to natural gas. Biogas is a renewable energy source and can power engines and homes, while the plant matter left behind can be used in agriculture.
And finally, there will be many opportunities for new green jobs. We will see more positions as naturalists, organizers, builders, growers, and more. This includes the manufacturing and selling energy-efficient technologies from solar panels and turbines to energy-efficient appliances and vehicles. Jobs in energy storage and management. And even more jobs that help nurture individuals like careworkers and develop our technologies further like scientists and engineers. Renewable energy has created hundreds of thousands of jobs already – and that number will continue to explode with growth in the sector.
something to grow on
For this week’s something to grow on, I want you to allow yourself to have some fun and some hope. Imagine our future running on sustainable energy. Where everyone has access to multiple sources of energy available. Each area or region is situated to best meet their needs through a combination of sustainable energy sources. Where pollution decreases, meaning fewer respiratory diseases, heart conditions, strokes, or other life-threatening diseases. People can go outside and freely breathe air without risk.
A world where we have reduced, stable energy bills to put a little more in our pocket for living each month. Where we aren’t fighting for oil and fossil fuels and aren’t depending on exporters to provide us what we need to continue living as we know today.
Imagine a world where there are fewer emissions, and our temperature stabilizes. There is less extreme weather, less death, fewer extinctions. We can become more resilient and less reliant.
Imagine that future. Write it down. Sit outside and daydream about it.
Can you see it?
I know I can, and that’s enough to keep me going. I hope it is for you as well.