The Future of Alternative Energy Sources: Can They Make a Difference?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have been the lifeblood of society. During the early modern era, these resources—namely coal, oil, and later natural gas—were necessary to maintain the quality of life of developed nations. Today, much of our infrastructure has been built up around their transport and use, resulting in an increasing reliance on fossil fuels among corporations and countries. With progressive technological advancements, however, fossil fuels are no longer the only option to power a developed nation.
The non-fossil fuel energy source that produces the largest percentage of power consumed is nuclear power. Nuclear power is efficient, incredibly reliable, and easily independently producible in almost every country. It does have major flaws, though. The first and perhaps most commonly known issue is its production of radioactive wastes that require vast amounts of time to become safe to be around. In fact, uranium-235, the main source of fuel for most nuclear reactors, has a half-life of over 700 million years. The public conception of this problem is based less on the current effects of radiation on residents located near nuclear power plants and more on fears induced by historical incidents, namely the Chernobyl disaster and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Though these incidents were certainly tragedies, it is extremely unlikely that events of the same level of destructiveness could ever happen again with enforced reactor safety measures. Both disasters simply spotted far too many hyper-specific mistakes that current reactor safety has been explicitly designed against. Additionally, while the massive evaluations caused by Fukushima Daiichi were very disruptive to people’s lives, significantly fewer people died from the nuclear disaster itself than from the tsunami that caused it.
The second major issue with nuclear power is the difficulty of fuel extraction. In fact, uranium-235 is a rare isotope of uranium and can cost large amounts of money. This means that while nuclear power can currently be produced independently compared to fossil fuel energy sources like crude oil, the running of a nuclear reactor still requires trade to support it. Though nuclear power definitely has its flaws, it’s a potential supplemental energy source for other renewables in the future. Therefore, despite the large-scale catastrophes caused by these tragedies, their root causes do not make nuclear power a fundamentally non-viable energy source.
The largest source of renewable energy—energy in which the requisite natural resources recharge faster than it is consumed—is hydropower. It lasts nearly indefinitely and produces a significant amount of energy. Hydropower is also a reliable alternative as the course and speed of rivers almost never change, and hydroelectric infrastructure tends to be relatively resilient. Nevertheless, the main downside of hydroelectric systems is that they can be environmentally disruptive: they interrupt fish migration patterns and cause huge nutrient buildups behind dams, which can then lead to the cultivation of algae and other aquatic weeds. Over the course of decades, these two factors can induce catastrophic environmental destruction, including massive weather changes like increased drought. While the government has attempted many different methods to improve fish migration, such as the utilization of fish elevators, it is virtually impossible to completely mitigate these problems.
The most versatile renewable energy source is solar power. It can be implemented in most locations without requiring any specific geographic features. Its construction is also relatively simple and is at low risk to human safety. However, solar power is unable to generate energy as quickly as nuclear power or hydropower do and relies on the continuous, mostly unobstructed presence of the sun. There have been several efforts to resolve the energy storage problem with more advanced battery technology, but larger high-tech batteries are costly. The components of solar panels also require the mining of rare earth metals, hindering the technology's progress. Despite those two limitations, solar energy is considered to have the largest potential since most of its major issues are avoidable and its inherent benefits are vast.
Much like solar power, wind power is another climate-based renewable energy source. It is usable in fewer locations than solar power and has many of the same flaws, including the need for massive batteries and supplemental energy sources when the wind it relies on is reduced in intensity. Windmills require even more mining for minerals and metals than solar panels, which can cause this so-called “green energy” to have a relatively high carbon cost. Besides the environmental impacts, windmills are also incredibly loud machines which, just by virtue of being so disruptive, can increase anxiety and sleep deprivation when placed near residential areas. Though these problems are solvable by strategic placement of wind turbines and more expensive sourcing of the raw materials that compose them, such adjustments may require more resource and time input compared with the actual outputs we can extract from wind power.
Increasing exposure to scientific knowledge has allowed us to recognize the harms brought by fossil fuel combustion. By releasing an immense amount of both greenhouse gases and air pollutants during combustion, the use of fossil fuels drives climate change, acts as a potential cause of hundreds of millions of deaths, and significantly boosts the risk of contracting respiratory diseases. They also force our economies to become reliant on natural resources produced in faraway states, such as Russia and Venezuela. Fortunately, scientific developments have introduced to us many alternative energy options, most of which surpass fossil fuels in efficiency, safety, sustainability, or supply chain independence. In a world with so many energy options, we need to build a smart grid that can utilize energy sources tailored to fit the circumstances of an area rather than an international universal energy source that is certain to be flawed.
While the question of what is the best energy source is still at the center of controversy, some energy sources have wider use cases than others. Solar power, for example, can be used almost entirely anywhere and is incredibly low risk in terms of securing human health. However, it is not the best conclusion to build an entire power grid based upon it, due to sunlight’s inconsistent potency. This drawback can be supplemented, nonetheless, by nuclear and hydro powers which can both be used regardless of weather conditions. In our technologically developed world, this infrastructure is incredibly effective, and if built up intelligently, it could modernize our energy grid while aiding in approaching the goal of net zero carbon emissions.