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Which Type of Energy Production is Actually Better for the Planet?

A Comparison of Renewable and Non-Renewable Energy Options

By Olivia L. DobbsPublished about a month ago 9 min read
Which Type of Energy Production is Actually Better for the Planet?
Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash

As the world's population continues to grow and technological advancements bring about increased demand for energy, the debate over the best sources of energy has become more critical than ever. With the looming threat of climate change and the need for sustainable and reliable energy sources, it's important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of various energy sources.

In the following blog post, I explore several types of energy sources, ranging from fossil fuels to nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and geothermal power. I evaluate each energy source's merits and drawbacks, taking into account variables such as cost, environmental impact, and energy efficiency.

By obtaining an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of each energy source, we can make informed decisions regarding our energy consumption and how to advance toward a sustainable energy future.

Fossil Fuel Energy

To start this comprehensive comparison, it seemed reasonable to first identify why, despite the numerous well-known downsides of fossil fuel, it is still commonly used around the world. In short, it’s convenient, it’s cheap, it’s well established, and it isn’t seasonal.

We’ve been using fossil fuels for over two centuries and the industry is, understandably, not too keen on decreasing its size and profits. And because we’ve been using it for so long, our understanding of and the technology that’s based around it is rock solid. If it wasn’t for the drastic environmental damage it causes, it would be both practical and effective.

But the science is confirmed and reconfirmed: fossil fuels pollute the environment beyond any other option on this list. According to the EPA, coal alone accounted for 15% of all United States Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Globally, 98.3% of energy-specific greenhouse gas emissions are from coal, oil, and natural gas.

In addition, the supply is incredibly limited, and rapidly running out. Stanford’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere estimates that, if we continue our rate of consumption of these resources, we’ll run out of them by 2088.

So, we can certainly strike this one off the list.

Natural Gas Energy

Though technically also belonging to the fossil fuel category, I wanted to look at natural gas separately, due to the sentiment that natural gas is the “clean” fossil fuel. In the fossil fuel world, it’s painted as the “good guy” because it’s relatively more environmentally friendly than the other guys.

But, just because it produces less carbon than the other fossil fuels and, indeed, is less expensive to store and transport, doesn’t mean that it is worthy of competing with renewables.

The most glaring issue is that, at our current rate of consumption, we will run out of the resource in 52 years. That means that a reasonable portion of us might outlive the resource. But that isn’t natural gas’ only downside. It’s also arduous to process and, if it’s processed improperly, can be incredibly dangerous.

So, is it better than oil and coal? Arguably, yes. But not much better.

Solar Energy

Solar energy presents a myriad of advantages when compared to traditional fossil fuels. Notably, it is a renewable source of energy that is available in abundance, which solves the problem of running out of energy in the future. Furthermore, it does not produce any greenhouse gasses or pollutants that contribute to global warming, thereby reducing our carbon footprint. And with minimal maintenance requirements, solar panels have the potential to be a cost-effective solution over the long haul.

As with any technology, however, solar energy has its own set of drawbacks. The initial costs of installation can be a barrier for some, preventing them from reaping the benefits of solar energy. Solar energy production is also subject to weather conditions and may not be as efficient during periods of cloudiness or rainfall. Additionally, large-scale solar power plants require significant land use, which poses challenges in densely populated areas.

And, most obviously, solar energy is only generated during the daytime, which means that energy storage systems are essential to ensure a steady supply of energy during nighttime and periods of low sunlight. These storage systems can be costly and require additional maintenance. Nevertheless, despite these challenges, solar energy remains an important and promising source of renewable energy that we should continue to explore and innovate.

Hydroelectric Energy

Hydroelectric energy is another sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels. Unlike fossil fuels, it is powered by the water cycle and is not depleted by use, except in extreme drought situations. In addition, hydroelectric power plants do not emit greenhouse gasses or pollutants, making them a low-carbon source of electricity. With high efficiency rates, hydroelectric energy offers a reliable and stable source of power.

But hydroelectric power has its challenges too. Limited availability of water can affect the production of hydroelectric power, particularly during seasonal changes or, as previously mentioned, drought events. The construction of hydroelectric power plants can also be costly, and environmental and social impact assessments may be required. Moreover, hydroelectric dams can have significant impacts on ecosystems and wildlife, particularly on fish populations and their habitats.

Furthermore, regular maintenance is essential for hydroelectric power plants to operate efficiently and safely. Issues such as sedimentation, erosion, and floods can impact the performance of these plants. Despite these challenges, hydroelectric energy remains an important source of renewable energy that has the potential to make a significant contribution to reducing our carbon footprint. With continued innovation and investment, we can overcome the challenges and capitalize on the benefits of this sustainable and low-carbon energy source.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is a renewable and sustainable energy source that offers several benefits! One major advantage is that it is not dependent on weather conditions, unlike solar and wind energy, as it uses heat from the earth's interior to generate electricity. This means it can provide a reliable and consistent source of energy, which is particularly beneficial for regions with extreme weather conditions.

Additionally, geothermal energy does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, making it a clean energy alternative that helps reduce carbon footprints. It can also help create local jobs and stimulate economic growth in areas with geothermal potential. Finally, geothermal energy has a long lifespan and requires minimal maintenance, resulting in lower operating costs compared to traditional fossil fuels.

If we had the economic and technological means to drill deep enough for geothermal energy globally, this solution could potentially be the perfect solution. Unfortunately, in many places that don’t have more active near-surface volcanic activity, the cost of building such an expensive energy plant would not be economically feasible. In lower-income countries that lack active volcanic sites, it’s an unapproachable cost. Even in countries that can afford the costs, alternative fuel sources are often chosen, due to the high cost of the initial build and well mining.

In addition, there is a risk that the mining of geothermal sites can lead to fault line instability. The risk assessment and mitigation efforts of this are still in development. The benefits of geothermal energy are astounding, but we may not yet have the tech and understanding to truly harness it.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is likely one of the trickiest forms of energy in our selection. The controversy around it precedes itself, and its odd list of pros and cons weaves a complex web that leaves many shrugging.

There are some genuinely incredible advantages to using nuclear power plants: it takes up a very small amount of land, it has an efficient output of power, and once the plant is built, it’s reliable, cheap to maintain, and produces virtually zero CO2 emissions.

But, it’s not all roses. The initial building cost of nuclear plants is exorbitant, making it nearly impossible for poorer countries to develop them. In addition, though the risk of the plants and materials has decreased with technological innovations, if there are errors, the effects can be catastrophic.

And, of course, it’s important to note that nuclear energy is not renewable. At today’s rate of consumption, we have only 230 years left of uranium. A significant increase in the use of this power source will, naturally, decrease that total time, which is a definite cause for docking points for this option.

Interested in learning more about the viability of nuclear energy? I cover the topic in greater depth here: Is Nuclear Energy a Sustainable Solution?

Wind Energy

Wind is particularly attractive because it is a renewable resource. When we use it to produce our energy, we don’t have to worry about using it up. Unlike many of the other options on the list, we cannot run out of wind. In addition, wind energy is remarkably clean, wind collection requires minimal construction in comparison to the plants usually required to generate comparable energy.

Compared to other forms of energy, wind takes up a minimal bit of land, making it very space efficient. Plus, once it’s up and running, maintenance is relatively low-cost.

As great as windmills are, there’s a glaring issue: no one wants to live near them. The current devices are an eyesore, and some people report headaches because of the constant humming of the devices. Because of this, windmills are generally placed farther from densely populated locations which, in turn, necessitates a system to transfer the generated power elsewhere.

Finally, though wind is indeed impossible to use up, its availability is not constant. The frequency and strength of wind are variably seasonal across the world, meaning windmills cannot always produce the same amount of power. An Intermittent power supply like this is, unfortunately, not a phenomenon many are capable - or willing - to deal with.

Before wind energy can be seen as a truly viable solution, we’ll need to address these above issues.

Biomass Energy

Biomass earns its right to sit on this list by tackling two important environmental issues with a single solution: it works toward waste reduction and energy production. On paper, it sounds great. It creates power from our endless supply of waste, a resource that we are frankly already overflowing with.

But not all biomass is the same, and its efficiency (and the amount of emissions it produces) is dependent on what is burnt in the facility. In some cases, it’s contributed to deforestation by pollutants harming nearby soil quality and by encouraging companies to clear-cut forests to provide enough fuel for it.

On top of the potential emissions and other environmental impacts, its production requires large portions of land and a significant chunk of money. Though biomass energy does work to solve multiple problems for us, it, unfortunately, creates a few more in the process.

Which Type of Energy Production is the Best for Our Planet?

To conclude, it's essential to recognize that there is no universal panacea when it comes to selecting an energy source. The optimal solution will differ depending on the specific location and its natural resources. However, it's abundantly clear that our dependence on fossil fuels must come to an end. The environmental consequences of perpetuating our reliance on fossil fuels are dire, and the urgency of the situation cannot be overstated.

The priority must now be to foster the development and implementation of sustainable and renewable energy sources that can satisfy our energy requirements while preserving the planet for future generations.


About the Creator

Olivia L. Dobbs

Science Enthusiast, Naturalist, Dreamer.

Check out my science! ->

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