Our world is changing, and with all of those changes comes a need to develop new ways to power our daily lives. In recent years, there has been a strong push for various types of renewable energy to provide that new form of power. Renewable energy uses natural resources that either never run out or are easily replenished, such as the sun, wind, and water, to provide energy. Many traditional forms of energy, such as coal, natural gas, and oil, are nonrenewable. This means that when we run out of these sources, they will not be replenished within our lifetimes. It is therefore important for communities, from cities and towns to states and countries, to begin thinking about how they can begin using renewable sources for their energy needs.
The State of Fossil Fuels and Renewable Energy
Fossil fuels, which consist of oil, coal, and natural gas, account for 81% of the United States’ energy. While the country still has relatively high amounts of coal available, coal use has decreased due to concerns about air pollution and its environmental impact. According to the Energy Information Administration, total fossil fuel production in the U.S. is expected to reach 73 quadrillion British thermal units in 2018, the highest it has ever been, despite increasing concerns about how using fossil fuels can affect our environment and health. The expected increase is due to increased production of natural gas and oil due to improvements in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, techniques available for use in tight rock formations. Growth in oil production in Texas and New Mexico will likely also contribute.
While it is unclear how much fossil fuel we have left, there is evidence that choosing to leave most of those fuels in the ground is the best idea to preserve our planet. In order to meet global climate agreements, about two thirds of fossil fuels should be left unburned. Choosing to ignore those targets and instead burning all known sources of fossil fuels would instead emit almost 750 billion tons of carbon into the air, seriously damaging the ozone layer in the process. Burning fossil fuels also emits smoke and other toxins that make it difficult for people and animals to breathe. Fracking to excavate fossil fuels can also cause environmental damage to nearby ecosystems. As a result of these factors, choosing to increase our focus on renewable energy — which typically has a much smaller environmental impact than fossil fuels — could help preserve habitats, health, and the planet.
Solar energy uses specialized panels to capture light from the sun and turn it into energy. These panels can be installed almost anywhere, and homeowners who use them can save over $100 per month on their energy bills in many areas. Because the panels can be bulky, not every home can safely have them installed. However, many communities are beginning to use “solar gardens,” in which an array of solar panels are installed in one location and used by multiple homes in the area without needing their own panels. Unlike some other forms of renewable energy, solar panels are completely silent.
There are a few disadvantages to using solar energy. Panels can be expensive, particularly if panels that can store energy have been selected. Other panels can only provide energy when the sun is out and shining brightly. Solar panels are made with rare and expensive materials, and they typically require a significant amount of space to be installed.
Wind energy uses tall turbines to collect energy. These turbines have relatively low operating costs compared to other forms of energy, and more research is being undertaken to help make it even cheaper. People who own large parcels of land can rent part of it to government organizations and other businesses interest in using the land to install wind turbines. While many people consider wind turbines to be eyesores, sleeker designs that cause less visual disruption have been developed.
Like solar energy, wind power can be unreliable. Storms, strong winds, and lightning can damage turbines, and the turbines themselves may harm birds and other animals. They can also be rather loud, making people hesitant to allow turbine installation. In order for wind energy to be effective, a usually-expensive installation of turbines on a large tract of land is necessary.
Geothermal energy uses Earth’s core temperature to generate power. It does not cause high levels of pollution, and it is more efficient and reliable than other forms of renewable energy. People who use geothermal energy can save up to 60 percent on their heating and cooling costs each year. The majority of a geothermal energy setup is stored underground, and as a result it causes fewer visual problems than other types of renewable energy sources.
Retrofitting old houses and buildings can be expensive, and geothermal energy is therefore better for new structures that can be built with the necessary infrastructure to support geothermal generators. These generators have a high up-front cost and also require a significant amount of water to function, causing concern about potential damage to underground ecosystems.
People have been using water for energy for centuries — just look at some of the first factories and mills for evidence. Using hydropower is one of the cleanest forms of energy, as it does not emit any greenhouse gasses and provides a consistent and reliable source of energy. Hydropower is also considered safe, with low operating costs.
Creating the dams necessary for hydropower to function can significantly impact the ecosystems and habitats in surrounding waterways. The dams could also displace the people who live in the area. Building hydropower equipment is expensive, and it can be limited in size by the capacity of the waterway on which it is built, meaning that the amount of energy that can be generated would also be affected. The capacity of hydropower generators can also be affected by significant droughts in the area, which could diminish the amount of water flowing through the generator and the energy produced.