Modern Power Generation and Sustainability: Using renewable sources are the key, says Kena Fedorschak
Apr 30, 2014 10:11AM
● By By Kena Fedorschak
Electricity plays a fundamental role in modern life. Current power generation systems, which rely heavily on fossil fuels and nuclear inputs, provide cheap and reliable electricity, but these technologies are ultimately unsustainable, because they rely on resources that will eventually be depleted. Moreover, the use of fossil fuels damages ecological systems and causes climate change (e.g., average global temperatures are climbing and some studies suggest that about one-quarter of the Earth’s mammal species may be extinct in the wild in 20 years). Ensuring continued availability of power will require increased investment in renewable technologies.
Fossil fuels, which include coal, petroleum (oil) and natural gas, are concentrated organic compounds that supply approximately 82 percent of energy consumed in the United States. The remnants of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, fossil fuels are cheap and relatively abundant. Coal and natural gas are used most commonly for electricity generation—petroleum is mostly used for transportation. All fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases when consumed (e.g., burning coal releases sulfur dioxide, a compound which creates acid rain and particulate matter; fly ash, a particulate matter; mercury, an established neurotoxin; and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas).
Nuclear energy supplies approximately 8.5 percent of energy consumed in the United States, generated through induced fission—the decay of uranium atoms—and therefore produces no greenhouse gases. However, the volatility of the materials used presents numerous challenges. Active cooling processes chill vats of water where radioactive nuclear waste is stored. If water loss occurs within the pools or the cooling towers fail, massive amounts of radiation can potentially be released. While sufficient uranium exists to continue to last several hundred years, the lack of a permanent storage solution for nuclear waste is of grave concern. Given that fossil fuels and nuclear energy have adverse environmental impacts and will inevitably run out, it is crucial that renewable energy technologies be developed to ensure a sustainable energy future.
Renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, provide a combined total of about 6.8 percent of energy consumed in the United States. Renewable technologies are characterized by their use of naturally replenished resources, zero emissions and low impact on other environmental systems. Wind power is generated using induction generators housed in the nacelle (area behind the blades) of a wind turbine. Wind turbines must be spaced apart and therefore require vast amounts of land, so they are ideal for non-contiguous installation.
Solar power, which is generated using either thermal (heat) or photovoltaic (light) technologies, takes advantage of a nearly inexhaustible resource; solar incidence on the Earth each day is about 15,000 times the entire energy needs of the planet. Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), in which power is generated by fracturing hot rock deep underground, drilling injection/production wells, pumping liquids down into the Earth and using the resulting steam to spin a turbine and generate, electricity can provide continuous power with virtually zero emission. Biomass energy is generated through the controlled burning of lumber mill waste, sustainably harvested wood and forest residues, and clean municipal or industrial waste, etc.
Hydroelectric power, which provides about 2.6 percent of the total energy used in the United States, is often considered a renewable energy source as well. Debate exists because dams alter the ecological makeup of the downstream environment. Furthermore, storage lakes emit greenhouse gases. However, efficiencies associated with hydroelectric power generation are much higher than traditional power plants and unlike traditional power plants, hydroelectric facilities consume no water.
Modern society consumes massive quantities of energy from nonrenewable sources that damage ecological systems. Ensuring future availability of sustainably produced electricity will necessitate increased investment in renewable technologies. Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectricity can be expanded to provide clean energy for a growing planet. A shift in thought is required to ensure continued prosperity and well-being of future generations; sustainable practices must be implemented on a broad scale.
Kena Fedorschak co-founded the Honor Society for Sustainability at Arizona State University. He believes sustainable management practices can be implemented without negatively impacting the bottom line. Contact him at [email protected].