There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Trying to decide the best way to provide power to an economy is a very difficult problem. Every energy source has it’s pros and cons. Many people believe that we as a society need to be weaned off from petroleum consumption completely. Even with new alternative sources are being developed, the energy problems doesn’t go away; they simply change.
The following factors must be considered when evaluating alternative energy sources.
Combustion vs. Non-combustion
Most of our current power sources produce energy through combustion processes (burning) that requires some kind of burn chamber, oxygen, and some type of exhaustion system. From the beginning, humans have burned wood for heat. The process was really simple: Make a large pile of wood, light it on fire, then hang out nearby to enjoy. With advances in technology, the combustion processes are much more efficient (for example, a new wood-burning stove is more than a hundred times more efficient than what an open fire is). No matter how efficient the processes have become, combustion processes are notorious causes for pollution.
While non-combustive processes, like nuclear and solar power, don’t have the exhaustive pollutants, they do have their own kinds of issues. For example, the photovoltaic (PV) panels used to harness solar energy require a lot of energy to make, and most of this energy comes from electrical power produced from coal combustion. Even though after a solar energy system is installed it produces no pollution, a lot of pollution is required to manufacture it. Other non-combustion energy sources that require a large amount of energy to manufacture the necessary equipment are wind and hydro-power.
The issues with raw materials
Raw materials are required by every energy plant, whether solar or wood stove. With solar energy, raw materials are free. Meticulously refined and manufactured uranium rods are the raw materials nuclear power plants need. Raw fuels have increasingly less to do with the total cost of an energy process. The biggest component in the cost/analysis equation is usually the expensive capital equipment required.
The energy refinement degree
In a crude fashion, heat is provided by wood stoves. High-grade electrical energy is produced by solar PV panels. Wind power produces high-grade electricity also. Heat is the end product desired in the case of the wood stove. The heat is very crude, but very effective. Electricity is very convenient and refined. Refining energy requires energy itself, and every energy consuming process needs a degree of energy refinement. Everyone would be better off if it were possible to create policies that favor less refined energy.
Current technology level
It can take quite a bit of time for a new technology to make it to the market. It takes quite a bit more time for those technologies to gain acceptance and to be used. People usually don’t discard the current system they used simply because a new technology is being developed. Their current system has to break down, or stop being economical for them to invest in the new technology.
Impacts on pollution and the environment
Every energy consuming and energy producing process leave some kind of residue on our planet. Not all alternative energy schemes are energy reducing wonders. Wood stove that burn inefficiently can be one of the biggest polluting energy sources, for example. There are many different types of problems that are caused by many different types of pollution.
Most people only care about decreasing their net costs for energy consumption. It is because of this that the government makes these options seem desirable by offering rebate, taxes, and other subsidies. Fossil fuels would never yield to alternatives if the government didn’t mandate these economic changes.
Since the government is leading the way for the alternative energy future, politics will play a huge role into what technologies become popular. Green politics is emerging as an influential and increasingly powerful component of every government operation.
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