Nuclear, Wind, Solar and Other Alternative Energies

First Nuclear Lit Bulbs

The first production of usable nuclear electricity by Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho occured in December 20, 1951, when four light bulbs were lit with electricity generated from the EBR-1 reactor.
The first production of usable nuclear electricity by Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho occured in December 20, 1951, when four light bulbs were lit with electricity generated from the EBR-1 reactor. | Source

Alternative Energy: Facts and Proposals

Alternative energy has been a ranking issues in global politics in recent years. It is one that has stimulated a lot of debate here in the U.S. as well. According to Christopher Flavin the issue or, “The question that comes up among policy makers, again and again is: If not coal, and if not nuclear, then what?(p.124) Why is this a question that needs to be addressed? Rachel La Courte, in her article entitled “Alternative Energy Sources Championed” helps explain. According to her, “Experts tell us that the global oil shortage will only worsen, making the three-dollars-per-gallon gasoline of summer 2005 seem affordable." This could be a problem for a number of obvious as well as unexpected reasons.

Based on one study found in “Alternative Energy Sources,” by Christopher Flavin, roughly 90 percent of all the energy in the United States in 1984 came from three sources. These were coal, oil, and natural gases (p.123). Ian Ruteledge writes, in reference to our oil consumption, “The outlook saw consumption rising from 19.4 million barrels per day in 1999 to around 26 million b/d in 2020”(p.363). Obviously, we are currently very dependent on fossil fuels. What could our over dependence entail exactly though? For one, our over dependence on oil coupled with it’s expected price rise will make many energy sources, such as gasoline for one, increasingly expensive in the future. This means less people will have acces s to them most likely. Coal also has many current as well as expected problems. Mellissa Jenko in her article “Coal Energy” writes about many of them. She records Bencyrus Ellorin “…[a] spokesman of Pinoy Kontra Coal, the largest Philippine coalition… banded together to reject coal-based energy,” as saying that, “Communities across the country... continue to rise against proposed coal-fired power plants. Coal energy is dirty and poses a threat to our health, environment, livelihood and our children's future.” Stated simply, problems with our current sources of energy, which include, the rising price of energy, its harmful, negative effects on human life and the environment, and its finite nature provide powerful incentives for us to find alternative sources. The finite issue alone seems to provide enough incentive for many to warrant a switch. Many estimate we will soon not have enough coal and oil to meet our energy needs. As our dependence on fossil fuels is being questioned and re-evaluated the definition of “good” energy is changing to include factors such as sustainability and environmental friendliness. Thankfully, it seems much of the world has already realized the need to update and upgrade our energy. Obviously, increased time, resources, and funding are necessities in finding viable alternatives to the energy crisis at hand.

Pros & Cons of Differing Mass Energy Sources

The effects current mass energy sources have are widespread and far-reaching. This makes the issue’s audience a wide and eclectic one. In my opinion, because much if not the majority of the world relies to some degree on fossil fuels this particular issue could potentially affect a large portion of the world’s population. Obviously, as previously stated, alternative or clean energy is a prominent issue in U.S. as well as global politics. This means any groups or people in the political arena will be affected by any changes. This means the business and science communities are likewise subject to change as more consideration is being given to allocating more attention and funding towards researching clean energy Furthermore, this trend is likely to increase until suitable solutions are found. Much of the world’s general population especially those living in large cities, will be affected. Future generations are also affected due to the shifts in politics and science. These could potentially shift educational agendas and programs as research leads to new discoveries causing content in schools and universities to change or broaden. I think this could particularly change the field of engineering being that engineering relies heavily on fossil fuels as well as many other fields and professions.

Fortunately there are many alternative energy sources already identified that can be used as a starting point in determining how to lessen and possibly cut off our dependence on fossil fuel. In order to give an accurate idea of how many alternatives there really are and their wide-ranging nature I will list a number of the more potentially viable ones. In his article, Flavin explains solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower energy. He also includes Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, tidal energy as well as wave energy. Burner reaction, Breeder reaction, and fusion reaction nuclear energy are also explained (p.125-144). These are all, to varying degrees, useable alternatives that can help to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels.

Types of Nuclear Reactions

As just mentioned there is Burner and Breeder reaction nuclear fission. Current nuclear power plants use the Burner reaction process to create or manufacture energy. This process, however, is dependant on uranium, which Flavin estimates will run short about as quickly as oil will if used at the current rate. This rules it out as a long-term solution (p.139). Its effects on the environment are roughly equal to those caused by fossil fuels as well, although they can be contained better. The Breeder reaction process is an upgrade or refinement of the Burner process. It is designed to extend the longevity of nuclear fission and is thought to be a “long-term” solution or in other words to last for several hundreds of years. Breeder fission, however, produces environmental hazards, waste disposal and control is difficult because of the large quantity produced, and terrorists could create nuclear weapons from its byproducts relatively easily. Because of the numerous and major drawbacks of Burner and Breeder reaction, fusion energy seems to be the most promising of the available nuclear options. Flavin states, “Nuclear fusion reactions have excellent potential as the planet's energy source. Much research has been performed leading to the harnessing of fusion reactions for the production of power. There are today, four or five major, and a dozen secondary, research centers worldwide working on fusion technology. Few researchers doubt that energy can eventually be produced by the use of fusion reactions”(p.141). The process converts lighter atoms to heavier ones. Because of this no radioactivity is produced and it is expected longevity is about the same as Breeder fission. The drawbacks of nuclear fusion are relatively minimal and the positives seem to fit the world’s needs fairly well.

Crocus, nuclear reactor of EPFL

Crocus, nuclear reactor of EPFL
Crocus, nuclear reactor of EPFL | Source


Solar energy has attracted attention lately due to the enormous amount available and its virtually limitless nature. According to Flavin, “Calculations indicate that if we can harvest solar energy at 20 percent efficiency then three percent of the area of the USA could provide all the energy we need. Expressing this area in other ways provides a feel for the immense scale of the collectors needed if we are to supply all our energy needs from sunlight. The contiguous 48 states have a total area of 7,710,516 km squared. Three percent of this is 230,505 km squared, or nearly the area of the state of Wyoming, at 252,539 km squared. Of course, the sun does not shine all the time in Wyoming. The 230,000-squared km must be located where the sun shines a good portion of the time. This means the collection sites must be located in New Mexico, Arizona and southern California”(p.125). The land necessary to accommodate a proposal of this magnitude and type obviously presents a number of problems. One major obstacle is the fact that according to Flavin, “if a large part of the solar energy falling on Arizona is converted to electric energy and moved out of state, Arizona will become cooler. Significant cooling of Arizona will result in dramatic changes in the weather there and in all the contiguous states.” This sudden change in weather and the unknown side effects that might accompany it is a major drawback needing to be addressed before solar energy can be seen as an effective alternative. Furthermore this is not its only problem. Flavin goes on to explain, “Solar thermal technology has many problems: cost of facilities… unreliability of sunlight, and potential high continuous maintenance cost for cleaning”(p.129).

Solar energy is just one example I gave to demonstrate some of the positives and negatives of “renewable” energy. Renewable energy sources made up the bulk of the list of alternative sources previously mentioned. Generally speaking, renewable energy sources are those tied closely with or generated directly by nature. For this reason they usually have very little waste, are friendly to the environment, and usually provide an unlimited energy source. For example, wind energy, which largely relies on windmills to catch wind and then generates that into energy, is a renewable energy source. Geothermal energy, which has to do with extracting heat from rocks and water deep under the crust of the earth is another example as well as tidal energy, which obviously is powered by the changing tides of the ocean. Since renewable energy sources rely on nature they are “harvested” rather than found or manufactured. Because of this reliance they can sometimes be erratic leading to varying degrees of reliability. They also seem to currently be relatively inefficient and incapable of creating the mass amounts of energy needed when compared to non-renewable sources. However, based on my reading and the fact that many of the positives of renewable energy sources are hard to find elsewhere, future technological advancements could make these sources an ideal alternative one day.

Solar Panel


Nuclear Fusion

Of renewable energy Flavin writes, “Although potentially useful for the generation of modest amounts of energy under special circumstances, the renewable energy sources are inadequate as the basis of an energy system that can be used to replace fossil fuels.”(p.144). Because of this I would propose that increased funding and research be allocated to developing these sources in order to find out whether improved technology could some day allow them to play a more substantial role in supplying the bulk of energy on a national or global level. Because of this, I propose governments create incentives for their citizens to use these renewable energy sources on a smaller scale. I also think increased funding and research should be allotted to them based on the potential previous research and funding indicate they have to meet our energy needs. The United States government is already following a course similar to this. This is shown by a number of different proposed and passed bills and legislation here in the U.S. dealing with alternative energy sources in a number of different applications. Because fusion energy seems to be the most promising of the long-term, high output sources I think steps should be taken as soon as possible to replace our current nuclear as well as fossil fuel energy sources with fusion sources. In order to make this happen major increases in research and funding should immediately go toward this end. One of the major obstacles is obviously funding, which, given today’s rapidly changing economy and especially the national debt here in the U.S. means there is no simple answer. However, I believe, as increased priority and attention is given to this issue by all branches of the government, realistic solutions can be found and implemented. Effective legislation can be achieved through the legislative and executive branches making this a top priority. The judicial branch can address potential ethical and law problems.

Works Cited

Flavin, Christopher. “Alternative Energy Sources.” Applied Energy Vol. 47. Science Direct Journals. Web. 23 Nov. 2010.

La Corte, Rachel. “Alternative Energy Sources Championed.” Lexis Nexis. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

Rutledge, Ian. Addicted to Oil: America's Relentless Drive for Energy Security. London: I.B. Tauris. 2005. ASU Libraries E-brary. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

Jenko, Melissa. “Coal Energy.” Lexis Nexis. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.

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