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Future Alternative Energy Sources
What happens after oil and gas?
As you are reading this oil and gas is being pumped out of the ground all around the world to drive our economies. The modern western society is completely dependent on fossil fuel energy to sustain our way of living. But there are troubles on the horizon. It's not that oil is running out, in fact only about 10% of the total amount of fossil fuels in the world has been used to date, the problem is that those 10% are the easily reached fossil fuels.
As more societies approach the western world standard of living the demand for fossil fuels increases, at the same time the ability to pump them out of the ground fast enough is being strained. This causes oil prices to spike as we have seen the last few years. At some point the demand will outpace the supply to an extend that some nations may not get access to fossil fuels at all, or at best only a limited supply at high cost. This scenario is ofter referred to as peak oil and could possibly have serious effects.
To counter this it is time to turn our focus to alternative energy sources, either the renewable energy sources like solar energy and geothermal energy, or some other future forms of alternative energy. In this page I want to go over the possibilities of future alternative energy sources we could be using instead of fossil fuels.
Solar energy is the most abundant energy source on the planet. The total solar energy that the earth absorbs in a year is about 3.850.000 exajoules per year. To put it in context, that amount of energy is about half the total energy that can ever be obtained from all the coal, gas, oil, uranium and other non-renewable resources that are found on the planet. If we could harness just a small portion of all this energy it would replace all the other energy sources that are used today.
Solar energy is harnessed in many ways. As an example, agriculture is in fact using the energy of the sun to grow crops. Yet when discussing solar energy we typically think about solar panels ( PV-cells ) which convert photonic energy into electricity. Solar energy can also be utilized to heat water by reflecting it on a water tank, heating the water to steaming and using the steam to produce electricity and the hot water to heat homes.
While solar energy is a very clean form of energy it has it's problems. It is costly to build a solar cell (but will likely drop with greater mass production) and you can only produce energy while the sun is in the sky. Also while it is a good choice for desert environments, the northernmost areas of the planet have a considerably less amount of solar radiation then the desert areas and equator. That being said, solar energy will most likely be the primary future alternative energy source as it's relatively easy to set up small or large solar power plants if the location is suitable.
Wind energy comes from harnessing the wind with wind turbines. This energy source can be harnessed in most areas of the planet, although there are a few locations that are unsuitable due to either strong shifting winds or a general lack of wind. Today an estimated 2,5% - 3% of the total electricity used in the world is generated by wind turbines. Wind turbine technology is advancing greatly with individual wind turbines reaching over 1 MW of energy output
Like solar energy, wind energy is a very clean form of energy with little to no pollution, there are however some problems. Windmills are generally considered to be unattractive in the landscape, they tend to be noisy and the power output varies with the wind speed from day to day. However, if the total amount of electricity from wind turbines is less than 20% of the local grid the variation of wind speed becomes a small problem.
In certain areas of the planet a lot of superheated water is found underneath the surface. In some places this water manages to break to the surface and form hot springs and even geysers. In these geologically hot areas of the planet it is ideal to harness the energy in the hot water with geothermal power plants. As an example there are five geothermal power stations in Iceland that supply hot water and electricity to the majority of the people in Iceland.
A geothermal power plant is basically a turbine that is spun with the steam that comes from a borehole that can be up to 3000 meters deep. The water that comes up is often 200-300°C. Usually the water is also used to heat up homes by warming up cold water that is then pumped into homes.
Geothermal is a relatively clean source of energy, it's cheap, renewable if handled correctly and very reliable. However, geothermal energy can only be utilized in specific locations around the globe. The infrastructure of such a plant is something of an eyesore and some heavy metal and hydrogen sulfide pollution can be expected as it reaches the surface with the hot steam. Most of those problems can be minimized but it requires extra safeguards and cost.
Hydro energy comes from harnessing the natural water cycle. Generally a dam is built to store water from a river. The water from the reservoir is then directed through a turbine that generates electricity. There are also smaller hydro power stations that only use the flow of water in a river without a dam. Hydro power is a clean form of alternative energy and renewable as long as it keeps raining.
The greatest problem with hydro power is the land that goes underwater for the reservoir. In some areas landmass would be much better used to grow food than sunk underwater for electricity. Also hydro power plants can only be built were there is a steady supply of rainwater. This limits the use of them globally. The Hoover dam in the US is probably the most famous hydro power dam in the world.
Tidal energy is produced by harnessing the flow of water as the tides turn. Generally this sort of energy production would be ideal in narrow and deep fjords. It is not used much around the world as other energy sources are considered superior. However in some locations tidal power plants may be an ideal future energy source.
Like all power plants there are downsides. There are concerns that a tidal power plant may damage sea life in the fjords they would be placed, either by reducing the oxygenation of the seawater or simply by directly killing fish and other sea creatures in the turbines themselves. More research is required in this field before it can be considered a viable future alternative energy source.
Nuclear energy uses nuclear fission to heat water. The hot steam is then used to turn turbines that generate electricity, much in the same way as geothermal plants, the difference being that in geothermal the hot steam comes directly from the ground.
The problems of nuclear energy as a future energy source are well know, nuclear fallout from meltdowns, nuclear waste that takes thousands of years to dissipate, radiation pollution and so forth. Despite this nuclear energy is a clean energy source, compared to fossil fuels. And as it is used extensively in several countries across the globe the use of nuclear energy may increase as fossil fuels become harder to get.
Fusion energy is still in development and might end up being an ideal future energy source. In fusion power plants the energy should come from fusing together two hydrogen atoms to form a helium atom, which is the same process that runs our sun. So, yes, to generate fusion energy you would need to have a miniature sun under control. Technically, this form of energy would not be considered a renewable source, however the amount of hydrogen on the planet is so great that it could supply us with energy far into the future.
The problems here is the difficulty in controlling the fusion. The technical know-how required to built and maintain such a facility would also be a massive hindrance to less developed countries. There is also no real guarantee that this will ever work properly, only time will tell.
Other alternative energy sources that could become reality.
There are also ideas going around for future energy sources that could be harnessed in the near or far future. Ideas such as tapping into the natural magnetism of earth, harnessing plasma gas extracted from deep boreholes, collecting electricity from lightnings and even earth orbiting solar power plants which beam energy down to earth.
These ideas are more in the realm of science fiction at this point, yet who can say what breakthroughs in energy technology will turn into a great future alternative energy source.
Energy of the future?
What energy source do you believe will be the main future energy source?
So why are we worried?
So what's the problem then? Why are people so worried about an energy crisis? According to this short compilation there should be so much energy available that it could be free for all.
The problem lies in the cost and mostly the time it takes to change the global energy infrastructure from a fossil fuel based one to a renewable based one. Producing electricity is also just a part of the problem, we also need suitable storage ability to transport this energy and use it in cars, ships and airplanes.
There are however already several possible solutions to the energy storage problem that I will address in another hub Renewable Energy Carriers
But the bottom line is don't be to worried, the energy is out there, we just need to start changing over from fossil fuel to renewables.
- Renewable energy carriers
In the near future mankind will need to shift from fossil fuels to some renewable energy carriers. Several new forms of energy carrier media are being researched as future sustainable energy carriers.
- Tips on saving money on electric bill
Saving energy is a great way to help the environment and save on the electric bill at the same time. There are several ways to do that without needing to change your daily routine by much.
© 2013 Levictus Marcus Saarith