We all must know something about the byproducts of energy production: we don't play with nuclear waste, no matter how tingly makes us feel; we won't suck on a tailpipes on a dare; and we would pass over any menu item that featured a diesel-vinegar dressing. But supposedly clean emerging alternative-fuel technologies all come with underlying problems too:
- biomass energy causes farming pollution and air pollution when the materials are burned (though less pollution than fossil fuels);
- hydroelectric dams can cause habitat problems;
- the wind turbines used for wind energy can be an eyesore on the landscape or seascape;
- even the highly touted zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell will require potentially polluting sources of energy so the hydrogen can be generated in the first place.
Now, as they say on the "Futurama" TV series, "Good news, everyone!" Scientists at Livergonne National Labs have discovered a new technique that will allow development of a truly clean energy source. The energy is based on a newly discovered sub-atomic particle called the "fantasm," which can start a controllable, self-sustaining, energy-producing reaction upon mere exposure to sunlight. A few thousand fantasm-containing molecules in a glass jar sitting outside on a sunny day could theoretically power your house or car for a year. Best of all, the particles can be harvested from seawater and produce no emissions at all.
OK, all at once: "April fools!" Though the future will yield many new advancements in energy science, the paragraph about "fantasm energy" is scientific nonsense, at least for this millennium. Unfortunately, the first paragraph about all energy sources having environmental downsides is true—ALL energy technologies, including alternative energies, have problems, whether it's from:
- extraction and production of the fuel;
- burning of the fuel and the byproducts of that process;
- construction, use, and disposal of the machines needed to extract, refine, and burn the fuels;
- the direct action of escaped quantities of the unburned fuel on the environment; or
- activities or structures that disrupt habitat.
Egad! Should we just go back to living in caves, foraging for smuckerberries and wafflenuts? No, but understanding the benefits and impacts of various energy sources is important to developing a sound energy policy for the future.
There are two parts to the equation that governs how many pollution, health, and environmental problems we suffer at the hands of our energy demands:
- how much energy we use, and
- the average amount of pollution per unit of energy.
To achieve the best result, we should strengthen energy-conservation programs and move our national energy mix towards the least-polluting energy sources. Even though no energy is completely pollution-free, some are much better than others.
- Oil, diesel, gasoline, and coal are among the dirtiest energy technologies.
- Nuclear is clean in some respects, but nuclear waste makes it a very dirty technology overall.
- Hydroelectric power itself is very clean, but many object to the habitat loss the dams cause.
- Clean energy generation from sea wave movement is a possibility, though this too may impact some species.
- Biomass is somewhat appealing because growing the fuel crops re-sequesters the carbon dioxide generated during consumption of the fuel, but unsustainable agriculture practices associated with growing biomass fuels would be a negative.
- Wind power and solar electric are two of the cleanest energy technologies available and, regardless of any minor downsides, they're the leading candidates to take us into a cleaner energy future.
So, to summarize, ALL energy technologies cause some level of negative impact on our environment, but energy conservation and cleaner, more sustainable options can keep us from choking on the byproducts of our energy generation.
Let's not kid ourselves about energy. Let's not have Mister T saying,
"I pity the fools!"
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