Traditional Energy and Its Impact
By and large, electricity is generated using coal-fired power plants. Unfortunately, the same process that provides electricity to so many homes is also a major contributor to global climate change.
Fossil fuels are the carbon-based power behind today's society. The name fossil fuels isn't an arbitrary choice. Formed about 300 million years ago, fossil fuels are made from plants and trees that died, fell into swamps and oceans, and were covered by more and more dead plants and trees.
Eventually, sand and clay piled up and turned to rock, squeezing any remaining water out of the decayed plants and trees. After exposure to heat and pressure in the earth's crust over hundreds of millions of years, fossils turn into common fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the national average of electricity generated can be broken down by source as follows:
Coal — 49.7 percent
Nuclear — 19.3 percent
Natural gas — 18.7 percent
Hydroelectric — 6.5 percent
Petroleum — 3.0 percent
Renewables — 2.3 percent
Other gases — 0.4 percent
Other — 0.1 percent
Coal is a hard, black sedimentary rock that is actively mined in the United States and in other countries all over the world. One reason coal is used widely as a power source in the United States is that it is such a plentiful domestic resource. It's the primary feedstock in power plants today; 50 percent of all electricity is produced by coal. When it's burned to produce electricity, coal generates wastes like sludge and ash. Additionally, a significant amount of water is needed to complete the process.
The EPA reported the 10 warmest days recorded took place within the last 15 years. This warming has resulted in measurable melting of polar icecaps and a decrease in ice in the Arctic Ocean. The past 100 years have also seen an increase in sea levels of four to eight inches. Like the majority of forecasts, the change in ocean level is calculated with mathematical models that use estimated variables in different scenarios. The variables used — such as the estimated level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean temperatures — are based on existing data that have been extrapolated for future estimates. This results in a range, rather than an absolute, change in ocean levels.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates there about 600 coal-fueled power plants operating in the United States today, and the push is on to bring more online, possibly to construct plants before stronger air compliance legislation is enacted that could inhibit permitting of these plants.
Coal gasification plants, while also relying on fossil fuel, burn much cleaner than standard coal power plants, but the initial cost to build these plants is about 20 percent higher. As a result, coal gasification plants have not become as popular as proponents had hoped.
However, more cities and institutions are turning to renewable resources for their energy, a trend that is likely to continue as public awareness increases. In addition, reducing energy use and improving efficiency can control electricity production demands.
Oil and Petroleum
Beyond producing electricity, fossil fuels are also the prime power behind cars. Oil, or petroleum, was initially used to light lamps, to treat frost-bite, and to waterproof canoes. In the United States, more than 50 percent of the oil used comes from other countries. Crude oil is imported and then refined by heating and separating out the different petroleum compounds.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) estimates that one 42-gallon barrel of crude oil can actually produce 44.2 gallons of petroleum products. This net gain isn't magic, however; it's a result of other chemicals added to the crude oil to synthesize certain compounds. At least 12 different compounds are produced from refining crude oil. From one barrel, about 19.5 gallons of crude are converted to gasoline, 9.2 gallons to diesel, and 4.1 gallons to jet fuel. The remaining compounds are used to make everything from plastics to pesticides to clothing.
Unfortunately, before crude oil ever makes it to the processing facility, it's already impacted the environment. Crude oil, a fossil fuel, is formed by the decomposition of tiny plants and plankton. They lived and died in ancient seas, accumulating in limestone and sandstone. Locating the oil's position, sandwiched between layers of impermeable rock miles below the surface, is complicated.
Different methods are employed to ferret out the reservoirs, including magnetometers that measure changes in the earth's magnetic field, sniffers that smell out hydrocarbons, and seismology that reads shock waves originating on the surface to determine if oil is hidden in the depths.
Once found, wells are drilled either on land or in the ocean, and the crude is pumped to the surface using an industrialized process. On land, miles of roads and pipeline and hundreds of drilling pads are needed at the site of the wells. Pump stations are constructed along with pipe line routes.
In the ocean, rigs are constructed on sensitive ocean floors, and tankers are used to convey the crude. The construction of oil wells produces drilling mud that must be treated. Spills of crude oil can occur during pumping or transporting, and these spills have the potential to contaminate the oceans, soil, groundwater, and surface water. Sludge and wastewater produced during refinement have to be treated and carefully disposed.
In areas with high mineral reserves and little environmental regulation, drilling for oil can have devastating effects on the local culture. Rain forests and indigenous cultures in remote locations such as the Ecuadorian rain forest have been destroyed by drilling.
In the United States, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been considered a viable source for sustaining domestic oil supply. Supporters believe drilling domestically will increase U.S. independence from foreign oil. Opponents argue the environmental impact is too great to justify the potential volume of oil in the ANWR. They estimate that a volume equivalent to as few as six months' worth of oil could be gleaned from the area. The drilling also carries the potential to impact animal populations of caribou, polar bears, musk oxen, snow geese, and other birds and mammals.
Problems with Traditional Power Sources
Burning fossil fuels produces the energy necessary to run homes, offices, and automobiles. In the process, they release pollutants and contribute to global warming. Two of those pollutants — sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — react with water or moisture in the air to form nitric and sulfuric acids. These chemicals fall to the earth in the form of acid rain, damaging trees, soil, and waterways.
Mercury that escapes coal-burning power plants through smoke stacks may wind up settling on rivers, lakes, estuaries, and bays. Fish absorb the mercury and then pass it along to humans who eat the fish. The EPA and local health departments publish warnings on mercury content in different types of fish. Mercury is especially harmful to the nervous systems of unborn fetuses, babies, and young children. Urban ozone, or smog, is also a by-product of coal-burning power plants.
Smog can be detrimental to people, particularly children and the elderly, in whom it can cause wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing.
For these and other reasons, people have started to look at alternatives when it comes to providing electricity. Geographic information systems (GIS), for example, help municipalities and utilities determine the best sustainable energy method for them. While GIS are best known for providing maps, the system has been expanded to include real data points that can be used to perform calculations specific to certain geographical points. This allows organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to coordinate sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal generators with population information to determine potential energy sources for a specific area.