Consumers are familiar and comfortable with conventional power sources. Power generated by fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, or petroleum (oil) is widely used across the world and many countries rely on these finite resources as the primary source of power production. According to the latest report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (2011a), fossil fuels are expected to continue supplying much of the energy used worldwide, with petroleum based fuels remaining the largest source of energy.
However, there are significant problems with relying on this type of energy. Firstly, fossil fuels are not considered a renewable energy. The formation of coal, natural gas and oil takes millions to billions of years; consequently these resources will be consumed well before they are renewed. Experts have suggested that the world is currently at the peak of oil production, with only another forty years of oil reserves available and sixty five years of gas remaining. With population growth continuing to rise and the nature of economic growth and consumption, undoubtedly these fossil fuels will become very scarce and eventually unavailable. It is reasonable to expect that as these resources become further reduced, the cost of power will increase and it will become less affordable for many people. This is a scary prospect, especially for future generations.
Whilst there are very legitimate concerns about the future availability of fossil fuels, another problem is the environment impacts of using fossil fuels for our principle energy source. Fossil fueled power stations are major emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas considered one of the major contributors to global warming within the last century. For example, the burning of brown coal emits three times as much CO2 as natural gas, and black coal emits twice as much CO2 per unit of electric energy generated. Unless new technology can be developed to make energy production ‘greener’, regulations to reduce CO2 emission will certainly impact the consumer, whether this is by higher prices due to carbon taxes or a limitation to the amount of energy available.
The impact of burning fossil fuels on human health is also a major concern. For example, exposure to particulates released from coal power plants has been proven to increase death through respiratory and cardiac problems (Grahame and Schlesinger, 2007). These particulates irritate small airways in the lungs, which can lead to increased problems with asthma, chronic bronchitis, airway obstruction, and gas exchange (Nel, 2005). Uranium, thorium and other naturally occurring radioactive isotopes are also found in low levels within coal. Whilst they are in low concentrations, there is enough coal being burnt that there is a significant amount of these substances being released, causing radioactive contamination of the environment. Other damaging side effects of burning coal are the contamination of waterways. Research has shown that the coal ash produced by coal-fired power plants dumped at sites across America has lead to the contamination of ground water with toxic element, including dangerous poisons such as arsenic and lead (Schoof, 2010). These poisons are known to cause bladder, lung and skin cancers. Also, as a direct result of coal-fueled power plant emissions there are widespread cases of mercury contamination in fish well above the safe limit for consumption throughout American waterways.
The use of nuclear power is a very contentious issue. Whilst it is not used as frequently as fossil fuels to generate power it is still heavily relied upon in some parts of the world. Nuclear power is used in thirty countries as a source of commercial power, with sixteen countries depending on nuclear power for at least a quarter of their electricity. France is the highest consumer of nuclear power, accounting for almost 75 percent of their available power. Nuclear power accounts for one third or more of the total power consumed in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia and Ukraine. Countries such as Japan, Germany and Finland use over a quarter of their power from nuclear energy and in America one fifth of energy consumed is from nuclear power. More detailed information on the global consumption of nuclear energy can be found from the World Nuclear Association (see the reference section).
There are several reasons why society is fearful of nuclear energy. One is that the technology used to generate nuclear power can also be applied to the production of nuclear weapons. With the continued friction between various countries and ongoing civil wars, this is a major concern. However, the main anxiety surrounding nuclear power is concerned with nuclear waste and the associated radiation. Just about everyone is familiar with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, in which large quantities of radioactive contamination was released into the atmosphere following an explosion at the Ukrainian Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Many people died or experienced illness as a direct result of radiation exposure. Groundwater also became contaminated and regional flora and fauna was also negatively impacted. More recently, the massive earthquake off the coast of Japan in 2011 and its associated tsunami caused global alarm that there may be a nuclear meltdown at several of the county’s power plants. Whilst disasters such as Chernobyl are rare and threats to the stability of current nuclear power plants are infrequent, the possibilities for repeat catastrophes are enough to turn people away from the use of nuclear power.
In addition to the social concerns surrounding the use of nuclear energy as a power source, there is also the issue of sustainability. Nuclear power plants require radioactive material to generate energy; this is typically supplied in the form of plutonium. Plutonium is created from uranium ore. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (2011b), presently there are nineteen countries throughout the world mining uranium ore, with over sixty percent generated from mines in Kazakhstan (33 %), Canada (18 %) and Australia (11 %). However, uranium ore is in low concentrations and like the fossil fuels discussed previously, it is also a non-renewable resource.
Without question, the world currently relies on non-renewable energy for its power supply. Clearly this is unsustainable. However, there are a variety of renewable resources such as water (hydro power, tidal power and wave power), geothermal, wind and radiant energy (solar power) that are sustainable alternatives. The future of power generation lies in these resources. Each of these energy sources has their benefits and negatives. However, the most beneficial to ‘everyday’ consumers is undoubtedly radiant energy in the form of solar power. Solar energy is widely accessible, unlike other renewable resources. Anybody can buy solar panels and with the correct installation, produce their own power supply. There has been criticism that despite the advantages of using radiant energy, the affordability of solar power is not accessible to everyone. However, more recently there have been significant developments in DIY solar power. With the correct guidance and materials, it is possible for homeowners to create and install their own solar panels with excellent success. Not only are people able to generate their own electricity for their homes or businesses, but in some instances they are able to make money by selling excess energy back to regional power companies. Solar power is no longer a boutique energy source; instead it has become a smart consumer choice, granting independence and certainty to anyone that selects this form of power.