Pittsburgh Barack Obama Academy of International Studies

Which Alternative Energy Source Is Truly The Best?

September 20, 2019

There’s no way around it: the Earth is on its deathbed. Every year, tons of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, and ozone are released into our atmosphere, gradually heating the Earth and damaging the natural world as we know it. Very soon, these temperatures will go well beyond what our planet can withstand. We have about 12 years to get our act together, according to the UN, before we plunge into an era of irreversible environmental damage. 

At the horizon of catastrophe, we should be taking ambitious and unprecedented measures to ensure the safety of the Earth for generations to come. This means doing everything we can to eliminate the single biggest contributor to global warming: the fossil fuel industry. The practice of burning coal, natural gas, and crude oil for energy has got to go. Instead of deriving our power from nonrenewable, detrimental sources, we should be looking elsewhere: alternative energy. 

There are many sources of alternative energy, the main ones being nuclear, wind, hydroelectric, solar, fuel cell, geothermal, and bio-based (biomass, bio gas, etc). However, all alternative energy sources are not equal. They all have their own benefits and drawbacks, which begs the question: which alternative energy source is truly the best?

 

To answer this question, I evaluated each of the major alternative energy sources based on six criteria: source of energy, capital cost (how much it takes to build and operate a power plant, production cost (how much it takes to produce the energy), byproducts/environmental impact, growth potential (how long it would take to get a power plant up and running), and effectiveness (what percent of the time would it be operating at full capacity). After compiling all the data, I created a ranked list of the seven major alternative energy sources and my personal opinions on their effectiveness and practicality. 

 

Here is that list:

 

7)Bio-Based

 

Source of Energy: Burning organic material

Capital Cost: $3,370/kW

Production Cost: $0.0042/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: Up to 1713000 g-co2/kWh (grams of carbon dioxide per kWh of power produced)

Growth Potential: 2 years

Effectiveness: 84%

 

The main problem with this energy source is the amount of carbon it emits. If done incorrectly (which it almost always is), it can produce over 150% of the amount of carbon a coal plant would produce to generate that same amount of energy! It’s relatively cheap, quick, and effective, but the environmental impacts are simply too large to ignore. Switching from fossil fuels to bio-based would do much more harm than good: wasting valuable resources and producing more carbon dioxide than originally. 

 

6)Nuclear

Source of Energy: Splitting uranium atoms

Capital Cost: $5,300/kW

Production Cost: $0.00056/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: Up to 0.0005 g/kWh of radioactive waste (95% non-usable uranium-238, 3% fission products, 1% fissile U-235, and 1% plutonium)

Growth Potential: 10 years

Effectiveness: 90% 

 

This energy source seems great at first: high upfront cost but incredibly low production cost, no greenhouse gas emissions, and is incredibly effective.  However, there are still many glaring issues. Its source of energy, uranium, is not a renewable resource and is highly unstable, so any accidents that may occur at nuclear plants would be incredibly dangerous. Nuclear plants also take very long to build. Building one plant would take up almost 84% of the time we have to save our planet. The nuclear reactions that produce energy also produce incredibly radioactive waste, which needs to be stored away from humans for thousands of years and can harm people and animals if not stored correctly. While this radioactive waste may be able to be recycled, as of now there is no way to do so and remains incredibly dangerous to society. 

 

5)Fuel Cell

Source of Energy: Chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen

Capital Cost: $4,650/kW

Production Cost: $0.011/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: Water, Heat (electrolysis-none, water on coal- up to 571000 g-co2/kWh)

Growth Potential: 3 years

Effectiveness: 95%

 

This energy source seems like an absolute perfect solution: not too costly, incredibly effective, cheap, and not harmful at all, and it most certainly would be if it was done correctly. Most fuel cells operate off of hydrogen gas, which is not very abundant on Earth in its purest form. To generate the hydrogen needed for fuel cell energy, water is separated into its components. This could be done using electrolysis, which uses electrical currents to separate water. However, the cheapest and most commonly used technique is spraying water on to hot coals to generate hydrogen, a practice which produces large amounts of carbon dioxide. Until the hydrogen fuel is generated in a more environmentally friendly way, this source is not big enough of a step in the right direction. 

 

4)Solar

Source of Energy: Sunlight

Capital Cost: $4,550/kW

Production Cost: $0.05/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: None

Growth Potential: 2 years

Effectiveness: 20.3%

 

Solar energy is a pretty solid alternative energy source. While it may be expensive compared to other alternative sources, it has no environmental impact, and can be put into use very quickly. Since sunlight is a renewable energy source, solar powered energy won’t ever have to stop being produced. The only real downside to this energy source is that it just isn’t as good as some other sources, seeing that it’s not incredibly effective. 

 

3)Wind

Source of Energy: Wind flow

Capital Cost: $2,030/kW

Production Cost: $0.00766/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: Disrupts wildlife

Growth Potential: 2 years

Effectiveness: 38%

 

Wind energy is a great source of alternative energy. It’s inexpensive, doesn’t release any greenhouse gases, and can have plants constructed very fast. The wind will always keep blowing, so wind turbines will not ever need to stop generating energy. However, while it may be more effective than solar, it still isn’t incredibly effective when compared to other alternative energy sources. In addition to this, it can disrupt the wildlife around turbines. The turbines can obstruct the paths of birds, possibly injuring them, and create lots of loud noise, which can scare away animals. 

 

2)Hydroelectric

Source of Energy: Flowing water

Capital Cost: $2,040/kW

Production Cost: $0.00246/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: Disrupts wildlife, cause floods

Growth Potential: 4 years

Effectiveness: 45%

 

This energy source is a fantastic way of generating alternative energy. It’s not costly, relatively effective, and doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. Hydroelectric dams are placed at places where a body of water flows, so they won’t ever run out of energy, unless the bodies of water dry up, which could happen if we don’t combat climate change now. These dams, however, have the potential to disturb fish and other aquatic wildlife and disrupt entire ecosystems. They can also cause major flooding in cities and towns located near them. In addition to this, they take a hefty amount of time to build, around 33% of all time left that we have until the Earth is officially doomed. 

 

1)Geothermal

Source of Energy: Heat from the Earth

Capital Cost: $3,290/kW

Production Cost: $0.00506/kWh

Byproducts/Environmental Impact: None

Growth Potential: 5 years 

Effectiveness: 85%

 

Geothermal energy is the best way of generating alternative energy, for now. It’s not too expensive, has no environmental impacts, and is incredibly effective. Geothermal power plants will never run out of energy, since it uses the Earth’s heat, which will never run out. Even if it did, it wouldn’t really matter since we’d all be dead anyways. However, no energy source is perfect, even though geothermal comes pretty close. The only drawback is the time it would take to construct a geothermal plant. Unfortunately, it would take around 41% of the time we have left to save the planet to construct a geothermal plant, which is simply a bit too long. 

 

The Earth’s health is steadily declining, and it’s up to us to rehabilitate it. In order to do this, we need to tackle the issues the fossil fuel industry is creating by eliminating them entirely and replacing it with something better: alternative energy. 

 

Sources:

“Biogas FAQ.” BiogasWorld, www.biogasworld.com/biogas-faq/.

Muller, Richard A. “A Pollution-Free Hydrogen Economy? Not So Soon.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 22 Oct. 2012, www.technologyreview.com/s/401988/a-pollution-free-hydrogen-economy-not-so-soon/.

“Nuclear Energy Factsheet.” Nuclear Energy Factsheet | Center for Sustainable Systems, css.umich.edu/factsheets/nuclear-energy-factsheet.

“The Obvious Biomass Emissions Error.” Watts Up With That?, 7 Feb. 2019, wattsupwiththat.com/2019/02/07/the-obvious-biomass-emissions-error/.

Overton, Thomas. “World’s Largest Fuel Cell Plant Opens in South Korea.” POWER Magazine, 25 Feb. 2014, www.powermag.com/worlds-largest-fuel-cell-plant-opens-in-south-korea/.

“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 Sept. 2019, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

Touran, N. “What Is Nuclear Energy?” Whatisnuclear.com, whatisnuclear.com/nuclear-energy.html.

“Transparent Cost Database.” Transparent Cost Database | Transparent Cost Database, openei.org/apps/TCDB/#blank.

Watts, Jonathan. “We Have 12 Years to Limit Climate Change Catastrophe, Warns UN.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Oct. 2018, www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report.

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