Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Environmental Impacts of Energy

by Christos Paraskevopoulos

Since the dawn of mankind, when our ancestors started walking on Earth, there was need for energy that would replace our own physical labour. As we managed to domesticate wild beasts like horses and wolves, learned to produce fire at will and designed our first stone tools, we replaced some of our own energy. The need for energy never ceases to exist. On the contrary, our voracious need for energy has kept on increasing. We learned how to control the power of streams by creating watermills; we invented sails and windmills and put the wind to work on our behalf. We did everything to make our lives easier and for a few hundreds of years things seemed to be going our way. Nature always had its way to make things right, to restore the damage that we did. But that was too good to last forever.
Nowadays we are confronting a challenge that no other generation has ever had. We are marching towards the destruction of our natural habitat. We are depleting our resources; we are polluting our environment; we are putting a mortgage on the future of our children, our children’s children, of every generation that will follow and every living thing on the planet.

Energy. Energy is needed in our everyday life. Even if we would stayed at home, just lying on the bed doing nothing, that would not stop us from using energy. The bed that we lie on needed a substantial amount of energy in order to be constructed, shipped and assembled. When we eat or drink something, even tap water, we consume energy. Everything we are is energy and we demand more day by day.
Lately there has been a great debate about energy production. Seeing the results of our traditional “fossil fuel” energy production methods, more people are considering a world being run by greener energy sources. But the question is: “how green is green energy?”
First we have to define what green energy is not. When we consume resources that cannot be replenished, like oil, gas, coal, peat or even nuclear fuel, we are consuming natural resources that are very difficult or impossible to replace. Also, when in the process you produce a great amount of material that eventually will end up in landfills. This doesn’t look to be very green either.

So what is green energy? Are hydroelectric power, wind power, solar power, bio- fuel, geothermal energy green? The easiest answer would be yes. But is this the truth? How much none-renewable energy and resources do we have to use in order to construct a windmill? What kind of life cycle does this windmill have?

How will this windmill affect the surrounding environment? What are the long term effects on that environment? Those are just some of the questions that need to be answered before you can definitely say if a kind of energy is green or not. I think the right way to express this question would be: “which kind of energy production is greener?” At the end of the day there is no way to create something out of nothing. We have to use resources; we have to use the energy that we already have available. We just have to find the most efficient and more sustainable way to produce the energy we need.

Though it’s becoming a trend that more and more people care about where the energy that we use comes from, we are not sufficiently informed to have a well-founded opinion. People seem to be in favour of solar, wind and hydroelectric power, but it’s highly questionable how reliable our sources of information are.
What I want is to find ways to be more efficient, and reduce our power consumption until we can find the best way to harvest the free power that nature provides. Sunlight is constant, winds are constant, waves and water movement is constant but how much does it really cost to harvest those energy forms?

Even when we think about one of the “cleanest” forms of energy, geothermal, we face at least three different kinds of problems with its application. Firstly, geothermal energy is an extremely local phenomenon. It cannot be found everywhere and not everywhere is it accessible and usable. Secondly, even geothermal energy is not everlasting. We are not implying that earth’s nuclear fusion activity is coming to an end, but using hot water from a geothermal “hot pocket” will deplete it unless the water is systematically replenished. Thirdly, even for geothermal energy infrastructure must be constructed. This means both the power plant and the carrying and distribution system for the energy and hot water have to be constructed and maintained. This will also have a cost on resources.


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