In comparing energy costs, the ongoing debate rages between eco-conscious individuals who tout the benefits of green energy and skeptics who think that continuing to use fossil fuels is just fine, thank you very much. Such debate often generates much more heat than light. The apparent truth is that the supply of fossil fuels will not likely be exhausted within the next five years. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to believe that fossil fuels will NEVER be depleted.
One of the major bones of descriptionion is the cost of so-called green energy in comparison with the costs associated with conventional energy sources. Green energy promoters state that the cost of green energy has been exaggerated, miscalculated or both. Skeptics claim that the promise of green energy has far outstripped its performance so far. Again, the truth likely lies somewhere between these two positions, with the true potential of green energy along with an accurate assessment of its costs still to come.
The most commonly used forms of renewable energy at present are hydropower, biomass, solar and wind. Geothermal energy is also becoming increasingly common, especially in countries like Iceland, but also in the United States. Each form of renewable energy has advantages and challenges. Technological advances hold promise in making each form of renewable energy more economically viable, along with making even more innovative forms of renewable energy such as hydrogen economically and logistically feasible.
Hydropower is among the most commonly used forms of renewable energy. Humankind has been harnessing the power of water for thousands of years, through dams, water wheels and steam. The technology behind hydropower is mature, but that does not mean that there are no challenges or room for innovation.
For instance, in the past, mighty rivers like the Colorado were dammed with nary an afterthought. In more recent years, ongoing droughts and dropping water levels have caused some to rethink those past decisions. However, the entire American West is dependent upon the water drawn from those dams, and therein lies the dilemma.
Biomass in its broadest definition means energy drawn from sources that have bound up carbon dioxide, and only release what they have bound up, making them carbon neutral. Additionally, biomass is typically drawn from growing plants, such as palm oil or corn. On the surface, biomass appears to be an ideal solution, but it carries heavy hidden costs.
Perhaps its largest cost is that first generation biomass diverts food crops into fuel production, exacerbating the situation of widespread hunger. Biomass production also frequently requires clearing large parcels of virgin land of native plant species, destroying habitats and replacing rich soils with nutrient stripping monoculture. Finally, biomass production is often more expensive and requires a tremendous expenditure of fossil fuels.
These problems are largely avoided, however, with the use of second generation biomass that uses materials such as wood scraps that would normally be discarded. Research also continues with so-called third generation biomass such as algae, which grow quickly and bind up vast amounts of carbon dioxide. However, so far, production of energy from third generation biomass is far too expensive to be economically viable.
The sun represents a potentially infinite source of energy. Sunny climates are naturally suited for using solar energy year round. However, even temperate and sub-Arctic climates receive sufficient sun to make it possible to include solar energy as one of several possible energy sources.
Nonetheless, solar energy production has remained stubbornly inefficient and expensive, although research and innovations continue to hold promise. In addition to its cost and efficiency challenges, solar energy faces logistical challenges. Large scale production of solar energy requires large scale parcels of land dedicated to large numbers of solar panels, each situated to take maximum advantage of the sun. While this may be feasible in rural areas and in unpopulated deserts, it is not practical in densely populated urban areas.
Wind energy is still an emerging energy source, which means that its production costs are higher than those for fossil fuels, while its efficiency is still lower than that of fossil fuels. In addition, residents in many locations have pushed back against large scale wind farms, calling them an eyesore that detracts from their property values or from the scenic value of tourist attractions where they are located. Additionally, many people located near wind turbines complain of â€œwind turbine sickness,â€ an ailment that results due to exposure to low frequency sounds and vibrations produced by wind turbines.
However, in countries like Australia, which have heavily subsidized wind turbines while slapping heavy levies on fossil fuels, the costs of production for wind have actually slipped below those of fossil fuels. In addition, the efficiency of wind turbines may be better than previously calculated. While wind turbines are not operational at very low wind speeds or in gale force winds, when they do operate, they expend very little energy in the form of wasted heat. The same cannot be said for fossil fuels.
Iceland has tapped its geothermal reserves for energy production as well as for recreation and tourism. The small island nation is both a laboratory and a proving ground for other nations wishing to tap into geothermal energy. While geothermal energy is clean, and its production costs are potentially low, there is one inescapable limitation involved: accessibility. At present, few locations have geothermal reserves that are as easily exploited as those in Iceland.
Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels
Besides the inescapable fact that fossil fuels represent a finite source of energy, there are other costs which should be considered when comparing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. A major consideration, of course, is carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Except among climate skeptics, it is a well established fact tat carbon dioxide emissions are a major contributor to climate change and global warming.
Geopolitical factors must also be considered in relationship to fossil fuel production. Many of the worlds petroleum reserves are located in politically unstable areas. Others oil reserves are located in ecologically sensitive areas, while natural gas reserves often involve controversial techniques to extract them from the ground.
For Further Reading
Investopedia (No Author Listed) : Green Energy Why Were Still Not Using It.
McDonnell, Tim. Mother Jones: Charts: Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy
Siegel, Lucy. The Guardian.: Am I Paying a Lot for â€œGreenâ€ Energy?
Worstall, Tim. Forbes: Lying With Numbers Green Energy Edition
Sam Jones the author is often asked how to find the cheapest electricity supply. He recommends uSwitch.com price comparison site where all of the main providers can be compared to find the best deals and cheapest tariffs
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