Every time you turn on your television, turn on a light, cruise the Internet or cook food with your microwave you are relying on electricity. You might even have an electric water heater, stovetop and oven in your house. Without electricity many of the modern conveniences we have grown to depend upon would disappear. There are many ways we generate electricity and each method comes with its own strengths and weaknesses.
One extremely common way of generating electricity is to burn coal. Coal is a fossil fuel that is mostly made of carbon. Burning coal emits quite a bit of heat energy as well as an array of harmful emissions, the majority of which is carbon. These emissions not only contribute to global warming but can also cause respiratory problems in humans and lead to other pollution problems like acid rain. Still, burning coal is a cost-effective means of generating electricity which is why it is still commonly used today.
Another common method for generating electricity is through the use of dams to generate hydroelectricity. Proponents of hydroelectricity argue that it does not produce harmful pollution like burning coal and it uses a renewable resource, water, as a means of electricity production. The movement of the water through the dam turns turbines, generating kinetic energy that is used to produce electricity. This means that theoretically dams will never stop producing electricity as long as watershed in an area does not decrease dramatically. Still, the production of hydroelectricity does come with some negative environmental ramifications. If quite a few plants were growing along the banks of a river where a dam is constructed, the buildup of water will kill the plant life and in turn generate a significant amount of methane gas from the decomposing plant matter. Methane is actually quite a powerful greenhouse gas, meaning it contributes to global warming even more than carbon dioxide. The buildup of water from a dam can negatively impact fish populations and other animals in the area, greatly altering the ecosystem. Some dams are designed to hold back water for a time and then quickly release a sudden surge of water, leading to flooding downstream that can kill plants and animals as well as negatively impact drinking water for those who live downstream. And the buildup and discharge of water can promote erosion both upstream and downstream, which presents negative consequences for the local ecosystem.
Nuclear energy is considered by some people as a clean way of producing electricity. The key to the generation of energy with a nuclear power plant comes from fission or the splitting of uranium atoms. This energy produces steam which turns turbines to produce electricity. The bad news is that uranium is not a renewable resource, meaning that eventually nuclear energy will not be a viable means of producing electricity. In addition, uranium must be mined out of the Earth, which produces pollution and ecosystem disruption around the mine. Fission produces radioactive byproducts like titanium, krypton, cesium and neptunium which must be disposed of properly. The use of water in nuclear power plants can deplete local waterways as well as lead to higher water temperatures and heavy metal deposits in the water that is discharged from the power plant.
Both natural gas and oil can be used to produce electricity. The fuel is burned in a chamber, producing steam that turns turbines to produce electricity. Of course burning natural gas or oil contributes to global warming and pollution since it releases elements like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane into the air. Like nuclear power plants, plants that use natural gas or oil draw in significant amounts of water. The released water is warmer and can contain pollution that kills aquatic life in the area.
While it might seem strange, waste sent to landfills can also be used to produce electricity. Some people consider waste a renewable resource for generating electricity since humans continuously produce waste. The waste is chopped up and then burned in an incinerator, producing heat that turns water into steam and makes turbines turn to produce electricity. Burning waste can produce a number of air pollutants like dioxins, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury compounds. These pollutants do not present as much of an environmental risk as burning fossil fuels. And burning the waste reduces the amount of land needed for future landfills.
Solar energy is a growing source of electricity for both businesses and homes. Solar panels collect energy from the suns rays and store that energy in batteries. Because there is sunshine most days, solar energy is considered highly renewable. In addition, the generation of solar energy does not produce pollutants of any kind, making it a genuinely clean way of producing electricity. The only problem is that in some areas with little sunshine for extended periods, solar energy is not a practical primary source for electricity.
Geothermal methods capture the heat of the Earth itself. Hot air or water is directed from deep inside the Earth to a chamber that contains a turbine. As the turbine spins it produces electricity. In some geothermal setups water is sent deep into the Earth where it comes into contact with hot rocks to generate steam. Geothermal methods produce no air pollution and often circulate the same water in the system over and over.
The wind can also be harnessed to produce electricity. Giant turbines with three blades spin as the wind moves through the area. This spinning motion turns a generator, producing electricity. Wind is a renewable energy source and using wind power does not produce pollutants or present a negative environmental impact of any kind.
Biomass can be combined with the burning of coal to produce electricity. Anything that is organic is considered biomass. Common sources of biomass fuel includes manure, wood, agricultural waste and sludge from sewage. The biomass is added in small quantities to the coal to be burned, helping reduce the negative impacts of coal energy. Biomass is considered a renewable energy source and is less harmful to the environment since burning it releases the same amount of carbon into the air as any plants in the waste took in during their lifetime. Not only that, but burning biomass does not produce nearly as much nitrogen or sulfur as burning coal.
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