How Alternative is the Alternative Energy?
None of us remembers the times when human being could only rely on timber as the provider of energy. Our ancestors going into woods and collecting dry or broken branches to heat and cook have fallen into oblivion. The invention of the hand tools, which by the way coincided with the times when ancient humans started to verbally communicate, was of much use for them as they could cut branches and even fall trees...
Humanity evolution took us further, higher and deeper into the usage of resources the Earth could generously offer. Until one, environmentalists would say, not so perfect day, the power of fossil fuel – coal, oil and gas – was discovered and people gradually learnt how to extract, process and use it.
The latter took not so much time, but too much resources and, the most important, too much of a health of the Earth. With the progress of science, technologies and techniques, it is now well known that the so called non-renewables (that is non-renewable from the human being life-time perspective) resources are at extinct. Therefore modern humanity, spoiled with the luxury of bright commercial billboards and extravagant 4x4s, turned their minds to other, alternative, sources of energy: solar and its produce such as biological energy; winds; hydro-power; geothermal energy and energy of ocean.
All above is nowadays considered to be the clean sources of energy. But how clean is clean? How alternative is the alternative energy? Let us discuss some of the misconceptions behind the belief of alternative energy reliability and environmental friendliness.
One of the most praised alternative energy sources is solar power. The Sun was always human being friend, sending its life-giving rays to the Earth, providing energy required for plant growth and taking lead part in planet water cycle. It is never consumed too much for too long, in other words it is extremely sustainable. Humanity conjectured on some sophisticated ways of the Sun energy use with scientists working hard to invent technologies allowing locking it in the form of electric or heat power to further use for domestic and business purposes.
Have any of them ever thought on how the solar panels would have to be fabricated? Some of the most hazardous chemicals – caustic substances – are utilized during the production process, polluting water and killing its habitants. Other chemical substances used for solar panel fabrication are linked to greenhouse gas emissions with the hundred thousand times more powerful Global Warming Potential of the Carbon Dioxide, which is the major greenhouse gas emitted during the fossil fuel utilization.
Another increasingly used alternative source of energy is wind power. However, if you stop to think about it carefully, it becomes clear that even best technologies can be harmful to environment. Should not the processes polluting the environment be used for production of the wind power generating equipment? Once the bits and pieces are produced, the space for the wind mills installation needs to be selected, which most of the times, due to the wind rose consideration, are fragile ecosystems, located on the sky paths used by generations of migrating birds. From this perspective wind mill farm turns from energy provider into the migrating bird movement impediment.
The installation of a wind mill farm might require selected area deforestation, which would lead to erosion and desertification of the area. Neighbourhood communities suffer from vibration and noise the wind mills produce. We call them mills, which in many people’s minds is associated with picturesque country side. What we get in reality is the forest of metal pillars, vibrating and noisy.
Hydroelectric power generation is, undoubtedly, one of the cleanest alternative sources of energy. Countries like Georgia, where I am from, use hydro power plants as one of the major suppliers of electricity. However, there are very limited natural reservoirs to be used for the hydro electric power generation. Therefore, the artificial ones are being constructed, flooding forests and fields, sometimes even small villages located nearby, changing ecosystems, followed by development of concrete dams in areas which were once remarkable for their natural beauty.
While geothermal energy itself has negligible environmental pollution potential (except for that related to plants manufacturing and installation), critical mind would question the advantages of greenhouse gases released during its utilization, those located below the Earth surface, but above the geothermal plants. Besides, installation of geothermal plant can be dangerous in the areas prone to earthquakes.
Gravitation from the Sun and the Moon and the Earth’s rotation produces renewable tidal energy considered clean as it emits no polluting substances. However barrages which are required for the utilization of tidal energy might act just like hydropower dams, necessary for hydropower energy production. They are constructed near the seashore, where the tidal power is the most potent, thus occupying natural habitats and recreation space. The same is true for another powerful offspring of World Ocean – the wave energy, which in itself is very reliable and green with no pollution potential, but needs wave farms’ installation.
Biomass fuel consists of the energy reach remains of flora and fauna and is used for electricity and heat generation. It is abundant and considered one of the most environmentally friendly. However, just like with all the different sources of alternative energy I have described above, one major environmental disadvantage is to be always kept in mind: all of them need equipment or installations, or both in order to produce, process and utilize energy, which requires electricity and which in turn generates greenhouse gas emissions and waste as a by-product.
Governments and NGOs got used to praising the alternative energy without giving much consideration to all its disadvantages and downsides. Populations glorify discoveries and inventions linked to usage of alternative energy, without much thinking on the ways to save and conserve the energy altogether.
The UNFCCC* recent Paris agreement call for nations, however, resonated in many countries suggesting reducing greenhouse gas emissions to preindustrial level in order to slow global warming. Energy efficiency and reduction in energy use is the answer to this effort, in many ways much more important and effective than the alternative energy utilization.
There is no such thing as too little when energy efficiency is concerned. Many of world leading oil and gas industries last year became signatories to the World Bank Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 Initiative, which undoubtedly will lead to the dramatic reduction in associated gas flaring, thus reducing energy wasting. However, small businesses and even households might contribute their substantial share in energy efficiency and conservation with very insignificant effort.
Not to speak about the regulatory changes which are required to stop the energy to be cruelly wasted due to the lack of energy saving attitude and culture of the whole population, even such just a few simple appliances as energy efficient stoves and fireplace inserts, windows, refrigerators, can make huge difference if massively use.
Let me list just a few of very simple and helpful tips aimed for the efficient use of energy, which can be used for domestic as well as for business purposes:
There is large variety of energy efficient fluorescent bulbs, which although require some capital investment, prove the spending in the long term, as they will please you with their life-time of almost eight times as long as regular incandescent bulbs and will reduce electricity bills for up to four times.
The same statement on electricity bills cut is true for any modern energy efficient home appliance. Keep looking for the little green mark on your new refrigerator or TV set when you go shopping next time.
Such simple action as unplugging the electric devices when you do not need them can have dramatic effect on your electricity utilization at absolutely no additional cost for you.
However trivial it sounds, walking as a substitute to driving is not only environmentally friendly, but also good for your health.
Use direct sunlight rather than artificial light and heating systems to warm and light spaces wherever possible.
Some of the tips can be used at literally no cost, some require a bit of investment, but most of them would provide the reduction in energy usage, the best way to not only reduce the cost of utilities, but also protect our only home – the Earth.
* UNFCCC: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change