Imagine our world running out of power. A world where people are no longer connected and have to struggle to get the basics like heating. Fossil Fuels can’t last forever. It’s only a matter of time before we need a more plentiful alternative. The question is when should we start to switch over and to what. People have seen this problem coming for a long while and have devised multiple alternatives. Some being renewable and others remaining nonrenewable. Solar power has come a long way and is constantly growing while new innovation in fusion and fission open it up as a more realistic possibility. However, we must consider both sides. Fossil fuels have carried us for numerous years and even with its downsides, it has the potential to carry us for many more.

Many people see fossil fuels as the worst kind of energy. Even to the point that they wouldn’t even consider the benefits it’s brought about. It has carried us into the future since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuels are by far the most cost-efficient source out there at the moment. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy(2017), in 2016, natural gas prices were the lowest they’ve been since 1999. Everyone knows that the source is non-renewable, but the exact amount left is hard to estimate. With businesses constantly trying to find new methods of acquiring fossil fuels such as fracking which is where they insert high pressurized liquid into the ground to create an opening for trapped oil sources(Kopp, 2017). This has made earlier sources that were previously impossible to acquire, a possibility. In addition to using new methods to get more fuel, they have also looked into more types of fossil fuels as well. We had previously ignored “heavy oil which consists of tar sand”(Kopp, 2017, p3). Recently, some companies have started to extract heavy oil out in addition to middle and light oil. Technology can also help decrease emissions by making things like engines more efficient. New cars, for example, are constantly being upgraded to use less fuel and to exhaust fewer pollutants. It was estimated in 2015 by research done at the University of Toronto that 90% of the pollutants cars produce are created by an outdated group of cars that compromise 25% of all cars. As technology continues to advance, our efficiency with energy production will continue to be refined. Fossil fuels have been a stable part of the economy for numerous years and can remain so for many more to come.

While fossil fuels have many benefits, they can also do a lot of harm. They are a huge contributor to CO2 emissions and are a major cause of global warming. Before the industrial revolution,  “atmospheric CO2 concentrations fluctuated between 275 and 290 parts per million by volume (ppmv) of dry air between 1000 CE and the late 18th century but increased to 316 ppmv by 1959 and rose to 400 ppmv in 2015”(Kopp, 2017). One common mistake is that people only think of CO2 when thinking of greenhouse gases. Burning fossil fuels releases a variety of greenhouse gases and natural gas in particular releases a large amount of methane. CH4(methane) concentrations went from “722ppb to 1834ppb” from 1750 to now(Kopp, 2017). These are major increases with a 40% increase in CO2 and a 250% increase in Methane concentrations. Compared to other sources like solar power which creates almost no emission, fossil fuel is a deadly choice to stick too. The emissions they exert aren’t just dangerous for global warming, they can also cause serious lung problems for the people living in cities. For countries with high population density such as China and India, major problems have arisen with the air becoming so bad that health advisories had to be sent out.

New methods for fossil fuels are an important investment, but eventually, it will run out. Not to mention that the worldwide usage of energy will only increase as more and more countries enter an age where energy becomes fundamental to its structure. A conversion to renewable energy early on would be easier than to do it later where the pressure would really be on to make an adjustment. Currently, around 80% of all power produced come from fossil fuels and attempting to quickly convert would destroy the economy(Kopp, 2017, para 4). Gradually switching over now when we have decades to switch should give plenty of time to perfect the other sources of energy. Of course this won’t be easy because the massively powerful oil companies wouldn’t be happy to switch over to anything else. The oil industry is largely a private one that has a large amount of influence on the government. With its large number of lobbyist and representatives, it often gets what it wants. Smaller groups like advocates for more green energy are not nearly as well funded or represented. The people may agree that a green future is the best one, but a much larger number must push for their beliefs. As for right now, the amount of money that oil companies have far outweigh any independent groups.  

Renewable energy has grown tremendously in recent years as fossil fuels run out. A wide variety of renewable sources now exist including hydro, wind and geothermal energy. Of all of these types, solar power is the fastest growing out of the renewable choices and has become the most reliable (Debono, 2017, para 4). Wind power and many other sources have a difficult time generating large quantities of energy because of how highly reliant on where it is situated. Solar power, on the other hand, is more consistent because the sun will forever come up and go in a fairly predictable manner. So while it is based on a changing factor, it never changes significantly. Some other renewable sources like hydropower cause large amounts of damage to the natural environment, making them impractical. Switching to solar power would also be a huge help in stopping global warming because as it produces no CO2 and few pollutants in general. In addition to helping the environment, it can end up saving you some money. Most Americans can save around $20000 if they switched over after around 20 years(DeBono, 2017, para 4). In extremely sunny places such as Hawaii, this can go up to higher numbers. One problem that was constantly faced was that it took too much space to be practical. However, due to new innovations such as roofs or even windows covered in solar panels, this problem is starting to get erased. Solar power still needs to improve to become the obvious choice, but its environmental benefits are hard to argue against.

Despite solar power’s many benefits, there are still many flaws with it that stop it from becoming the primary source of power. Due to the cost of the material and inefficiency of the panels, it takes a large amount of time to get your money back. While this is often ok for regular people, its a problem for large-scale operations. This makes it unappealing to large business and the government who is trying to keep the economy going smoothly. For places that see extended periods of time in darkness such as Alaska, solar panels have little chance to be used as the primary. Although it is very environmentally friendly, the process to make solar panels isn’t perfect. The process of creating solar panels release a small amount of dangerous chemicals such as “Nitrogen trifluoride which is far more dangerous than CO2”(Blackwell, 2016). Despite new technology being created that is making the spacing requirements easier to achieve, it still takes more space than nonrenewable sources. Also attempting to replace old infrastructure with new solar panel covered ones would be an extremely expensive operation. For individuals who don’t live in houses, they don’t even have a choice on whether they install solar panels as it’s up to the managers who are focused more on making a profit.

Solar power isn’t the only alternative that could help cut down CO2 emissions. Nuclear power is a viable alternative power source that could have great benefits for the environment, but it’s still not perfect. Nuclear reactors were at a time the new big thing, but that was long in the past. While innovative, incredibly low prices for fossil fuels have made it a lost cause for now. Relative to fossil fuel power plants, nuclear reactors are expensive to build(Yusuf, 2008, p14). The Uranium amounts needed are small, but the procedure to find and refine it is an expensive one. For countries that are less developed, this procedure is almost impossible. A common idea people have is that nuclear power is renewable, this is for the most part false as the main source these reactors use is Uranium, which will run out. Breeder reactors were a special type of nuclear reactor that were supposed to make nuclear reactors renewable. They were supposed to accomplish this by creating a byproduct in the process of making power that can then be reused as fuel. The only two built in the U.S were decommissioned as the process was found to be a difficult one, with only a few countries still having operating facilities(Karam, 2011, para 8).

CO2 emissions would become a thing of the past, but nuclear reactors still create radioactive waste which is slowly built up after a few years and needs a lot of care to be safely kept. The severity of the source can greatly vary, but the high-level waste can last for thousands of years. The process to safeguard them is an expensive one because they need to constantly keep it cooled and far away from anyone. The threat of a real attack on any of these storage devices or the facility must also be considered. Any release of this material in a public resource like a water source would have severe consequences. Low-level material is also created and must still be kept separate from people, though it is far less dangerous. An even bigger threat than the waste is a nuclear meltdown where the core takes damage from overheating. At its worse was a meltdown in Ukraine which led to thousands of deaths from cancer and forced hundreds of thousands to be relocated(Yablokov, 2006, p18). In more recent years a major earthquake in Japan caused a nuclear meltdown which is estimated to take around 40 years(Ripley, 2016, para 15). The chance of attacks or inside jobs on nuclear reactors remain a possibility. There have been cases of people sabotaging nuclear reactors and ones being bombed during wartime. Lastly, we have to remember that the same source of power is used for nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs. There has been worry over the possibility of Uranium/Plutonium being stolen or for cases where construction of nuclear generators would just be cover-ups for nuclear weapons. Even with the ridiculous amounts of precautionary measures we implement, a disaster can still occur at any moment with nuclear reactors.

Nuclear energy hasn’t been on the rise in a long while in the U.S, with the last one constructed being in the 1990s. Environmental groups had been unified against it since the beginning and most people don’t like the idea of living close to one. However, environmental groups have started to become more accepting of nuclear power and two new reactors have been scheduled to be built. Unfortunately for nuclear energy supporters, this won’t make a major difference as older plants have closed down making little net difference in how much energy is nuclear in the. Still, it is important to take note of nuclear power in case it does become the way for the future. Creating power in nuclear reactors costs similar amounts to fossil fuels as they are far more efficient in the process. If we can find more cheap ways to store the waste, nuclear energy could easily become less expensive. It only takes a fraction of the fuel to keep nuclear generators going than traditional fossil fuel burning plants. According to nuclear energy researcher Yusuf(2008), Uranium sources are expected to last far longer than fossil fuels. If you include other elements that have also shown potential to be used for fuel such as thorium or plutonium. This length of time could be increased even further.

People often bring up how dangerous the process of containing the waste from these reactors can be, but neglect to mention how nuclear energy creates almost negligible amounts of CO2. CO2 emissions have shown again and again that they can cause severe damage to the environment and it is much more prevalent than major nuclear meltdowns that rarely occur. Nuclear power isn’t looked as the best alternative by most, but it could work well in conjunction with renewable energy. In places that don’t get lots of sunlight or have erratic weather, nuclear energy could be the perfect alternative. Nuclear power can kick into overdrive when solar power is lacking or quiet down when not needed. Since they can stay operation for 50+ years at a time, they could keep this up for a long time if it’s not constantly operating at a 100%(Yusuf, 2008, p19). Nowhere does it ever say that we have to solely switch over to one primary source like the system we have today.

Undeniably the best source of energy would be nuclear fusion generators. Unlike nuclear fission where a nucleus is split and releases energy, nuclei are combined in nuclear fusion to release energy. This process creates far more energy than fission with more reasonable fuel sources. This fuel is almost impossible to run out of because the main source would be hydrogen which is an abundant resource on earth. It could inexpensively be extracted from seawater. While the source is relatively easy to produce, building the facility itself would still be an expensive operation. At our current level of understanding, it’s difficult to make exact estimates of these costs. Relative to fission, fusion is much cleaner. Due to hydrogen being the major resource, it won’t lead to any major nuclear material. Although the material needed to theoretically contain the reaction will get radioactive, the degree of radioactivity would be nowhere near the level of nuclear reactors(World Nuclear Association, 2017, sec 25, para 2). In addition to lacking the major downside of nuclear reactors, it also lacks the downside of fossil fuels. This is because the main gas released is Helium which wouldn’t cause any damage to the atmosphere.  Another upside is that the reactors won’t have any chance of having a meltdown, making them much less risky to construct near larger populations. This is because the reaction would immediately fall apart in case of an error due to the controlled reaction quickly losing the environment needed to continue the reaction.

Although this reaction would be efficient, the conditions needed to maintain this reaction is difficult to maintain. Incredibly hot temperatures and pressure are required for atoms to bypass their electromagnetic repulsion and get close enough that the strong force takes over. Hydrogen bombs can only work because a nuclear reaction temporarily creates the extremely hot conditions needed for it to work in an uncontrollable reaction. The two main strategies that have shown to somewhat work are using magnetic confinement which would keep the reaction’s extreme temperature and pressure constant, instead of letting them make “contact with the reactor walls as this will dissipate their heat and slow them down”(World Nuclear Association 2017, sec 3 para 2). According to the World Nuclear Association(2017), the other process is called inertial confinement where they fire concentrated lasers on to a small part of the fuel to heat and compress it to jumpstart the reaction which then spreads through the fuel. These two are certainly not the only two possible methods, but the rest are even further in the research stage. Nuclear fusion is still supposed to be decades away from being commercially possible, but this greatly depends on the funding that new research receives. At the moment the U.S does do research in the field, but more research is done in Europe and in Asia. Although it’s still far away, a decision may have to occur on whether a major increase in funding should be risked for it. It could become the greatest invention of all time or the biggest waste of money the world has ever seen.

For the next few years, fossil fuels are almost guaranteed to be firmly at the top, but it’s all fair game after that. It’s clear that none of the alternatives are going to be as efficient as fossil fuels for a while, but just how long this will last will be determined by the people. We could use solar and nuclear to give the world the most eco-friendly power source possible, which could give time to develop fusion into something more realistic. Or maybe focus most of our efforts on increasing our fossil fuel storage, to further increase how much time we have. None of us know which choice is best for the future, but we must choose one. We may not be around when the world runs out, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care. Our choices now will have a great impact on future generations.

 

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