Energy is a factor of the well being of the people and is a production factor of the commercial and industrial sectors. Energy is the power we use for transportation, for heat and light in our homes and for the manufacture of all kinds of products. There are two sources of energy: renewable and nonrenewable energy. Nonrenewable energy we use comes from fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas and petroleum. Uranium is another nonrenewable source, but it is not a fossil fuel. Uranium is converted to a fuel and used in nuclear power plants. Once these natural resources are used up, they are gone forever. The process of gathering these fuels can be harmful to the biomes from which they come. Fossil fuels are put through a process called combustion in order to produce energy. Combustion releases pollution, such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, which may contribute to acid rain and global warming. Renewable sources of energy can be used over and over again. Renewable resources include solar energy, wind, geothermal energy, biomass and hydropower. They generate much less pollution, both in gathering and production, than nonrenewable sources.
For the most part, today’s energy sources are composed of fossil fuels, water power, and nuclear energy. To a lesser extent, wood, solar, wind, tidal, geothermal and chemical resources are used. Much research is being invested in the improvement of cleaner and more environment-friendly power sources. These new types of energy may be seen more and more in years to come.
Petroleum is the most commonly used energy source, supplying about 40% of the planet’s energy. Petroleum is used to produce fuels, such as gasoline (petrol), diesel, and numerous fuels for heating. This rich energy source is found in crude oil. This substance is pumped from deep beneath the earth. The next step in this process is the processing of the oil in large refineries. Here, many of the polluting factors of crude oil are removed, and gasoline and other fuels are made.
Coal is the next largest energy source used today. It is used mostly to create the steam in boilers, so as to generate electricity or drive large machinery. In many countries coal is still used as a source of heat. Even though coal is used widely across the globe, it does have a sizeable drawback, pollution. When burned, coal releases sulfur and numerous other contaminants into the atmosphere. The chemicals in the air can eventually make acid rain. Even with the installation of filtration devices in factories, the problem still exists.
Natural gas makes up about 21% of the total energy used world wide. Used in households and commercial buildings for cooking and heating, natural gas is extracted from the earth (like petroleum). Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, as it is refined naturally during its formation within the earth. Because of this fact, the need for large refineries are not necessary.
The supply of fossil fuels is being depleted at quite an alarming rate. Soon it may be necessary to extract the oil from bituminous sands and oil shale. Bituminous sands are sands that have been covered with oil producing substances. Rocks that can be processed to make crude oil, known as oil shale, may also be a substitution for other types of energy even if it may be more costly.
Hydro Power creates about 7% of the total energy used today. Hydropower, or water power, is the process of capturing the energy of water that falls from a higher point to a lower point. The water turns large turbines which then create electrical energy. Hydropower creates no pollution of any kind and is the cleanest energy source we possess. The only major shortcoming of hydropower is the need for large and very expensive dams.
Nuclear energy provides about 6% of today’s energy used commercially. Nuclear fission is the process of splitting atomic nuclei of elements such as plutonium and uranium. The advantage of nuclear fission, is that it produces huge amounts of energy from small quantities of fuel. Today it powers many naval vessels and other large ships. Nuclear energy also has some quite formidable disadvantages. Nuclear fission produces many radioactive wastes that stay harmful for many hundreds of years. Since nuclear power fuel sources are so unstable, any sort of accident would release toxic radiation into the environment. This tragedy was seen at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl.
Solar Energy is used widely across the globe. Unfortunately, as currently utilized, this source of energy fails to produce enough power with which to run towns or buildings. It is used mainly on a household level. The sun’s rays are collected with flat-plate collectors mounted in an area with good direct sunlight. The collectors convert that solar energy into heat energy. Electricity is produced by solar, or photovoltaic cells, typically providing heat for both living spaces and water. Solar power produces clean and virtually unlimited power, but it is not yet economically suitable as a major source of electricity for large scale energy needs. Solar power generation is limited by the amount of sunlight available. Since it is adversely affected by bad weather and darkness, it is most suited to regions with many long cloud-free days.
Wind power is another clean power source and is more widely used than solar power. Electricity is generated by the wind turning the large propellers of windmills. Wind power is
a very efficient source of energy in areas that are invariably windy.
Tidal energy is produced by water as it flows from high tide to low tide. As the water rises, a dam closes in the bay. Then when the tide falls, the water is released and flows through a turbine generating energy. The only disadvantage with this system is that energy is only being produced when water in the tide is falling.
Geothermal power is another clean alternative to fossil fuels. Steam power is produced whenever water is channeled onto the incredibly hot rocks that lie beneath the surface of the earth. Power companies drill deep into the earth and generate energy with the steam that is given off. Geothermal energy is already being produced in some European and Asian countries, as well as in the United States.