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Sensible Strategies for the Future of Energy

In order to have efficient energy systems which both meet our energy needs and check all of the other important boxes; renewable, low emissions, and safe, we need to use a combination of these sources, strategically placed and integrated.


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 5 min read
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Choosing the best options to build a better grid

With the reality of climate change looming imminent, businesses, governments, and individuals have a responsibility to future generations to find better energy solutions.

There are some major issues to consider when choosing an energy source, most notably: exhaustibility, emissions and safety. Each energy source has unique advantages and disadvantages, which should all be taken into account when developing an energy system.

One energy source alone is not sufficient; a truly sustainable system will provide alternatives should one option fail, and ideally include a variety of sources which work together for maximum efficiency.

The best strategy is to utilize a combination of different sources and to place them where they will be the most effective.

Solar

Solar power is one of the most flexible and reliable energy options for the future. Solar panels can be placed almost anywhere, like on top of roofs or alongside highways. Additionally, we can always depend on the sun to keep shining- at least for the next couple of millennia.

The main advantage of solar is that it’s inexhaustible, which is why it’s the top choice for many countries as a clean energy source.

Countries like GermanySpain, and Japan are taking the lead by incorporating solar into their energy plans for the future. In many places, the cost of producing solar panels is rapidly falling.

The main disadvantage of solar is that the amount of energy produced is limited by weather conditions. This problem can be solved by storing the energy produced on sunny days for later or transporting it to places where it’s needed, but these solutions come with their own challenges.

Wind

Wind turbines have many of the same advantages and disadvantages of solar. One unique disadvantage is that some people find turbines unattractive and do not want them imposing on the scenery near where they live.

A possible solution to this problem is placing wind turbines offshore. Offshore turbines are more expensive to build, but also tend to produce energy more efficiently.

Wind power is clean and efficient, but it’s not always windy, just like it’s not always sunny, and it works better in areas which generally have more wind.

Wind power could potentially produce up to 20% of the electricity needed to power the United States, but other energy sources would be needed to account for the other 80%. With wind, we’re also faced with storage and transportation problems– just like with solar.

Hydrogen

Many of these storage and transportation problems can be solved with hydrogen technology. By using hydrogen as a storage and transmission medium for other varied sources, we can improve the overall efficiency of the grid.

The energy produced by clean sources like solar and wind can be converted into hydrogen as an energy carrier. In hydrogen form, energy can be stored and transported as fuel cells or used to run heat and internal combustion engines.

Using hydrogen in combination with clean renewables like wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric is an ideal strategy for the future.

Others

Hydrogen can also be used to improve the efficiency of systems which include less-clean energy solutions, like biomass.

Biomass isn’t an ideal solution because of the emissions it produces, but it’s more renewable than oil or coal, safer than nuclear, and cheap and easy to produce in developing or emerging economies.

Many energy sources have this sort of environmental trade-off when it comes to their overall sustainability. Hydroelectric power, for example, produces low greenhouse gas emissions but can have the environmental disadvantage of damaging the ecosystems of rivers and streams.

Nuclear power is also low in emissions, but produces radioactive waste which can be an environmental hazard, and has famously been the cause of disasters resulting in death, injury, and environmental destruction.

Nuclear power also causes political controversy, because the technology used for nuclear power can also be used to make nuclear weapons, and some believe that access to that technology should be limited.

Location, location, location

Geography also plays a large role in determining what is feasible. For example, production of tidal energy is limited based on location– you need the tides.

Geothermal energy is both remarkably efficient and low-emissions, but it can only be produced in places with the appropriate geology.

Japan, for example, has vast geothermal resources, with more than 100 active volcanoes.

Japan is making efforts to up its production of geothermal, solar, and other renewable energy sources, in order to wean itself off of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima, but is still largely dependent on coal and fossil fuels, much like the U.S. and China.

What really matters

With all of these different factors to consider, the ones which stand out the most are always cleanliness, renewability, and safety.

We should ideally be aiming to produce energy from the least exhaustible sources while producing the least emissions and reducing risks to public health and the environment.

Factors like cost and politics should be on the back burner when forming an energy strategy. While cost may be a reasonable factor to consider in developing economies, we really have no logical excuse in the first world to not prioritize things like lowering emissions over cost.

There is no economic imperative which outweighs the gravity of losing a livable planet from which to host an economy in the first place.

Other public and environmental safety risks should also be considered with seriousness, without money or politics muddying the waters.

Climate change is a human problem which transcends nationality, wealth, and political affiliation. If we could put aside these petty issues, it would be easier to think more clearly about our energy strategies.

Breaking it down

To make these choices easier, we can place our potential sources of energy into three categories: ideal, not ideal, and obsolete.

Coal and fossil fuels are entering the obsolete category, as they have the most disadvantages: high emissions, public health risks, other negative environmental impacts, and the obvious exhaustibility.

In the “not ideal” category fall things like biomass, biofuel and nuclear energy. These sources are less exhaustible than coal or natural gas but still have glaring disadvantages, like the emissions from biomass and biofuel or the public health risks posed by nuclear power.

These disadvantages are objectively greater than say, the disadvantage of wind turbines being unattractive to the eye, or solar panels not being as efficient on cloudy days.

While transitioning from sources in the “obsolete” category, we would be wise to utilize “not ideal” sources of energy as well, because we have inarguably limited time to deal with both the problems of climate change and exhaustibility, and some of these systems are already built into our infrastructure.

Nevertheless, we should also not ignore the glaring disadvantages of “not ideal” sources of energy, and work to reduce the negative potential of these disadvantages if possible.

In the ideal category, we have a mix of possibilities: solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal and hydrogen. While these are the best possible options, none of these sources can solve our energy problems on its own.

In order to have efficient energy systems which both meet our energy needs and check all of the other important boxes; renewable, low emissions, and safe, we need to use a combination of these sources, strategically placed and integrated.

With the powers of safe, clean, and renewable energy sources combined, we can create a functional energy strategy for the future.

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