Climate change is identified as the major problem confronting our planet. And we have twenty-five years to reach to a net-zero carbon emmissions and avoid a catastrophe. Net zero is a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity that create these atmospheric conditions. For this we must find and implement alternative energy sources that will not add to the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our planet. The main alternative energy sources considered are hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, wind and hydrogen. But these alternatives have their problems and issues that must be addressed if we are to implement a solution
and not just create an alternative problem.
Hydroelectricity is considered green energy by many experts. It is renewable, carbon neutral, and relatively inexpensive. According to NRC, five of Canada’s provinces use hydro to produce more than 80% of their electricity.
However, all is not positive with hydroelectricity. Building dams requires large up-front capital costs. Changing the natural flow of a river can cause significant environmental damage. The natural migration and flow of fish is often seriously disrupted. Damming a river causes changes in water levels which can result in landslides and earthquakes. And, flooded land is lost to human, animal, and plant habitation. Also, as more rivers are
dammed, sites become more remote and require massive transmission lines to bring the electricity to the places where it is needed.
For many, nuclear energy is a viable alternative to fossil fuels. It is touted as clean, carbon neutral and plentiful. Nonetheless, these claims ignore some major problems. First is disposal of nuclear residue. Waste from nuclear reactors remains hazardous for 240,000 years. And there have been significant accidents at nuclear facilities. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima are names that have made the news. Of course, nuclear materials pose a serious health hazard being identified as a major carcinogen. Adding to these problems is the cost. Power from nuclear reactors is among the most expensive option available.
The sun is the ultimate source of energy for planet Earth and solar power appears to be the most promising alternative to fossil fuels. But, again, there are some issues to be addressed. The most obvious is the lack of consistency. The sun does not always shine. And there are concerns with solar panels. First, their manufacture requires the use of hazardous materials. And they are relatively inefficient – a large area must be covered to
generate a useable amount of energy. For example, the largest solar farm is in Morocco. It generates 580 MW of power but requires an area equal to 35,000 football fields. Disposal of used solar panels is also a problem. They are not easily recyclable and contain hazardous materials. Although costs have come down with recent innovations, solar panels still remain relatively expensive and must be replaced every 25 years on average.
Wind, like the sun, presents a natural energy source that is green, pollution free, and renewable. Or so its proponents claim. But, here again, some concerns must be noted. First is reliability. In general wind is even less reliable as a constant source of energy compared with solar. Also, wind turbines threaten wildlife, especially birds. The turbines are also a source of noise and visual pollution, and can be expensive to set up. Suitable
locations for turbines do not always match locations preferred by humans.
Hydrogen is often considered an ideal fuel. Combustion of hydrogen produces water – a safe, environmentally friendly product. The first concern is the source of hydrogen. Some 95% of hydrogen comes from methane.
However, this process generates as much carbon dioxide as is saved by using hydrogen as an energy source. Further, hydrogen as a source fuel is not compatible with much of our current technology and conversion will be expensive. Also, hydrogen can be difficult to use in certain temperatures and environments. And, even in the best situations, hydrogen fuel will be expensive.
Whatever the problems with energy sources, the problem of climate change remains, and reduction of fossil fuel consumption is imperative. By recognizing the limitations and potential problems associated with alternatives, human ingenuity should be able to implement a combination of alternatives without jeopardizing our planet.