Renewable Energy Sources Compared

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Three main energy source categories are renewable, alternative, and fossil fuel. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, so it is essential to understand how each energy source impacts the environment, as well as the growing energy needs in the world today.

 

Renewable and Alternative Energy

Renewable and alternative energy sources are both categorized as clean energy due to the significant reduction in carbon emissions they produce. The main difference between renewable and alternative energy sources is whether or now the energy source uses a renewable energy source. 

For example, nuclear power generation typically uses uranium. While it is abundant, it is technically not a renewable source, so it is categorized as an alternative energy source.

Solar Energy

solar panels on house
  • Emissions 10% 10%
  • Land Use 20% 20%
  • Abundance 100% 100%
  • Cost 20% 20%

When the sun shines onto a solar panel, energy from the sunlight is absorbed by the cells of the panel.

Pros:

  • Extremely abundant and sustainable
  • Does not pollute the air or water
  • Available worldwide
  • Low maintenance

Cons:

  • Higher upfront investment
  • Only produce power when the sun is out

 

Hydropower

  • Emissions 10% 10%
  • Land Use 30% 30%
  • Abundance 50% 50%
  • Cost 40% 40%

Hydroelectric power is one of the oldest energy sources. It uses the flow of moving water to generate electricity.

Pros:

  • Does not pollute the water or air
  • Renewable and reliable energy source

Cons:

  • Disturbs existing habitats
  • May create methane
  • Expensive to install
  • Affected by droughts

*Hydropower is not always classified as renewable due to the impact on the ecosystem where they are built.

Wind Energy

  • Emissions 10% 10%
  • Land Use 15% 15%
  • Abundance 40% 40%
  • Cost 15% 15%

Wind turns the windmill blades around a rotor which spins a generator, creating electricity.

Pros:

  • Does not pollute the water or air
  • Low operating costs
  • Space efficient

Cons:

  • Intermittent and unpredictable energy production
  • Harms birds and bats
  • High upfront investment
  • Slight noise and visual pollution

 

Nuclear Energy

  • Emissions 20% 20%
  • Land Use 5% 5%
  • Abundance 80% 80%
  • Cost 50% 50%

Nuclear energy is produced at power plants by the process of nuclear fission.

Pros:

  • Low carbon emissions
  • Efficient and reliable
  • Low operating cost

Cons:

  • High environmental impact
  • Generates radioactive waste
  • High startup costs
  • Wastewater may contain pollutants

 

Fossil Fuel Energy Sources

Fossil fuels formed millions of years ago as dead animals and plants were subject to extreme heat and pressure. This process converted these organic materials into fossil fuels that, when burned, generate energy.

Fossil fuels are often considered dirty energy sources because they come at a high cost to the environment. Decades of carbon emissions cannot be taken back.

Coal

  • Emissions 90% 90%
  • Land Use 60% 60%
  • Abundance 60% 60%
  • Cost 30% 30%

Coal is a rock that is extracted from the earth by surface and underground mining.

Pros:

  • It is abundant and fairly inexpensive
  • New technology can remove harmful material before it reaches the environment

Cons:

  • Environmental impact
  • Burning coal emits harmful chemicals
  • Clean coal comes at a cost
  • Finite energy source

 

Natural Gas

  • Emissions 60% 60%
  • Land Use 15% 15%
  • Abundance 30% 30%
  • Cost 35% 35%

Natural gas is extracted from subsurface rock formations by drilling deep into the earth.

Pros:

  • Not dependent on weather conditions
  • Easy to transport
  • Reliable

Cons:

  • Non-renewable energy source
  • Causes air pollution
  • Fracking may cause earthquakes
  • Leaks are difficult to detect

 

Petroleum

  • Emissions 80% 80%
  • Land Use 40% 40%
  • Abundance 15% 15%
  • Cost 50% 50%

Like Natural Gas, petroleum is also extracted from underground reservoirs by drilling into the earth.

Pros:

  • Does not pollute the water or air
  • Low operating costs
  • Space efficient

Cons:

  • Intermittent and unpredictable energy production
  • Harms birds and bats
  • High upfront investment
  • Slight noise and visual pollution

 

What energy source is best?

While each energy source has advantages and disadvantages for you to use today, Solar stands out because residential installations are relatively inexpensive and can be done within six weeks.

While energy prices will continue to increase, producing solar energy is a one-time investment that will produce free energy for many years to come. 

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