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Demystifying the Energy Source: Is One Better Than Another?

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As clean, renewable energy has grown by leaps and bounds (multiple reports argue renewables will be the fastest-growing energy sector for years to come), households and utility plants have more choices than ever about how to power their homes, businesses and communities. Each type of energy comes with its own sets of pros and cons. Here are a few of the benefits and drawbacks of some of the most popular and talked about energy sources that can help you decide which ones to put your dollars toward.

Solar

Strengths: First and foremost, solar energy is clean and unlimited. It’s also pretty cheap! The cost of solar has dropped by 70 percent since 2009 and the price is only expected to drop further as technology advances. Multiple models for solar generation and distribution already exist, from large-scale solar plants like the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park in Pakistan (which when completed in 2017 will provide electricity to 320,000 homes) to small-scale solar that fits onto roofs of homes and businesses. Companies like SolarCity and Sungevity have created business models that guarantee that investing in home solar will pay economic—not just environmental—dividends through savings in energy bills and buybacks from utilities for the extra energy they generate. It also helps that solar panels make energy during the day, which is also when utilities face the highest demand. Solar networks allow utilities to avoid large-scale investments in new plants that are only used infrequently during “peak demand” hours.

Weaknesses: One of the most common arguments against solar is the distribution of costs. With your energy bills, you pay not only for the actual energy you use, but also for the system that gets it to your home. People with home solar pay for the technology, but get paid back at rates that include this transmission cost. That can result in higher rates for everyone else who use solar power but don’t have solar panels. Most of these people aren’t oil barons, but rather low-income households who don’t have the several thousand dollars upfront to buy a system. While some policy changes try to mitigate the effect on these folks, it’s still a concern.

Wind

Strengths: Like solar, wind energy is clean and abundant. A study by Nature Climate Change found that there’s enough wind energy in the world to power all of human civilization many times over. In the United States, wind potential is particularly strong in rural areas, which could provide needed jobs to rural communities, and supplement incomes on existing farms. It also helps smooth over political concerns, as conservative strongholds like Texas and Oklahoma join California and Oregon as top wind-producing states, creating opportunities for bipartisan support for the industry.

Weaknesses: Transmission across long distances is hard, so even though there’s enough wind energy in a handful of states to power the whole country, we can’t get it to the population centers driving demand. It also faces storage problems. While there are locations that consistently get strong winds, as a natural phenomenon, wind strength and patterns can be unpredictable and don’t align with power demand. In fact, operators often shut down wind turbines during particularly blustery hours to avoid overloading transmission lines and potentially causing blackouts from the surge of energy. While researchers are developing batteries and experimenting with storing wind energy by pumping water into a reservoir behind a hydroelectric dam, there’s still a ways to go to reap the full benefits of wind.

Wind turbines also pose a hazard to wildlife. Officials estimate more than 300,000 birds are killed annually by wind turbines. While this pales in comparison to the threat faced by climate change (which is why the Audubon Society still supports wind power—though “properly” sited to limit impacts on birds), it’s an important consideration.

Hydro

Strengths: While wind and solar get most of the hype, the most widely used renewable energy in the United State is hydroelectric power. Washington State is a leader in renewable energy, largely due to its reliance on hydroelectric power. One of the big selling points on hydroelectric power is that it’s local. Rather than relying on international sources and markets, hydropower is homegrown energy that creates local jobs both managing the dam and power generation, but also in recreation around the reservoirs they often create. Unlike solar and wind, dams also provide power on demand, which, in the renewable portfolio, makes it an excellent backup system when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing.

Weaknesses: Hydro power has two big drawbacks: location and environmental impacts. The first is obvious: to have hydropower, you need to have water, and lots of it. Washington’s wet climate makes it an obvious choice for hydroelectric dams. But in the Southwest? Other than the massive Hoover Dam, there are limited opportunities for new plants in parched areas.

The other weakness is a bit counterintuitive—how can a renewable energy source be bad for the environment? Well, it depends on what part of the environment you’re looking at. While hydropower is a great way to reduce carbon pollution, dams severely disrupt the natural habitats in rivers. In Northern California, a network of dams, sloughs and canals that both provide power and redistribute drinking water have made the delta smelt, a key link in the food chain, nearly extinct. Oregon spent up to $13 million to create a channel for salmon and steelhead to bypass the McNary Dam which, while providing electricity for 240,000 homes, also inhibited fish from making it to their spawning grounds. It also impacts wildlife on land as dams flood nearby habitat. Once built, dams also pose a huge flood risk for wildlife and people alike should anything happen. This risk only increases with time as dams age and the engineering required to remove or decommission a dam that’s reached the end of its life span is still untested and dangerous. Sadly, even after a dam or system of dams is removed, restoring the environment may still be impossible.

Geothermal

Strengths: Geothermal energy takes advantage of the warmth emanating from our planet. Like solar, it can be deployed at the utility scale—by tapping deep into the earth—or in a single building using heat pumps and a network of pipes to regulate indoor temperatures. It’s also reliable. Unlike wind and solar that require certain conditions to create energy, the earth’s energy is constant and can be deployed on demand. On top of all that, geothermal energy is also ridiculously efficient. Most energy sources lose some of their power during processing or use so that only fraction of their potential can be used. Home geothermal heating systems, by contrast, can operate at double the efficiency, making investments in such systems pay dividends in reduced energy costs quickly.

Weaknesses: While home geothermal systems have a wider range, utility-scale geothermal sites tend to be very location specific and rarely close to where people live. Transmitting the energy generated to places it’s needed is hard to do without losing much of it in the process. It also has its own environmental impacts, particularly on water. Most systems require a lot of water to work—between 1,700–4,000 gallons per megawatt hour (for context, the typical power plant makes hundreds of megawatt hours). This water, once it comes back up from the underground, can bring with it some toxic minerals like sulfur and salt. While there have not been any known spills from power plants, it’s cause for concern. Geothermal’s biggest controversy is its link to earthquakes.

Nuclear

Strengths: Like many sources on this list, nuclear power production has a low carbon footprint and, like hydropower and geothermal, is a reliable energy source that can operate on demand. It also has unique economic benefits. Unlike other sources which are tied to locations where there is sufficient water, sunlight, wind or other climate conditions, a nuclear power plant can be built anywhere with the political will. In fact, the Nuclear Energy Institute touts job creation as a major benefit. It also means that you can put plants close to people to reduce transmission costs and inefficiencies.

Weaknesses: Having just marked the 30-year anniversary since Chernobyl, nuclear’s biggest disadvantage is pretty clear. While reactor meltdowns are relatively uncommon, their impacts are massive. Residents near Chernobyl are still dealing with health impacts from lingering high radioactivity. While the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami were devastating, the lasting impact has been the radiation leaks from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, which continues to contaminate the Pacific five years later. It’s happened in the U.S. too: a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania partially melted down in 1979. While the remaining reactors continue to operate, the shuttered and sealed reactor is a stark reminder that, decades on, we still don’t know what to do with spent waste, even as many plants are approaching the end of their lifespans.

Fossil Fuels

Strengths: There’s a reason fossil fuels are the dominant energy source on Earth. They’re cheap, historically abundant and meet on-demand needs—you only burn oil, coal or natural gas when you want a light on. This history also gives fossil fuels a modern-day built-in advantage. Our energy infrastructure is built for fossil fuel power plants, while wind, solar and other emerging technologies must adapt to the grid and pricing structure designed to make the use and distribution of fossil fuel power the most efficient.

Weaknesses: As an environmentalist, I’ll lead with the obvious: fossil fuels are severely damaging our planet and changing the climate in ways that will have a profound effect on every living creature’s ability to survive. The carbon pollution produced by fossil fuels is making the oceans more acidic and changing weather patterns that threaten food production and destroy cities with more frequent strong storms.

But putting climate change aside, fossil fuels also have other drawbacks. First, they’re limited. While estimates vary about when we’ll have used all the world’s oil, the truth is that day will come, and it will behoove humanity to have prepared to switch to something else. Getting at the fossil fuels we have left also causes immense environmental degradation. The natural gas boom has been fueled by fracking, which has poisoned drinking water. As we’ve depleted the easy-to-get oil, we’ve turned to deepwater drilling which poses bigger risks for uncontainable spills (just ask BP). We’re literally blowing off the tops of mountains to get at the remaining coal in West Virginia. At some point, the calculus about what we’re losing compared to the comforts we’re gaining will be way out of whack.

Joe Baker is the Vice President of Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and ThePetitionSite. He is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts and all editorial content. Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. Joe serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of GiveForward and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.

Content Discussion

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on May 20, 2016

Fairly shallow pro-solar and anti-nuke piece. Solar’s main issue is its low capacity factor which means it doesn’t scale very well. At very low penetrations, price erosion is significant. Of course, it is even less scalable in any locations where winter demand is higher than summer demand, such as in much of Europe.

There are no measurable lingering health effects of high radiation surrounding Chernobyl. The releases from Fukushima into the ocean are of no consequence. Nuclear really have no major cons except for its susceptibility for media headlines, uninformed FUD and regulatory ratcheting.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 20, 2016

Actually, there have been zero detectable health impacts from the Fukushima nuclear accident, and even the enormously worse Chernobyl accident produced such a small health impact in the general public that it could only be detected by the most careful studies. In fact, nearly all of the harm from these nuclear accidents has been caused not by the radiation itself, but by fear of radiation and stress from populations constantly being told they are doomed (e.g. smoking, drinking, etc). Yep, the fear-mongers are the real villains.

On the other hand, burning fossil fuels releases air pollutants which produce real health impacts, and kills 20,000 American every year. Pollution from fossil fuels and biomass burning kills millions of people globally every year.

Locations that get over half their energy from hydro can add solar and wind to get the other half, thus eliminating fossil fuel from the electric supply completely. But given that on average, hydro only supplies 6% of US electricity, and given that energy storage (whether advanced batteries or mature pumped-hydro) alone or combined with continents-scale super-grids are much too expensive to compete with fossil fuel, wind and solar will only reduce our fossil fuel use by 25-50%; this is not enough.

Baseload energy sources like nuclear and geothermal are most effective at reducing fossil fuel use. They require much less flexible generation for balancing, and result in less supply-demand mismatch that must be managed (i.e. they’ll require less energy storage and less demand-response).

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 21, 2016

With regard to hydraulic fracturing, neither the referenced advocacy cite Ecowatch or the underlying 2015 EPA report state the process “has poisoned” the water.

Summary of EPA 2015 findings:

“We found the hydraulic fracturing activities in the United States are carried out in a way that has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water resources,” says Tom Burke, science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “In fact, the number of documented impacts to drinking water resources is relatively low when compared to the number of fractured wells,” he adds.