There are a lot of ways to harness energy and generate electricity. Wind, water, sunlight, coal, gas, and nuclear are among the most common. But what method of energy production is the cleanest and most efficient? Which one will provide us with a solid future of renewable energy? The answer may surprise you.
First, we’ll look at some of the ways we are generating power. Coal is very widespread as an energy source, but it’s not an endless supply and it contributes to a lot of waste. We burn the coal, releasing plumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, polluting the air and possibly causing major environmental impacts. Fuel oil is used for heating our homes and powering our vehicles. It, too releases a lot of greenhouse gasses that plague our air. Both coal and fuel oil are considered fossil fuels and have a definitive limit to their supply. Natural gas is another popular way to harness energy. While it does release CO2 when burned, it doesn’t release as much as coal or oil does. Unlike oil, if compressed natural gas is spilled, it will quickly dissipate into the atmosphere without really harming the local ecology.
On the more renewable end of the spectrum, we look at solar power. Solar farms can be seen popping up all over, taking advantage of oft-sunny locations. They can be seen covering an entire field or as a layer on top of a house’s roof. Wind generated electricity is fast gaining popularity, especially in areas with high winds, like the flat plains of the central United States and the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These wide open areas are perfect for gusts of wind to spin the massive blades of a wind turbine. Some are erected along ridgelines, where they take advantage of the natural geography to amplify the wind’s effect on the turbines. Hydroelectricity is the method through which electricity is generated by concentrating the flow of water through turbines located in a dam. As the water flows past these turbines, they spin, generating a considerable amount of electricity. In fact, the two hydroelectric dams at Niagara Falls in New York generate the most electricity in the whole state.
There are some more experimental renewable energy sources being tested around the globe as well. Methods such as tidal energy and wave energy harnessing are being implemented in Europe to add to the list of renewable energies. Wave energy is harnessed through the rise and fall of a buoy device that uses mechanical energy to generate electricity. Tidal energy is harnessed by means of underwater propellers. They essentially function in much the same way as wind turbines, but are located beneath the sea. Tidal forces are easy to predict because they primarily are affected by the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth.
So what source of power is the cleanest and most efficient? The answer to that question is nuclear. When most people think of nuclear power, they think about its dangers: the bombs dropped over Japan in 1945, the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, and the damaged Fukushima reactors in 2011. What they don’t realize is that nuclear power is the cleanest and most efficient method of generating electricity that the world has. As it stands, the only nuclear method in use is nuclear fission, which splits the atoms of molecules apart. This does generate waste, but by reprocessing that waste, a nuclear plant can recover up to 95% otherwise wasted uranium and plutonium. The reprocessing also reduces the long-term radioactivity and reduces the volume of the waste by up to 90%. France is the leading country in the world employing this reprocessing method and they have the cleanest air and cheapest electricity in Europe. And this comes from reprocessing only 28% of their annual nuclear fuel waste. What some may perceive as pollution pouring out of the massive cooling towers is actually nothing more than harmless steam.
Those who stand by the dangers of nuclear power need to realize that nuclear power is the most scrutinized as far as safety goes. With current generation technologies, nuclear plants are safer than the other major power plants of coal and gas. As testing continues in cold fusion, we will eventually be able to have even cleaner and safer nuclear power. And if you’re concerned about the amount of radiation a nuclear plant radiates, consider a banana for scale: eating a single banana gives you more radiation than living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant for a year.
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