Energy Sources: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now,” said Leonardo DiCaprio during his politically charged acceptance speech at the Oscars Sunday night.

Whether or not you believe in man-made climate change, there is no arguing that the energy landscape is changing – and quickly. Here’s what’s good, the bad, and the ugly about the main sources of energy in the United States today.

 

Coal:

The Good: The infrastructure is already in place. It is estimated that the United States alone produced about 900 million tons in 2015. The United States has five major regions that produce coal and in 2013, there were about 80,400 people employed in the coal industry. In other parts of the world, coal is just as important.

“It’s still one of the cheapest sources across many parts of the world,” said Brian Park, a US Energy Information Administration coal expert. “Some parts are still heavily dependent on coal.”

The Bad: The price of coal is projected to increase. Meanwhile, coal production is falling, with the amount of coal produced in 2015 10% lower than the amount produced in 2014, and the lowest level its been since 1986.

The Ugly: 65% of the coal mined in the US comes from surface or strip mines, which change landscapes and pollute rivers and water sources. The rest come from underground mines, which produce the potent greenhouse gas methane. In 2013, underground mines formed about 9% of total US methane emissions. Mining it isn’t even the worst part. In 2014, coal accounted for 76% of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation. Coal combustion also emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and ash. All of these emissions have negative impacts on air quality and human health.

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Photo by: camilla.mc

 

Oil:

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Photo by: Eric Chan

The Good: The industry is developed, with petroleum products accounting for about 34% of the energy consumed worldwide. Petroleum can be used to make many different products, including gas, waxes, and asphalt.

The Bad: Oil prices are unreliable, because they are determined by global supply and demand. The supply of oil is largely determined by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), who have close to three-fourths of the estimated world crude oil reserves. These regions have a history of political instability, leading to price instability.

The Ugly: Mining for oil is notoriously dangerous for ecosystems, both in water and on land. Oil spills, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska or the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have disastrous consequences that take years to fix.

 

Natural Gas:

The Good: As of 2014, the US has a projected 389 trillion cubic feet of natural gas both onshore and offshore. Using this resource of natural gas drives down the price of energy.

“The one really big thing we’re seeing is that power generation is starting to come more and more from natural gas,” said Katherine Teller, a US Energy Information Administration expert. She attributes this to more coal plants being retired, and the increased supply of natural gas and efficiency of miners.

The Bad: Natural gas is concentrated in specific areas, and must be transported to many places. In more than half the states in the US, natural gas consumers depend on interstate pipeline systems for their natural gas supply. Natural gas is highly flammable, which makes transportation dangerous.

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Photo by: Tod Baker

The Ugly: Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is a highly disputed mining method of natural gas; fracking has been accused of wasting and contaminating water and causing small earthquakes. While it burns cleaner than most fossil fuels, natural gas is mainly methane and emits carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other polluting compounds. Natural gas leaks were the source of 29% of total US methane emissions and one of the largest man-made greenhouse gas disasters.

 

Nuclear:

The Good: Nuclear power plants are used more intensively than coal or natural gas, as they use more capacity to generate electricity than other power plants. In 2014 in the US, the nuclear share of electricity generating capacity was 9%, while the share of total electricity generation was 19%. Nuclear has been consistently maintaining a share of about 20% of total US electricity output since 1990.

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Photo by: Tobin

The Bad: Nuclear reactors and power plants are dangerous if strict safety protocols are not followed. As shown in the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents, hazards run high with nuclear energy.

The Ugly: Nuclear power creates large amounts of radioactive waste that remain dangerous to human health for thousands of years. This makes disposal difficult, as waste must be stored safely. In addition, mining and refining uranium, and creating reactor fuel, requires large amounts of energy.

 

Renewable and Alternative Energies:

The Good: There are many different types of renewable energy sources. The main five are biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind and solar. This makes energy more reliable, because if one type fails, there are many others to count on. In addition, non-biomass renewable sources do not directly emit greenhouse gases, making them good for the environment. In 2014, about 13% of US electricity was generated from renewable sources, a number that is expected to grow.

The Bad: Renewables may not always be available depending on weather patterns. Cloudy days reduce solar installation generation, less windy days reduce wind power generation and hydropower is affected by droughts. Storage technologies are being developed to account for this, but they’ve got a long way to go.

The Ugly: The aesthetics of different types of renewables have been widely resisted. Many communities do not want to look at windmills or solar panels in their backyards. Hydropower dams may damage ecology and affect flow of rivers. Some wind turbines cause bird and bat deaths.

 

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Photo by: Mariano Mantel