Renewable Energy: Clean, green power

Whether it’s wind, solar, geothermal or tidal power, the cleanest proven methods of powering our everyday lives is increasingly proving to be renewable energy. While both nuclear and coal industries claim to have cleaned up their acts, and serve themselves up as some kind of “cure” for global warming. Much of what they are generating is false hope. There are dangers in relying solely on renewable energy, since it is generally an intermittent power source. However, with further research the reliability of these technologies can be improved. While we can’t necessarily rely on the fact that a day will be windy for our wind generators to supply power, we can rely on stored wind energy from previous windy days.

Also, with solar energy, Canadian scientists at the University of Toronto have been developing a solar cell that converts more of our sun’s energy than conventional solar cells. Current solar cell technology only converts about ten percent of the sun’s rays into electricity or energy, and it can only harness the visible solar rays. New technologically advanced cells (which are unfortunately not yet available on the open market) can harness both the visible and invisible infra-red rays to produce energy. This means a 30% conversion rate as opposed to 10%. It also means that the sun need not be out in order for the solar cells to collect energy. This and other improvements make me confident that we could replace a majority of conventional power stations with renewable stations. While we may still use conventional sources as back-up, they no longer need to be our major source of power.

There is also the fact that often large wind or tidal generating facilities can have a negative impact on surrounding wildlife or sea life. This is especially true of animals like bats that have evolved to use sonar to hunt for prey. There have been several documented cases of large wind turbines having a negative impact on bat populations. This can be remedied however, by avoiding placing wind and tidal farms in the habitats of species that may be affected.

Will Nuclear Nip it?

There have been improvements regarding safety and disposal of nuclear waste in the nuclear sector in the past decade or so. This capability does not necessarily reflect actual safety standards for nuclear facilities across the globe, however. In Finland, a project at the Finnish Posiva nuclear facility casts its nuclear waste in iron, encases it in iron and then buries it in a borehole, which is then filled with a type of clay. This is predicted to store the dangerous nuclear waste for up to a million years. However, now that this standard has been set, the nuclear industry can continue to pollute and discard waste unsafely under the guise of a new and improved industry standard. It’s too dangerous to rely on the industry to self-regulate when the cost of nuclear spills both to the environment and human populations is so dear. Disposing of nuclear waste safely costs mounds more than it does to be shady about getting rid of used-up uranium, so there is little incentive to change disposal methods. And trust isn’t something that the nuclear industry has earned over the years, whether it’s in Chernobyl, Yucca Mountain in the U.S., or the Sellafield nuclear complex in the UK, nuclear facilities all over the world have been accused and often found guilty of horrible waste-dumping practices.

There is also significant debate about how much energy it takes to extract uranium from the earth compared to how much energy that extracted uranium will yield. There are some studies that suggest it takes much less energy, and some that suggest that it takes more. Unfortunately all parties are well-sourced and look to be correct. So who’s right? Well, in my eyes, the proof is in the pudding. Most nuclear industries are heavily subsidized by their governments, and few have been opened since the late 1980’s, leading me to believe that it is not a particularly profitable and efficient source of energy, therefore not one that we should rely on to save us from the perils of climate change.

Can Coal Go Green?

There have been recent ads in North America by coal companies touting a new “greener” coal industry as the solution to all of our climate woes. To me, open caste mines will never be clean enough to qualify as green, they’re pretty dirty even to look at. Ultimately, burning natural gas is less destructive to the atmosphere than burning coal. Coal contains 24 kilograms of carbon for each gigajoule of energy it produces, while natural gas has only around 15 kilograms of carbon for the same amount of energy. While carbon capturing, as explained further below, may be one way to make coal a cleaner source of power, it is far from being a long-term solution to global warming.

Carbon Capturing

One of the newer methods of preventing carbon from entering our atmosphere is to strip carbon—using a process called amine scrubbing—from the gas either before or after it’s burnt, and then bury it deep underground, encased in impenetrable material. There is no definite answer as to how long this method will store the carbon underground, however, and it may just be putting off the inevitable for a future generation to deal with. Although helpful in the short term, it’s better if less carbon is created altogether, rather than just hidden away underground only to seep out in a hundred years or so.