Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The costs of energy

The costs of energy have been increasing since they were first explored and exploited to fulfill daily needs. Speaking specifically about crude oil, the use of this limited resource has been increasing in use and cost in the last several decades, and even quite dramatically in the last fifteen years or so. People are driving larger, less gas efficient vehicles, more technology is being produced and need additional electricity, more people travel via airplane, take cruises, sail boats, and drive for sport. Not only is the fundamental source of fuel, crude oil, a limited resource, but it is also very costly to refine it into a usable substance. The discovery process for crude oil can be a hit or miss journey. Once a source has been located, then the drilling begins. The equipment is expensive and so is the labor. And, as we have seen in recent weeks, the costs of any and all “accidents” are also financially, and environmentally, costly.

So now it has been established that the main source of fuel in the current world is limited and costly, it is imperative to understand why the search for an alternative renewable source of energy is imminent and much needed. Many different sources of renewable energy have been explored, but none have fully taken root in the United States. Other countries, such as China, have taken an interest in some of the technologies discovered and harnessed here in the US. According to one American business owner “many of these technologies were invented in the U.S., but they have since migrated overseas because there has never been much of a market in the U.S.” (Heim). This could very well be what separates the “thinkers” and the “doers” in regards to implementing a mainstream renewable energy source.

According to the recent Shanghai Expo, China is displaying a very competitive edge in regards to a clean energy source. “Environmental disasters and China’s reputation as a prime polluter have driven some of that urgency” (Heim). China has become the world’s largest consumer of energy as well as the largest carbon emissions location in the world. As a result of these facts, China is looking at new ways to get ahead of the game by investing large sums of money into eco-friendly renewable energy sources.

One question many people have is why is a new source of energy needed? The first thing that comes to mind is that gasoline prices have skyrocketed in the last several years, which has been costly to many individuals as well as countries. In addition, crude oil is not a renewable source of energy. There is only so much oil on earth and it is being used at a much faster rate than it is being formed. The question as to whether or not oil has peaked in its supply still remains uncertain. However, oil is a finite source of energy and will eventually deplete, so the peak is not as important when making a decision to find alternative sources of energy. Also, take into consideration that the current main source of energy is very environmentally unfriendly. There are many pollutants that are caused by the current source of energy that can be eliminated if the primary source of energy is changed (Crump).

There are many risks associated with the locating, drilling, manufacturing, and use of crude oil. One of the current media frenzies surrounding crude oil is the Gulf Coast oil leak. According to CNN, the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill has released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the gulf coast region and only 3.3 million gallons have been recovered. The costs to BP are drastic however the economic impact to those who reside in this region will suffer more. The entire gulf coast relies on fishing, crabbing, oysters, recreational tourism, and other sources of monetary revenue. It is expected for the negative impact of the oil spill to impact this area for approximately the next three years. According to studies collected by CNN, the tourism travel source of revenue is estimated to be $7.6 billion within the next fifteen months. And we all know that the current oil spill is only one of the numerous incidents which have placed the environment at risk as a result of oil spills into natural habitats.

In searching for a new source of energy there are many factors that must be requirements. The replacement source of energy must be renewable. In order for the new source of energy to be a benefit, it must be able to be renewed and not a finite source. The new main source of energy must also be eco-friendly. The main reason why a new source of energy is being searched for is because the source of energy currently used, crude oil, is harmful to the environment. Looking for a replacement must have improvements, including being environmentally friendly. This also means that there must be minimal or zero pollutants as a result. If the renewable energy creates byproducts that are harmful to the environment, then it is pointless and counter productive to utilize that source. The new energy source must also be effective and reliable. If the new source cannot be relied upon to be consistent and effective in its delivery, it is not a viable substitute to what is already being used. And last, but not least, the replacement source of energy must be cost efficient. Part of the problem with crude oil is that it is far too costly to continue to maintain. Not only is it finite in its availability, but it is also very costly environmentally and financially. The byproducts created by processing crude oil causes harm to the environment and the cost of manufacturing the oil and transporting it harms the pocketbook.

There are many alternative methods to fuel today’s modern world. Some of the more popular renewable sources include hydro-electric power, wind power, all electric power, and solar power. Hydro-electric power offers a multitude of benefits including cost-efficiency and eco-friendliness, however not all geographical set-ups have fast enough running water to utilize this potential resource. Wind fueled electricity is cost efficient and wind is available all over the world. However, not all areas are suitable for building wind turbines on them. Converting to all-electric power requires an initial power supply. Essentially, switching to an “all-electric” source of energy requires it to be coupled with another source of energy in order to make it work. It is far too reliant on another component. And last but not least, solar power is very popular in eco-friendly conversations. Solar panels are quite costly in the onset of setting up solar energy as a renewable source however it pays off in the long run. Also, there are some areas on the globe that are not viable places for this type of renewable energy, such as far north and far south on the globe due to shortened daylight hours (Withgott & Brennan).

Wind power utilizes kinetic energy that is then converted into electrical energy, which can be used as a replacement to nonrenewable sources of energy. The use of wind power is dramatically increasing across the world. Germany, the United States, and Spain account for more than half of the world’s wind energy usage. Denmark is the leader in wind power output with 20% of power supplies coming directly from wind turbines. (Withgott & Brennan). Within the US, both California and Texas produce the majority of wind energy. This could be because both Texas and California are amongst the top five largest states as well as financial ability and space to place turbines.

As wind speeds are significantly greater over water than land, there are prospects of building wind turbines in the ocean to help maximize the amount of energy that can be produced and harnessed. Turbulence is also lessened over water. However, the cost to build and maintain a turbine in water is much greater than if they were built on land. At the current time, “offshore wind farms are limited to shallow water, where towers are sunk into sediments singly or with a tripod to stabilize them” Withgott & Brennan, p. 368).

As with many sources of energy, wind power comes with pros and cons. In order to make an educated decision on whether or not this type of energy source can provide value and help protect the environment or not requires people to understand the benefits and detriments. The people of Atlanta, Georgia, for example, were informed of the pros and cons regarding wind energy as a viable source and made their decision based off of the information provided to them. Given the location of the city, the industrialization of the area, and the lack of spare fields, Georgians are not yet convinced that wind energy is a viable solution for them (Keefe). However, there is growing interest in this area of renewable energy and more research needs to be conducted to figure out how to make the turbines more efficient and area friendly.
Wind has no by-product emissions once the equipment is in place. In addition, wind power is more efficient than previously relied upon resources. The return of energy versus the amount of energy that goes into producing wind energy and harnessing it is much higher, thus resulting in a higher return rate. It is believed that wind turbines create 23 times more energy than is consumed to harness that energy. An economical benefit in favor of wind energy is that those who own land can lease their property for the use of wind turbines, thus creating additional personal revenue (Withgott & Brennan).

With all of the benefits for wind energy, there are some negative avenues to explore. The main setback for the argument in favor of wind energy is that wind is not constant. Being that wind is a natural occurrence, it is impossible to have any control over how often the wind blows and how hard it blows (Cape Times). If wind used in conjunction with another type of renewable energy source then this issue is moot. The second energy source, such as hydrogen fuel for example, could store the energy that is generated by the wind and permit it to be ready for use at a later time. Also, some places on the globe are much windier than others. The Great Plains would have greater success regarding wind energy than a densely forested area. In addition, wind turbines can be costly to maintain and repair when needed. The turbines are subject to damages from birds and bats, as well as the birds and bats being damaged or even killed by the turbines (Withgott & Brennan).

As a replacement for fossil fuel combustion in the average US utility generator, the US Environmental Protection Agency has calculated that running a 1-megawatt wind turbine for 1 year prevents the release of more than 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide, 6.5 tons of sulfur dioxide, 3.2 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 60 lbs. of mercury” (Withgott & Brennan). Looking at those numbers alone can sway most to put their energy into producing wind turbines to replace limited resource energies.

There have been many pieces of legislation put forth in encouraging and discouraging the use of alternative forms of energy. Recently, a law regarding cleaner energy won over the voters in the city of Aberdeen, South Dakota. According to the recent article written by Emily Arthur-Richardt, the city councilmen and women wish to encourage alternative eco-friendly energy, but they also wish to minimize any hindrances on the community.

Specifically speaking, wind turbines would have a height limit and noise restrictions imposed on them in order to decrease any issues with property values and inevitable noise pollution. The various areas surrounding this city would also be zoned for turbines or not, thus ensuring that not all acreage would be subject to having turbines built on them. Also, there would be set distances from highly traveled, highly populated, or frequented areas of the city in order to maintain safety of its population (Arthur-Richardt). One can conclude from the actions taken by just one city, the use of wind turbines to create and harness wind energy is a feasible, viable solution for an alternative form of renewable energy. With the right restrictions, planning, and incentives for the people who reside around them, it is possible to get community members to vote in favor of wind farms.

In summary, the only way a renewable form of energy to take root in modern culture is if the communities impacted are on board. Without the support of the population, no alternative source of energy will replace fossil fuels. Changes in how energy is produced and provided will cost money initially, however the savings will pay off long term once the preliminary costs are made. Also, there are many arguments in favor of wind energy as a viable replacement to crude oil, as much as there are arguments against it. Looking at the totality of circumstances, it is logical to conclude that the pros outweigh the cons, thus drawing the conclusion that wind turbines are a cost efficient replacement to current methodologies.

Arthur-Richardt, Emily.  (29  June). Energy law approved: Wind, solar ordinance
gets final adoption. McClatchy - Tribune Business News.  Retrieved July 3, 2010, from ProQuest Newsstand.
Cape Times. “Everyone enjoys the idea of renewable energy, but there are obvious
practical problems. A wind farm gives zero energy for, perhaps, 30 percent of the time.” (2010, July 2). Cape Times,8.  Retrieved July 4, 2010, from ProQuest Newsstand.
CNN (August 2010). “Gulf Oil Spill is Worst Accidental Spill Ever.” CNN US. Internet:
CNN (July 2010). “Gulf Spill Could Cost Region $22.7 Billion in Travel Dollars.” CNN
Crump, C. (2010). From coal to wind, energy has become cleaner, more efficient.
Crain's Detroit Business, 26(18), E54. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.
Heim, Kristi. (2010, August 7). “Clean energy: China charges ahead of world.”
Keefe, Bob.  (2010, June 28). Georgia not sold on wind energy push. The Atlanta
Journal - Constitution,p. A.1.  Retrieved July 3, 2010, from ProQuest Newsstand.
Withgott, Jay & Scott Brennan. Essential Environment: 3rd Ed. Pearson Custom
Publishing: San Francisco, 2009.

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