Energy

by Youth Ocean Advocate Deirdre N.

What has happened while you’ve read this question? Your device used about 450 watts of power, that’s what happened. And you’re not alone. Everyone who is reading this is a contributor to our use of power.

Assuming that many humans have hit a point where a “non-electric” society is no longer an option, isn’t any wild statement. I’d say most can agree that the majority of people have grown too accustomed to a life with electricity to let it go. So where, might one ask, does all this great stuff that powers our smartphones come from? There are a few right answers to that question.

To start, there are two main types of energy: renewables, and non-renewables. As of now, our main source of energy comes from fossil fuels (nonrenewable), arguably the worst form of energy. Fossil fuels are essentially energy locked up in the remains of once-living organisms. These organisms, many being plants, which existed about 300 million years ago, were then subject to the changing Planet Earth over the course of history and were buried under thousands of layers of rock. Then in the mid-1700s, humans discovered that these ancient plants and animals could be made very useful, and began extracting oil from the ground and mining for coal, then later fracking for natural gas. All three of these: coal, oil, and natural gas, make up the brunt of “fossil fuels”.

Coal, specifically, was formed from decaying land vegetation that turned into a solidified form of hydrocarbons overtime under high amounts of heat and pressure. Coal is also known to be the worst form of fossil fuels, and therefore the worst form of energy. Not only is coal a spectacular contributor to the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in our troposphere, it is also considered very ‘dirty,’ meaning it contains many other harmful substances other than just carbon dioxide.

Another main fossil fuel, crude oil, is the remains of marine microorganisms, also packed under high pressure over millions of years. This fossil fuel is a liquid and when refined is known as petroleum, that gas that we use to fuel vehicles.

Natural Gas is the last main form of fossil fuel and is also energy locked from marine microorganisms, however, they are in the gaseous state. While natural gas has recently been looked as a solution to our pollution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and ocean from the other two fossil fuels, it really isn’t. Fracking for natural gas releases a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, methane. Maybe we shouldn’t seek out natural gas as much.

Aside from fossil fuels, there are other non-renewables, such as nuclear power. Nuclear energy is as it sounds: captured energy from nuclear fission or fusion. While nuclear energy is hardly a contributor to our greenhouse gas dilemma, waste produced from the process of nuclear fission or fusion is incredibly harmful to all forms of life, since it produces such high amounts of radioactivity. And yes, radioactivity is that terrifying thing that can cause severe deformities, cancer, and in extreme cases, death.

On a more positive note, not all sources of energy are bad. Don’t worry, there are ways of using your iphone that aren’t going to eventually ruin everything you love here on Earth. Renewable energy sources aren’t perfect, but they are incredible compared to non-renewables. Some forms of renewable energy sources are hydropower, wind power, geothermal energy, solar energy, and biomass.

Hydropower is commonly used for the generation of electricity, and it comes from the energy of water flowing through a river. The way we can collect this massive amount of energy is by damming the river, and allowing a small opening with a turbine. The water that then passes through this opening spins the hydraulic turbine which converts the kinetic energy from the flowing water into mechanical energy, which is then converted into electricity by a hydroelectric generator. Whilst this energy produces no greenhouse gases and is extremely clean, it has a negative impact on the river environment that once existed before the dam was built. This is especially problematic for our praised salmon populations, given that a giant cement wall is in the way of their migration route to spawn.

Wind power is a simply a giant turbine, known as a wind mill, being spun by wind. The same energy process from kinetic, to mechanical, to electricity happens with wind power as with hydropower. The only downfall to wind power is it’s butchering of many bird species.

Then there’s geothermal power, which is lesser known to many Americans because it is only used in about one state (California). Geothermal energy is the harnessing of energy from very hot water vapor being shot up from underground. This extremely hot steam spins the turbine and completes the same process as states previously. While geothermal energy is ideal because it emits no greenhouse gases, and can be done in areas that won’t affect animal populations, it is extremely costly. It also emits air pollutants (different from greenhouse gases) such as arsenic and hydrogen sulfide (the rotten egg smelling gas). However, some countries such as Iceland, the Philippines, and Costa Rica are get almost all their power from geothermal energy.

Solar power is the most direct form of collectable energy, given that it comes straight from the sun. With the use of photovoltaic cells on solar panels, energy from the sun’s rays can be converted into electricity. Solar panels can be placed anywhere and are very commonly placed on roofs of buildings, where they get access to large amount of sunlight (as necessary). The very minimal downside to solar energy is that solar panels are somewhat costly and pricey to create.

Lastly, biomass, is the most ancient form of energy use, since it’s the burning of any organism. “Biomass” in terms of energy can be something as simple as burning wood for a fire. Nowadays, it can be used to generate electricity, however biofuels are costly and isn’t very efficient in producing electricity. However, biomass can be used in many other useful ways such as fertilizer for crops that will in-turn feed our vast population.

On this day where we celebrate our beautiful Earth, we often forget of the small things we can do to help it. In terms of energy, you can try to walk, bike, carpool, or use public transit to help lower the high use of fossil fuels, a leading cause of global warming. You can also think about perhaps purchasing a few solar panels to use for simple things, like the lights in one of the rooms around your house.

Now that I’ve taught you of how we power our precious devices and electronics, perhaps you can try and cut the use of some things that are run by the harmful energies, and stray towards using things that are generated by the renewable energy sources I’ve described. Good luck in your endeavor to help our home, happy Earth Day!

Categories Science

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