Do We Really Need Renewable Energy?
Coal and oil were cheap sources of electrical power for generations. From the Appalachian coal mines to oil fields in Saudi Arabia, obtaining fuel was not a problem.
We could see the black smoke generated from the smokestacks of fossil fuel power plants and we noticed fish kills in streams near power plants and mining areas. There were environmental activist who complained loudly but they were mostly ignored as kooks or hippies for years.
As the quality of our air decreased and our clear rushing streams became cloudy with oil sheen clearly visible on the surface, people began to take note. Doctors warned of increased asthma and allergy problems that were a direct result of polluted air. The black lung disease coal miners feared was identified as mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhaling coal dust.
Wildlife experts began to document a disturbing trend of disappearing species of wildlife in areas where power plants were located. Regulation, safety requirements and government oversight began to be common topics of interest to the public.
Until the 1970's, oil products were cheap. Many homes in the U.S. had oil-fired furnaces and large gas guzzling vehicles could fill up a large gas tank for well under $10. An oil crisis in the mid-East changed our nation's perspective on using fossil fuels for all of our power needs.
New technology allowed scientists to see below the surface of the earth and to measure the stores of fossil fuels available. The results were shocking to the scientific community but took some time for the public to accept. Gas and oil are finite resources. We've always known that but the rich veins of coal and massive oil fields lulled us into a sense of perpetuity that was not realistic.
The earth's population continues to grow and to consumer more and more power. Countries that were considered Third World and primitive just fifty years ago are now improving living conditions and going through their own industrial revolutions. The end result is more demand for power around the world and a rapidly shrinking pool of fossil fuels.
In the 1950's, many homes in the U.S. still used coal fueled furnaces, Coal was delivered in trucks that backed up to the home's foundation. A coal chute was opened and coal to power the furnace was dumped into a special basement area. The big seller for home heating was anthracite coal.
This is the hard, black coal that is slow burning and produces less smoke than softer bituminous or cheap lignite coal. Today, anthracite coal has been mined out. We have literally used up a natural resource that took millions of years for the earth to produce - and we used it up in a few hundred years.
In the 1970s, problems with oil production around the world led to an oil shortage. At filling stations across the country, long lines of cars waited to buy gas.
Some areas limited the number of gallons you could buy in order to make the gas available to as many drivers as possible. The price of gasoline went to new heights and price gouging was a major problem in some cities. Eventually, the production resumed in the oil fields, gas prices declined and people went back to their old driving habits.
We've once again seen gasoline prices go higher and conflicts in various parts of the world have threatened to cause shortages. Combined with environmental concerns it's clear we do need renewable energy resources.
There is, however, another factor to consider. We are going to run out of coal and oil sooner than expected. Some experts estimate we have only about 50 years before fossil fuels are depleted.
It's becoming more difficult for groups who focus on protecting the natural environment and wildlife to prevent oil drilling in sensitive wildlife preserves and in areas designated as protected natural resources.
The Need for Renewable Energy
It's easy today to see why we need renewable energy sources but it's not easy to develop those resources to the point where they can replace fossil fuels. The focus today is on solar and wind power as primary alternative energy sources.
Both renewable energy resources have potential but also have problems that limit their ability to produce enough electricity for our needs.
Solar energy is not new and people living off the grid have been providing power to their homes for years with solar panels. These individualists have turned to solar power out of necessity in areas where running new commercial electric lines is too expensive or not possible.
We need renewable energy because it may be the only energy source we have in the rather near future. Use of fossil fuels is reaching an end and denying the reality is not a realistic plan for the future.
Developing methods to produce electricity with resources that will continue to be generated and provide "fuel" day after day could result in power plants that do not rely on fossil fuels and also could save the natural environment from the damaging by-products of burning carbon-based fuels.
Though no single alternative fuel seems to have the potential to provide for all of our energy needs, it may be that utilizing a combination of renewable energy resources will provide the answer to our energy needs in the future.