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“To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.”

— Theodore Roosevelt


Humans have benefited from our planet’s resources ever since we learned what natural deposits were and the ways they could be used. The industrial revolution of the mid-19th century marked a dramatic transition from manual production methods to completely new manufacturing processes.

While the increased use of machines and steam-powered mechanisms reduced the need for human involvement and labor, those machines depended heavily on a power source. Ruthless mining began and hasn’t slowed down since, and few of those first industrial pioneers ever pondered about the exhaustion of the planet’s gifts, let alone cared about long-term consequences for the environment. 

Although the Earth has been fruitful and generous for roughly 150 years already, its resources aren’t immeasurable. As of 2014, the average daily oil consumption in the world was about 93 million barrels per day. According to estimates from Forbes Magazine, plus some simple math, if our current rate of consumption continues, the proven world oil reserves of about 1700 billion barrels, at 2014-2015, will only be sufficient for about 50 years of production. 

Image credit: utpjournals.com

The situation with natural gas is similar. According to predictions by British Petroleum, if the level of consumption remains as it was in 2018, the world’s natural gas reserves would be sufficient for about 51 more years. In 2012, global reserves were sufficient to provide 56 more years of production. 

It’s definitely worth noting that geologists are constantly exploring and finding new oil deposits that change the raw statistical numbers. In addition to that, black coal remains a solid player on the world’s energy markets. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal will remain the second most important fuel and energy source over the next 20-25 years, topped only by oil. 

The IEA notes that, in the context of the current scale of consumption, if the range of coal-using technologies continues to increase, the demand for coal may grow by up to 70% for the year 2035.  Even when oil and gas are totally exhausted, coal will keep us going for another 200 years. Yet the overall picture remains invariable – no energy resource will last forever. Or will some? Let’s take a look at some of the most rapidly developing sustainable energy sectors.

What is renewable energy?

All types of energy that are generated and collected from renewable resources, such as wind, rain, sunlight, tides, waves, and geothermal energy fall into this category.

Image credit: deccanherald.com

The concept of everlasting energy production isn’t new. Long before coal was discovered, people knew nothing else but renewable energy. They used wind power to drive ships over oceans and crush grain in windmills, heated shelters with biomass and firewood, and had animals to perform hard physical labor. 

Centuries later, our thought-to-be “civilized” world has to bear the burden of resolving energy concerns that have been accumulating over the years, while so many “developed” and “developing” countries have turned back to those inexhaustible sources of power. Let’s try to analyze how well we have progressed in producing sustainable energy.

SOLAR ENERGY

Image credit: scholarlyoa.com

The sun and the radiation it emits – a staggering 174 petawatts – is a perpetual source of unimaginable power. Even with half of that energy being reflected by the atmosphere and absorbed by the land and oceans, an immense amount of solar energy remains available to be harnessed. 

The benefits of this type of potential power are evident. According to NASA, the sun will keep us warm for another 6.5 billion years, with more and more heat gradually penetrating the ozone layer. Not only is solar energy renewable; its availability is incredible, too. The intense solar rays can be captured and used not only in the equatorial zone of Earth but also in northern latitudes. 

Germany, for instance, currently ranks first in the world in the use of solar energy and owns its maximum potential. Solar energy already has a wide range of applications – from generating electricity in regions where connections to a centralized power supply system are limited or unavailable, to desalination of water in Africa, and even supplying power to satellites in lower orbit of the Earth. Solar energy has also obtained a great deal of popularity among homeowners who successfully integrate the sun’s heat into the power supply system of the house, both in the case of photovoltaic and thermal elements.

Despite a number of drawbacks – the costliness of equipment and its installation, as well as the considerably reduced effectiveness of solar collectors during periods of cloudiness and at night – solar power as an alternative energy source has prospects of becoming an integral part of our daily life very soon.

WIND POWER

Along with solar energy, wind power is generated by massive turbines and is another fast-growing energy source. Yet, it’s doubtful that a wind turbine –  standing some 525 ft. (160 meters) tall with blades reaching up to 260 ft. (80 meters) in length – will become a typical sight in the urban landscape, unlike the compact solar panels that are spotted on roofs here and there in many countries.

Image credit: electrek.co

The power of wind is actually a variation of solar energy. Winds are caused by the rotation of the planet, surface irregularities, and by the heating of the atmosphere by the sun. As long as there’s a sun, the winds will continue to blow, allowing people to produce energy and send power across the grid. 

As turbines don’t create any atmospheric emissions, wind power is completely eco-friendly. Moreover, turbines have no effect on human health, unlike the nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide produced when fossil fuels are burned. 

In addition to these ecological benefits, the energy generated by the wind can also boast at least one major economic advantage – it creates jobs. A wind turbine technician is one of the hottest jobs on offer these days in the US, and more than 100,000 workers are already employed. The estimated potential of this energy sector stands at more than half a million jobs in installation, maintenance, and support services by 2050.

However, as bright as the future of wind power seems to be, there are also major challenges that may slow down further expansion. Wind power plants are expensive to build and require a lot of land, often in remote locations. That said, wind power production may not always compete with alternative uses of land, some of which may often be more profitable than housing gigantic mills and generating some electricity.  “Some electricity” being 4.8% of worldwide electricity produced in 2018, with 83 countries supplying their power grids with electricity from wind power. The numbers are decent enough to keep working and “challenging the challenges”.     

BIOMASS

Biomass fuel, the most domestic among all other alternatives, is derived from burning organic material, mainly animal and plant waste. Firewood is probably the oldest type, and it is still extensively used as the main provider of heat all around the globe. Over the last two hundred years, humans have become a lot more creative in terms of producing waste, so now almost every existing industry, including hospitals and even sports venues, leave behind materials that can later be converted into heat or electricity.

Image credit: bioenergyconsult.com

The energy produced by burning waste has rather controversial advantages. On the one hand, its drawbacks are obvious. It’s quite inefficient compared to fossil fuels, and, like any other process that involves burning, it can’t be totally clean. Despite being CO2 neutral,

the use of animal and human waste increases the volume of methane gases, which damages the environment. What’s more, the threat of deforestation has become a frightening reality in many countries, especially in South America. Wood is one of the most used sources of biomass energy and thousands of tons of wood have to be burned to produce an adequate amount of power, not to mention the vast number of industries that use wood and lumber as main raw materials in their technological cycle.

Image credit: earth.org

Forests recover slowly, much more so than the rate at which they are being chopped down. Yet, the demand for wooden materials, pellets being most popular, has only been skyrocketing over the past few years. In 2016 the UK and Belgium purchased from the United States almost 97% of the country’s total wood-pellet export. 

Currently bioenergy covers one-tenth of the world’s total energy supply, and this energy sector is predicted to grow. With that in mind, and deforestation already a significant problem, it remains to be seen if the smart people in high offices – the regulators, scientists, and ecological organizations that exist to regulate the logging industry – will make good choices, and whether or not, a hundred years from now, we’ll still have areas of green wilderness to explore and enjoy. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Nature is an amazing organism, capable of healing the wounds that humanity inflicts. Though the planet occasionally reminds us who the boss is, nature is still limitlessly generous in its resources which we exploit almost for free. However, it’s crucial that we understand that taking everything for granted is a strategy that will ultimately backfire, and the consequences may be dire and unpredictable.  Does the modern generation follow the wisdom and forethought of Teddy Roosevelt? Let’s hope so.

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