What Are the Energy Sources of the Future?

Emily Folk

The first halting steps to a new energy economy has already begun.

Many scientists believe if human beings fail to take action on climate change now, we'll face an existential crisis by the year 2050. But like it or not, people need electricity to operate their vehicles and keep the lights on. We need to find ways to power such devices without destroying the planet.

The move to renewables suffered a setback in the U.S. under the Trump administration. However, the inevitability of global disaster, if we fail to act, continues to drive innovation. Let's examine seven technologies, their environmental impacts and the potential to save the earth.

1. Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels prove environmentally disastrous all around. The mining of resources like coal releases wastewater into the environment, sometimes years after the facility closes. The 2015 Gold King Mine spill created extensive devastation in the Silverton, CO.

Nor is wastewater the only problem with fossil fuels. Oil, coal and natural gas take millions of years to develop in the earth, making them non-renewable. Scientists estimate humans will exhaust their oil supply in 53 years and the remaining coal and natural gas in a little over a century.

Fossil fuels create the majority of our carbon emissions. Fully three-fourths of our current carbon emissions stem from the burning of fossil fuels. If global temperatures continue to rise by as little as two degrees, melting ice caps will leave many U.S. coastal cities underwater.

2. Nuclear Power

Many people hear the words, "nuclear power," and panic. And their fears have some basis in reality — the 2011 Fukushima disaster showed that reactors are vulnerable to natural disasters. However, rapid evacuations resulted in no direct harmful radiation effects on humans.

Current technology uses nuclear fission, which creates radioactive waste. However, fusion technology offers promise, as this technology creates no radioactive offal. To date, fusion only reached the breakeven point in a controlled environment, but if perfected could power the earth for millions of years.

3. Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy involves tapping into volcanic magma deep within the earth's core. Currently, geothermal energy accounts for only 1 percent of the energy production of the U.S. However, this form of energy is extremely consistent. Although building the plants proves costly upfront, experts expect the use of geothermal energy to expand tenfold in the next 20 years due to the vastness of the resource.

4. Biofuels

Biofuels stem from plant sources such as corn. By the year 2050, switching to biofuels could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year. Such fuels could potentially power new automotive technology, further reducing emissions.

5. Oceanic Energy

The worlds' oceans contain a tremendous amount of energy trapped in waves and currents. Scientists can convert this into mechanical energy. The oceans also generate thermal energy. The sun's rays warm surface water, but the underlying water remains cool. The difference between the temperatures creates thermal energy.

6. Wind Energy

The wind is a renewable energy source, but harnessing its power can prove problematic. Winds are variable in intensity, and wind farms require considerable swaths of land. However, advances in technology can make harvesting wind power easier.

One solution to the problem involves building oceanic wind farms. Additionally, bladeless wind turbines assuage the concerns of animal-rights activists who express concerns about birds getting caught in the blades.

7. Solar Energy

Innovators create new ways to use solar daily. Researchers now experiment with wearable solar, which designers hope to expand into lines of window curtains and heated car seats. Solar can light roadways as well — parts of historic Route 66 will soon receive a solar sidewalk upgrade to harness the sun's power to light walkways.

Nearly every U.S. state offers significant incentives to homeowners who switch to solar. But advances in tech allow renters to take advantage, too. Portable solar panels mount temporarily on a sunny porch or roof. Tenants can remove these panels without damaging the structure and take them along when they move. Saying goodbye to outrageous electric bills? Yes, please!

Powering Humanity's Future

If humankind hopes to continue its existence, we must eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels and switch to renewable resources. The newer technologies like nuclear, wind and solar offer hope we can ward off climate catastrophe if we choose wisely now.

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