Green and Clean?

Ordinary coal and oil aren't the plentiful sources of energy they used to be, and pollution is always a concern. That's why governments and corporations across the globe are seeking new energy sources to meet our growing needs. Not all alternative energy sources are a good bet, however. Coal, natural gas and oil companies are looking for new ways to extract and use more of the same old thing, potentially trapping us in a rut that will only worsen the energy situation in the long run.

Oil Shale Extraction

Now that conventional methods of obtaining oil are yielding less, corporations are looking for alternative options. One proposed solution to normal drilling is exploitation of a substance known as kerogen. Rocks throughout the western United States contain this petroleum-like material, which can be processed into gasoline, heating oil and other products. While oil shale extraction could expand the amount of petroleum products available to us, it has a lot of detrimental side effects. Using this resource involves either massive pit mining or use of enormous underground heaters. Both techniques release contaminants into ground water and create huge amounts of greenhouse gases.

Tar Sands Development

Another option for a world desperate to get more oil could be use of tar sands. These petroleum-rich sand deposits have the potential to yield a lot of fossil fuel, but getting it could be an environmental disaster. Production destroys forests and is extremely inefficient; it actually takes the equivalent of one barrel of oil to obtain three from the tar sands. That makes this "alternative" energy source one of the least efficient options available.

Natural Gas Fracking

Heralded as a new way to get large quantities of fairly clean-burning natural gas, fracking is an environmental disaster in disguise. Properly called hydraulic fracturing, it involves pumping water, sand and chemical additives into the rock, breaking it and allowing the natural gas to rise to the surface. This process also releases large amounts of benzene into the air and pollutes ground water in nearby areas. In some cases, wells can even explode!

"Clean" Coal

Coal produces the lion's share of electricity in the United States, but it is a "dirty" fuel that produces large amounts of pollution and carbon dioxide. Capturing these emissions could make our current use of coal a little less damaging, but it does nothing to eliminate the damage done by coal mining itself. Mountaintop removal techniques result in heavy metal contamination of streams, increased erosion, and serious runoff problems in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and other mining regions.

Ethanol from Corn

Unlike these other alternatives to traditional energy, ethanol doesn't involve fossil fuels at all. That makes it a lot more appealing at first glance. Unfortunately, the source of the ethanol can make a big difference in its sustainability. In the United States, most ethanol is derived from corn. That corn is grown using lots of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. It's also not very energy efficient, requiring immense investments to produce just a little corn alcohol.

What's the solution if these alternative energy sources aren't as good as they might seem? The key is to look beyond our current reliance on corn and fossil fuels. Ethanol derived from food waste has proven to be more energy efficient than that derived from corn. Wind and solar energy have also shown a lot of promise. While it might seem easier to stick with alternative ways of getting the same fuels we use now, true sustainability requires something a little different.

Renewable Energy

Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy
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