What is the future of fossil fuels?
Most of the electricity generated in the U.S. has traditionally come from fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas. For generations we have used these fuels to create the energy that powers our homes and businesses, but this cannot continue indefinitely. Fossil fuels are not renewable, and the remaining stock is continuously running down, and will eventually be completely depleted.
The problem though, is not just the issue of supply. It is now understood that burning fossil fuels has had a damaging effect on the environment. The longer we use them, the worse the damage.
The industrial revolution and its impact
If we turn the clock back only a few hundred years, we find people burning wood to warm their homes and cook their food. Towns and village located near rivers could grind their grain using water mills and then use wood fires to produce bread. The impact of all of this on our planet was relatively small, but with the arrival of the industrial revolution this all changed.
Fossil fuels such as coal, and then oil and natural gas were dug from the earth and burned to power the factories springing up everywhere. As industry grew, the air above the populated industrial cities became heavily polluted with clouds of smoke. Cities like London were often blanketed with fog so thick, that people lost their way walking through the streets, coughing and with eyes burning!
What was not understood at first was that this was having an effect that would eventually impact on the whole planet.
What causes the Carbon footprint?
Fossil fuels were formed aeons ago from the plants and living organisms that populated the ancient world. All living matter is made up largely of the element carbon. and the fossils that formed retained the carbon that was present in these organisms when they died. Carbon burns, and as a result it is a source of energy.
The problem is that when we burn coal, oil, and natural gas for fuel, this carbon pours out into the atmosphere. There its combines with oxygen to form the gas carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is a ‘greenhouse’ gas, therefore it has the effect of trapping the sun’s energy as it enters the earth’s atmosphere, generating a warming greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide thus contribute to causing a global warming effect that scientists are able to quantify.
Our dependence on burning fossil fuels, thereby releasing the carbon stored in them, means that we’ve been continuously increasing the carbon ‘footprint’.
What will the future bring?
NASA has reported that average worldwide temperatures have climbed 1.4°F (0.8°C) between 1880 and 2007. Scientists say that the effects of warmer temperatures are resulting in:
- disappearing Arctic ice
- melting glaciers
- dying coral reefs.
- longer periods of drought in some regions
- more frequent forest fires
- an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms
- the occurrence of more extreme weather events
- rising sea levels, and
- ecosystem changes
Is there a solution to the pollution caused by fossil fuels?
The answer lies in utilizing non-polluting and renewable energy sources, such as the energy that pours down continuously from our sun. With the tremendous advances in harnessing and delivering economically viable solar energy, this is now readily available to us.
- is absolutely clean
- is constantly renewable
- does not increase the carbon footprint
- slows the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere
- is an absolutely free and abundant energy source
Do solar panel installations have a beneficial effect?
By going solar:
- one can reduce demand for fossil fuels
- limit greenhouse gas emissions, and
- as a result we will shrink the carbon footprint
- prevent acid rain and smog
- reduce water pollution
Installing even one solar energy system has a measurable effect on the environment. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration the effect of switching one home from fossil-based energy to solar greatly reduces the damage to the atmosphere. They estimate that it has the same emissions reduction effect as planting over a hundred trees every year.
In a city like New York alone, switching to a clean source of electricity like solar panels would eliminate the same amount of carbon emissions that would result from burning of nearly 3 tons of coal a year!
The health benefits of solar energy
Because solar energy does not cause air pollution, the health benefits would be enormous. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that:
- adopting solar energy usage on a large scale would significantly reduce nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter emissions, all of which can cause health problems.
- Among other health benefits, solar power could result in fewer cases of chronic bronchitis, respiratory and cardiovascular problems
- The result would be far fewer lost workdays related to health issues.
The benefit to the economy
In addition to the benefit to the environment, solar energy can greatly benefit the world economy, because:
- Sourcing and extracting fossil fuels is expensive
- Solar energy is free and readily available
- The cost of producing it has dropped dramatically
- It is now economically viable for the average householder
- Requires no water in the production process
Unlike traditional power plants, solar energy requires no water in the production process. Producing energy in traditional power plants, requires a constant supply of water for cooling purposes. This impacts directly on local water supplies, and also leads to water pollution problems.
The role we can play as individuals
By investing in solar energy, we can each reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and participate in saving the environment. What greater benefit could there than to actively participate in making the world a healthier and safer place for future generations.