Is Alternative Energy Necessary?

Is alternative energy necessary?

Alternative energy refers to energy derived from natural resources like sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat that are renewable and replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed (https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-renewable-energy). It is considered an alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas that emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change. Alternative energy has gained significant attention in recent years as countries seek to reduce dependence on finite fossil fuel reserves, mitigate environmental damage and combat climate change by transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

Fossil Fuels Are Finite

Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are finite resources. This means that there are only limited amounts available on Earth, and they cannot be replenished in a human timescale once they are depleted. Fossil fuels formed naturally from organic matter over millions of years – way before the existence of human life. We cannot make more fossil fuels quickly to replace what we use.

According to estimates, if we continue consuming fossil fuels at our current pace, we could run out of oil in around 50 years, natural gas in 53 years, and coal in 132 years (source, source). Since fossil fuels are limited and nonrenewable, relying solely on them as energy sources is unsustainable. We need to transition to renewable alternative energy options that can replenish themselves in a reasonable timeframe.

Fossil Fuels Contribute to Climate Change

The burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas is the leading cause of global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for over 75% of global emissions according to the UN Environment Programme (EPA). Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise. Since the industrial revolution began in the 19th century, the burning of fossil fuels has increased exponentially. Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have risen over 90% since 1970 according to the EPA.

The energy and transportation sectors, which rely heavily on fossil fuels, are two of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Coal power plants are a major emitter of carbon dioxide. Oil used for transportation emits carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants. The rapid rise in emissions from fossil fuel combustion is directly linked to climate change effects like melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and extreme weather.

Fossil Fuels Harm the Environment

Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas releases harmful pollutants into the air, water, and soil that damage the environment. According to the NRDC, burning fossil fuels produces air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury that contribute to acid rain, smog, respiratory illnesses, and cardiovascular diseases [1]. Fossil fuel extraction and transportation can also lead to disastrous oil spills like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed wildlife and damaged ecosystems.

The EPA notes that runoff from fossil fuel sources adds excessive nutrients like nitrogen to water sources, resulting in algal blooms that deplete oxygen and create dead zones where marine life cannot survive [2]. Coal mining and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas also produce toxic wastewater that can pollute ground and surface water. In sum, every stage of fossil fuel use from extraction to combustion leads to air, water, and soil contamination that harms the health of the environment and people.

Alternative Energy is Renewable

Unlike fossil fuels which are finite and will eventually run out, most alternative energy comes from renewable resources that will never be depleted. According to the National Grid, the main renewable energy sources include solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass 1. Solar and wind energy are especially promising as they rely on inexhaustible sources. The sun continuously bathes the Earth in enormous quantities of energy, more than our current population could ever use. Similarly, wind is in constant motion and will never “run out.” Shifting to renewable sources like solar and wind for a greater portion of our energy needs provides long-term sustainability that fossil fuels cannot.

Alternative Energy Emits Less Emissions

Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas produce substantial greenhouse gas emissions when burned to generate energy. According to the UN, fossil fuels account for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions[1]. On the other hand, most alternative energy sources produce significantly fewer emissions.

Renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydropower emit little to no greenhouse gases when generating electricity. Even when factoring in emissions from manufacturing and construction, analysis shows that renewables overall produce fewer emissions than fossil fuels over their lifetime[2]. For example, solar panels and wind turbines emit over 90% less CO2 per unit of energy compared to coal power plants[3]. Shifting to alternative energy can substantially reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

Alternative Energy Promotes Energy Independence

Relying on fossil fuels like oil and natural gas exposes the United States to energy price volatility and supply disruptions because most of these resources are imported from abroad. In 2021, the U.S. imported about 8.47 million barrels per day of petroleum from other countries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (Energy Independence and Security). With nearly half of our energy needs being met by imports, the U.S. is vulnerable to global supply issues. Increasing clean domestic energy production through alternative sources like wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal can reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels. As John Bowman of the NRDC explains, “When we get more clean, renewable power from the wind and sun here at home…we take back control over our energy from other nations” (Clean Energy Is the Key to Real Energy Independence). Energy independence provides economic and national security benefits by insulating the country from fluctuations in fossil fuel prices and geopolitical risks.

Cost of Alternative Energy

While renewable energy has often carried higher upfront costs compared to fossil fuels in the past, costs have fallen dramatically in recent years and renewables are now the cheapest source of new power generation in most parts of the world (https://www.irena.org/publications/2022/Jul/Renewable-Power-Generation-Costs-in-2021).

According to data from IRENA, the global weighted average levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) from new onshore wind projects fell 15% from 2020 to 2021. Solar PV fell 13% over the same period. The declines were driven by cheaper equipment, lower financing costs, and innovations that boosted efficiency and capacity factors.

Analysis by Our World in Data found that in the majority of the world, building new renewable energy is now cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuel alternative (https://ourworldindata.org/cheap-renewables-growth). As technology continues advancing and scale increases, costs are projected to fall further for wind, solar, batteries, and other renewable technologies.

While there remain some upfront installation and infrastructure costs, the dramatically declining prices of renewables mean they are becoming the most cost-effective forms of new electricity generation. The lower long-term costs combined with environmental and energy independence benefits make investing in renewable energy infrastructure a prudent choice.

Other Benefits of Alternative Energy

In addition to environmental benefits, renewable energy sources also provide economic and social advantages. One major benefit is increased job creation and economic growth. According to the EPA, investments in renewable energy create more jobs per dollar spent compared to fossil fuels. The renewable energy industry employed over 500,000 Americans in 2016, and is one of the fastest growing job markets in the country (EPA). The manufacturing, construction, installation, operation, and maintenance of renewable energy systems is labor-intensive, supporting local jobs and economies.

Renewable energy also improves public health by reducing air pollution. Burning fossil fuels like coal and gas emits particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and other toxins that contribute to respiratory disease, heart disease, and premature death. Studies show that rapidly transitioning to clean energy could prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. over the next few decades. Investing in renewable sources like wind and solar will help clear the air of harmful pollutants (UCSUSA). This leads to healthier communities and lower healthcare costs.

Conclusion

Alternative energy is necessary for several key reasons. First, fossil fuels are finite resources that will eventually run out. Relying solely on finite resources is not sustainable in the long run. Second, the use of fossil fuels contributes significantly to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change threatens human societies and ecological systems worldwide. Third, fossil fuels damage the environment through pollution, ecosystem destruction, and impacts on human health.

In contrast, most forms of alternative energy like solar, wind and geothermal are renewable resources that will not run out. Renewable energy sources produce far fewer emissions than fossil fuels, helping mitigate climate change. Widespread adoption of renewables promotes energy independence by relying on domestic resources rather than imported oil and gas. While renewable energy does come with some costs and drawbacks, the environmental and sustainability benefits make it a necessary part of our future energy mix.

In conclusion, alternative energy is essential for transitioning to a sustainable energy system, addressing environmental problems, and securing our energy future. While fossil fuels have powered our modern economy, their downsides mean alternative energy must play an increasing role going forward.

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