As we take a more significant interest in preserving our planet’s resources, the subject of our energy usage becomes a hot topic for debate. While everyone agrees that we can’t function without some source of energy, people often disagree on what types of energy will be best. The goal is to find a resource that provides us with the same level of energy at a reasonable price, yet doesn’t pose a high risk to our environment. To form an opinion about the issues surrounding this topic, it’s essential to gain a better understanding of the available options.

    Nuclear Power is Becoming a Better Source of Energy

    When cities first started to make use of nuclear fission, it was believed that energy costs would be kept low. Even construction of the 3rd generation of power plants was expected to be low, costing just between $1000 and $1200 per Kilowatt. The new generation of nuclear reactors made better use of uranium and the overall lifetime of the plant was expected to be increased as well. For consumers, the individual cost of energy was expected to peak at 3.5 cents per kilowatt in U.S. currency.

    Unfortunately, these nuclear fission plants never delivered on those promises. Even from the beginning, the construction costs averaged about $3,500 per kilowatt, almost tripling original estimates. In practical terms, a twin unit AP1000 with a 2.2-gigawatt capacity, accounting for inflation and financing, comes to around $17 Billion. As a result, consumers ended up paying as much as 4.0 cents per kilowatt-hour.

    In spite of these early growing pains, technology is helping us use nuclear energy more efficiently and more safely. Recognizing that there have been some bumps along the way, nuclear energy technicians and scientists have been working on ways to modify the way we generate electricity from nuclear power. As a result, new advances will soon be put into practice, beginning with the next generation of nuclear reactors.

    In the future, nuclear industry engineers will develop the third and fourth generation that will be far more efficient and more cost-effective. They will utilize the waste produced by 2nd generation reactors and will use uranium up to 50 times more effectively. This means we’ll be generating less waste that will have to be consigned to hazardous landfills, and the process of generating electricity will be less costly. As this drives the cost of producing electricity down, consumers will begin to see costs more in line with those promised.

    In addition to improving our use of nuclear fission reactors, scientists are still working on methods of making nuclear fusion a reality. If this type of energy production, it may provide the answer to all of our concerns. Over five decades, research has been ongoing and a first generation reactor, the Fusion Test Reactor (the ITER), will soon be ready for testing. Thirty-five countries have collaborated on the project, and it’s expected to provide 500 MegaWatts of electrical power at full operation. The cost of constructing the first commercial fusion plant is estimated at $4000 per KW and may be operational by 2050.

    Governments Look to Alternative Energy Sources

    Solar Energy

    This is the most commonly known type of clean energy, and there are two types of solar energy in use today: thermal and PhotoVoltaics. Thermal solar energy has been in use longer and involves converting sunlight into heat or light. While technologies have advanced over the years and the process has been refined, this type of solar power is still more costly than the energy produced by coal. The only time this isn’t true is in areas that receive plenty of sunlight, but are far removed from a supply of fossil fuels.

    The higher costs of transporting coal, for instance, makes thermal power more cost-efficient.

    PhotoVoltaics, on the other hand, offer a far more efficient system, converting sunlight directly into electricity. In recent years, the effectiveness of solar cells has been dramatically improved, and extensive array converter systems are no longer as expensive as they were just a few years ago. Currently, PhotoVoltaics systems produce 1.2 GW per year throughout the world, and that usage grows by 30% with each additional year. By 2025, experts expect usage to climb to 23,000 billion kilowatt hours annually. Although that seems like a large number, that would still only represent 5% of total energy production.

    Wind Power

    The old-fashioned windmills of the past have been modernized and put to more efficient use in recent years, making wind power another viable source of clean energy. Currently, wind turbines produce up to 50 GW of peak power per year with growth as high as 10% annually. This is a more desirable solution in areas where electricity costs are higher and in countries that have enacted strict regulations prohibiting the use of nuclear energy. In those areas, wind power is more cost-effective, but the unreliable availability of the needed winds limits its growth.

    Due to the intermittent accessibility to wind, the energy produced by turbines is only 25 to 35% of its potential annual capacity. This means other sources of electricity must also be utilized to supplement wind power. For instance, Denmark uses wind power but supplements it with coal-produced energy and electricity purchased from neighboring countries.

    Hydroelectric Power

    Depending on the availability of nearby water sources, hydroelectric power can be a more cost efficient method of producing energy than wind power. In the United States, about 10% of our electricity comes from hydropower, which is the process of collecting water and transforming it into electricity. Dams are typically used to store water in a reservoir. As electrical power is needed, the water is drawn into a turbine that spins the water and creates a cycle that activates a large generator. The generator produces the electricity, which is then delivered to the destinations.

    A dam isn’t always used to store water. Rivers that supply an abundant source of water may not require the use of a reservoir. Instead, water is drawn directly from the river via a human-made canal, where it can be sent through the turbines as needed. Conversely, a pumped storage plant stores the energy generated through the use of turbines, so it can be saved until it’s needed. The energy is directed from a power grid into generators, which spins the turbines in reverse and allows the water to be channeled into an upper reservoir. As more power is needed, water is released from the upper reservoir and sent to the lower reservoir, passing through the turbines in the process. This causes the turbines to be spun in a forward direction, which creates the needed power.

    Biomass Energy

    The use of biomass energy is still in its infancy, but many tech companies are eager to help the industry evolve. It involves using natural resources to create hydrocarbons, like methane and diesel fuel. The process makes use of algae, plants, and waste products to create fuel. The process is simple enough that individuals have started using it to create diesel fuel for their own private uses.

    If a way to use the process on a large scale becomes more efficient, it may replace oil as the most cost-effective way of creating diesel fuel. The problem is that it requires an abundant supply of crops, much more than those currently produced on farms. To generate enough resources to operate a 1 GigaWatt power plant for a single year, we would need at least 2,500 square kilometers of good farmland. While some facilities do generate electricity from biological waste from sugar production and similar processing plants, the potential to expand this resource is limited by our need for quality farmland.

    Geothermal Energy

    The use of geothermal energy was once thought to be a promising alternative. It involves harnessing the heat generated by the earth’s crust and transforming it into electricity. However, once the heat has been consumed, that area is no longer useful, and a new location must be farmed. Only areas that possess a natural uranium concentration can provide a renewable source of heat from which geothermal energy can be produced.

    The one advantage of geothermal energy, as opposed to wind and solar energy, is that it’s available 24 hours per day. Australia makes use of this process with a facility set up at the Great Arterial Basin, allowing them to generate 150 kW of energy yearly. They also make use of hot rocks to generate power in a similar process. The availability of hot rocks is estimated to be enough to power the continent for the next 400 years, though the level of power generation has not yet been attempted. It remains to be seen if Australia will continue to pursue geothermal energy processing as a means of power supply.

    While our goal is to get away from our reliance on fossil fuels, clean energy isn’t always the most cost-effective solution. As engineers develop more efficient ways of using nuclear energy, that may become our best option. Making use of nuclear power with reactors that can use waste will allow us to create electricity without adding to the pollution other types of energy production generates. In the long run, nuclear energy is cleaner, cheaper, and more accessible than other sources of electricity.

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    Ecotech Institute

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    Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy