Nuclear energy possesses perhaps the largest potential for growth over the next few decades. The reason for this is the simple fact that it creates a relatively small amount of environmental pollution and can be adapted for use in nearly any part of the world. It certainly poses some security risks if it this technology is misused or mishandled, but the benefits certainly outweigh the costs. This type of energy production does not create smog, or direct environmental wastes, and many scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers are looking at low cost, micro-nuclear solutions for small cities and towns (Kruger, 2006). Instead of building huge, multi-billion dollar power plants, the focus has shifted to creating small, sustainable, community nuclear power plants. The sustainability level of nuclear power is quite high given that a very small amount of nuclear waste is created for a huge amount of power output, unlike coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuel alternatives. The plants are also relatively cheap to construct if built on smaller scales with the help of private sector ingenuity. While nuclear power is not technically a renewable resource, power plants use up so very little radioactive material in their lifetimes that nuclear power could be utilized for many times the timeframe that oil has been used as a power source.
Natural gas is another alternative energy source that has been incorporated into numerous sustainability studies and programs. While it is still a fossil fuel, it is much cleaner to burn than oil or gasoline and much cheaper to source and produce (Hekkert et al., 2005). Natural gas is currently being employed in many power plants, cities, and government facilities to create electricity, heat buildings, and power cars, trucks, and mass transit vehicles. Many scientists view natural gas as a half step in the right direction. It is still a fossil fuel, and a non-renewable resource, but it is more environmentally friendly and efficient than other fossil fuels. Natural gas is more sustainable as well, and when the shift away from oil and gasoline occurs, natural gas is the logical bridge between fossil fuels and non-fossil fuel energy alternatives. CO2 emissions are also reduced with the use of natural gas, and since this compound has been at the forefront of much scientific study and debate surrounding global warming, natural gas has become a very attractive alternative to oil and gasoline for the time being (Hekkert et al., 2005). Still there are more efficient and less polluting alternatives to natural gas, especially when it comes to automobiles.
Ethanol. Which is created through processing corn or other grains, has been a part of the alternative energy landscape in the U.S. For over thirty years. As a fuel it is relatively efficient, but it requires a huge amount of grain resources to produce, and the energy that is consumed during the production of ethanol fuels often outweighs the energy efficiency benefits of using it (Tyner, 2007). One of the benefits of ethanol however is the notion that it can be mixed with gasoline to create a sort of hybrid fuel. It can also be produced from crops that are easily grown in many places, but since the global population is increasing at a near exponential rate, it is hard to imagine using foods like corn and soy to produce, relatively inefficiently, fuels like ethanol for energy production. One of the biggest reasons that ethanol is still a major part of the alternative energy debate is because of the huge government subsidies for study and production within the U.S. These subsidies are an excellent start, but the U.S. government remains stuck on this product, as it represents the byproduct of so much government funding and political debate that took place in the 1970's. Certainly there are far better alternative energy options, but ethanol is an integral piece of the alternative energy puzzle, and must not be disregarded in this way.
Hybrid automobile technology is an important step in the right direction as well. Like natural gas it does not completely eliminate fossil fuels from the energy landscape, but it does create more efficient, more environmentally friendly alternatives to oil and gasoline. A hybrid diesel vehicle is far more efficient and less polluting than even a natural gas vehicle, but the battery technology employed in most diesel hybrids creates an environmental issue in and of itself (Hekkert et al., 2005). The batteries that are used in hybrid vehicles are currently very inefficient and are produced using very toxic chemicals and compounds that will eventually make their way back into the environment. Their energy efficiency is often counterbalanced with the amount of caustic pollutants contained within the batteries of these vehicles. Again, they are a step in the progressive direction for energy technology, but they represent a half step away from fossil fuels. Hybrid cars, whether diesel or gasoline powered, are also not as practical for longer trips as they are for inter-city use. The battery technology hasn't reached the point where long trips can be made on battery power for extended periods, but the technology will likely develop in the very near future to incorporate this very realistic and necessary aspect of travel into the technological and practical considerations of hybrid vehicles. As far as sustainability, hybrid vehicles have an advantage over conventional ones, but their level of sustainability is offset by their ultimate environmental impact.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is still relatively expensive but the technology has developed quite dramatically over the past ten years. As an energy source, hydrogen fuel cells are perhaps one the most sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Their waste product is water, and hydrogen is readily available everywhere on the planet (Hoffmann, 2002). The cost of incorporating hydrogen fuel cell technology into the world's energy structure is quite high, but like other alternatives, this high cost is relative. Once fossil fuels become less and less readily available, and technological improvements make hydrogen fuel cell technology more feasible, it is very realistic to expect this technology to become a major part of the energy landscape. This technology represents some of the latest developments in understanding and will likely shift and change with the technological advancements of the very near future. Currently the cost of this technology is quite high, but once the initial costs are dealt with, it is marginally very inexpensive to build upon the foundation of hydrogen fuel cell technology.
It can easily be seen through simple cost benefit analysis that there are many different alternative energy technologies currently available. While not every technology was explored, the most popular and feasible types of energy production remain relatively unchanged. Some of them are less sustainable or renewable than others, while some are far more expensive currently. In order to successfully implement any energy policy or structure it is essential to understand that these alternative energy options work best when they are working together to help magnify their benefits and reduce their environmental and economic costs. Different technologies are advantageous for different environments and energy consumption goals. The best way to approach this issue is to understand that each of these pieces plays a part in completing a comprehensive energy solution. The most cost effective technologies are those that incorporate fossil fuel technologies with new technologies like battery and hydrogen fuel cells. These alternatives most likely represent the front line in a transition away from fossil fuel energy technology, and are therefore, currently the least costly. Eventually, the need for environmental and social sustainability will outweigh the current cost of fuels like ethanol and oil, and solar and nuclear power will become the most popular alternatives, barring any new technological developments in fusion or other power sources. The best approach to alternative energy technologies is to recognize their individual strengths and weaknesses and use all of them in unison to create effective and efficient energy infrastructures for the future. I make the recommendation that any group looking to adopt cleaner, more sustainable modes of energy production and consumption focus on community sustainability and diversification of energy sources. Only through community reliance and shared benefits and costs of different technologies can alternative energy adoption be truly effective and successful. The reader needs to be aware that each piece of the alternative energy puzzle plays a vital and unique role in solving the world's energy and fossil fuel consumption problems.
Hekkert, Marko P.; Hendriks, Franka H.J.F.; Faaij Andre P.C. And Maarten L. Neelis.. (2005).
"Natural Gas as an Alternative to Crude Oil in Automotive Fuel Chains Well-to-Wheel Analysis and Transition Strategy Development," Energy Policy: Vol. 33: Iss. 5, pp. 579-594.
Hoffmann, Peter. (2002). Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet. MIT Press: Cambridge.
Kruger, Paul. (2006). Alternative Energy Resources: The Quest for Sustainable Energy.