Residents of the early 21st century live in quite an exciting time. We have a thriving Internet culture, an unprecedented understanding of the natural world and we can even watch episodes of "America's Next Top Model" on our mobile phones.
But of course, the world is ever in transition, and we currently find ourselves suspended between two ages: a time dependent on fossil fuels such as oil and coal, and a future dominated by renewable energy sources. Yet not everyone is sold on this vision. Options vary on just how dependable some of these renewable energy sources are, as well as how well they'll be able to sustain us in a post-fossil fuel era.
Indeed, it's a lot like leaving the leaky, polluting and ultimately doomed tugboat we know for the sleek, green, carbon neutral sloop that we don't. Sure, the ideas behind the new boat are encouraging, but we still want to stay above water -- and we'd like to bring all our things with us too.
Out of all this uncertainty, a number of myths, misconceptions and outright lies have risen to the surface. In this article, we'll forgo the loonier notions out there concerning new world orders and Area 51 battery packs. Instead, we'll look at five of the bigger renewable energy myths currently making the rounds.
Clean Coal Is the Answer
As it turns out, coal is exceedingly dirty. Just consider the facts: Coal-fired power plants spit out 59 percent of the United States' total sulfur dioxide pollution, 50 percent of its particle pollution and 40 percent of its total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions [source: Sierra Club]. Factor in smog, ozone and health concerns and you have quite an environmental villain on your hands -- and that's not counting all the toil, danger and upheaval involved in mining it.
Yet coal, for all its ills, continues to play a vital role in global energy production, and you simply can't reasonably ask everyone to stop burning it -- not when renewable alternatives aren't ready to pick up all the slack. That's where clean coal enters the picture, theoretically to mitigate the impact of coal pollution until such time as it can be abandoned altogether. For more information on the various refining processes involved, read "What is clean coal technology?"
Problem solved, right? Wrong. A great deal of clean coal technology centers around capturing and storing pollutants that would otherwise be released in the burning process. With CO2, this involves either pumping the gas down wells to depleted oil fields or into deep-sea depths. Not only can the later option potentially endanger marine ecosystems, but also they both require care and monitoring to prevent polluting the environment anyway. Critics charge that all this amounts to a redirecting of pollution, not a true reduction of it.
Plus, environmentalists also point out that coal mining still entails a great deal of geologic upheaval, riddling the Earth with tunnels and sometimes requiring mountaintop-removal mining. They've also leveled greenwashing accusations at the very oxymoronic name "clean coal." For their campaign, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity used the same marketing company that came up with the ever-popular slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
Therefore, the myths surrounding clean coal tend to paint it as more of a solution than it is, as well as a cleaner energy source than it could ever possibly be.
Solar Energy Doesn't Provide Enough Juice
When was the last time you saw a sun-powered race car? How about a jet fighter decked out with solar panels? Chances are, the fastest and most powerful examples of technology in the world around you are powered by something other than the brilliant rays of the sun. None of this exactly helps solar power's reputation as a wimpy, low-voltage way for tree huggers to power their decorative, iridescent yard squirrels.
First, even if solar electricity -- also known as photovoltaics (PV) -- was only capable of energizing our low-power vanity gadgets and amazing, fuzzy green undergarments, many commentators identify the statement "little steps can't make a difference" as a major myth surrounding the green movement. Just consider Triumph's Photovoltaic-Powered Bra (seen in the nearby photo). While such gadgetry hardly makes a dent in global energy consumption, it's a small change that forces others to think about the ecological matters at hand and possibly make both small and substantial changes in their own lives.
Second, PV power may not be in a position to solve all our energy problems right now, but its potential for the future is great. Remember, we're talking about leaching energy from a titanic, star -- one that steers an entire system of planets, our atmosphere and life as we know it.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that the solar energy resource in a 100-square-mile (259-square-kilometer) area of Nevada could supply the United States with all its electricity. We're talking 800 gigawatts of power, and that's using modestly efficient commercial PV modules. Break all that down and each state would only need to devote 17 x 17 miles (27 x 27 kilometers) of solar cells (not all states are quite as sunny as Nevada). Where would all that land come from in each state? The DOE points to the country's estimated 5 million acres (2.02 million hectares) of abandoned industrial sites as a potential candidate that could contribute a whopping 90 percent of U.S. electrical consumption.
In the meantime, PV technology continues to develop and the U.S. industry alone is expected to reach the $10-$15 billion level by 2025. At this rate, solar electricity in the United States will offset 11.02 million tons (10 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide per year by 2027.
Just try to imagine how big that solar-powered squirrel could be.
Wind Turbines Are Noisy, Costly Bird Killers
Solar electricity isn't the only renewable energy whipping boy out there. Wind power has also taken more than its share of lumps, frequently saddled with a reputation for excessive noise and energy inefficiency. Plus, if some of the rumors are true, wind harvesters of the world have steadily been turning the planet's bird population into an airborne puree of blood and feathers.
To be fair, wind turbines do kill birds -- but so do vehicles, skyscrapers, pollution and the introduction of invasive species into their habitats. Humans have had bird blood on their hands for ages, and as daunting as a field of wind turbines may look, they're responsible for statistically few bird deaths -- less than 1 in every 30,000 [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
But even without the death cries of a thousand birds, aren't wind turbines a noise nuisance? Actually, modern turbine technology renders them relatively silent -- essentially no more than the soft, steady whine of wind through the blades. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if you stand 750 feet (229 meters) away from a wind farm of multiple turbines, the noise would be no more than that of a working kitchen refrigerator. These aren't helicopter blades, after all. The Ontario Ministry of Environment breaks it down like this: If 0 decibels is the threshold of hearing and 140 is the threshold of pain, then a typical wind farm scores between 35 and 45, sandwiched between a quiet bedroom (35) and a 40-mile-per-hour (64-kilometer-per-hour) car (55).
Finally, there's the issue of cost. Like any energy production facility, there are plenty of upfront costs to harvesting wind energy, but research indicates that the average wind farm pays back the energy used in its manufacture within three to five months of operation [source: BWEA]. Since wind farms depend on variable weather patterns, day-to-day operating costs tend to run higher. Simply put, the wind isn't going to blow at top speed year-round. If it did, a wind turbine would produce its maximum theoretical power. In reality, a turbine only produces 30 percent of this amount, though it produces different levels of electricity 70 to 85 percent of the time [source: BWEA]. This means that wind power requires back-up power from an alternative source, but this is common in energy production.
Wind power demonstrates tremendous promise for the future -- and not just for the environment, but for the pocketbook as well. In 2005, the state of New York determined that a 10 percent addition of wind generation would reduce customer payments by $305 million in one year.
Renewable Energy Is Worthless Without Government Incentives
Think back to the ridiculous solar-paneled bra on page three of this article. How likely are you to fill your lingerie drawer with these renewable energy undergarments? But wait, before you refuse to drop top dollar on a space-age brassiere, think about what you'd do if you could get one at a discount -- or even free. Then would you consider augmenting your under attire with some renewable energy?
To some critics, investing in solar and wind energy is no less silly. Of course it makes sense to invest in renewable technology if a government program is going to pay for most of it through incentives and tax breaks. But this, they argue, artificially backs an unsustainable energy model.
While it's true that renewable energy benefits heavily from government incentive programs, it's important to realize that this is true of most energy sources. This includes everything from gasoline and nuclear power to ethanol production and solar power. The United States government, for instance, provides significant subsidies to every major fuel source in one way or another, keeping the costs for consumers down to predetermined levels.
For instance, in 2007, the United States provided $724 million in subsidies for wind power, $174 million for solar and $14 million for geothermal. Yet, in that same year, they also provided $854 million in subsidies to coal production and $1.267 billion to nuclear power [source: Energy Information Administration].
Simply put, a government-subsidized technology is not one that necessarily exists in a bubble or is unsustainable in the long run.
Renewable Sources Can't Replace Fossil Fuels
So here we are, one foot on the bow of the sinking ship Fossil Fuel, the other on the bow of the U.S.S. Renewable Energy. We've spent centuries dependent on the black blood of the Earth, on mountains of coal and warrens of tunnels sunk deep into the buried remnants of a prehistoric past. Science and technology have blossomed under the glow of its burning brilliance. Can this momentum -- and the civilization it supports -- really continue by relying solely on renewable power sources such as sunshine and wind?
Indeed, it's one thing to supplement energy production with renewable sources, quite another to replace fossil fuels entirely. In 2007, fossil fuels accounted for nearly 72 percent of the United States' electric power production, while hydroelectric power supplied only 5.8 percent and other renewables supplied a mere 2.5 percent [source: Manhattan Institute]. Those are daunting numbers, especially when you factor in Energy Information Administration estimations that fossil fuels and uranium will still provide 85 percent of the nation's electricity in 2030.
But just as it would be unreasonable to think renewable sources could take the reins now, it's equally unreasonable to think they can't eventually facilitate an end to fossil fuel dependency. There's only so much oil and coal in the Earth, after all, and global warming concerns only punctuate the need for a new direction.
No one is arguing that a solar-powered bra will save the planet, but again, it's one small step in an effort to spread a message and promote an emerging technology. Likewise, any given renewable energy source, be it based on the sun, wind, tides or biomass, is essentially just one part of a larger effort to curb fossil fuel dependency. When possible, cleaner methods of harvesting and using fossil fuels should play a role in the effort, along with better power management and reduced consumption.
The transition from the sinking ship to the vessel of the future may take longer than we'd like. We might have to live with both for a while, no matter how much we'd like to see the oil age vanish beneath the waves. Even more challenging, we may have to let some of our cherished possessions and ways sink with it.
Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about renewable energy and the possibilities for a sustainable future.
Bill Nye says he quit his day job at Boeing to engage young people in science literacy. And he's still fighting that fight today.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Dirty Coal Power." The Sierra Club. 2009. (July 24, 2009)http://www.sierraclub.org/cleanair/factsheets/power.asp
- GE Energy Consulting. "The Effects of Integrating Wind Power on Transmission System Planning, Reliability and Operations." New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. March 4, 2005. (July 24, 2009)http://www.nyserda.org/publications/wind_integration_report.pdf
- "How much does the Federal Government spend on energy-specific subsidies and support?" Energy Information Administration. Sept. 7, 2008. (July 24, 2009)http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energy_in_brief/energy_subsidies.cfm
- McDermott, Matthew. "Five Dire Green Myths Causing the Greatest Global Harm." Treehugger. Dec. 3, 2008. (July 24, 2009)http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/12/five-dire-green-myths-causing-the-greatest-global-harm.php
- "Most Popular Wind Power Myths." WhrilyWInd.org. 2008. (July 24, 2009)http://www.whywind.org/pb/wp_a1b4e1bf/wp_a1b4e1bf.html
- Silverstein, Ken. "Behind the 'Clean Coal' Blitz." Harper's Magazine. April 21, 2009. (July 24, 2009)http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/04/hbc-90004823
- "Solar Energy Technologies Program: Learning About PV: The Myths of Solar Electricity." U.S. Department of Energy. July 15, 2008. (July 24, 2009)
- Thornley, Drew. "Energy & The Environment: Myths and Facts." The Center for Energy Policy and the Environment at the Manhattan Institute. 2009. (July 24, 2009)http://www.manhattan-institute.org/energymyths/myth2.htm
- "Unmasking the truth behind 'clean coal.'" Green Peace. 2009. (July 24, 2009)http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/en/campaigns/climate-change/climate-impacts/coal/the-clean-coal-myth
- "Wind Energy Myths." U.S. Department of Energy. May 2005. (July 24, 2009)http://www.windpoweringamerica.gov/pdfs/wpa/wpa_factsheet_myths.pdf
- "Wind Energy: Top Myths About Wind Energy." BWEA. 2007 (July 24, 2009)http://www.bwea.com/energy/myths.html