Most people around the world -- 43 percent of the global population -- use oil as their primary power generator. Natural gas follows at 15 percent; combustible renewables and waste are next at 13 percent, followed by coal at 8 percent and alternative sources (geothermal, hydro and solar) at 3.5 percent [source: IEA].
Petroleum-based fossil fuels, such as gasoline, heating oil and diesel fuel, are commonly consumed for energy, but petroleum products aren’t used only as power sources. They're also used to create items like crayons, plastics, tires and even heart valves [source: Energy Information Administration]. This is where energy consumption gets tricky: The energy a person consumes isn't just represented by the gas for the car or the electricity bill. When we buy a box of crayons we’re also buying all the energy that was consumed to make the product, package it and truck it to our local store.
Despite the consequences of fossil fuels -- which most famously include global warming -- the world is hungry for them and consumes them at a rate 100,000 times that at which they're formed [source: Solar Energy International]. The use of fossil fuels in developing countries has quadrupled since 1970. China, for example, consumes the most coal in the world and is the third largest consumer of oil. According to the Worldwatch Institute, if a Chinese citizen consumed oil in amounts equal to an average American citizen, China would use 90 million barrels of oil per day to sustain its needs. That’s 11 million more barrels than the world produced in one day in 2001 [source: Worldwatch Institute]. This is a projection that has unsustainable implications -- what if a nation, China or otherwise, were to develop a 90-million-barrel-per-day oil habit?
Some groups propose fees to reduce consumption while others emphasize the adoption of cleaner power-generating methods. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) proposes a fossil-fuel tax: $20 to $50 for every metric ton of CO2 a country generates to pay for the environmental damages of burning them. The link between global warming and energy demands has many experts not only encouraging rich, industrialized countries to cut back demand and change methods of production and delivery, but also encouraging developing nations to adopt sustainable, renewable sources of power and efficient technologies.
Converting to renewable sources of energy could have an immediate impact on the environment. Let’s look at some of the types of renewable energy sources available and the potential impact they could have.
Wind power is the fastest growing renewable energy source. Replacing one month’s use of fossil fuels with 100 kWhs of wind power is comparable to keeping your car off the road for 2,400 miles (3,862 km). A 1 kWh photovoltaic (solar electricity) system would prevent the mining of 150 pounds (60 kg) of coal, prevent 300 pounds (136 kg) of CO2 (as well as NO and SO2) from escaping into the environment, and save 105 gallons (397 liters) of water from consumption [source: Solar Energy International].
Some forms of alternative energy can be expensive to implement and out-of-range for the average homeowner. Solar water heaters, however, give average consumers the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint. By replacing an electric water heater with a solar one, the long-term electricity savings spare the environment from more than 50 tons of CO2 emissions [source: Solar Energy International].
There are clean and efficient ways to generate energy at individual, national and global levels, but such a change requires both desire and funds.