BY ELAINE MATTHEWS, AMANDA VENDER and LISA GOODMAN
Think about the energy we use every day when we listen to music, travel in a car, bus or subway train, refrigerate our food, buy a toy, turn on a light or an air conditioner. All of this energy comes from a variety of sources, many of them harmful to the environment.
The biggest problem is that most fuels release greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere when they are mined or burned. Increasing greenhouse gases contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the Earth’s surface.
Here is a look at where energy in the United States comes from and which energy sources government subsidies (money and tax breaks) support the most. Every source has good and bad aspects. How would you change our energy use to reduce pollution and global warming?
WHERE OUR ENERGY COMES FROM
HOW THE GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIZES ELECTRICITY
FOSSIL FUELS (non-renewable energy)
These are produced when living things such as plants and animals die, are buried and are exposed to heat and pressure. Fossil fuels take millions of years to develop. Once the supply is used up, no more is available. Fossil fuels release greenhouse gases when produced and burned.
Coal: a black rock found underground
–There’s a big supply in the United States
–It’s not very expensive to get out of the ground
–Mining it causes land and water pollution
–Underground mine explosions kill miners
–It gives off soot when burned which causes health problems
–It releases greenhouse gases when mined and and burned
Natural gas (methane): found with oil and in rock formations below the earth’s surface
–There’s a large supply in the United States
–It’s easy to transport through pipelines
–Greenhouse gases are released when it is produced, transported and burned
–There is a risk of accidents during production, like the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010
–It requires large amounts of water and toxic chemicals when produced from shale rock (called “fracking”)
Oil: A yellow-to-black liquid found underground
–It’s easy to get out of the ground and to transport through pipelines and by ship
–It produces carbon dioxide when burned
–Spills at oil wells and pipelines pollute land and water
Nuclear: energy that is released by splitting uranium atoms
–It produces less greenhouse gases per energy unit than fossil fuels
–It can be produced where the energy is needed
–There is a large supply of uranium fuel
–It produces radioactive waste with no method of safe disposal
–There is a risk of radioactive leaks into air, water and soil that lead to cancer in humans
–Expensive insurance against accidents is paid for by the federal government, not by the energy companies
These energy sources are continuously produced and don’t run out. Some renewable sources produce greenhouse gases, but the amount is less than for fossil fuels for the same amount of energy produced.
Wind: energy produced from wind when it turns the blades of a wind turbine (windmill)
–It can be located where energy is needed
–It doesn’t pollute the air or water
–Wind speed varies from place to place and at different times of the year
–It can cause injury and death to birds and bats
Hydropower: energy produced from water flowing in a river or over a dam
–There is a big supply of it in the United States
–It’s less polluting than fossil fuels
–Supply is concentrated in a few states in the Northwest
–Reservoirs behind dams produce greenhouse gases
–Dams and reservoirs disrupt fish migrations and may require people to move from their homes
Biomass: burning wood, crops (like corn or sugar) or trash
–There is a lot of fuel
–It reduces trash sent to landfills
–When corn is grown to burn for energy, it is not used as food for people or animals
–Power plants to burn biomass or trash cleanly are expensive to build
Geothermal: energy that comes from the heat of the earth’s core
–There is an unlimited and constant supply of non-polluting heat
–It can be produced almost anywhere
–It can only be used where it is produced
–It’s expensive to access deep supplies of this energy source
Solar: energy that comes from the sun can be used directly (heat) or to produce electricity
–There is an endless and predictable supply
–It does not pollute
–Collecting it requires a large area, such as the desert
–Energy must be transported long distances to users
8 thoughts on “Power in Our Hands: Renewable Energy & Fossil Fuels in the United States”
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