Human dependence on oil is a large burden currently placed on many countries in the world. The economies of many nations are finally recovering after the world market crash of 2008, and this recovery is largely made possible by oil, as it provides a main source of energy for billions of humans. As the world nears peak oil production, the looming danger of running out of an energy source grows ever larger without a clear solution. Many scientists and environmental proponents alike have voiced their support for alternative energy sources as a way to maintain our way of life without extracting limited resources and polluting the environment greatly.
The following essay will analyze if alternative energy sources are truly a viable way to end the collective human dependence on oil.
Before exploring the efficacy of alternative fuel sources for possibly replacing oil, it is important to analyze why human dependence on oil cannot last in its current state. There are many reasons why oil is not an ideal energy source, some more obvious than others.
First of all, as many people know, pollution is a very large problem in the current world. As the earth becomes more industrialized, the energy requirement of humans grows. While it would be ideal if humans could find an energy source with no harmful byproducts but unfortunately oil usage (in its various forms) carries with it dangerous chemicals that get released into the environment. These greenhouse gases have been found over the last several years to be depleting the ozone layer of the earth's atmosphere, leading to a global warming effect which likely has extreme consequences yet to be fully realized.
(Muller, 2012) On this same note, the extraction and transport of oil is often a risky process. The history of the world is marked with catastrophic pollution events caused by the spilling of oil into the ocean. Nearly everyone is familiar with the fairly recent oil spill under the watch of oil company BP in the Gulf of Mexico, whereby an oil rig exploded. Because of the circumstances of the accident, the oil well was not capped until three months after the original accident. It is estimated that over 200 million gallons of oil were spilled into the ocean during this time. (Muller, 2012) The true outcomes of this oil spill will likely be felt for years to come. Another very real problem related to oil use as an energy source is that it is limited. Oil is classified as a fossil fuel, which means it took millions of years to create. Thus, oil is a limited resource and cannot be renewed as fast as humans are using it. Peak oil is a very relevant concept for this discussion. Peak oil is the point at which humans are extracting the maximum amount of oil. After peak oil is reached, the amount of oil that can be extracted will severely decline. (Berinstein, 2001) If human reliance on oil is still as strong as it is today when peak oil is finally reached, the significant decline in oil production will probably cause many economies, including the U.S. economy, to crash. (Berinstein, 2001) Scientists predict that the human population will reach peak oil in the three or four decades. (Muller, 2012)
Finally, it is very important to consider the international relationships that characterize the oil trade. The U.S. has a large foreign dependence on oil, which means that the oil demands of the U.S. can only be met by obtaining oil from foreign countries, many of which maintain tumultuous relationships with the U.S. Some colorful theories of wartime motivation point the main cause of going to war in the middle east is often to secure oil reserves. (Muller, 2012)While this may be overly assuming, the truth is that many humans rely a great deal on foreign oil and this can often make international trading difficult and tedious, especially factoring in the consideration that oil is a limited resource and many countries do not want to readily trade a nonrenewable resource from their country.
With all of these problems in mind, it is now important to discuss the most realistic or viable options for replacing human dependence on oil. It is clear that oil dependence poses a problem from many viewpoints. Certain propositions have been made in regards to alternative energy sources that would be both better for the environment and could be renewable. One may question why none of these alternative fuel sources have been implemented on a large-scale basis after examining the problems with oil dependence. The fact is that each type of energy source has its own respective disadvantages and advantages. One must strongly consider both the benefits and downsides to every energy source before supporting it wholeheartedly. The next paragraphs will discuss some of the most popular alternative energy suggestions.
Solar energy is a very popular alternative to fossil fuels and also largely the first alternative many people associate with renewable energy. Solar energy can be very beneficial for a number of reasons. Solar energy works by collecting the sun's radiation in solar panels and transferring that to usable energy. (Muller, 2012) This means that there are no harmful byproducts or pollution. Solar energy does not release any type of harmful chemical in its process of energy conversion or usage, thus it is extremely clean in comparison to oil usage. (Muller, 2012) Furthermore, solar energy is virtually unlimited. As the sun will be around for hundreds of millions of years to come, the source of energy is essentially everlasting for human current human purposes. Also, once solar panels are installed, solar energy is free, as there is no charge for the sun's radiation. This decentralizes the power of energy and takes away the possibility of the illegal acts of price gouging and price setting. (Muller, 2012) On this same note, political relationships and the state of the economy will generally have no effect on solar energy beyond its installation costs. Finally, a switch to dependence on solar energy would create thousands of jobs in this budding industry. (Ochs et al, 2012) This is a clear benefit, both economically and environmentally. However, as fantastic as solar energy appears when examining its advantages, there are also a number of disadvantages as well. Solar energy gets its energy from the sun. Thus, when the sun is not shining, there is a decrease in energy conversion. While solar technology does have the ability to store energy for later use, the fact is that in areas with little sunlight on a regular basis, solar energy will probably not provide enough energy to be the sole source of power. Tying into this catch is the relative inefficiency of solar energy. Right now, a fairly large amount of surface area is required to produce a relatively small amount of energy. (Ochs et al, 2012) This means that solar panels would need to be widespread and cover much of the land if it were actually going to be the main source of energy. Among these disadvantages, the largest and most hindering one is the cost of solar panels. Because solar energy is a fairly new technology, the cost of owning and installing solar panels is very high, and many people, especially across the world, would not be able to afford solar energy. This is the main downside to solar panels rights now and is largely the reason they haven't been implemented on a larger scale. As an end note to this exploration of solar energy, it is important to note that as time goes on, solar technology is becoming more efficient at converting and storing energy. Also, the cost of solar energy is going down more and more, making it an increasingly attractive option for alternative energy. (Ochs et al, 2012)
Wind energy is used by installing wind turbines, which catch the movement of the wind to generate power. Wind power is very similar to solar power in its advantages and also some disadvantages. First of all, the wind is a naturally occurring phenomenon and thus is free as well as unlimited. On this same note, wind does not cause any harmful chemical byproducts and neither does the capturing of wind energy. It is a completely green technology for producing power. Despite how large wind turbines are, they only require a small plot of land and the surrounding and underlying ground can still be used for agricultural purposes. (Muller, 2012) Furthermore, wind turbines do not require extensive pipelines or power grids. Thus, they can provide power to individuals in extremely secluded areas out in rural America as well as in third world countries. (Muller, 2012) Finally, wind turbines exist in a number of sizes which means that small homes and large office building alike can use wind energy. One disadvantage of wind energy is that the wind is not constant. Certain areas are windier than others, which means that wind power would better serve certain cities than others. This is similar to the disadvantage of solar power discussed earlier. One form of dissent relating to wind energy comes from the fact that wind turbines can destroy a scenic landscape. Manypeople believe that these areas should be left untouched, and that wind power technology can ruin the beauty of nature. On this same note, wind turbines produce a great deal of noise, often equivalent to a car travelling at 70 miles per hour. (Ochs et al, 2012) Finally and most importantly, many people see wind turbines as relatively unrealistic for providing power on a large scale. Right now, the largest wind turbine can generate power for a little less than 500 homes. (Ochs et al, 2012) For a city whose population is close to one million, one wonders how well wind turbines could meet this power demand.
Geothermal energy is obtained by capturing the earth’s natural heat deep below the surface. This energy source is renewable and does not require a great deal of technology to harness the energy. Centuries ago people used geothermal energy to heat their homes. (Muller, 2012) Furthermore, geothermal energy does not produce harmful byproducts or greenhouse gases in its extraction or production. Thus, it is very clean. Geothermal plants can also occupy a relatively small space in relation to how much power they provide. (Muller, 2012) One clear advantage over both solar and wind energy is that this alternative energy source does not depend on the weather conditions for how much power it can produce. Geothermal energy can be extracted even when the sky is overcast and the wind is calm.
Geothermal energy does have a number of disadvantages in comparison to its perceived benefit. First of all, geothermal energy can only be produced from certain areas. Many places do not have the potential to even have geothermal energy, thus it is not a type of energy that could be relied upon solely. (Muller, 2012) Relating to this disadvantage, many of the sites that are able to produce geothermal energy are too far away from populated areas to be of benefit. Geothermal energy, like the other alternative sources has a significantly high start-up cost. The power produced by geothermal plants may or may not justify the significant capital expenditure required to even set up a geothermal site. (Muller, 2012) Finally, while geothermal energy production and transmission does not release any harmful chemicals in and of itself, drilling into the earth can release certain greenhouse gases which pollute the environment, meaning it is not completely green. (Berinstein, 2001)
Biofuel is produced by mixing together parts of biological material, such as plants. (Pandey, 2011) There are a number of advantages to biofuel which make it an appealing prospect for alternative energy and ending human dependence on oil. Biofuel releases much less greenhouse gases than oil, meaning it is a cleaner source of power. One of the main advantages of biofuel is that it can be grown in any place with a large agricultural field, meaning that a country that produces biofuel itself can end its dependence on foreign energy sources and not be subject to tumultuous markets or relationships with foreign countries. Biofuel is also renewable for obvious reasons. Furthermore, it is biodegradable and nontoxic. (Pandey, 2011) Finally, compared to oil, biofuel has a higher flash point, meaning that the chances of it burning in an accident are much lower. (Pandey, 2011)
Like with these other alternative fuel sources, the cost of implementing a large scale process for producing biofuel is extremely high and many do not know if the cost even justifies the benefits of the energy production. Biofuels also require a great deal of pollution in their production in the forms of transportation, fertilizer, fuel needed for machinery, and other things. (Pandey, 2011) One of the largest disadvantages of using biofuel is that it requires a great deal of land area. In an increasingly developed world, land area is becoming a precious commodity, meaning it may be difficult to implement biofuel production on a large scale basis to replace oil. (Pandey, 2011)
It is plain to see that every single energy source currently available to humans has its own advantages and disadvantages. While oil is clearly not a long term energy source, it does seem to meet the human population's current energy needs, albeit while polluting the environment greatly. No single alternative energy source discussed seems to offer a clear solution to the problem. However, as research funding and technology applications improve, the costs and disadvantages of these technologies goes down. Solar energy, in particular, seems to be on the rise in terms of efficaciousness, reliability, and cost effectiveness. Right now, one can only hope that the government continues to fund alternative energy. It seems that solar energy may be the world's next energy source. It remains to be seen, however, and only time will tell.