Nausherwan Ahmed Aamir

The world runs on energy- the change from animal to wind power has changed the face of the Earth forever. Life as we know it today is impossible without the use of energy. From transport to communication, from agriculture to medicine, from cradle to grave, modern man is totally dependent on energy to provide the goods and services he needs. As a result, energy resources are now more important than ever before.

Fossil fuels, which have been instrumental in taking mankind from an agrarian society to a modern technological and information-based society of the 21st century, are depleting. This has brought into light the need for newer energy sources.  The world is conscious of the need to find new and renewable sources of energy, but finding the right solution is not easy- everything comes at a price. With the present state of scientific development, almost every source of alternate energy has one or more negatives that balance out the positives.

Nuclear technology has a high yield of energy. It does not pollute the environment and does not contribute to global warming. However, it has the potential for unimaginable disaster. There have been many nuclear accidents in the past, such as the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant accident and the Chernobyl disaster. The problem, once a nuclear disaster takes place, is to prevent the fallout from contaminating other areas. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency has come up with resolutions on nuclear safety, there is always the threat of a disaster. Furthermore, the installation cost of power plants is high, and many developing countries cannot afford to use this type of technology.

Wind turbines can be used to provide energy to remote areas that are not connected to the national electricity grid. The turbines are powered by wind, which is a free, renewable resource. Furthermore, wind energy does not contribute to pollution or global warming. Despite these advantages, it is still not in use in many areas. This is because it has many disadvantages associated with it as well. The installation cost of wind turbines is very high. Many turbines are needed to provide enough energy for a small town. So, these ‘wind farms’ are not aesthetically pleasing. Wind turbines are also very noisy. In fact, each turbine is as noisy as a large car travelling at over 50mph. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, wind power is unreliable because wind speeds are not constant. When wind speeds are high, there is a higher output. When wind speeds are low, the output is very low. At some times, there is no output at all.

Hydro-electric power is advantageous in that after installation, the running cost is quite low. For this power to be harnessed, dams are built which are useful for flood control. They also create reservoirs, which are tourist attractions. Unfortunately, dams require certain topographical conditions to be built. They are useful only when built on strong, impermeable rocks high up in deep, narrow valleys. Also, although there is no pollution or global warming caused by hydro-electric power, there is an ecological loss. The seasonal migration of fish is affected by dams. For a country like Pakistan, there are economic implications as well. There is less water in water channels downstream and this means that agricultural activities are adversely affected.

Tidal energy is also non-polluting and does not contribute to global warming. It is beneficial because unlike most of the other sources of energy, tides are reliable. Also, since the turbines used for power generation are submerged underwater, it does not cause visual pollution. However, it can only be used in certain areas with the favorable conditions. Ironically, the turbines can be damaged by very strong tides. Marine life is also disturbed. Altogether, the usage of the sea for other economic activities is limited due to the installation of turbines.

Geothermal energy is renewable and reliable. Once the setup is complete, energy can be provided at all times at a very cheap rate. However, installation and maintenance of the water pipes and turbines is costly. Furthermore, water has to be pumped down below the Earth’s surface continuously for a continuing supply of energy. Geothermal energy can cause an ecological loss as the temperature of the soil, and the close environment increases.

Solar power is the promise of the future because of its many benefits. It is not region specific- it can be harnessed anywhere in the world. Solar panels are quite efficient and solar power is practically free after the installation of the panels. In addition to this, this technology is non-polluting. However, solar power cannot be provided at night, or on cloudy days. As of now, it is capital intensive and prohibitively expensive.

The latest source of alternative energy is biofuels. Biofuels are a clean source of energy. They do not contribute to global warming. They are biodegradable, and so do not cause environmental pollution. Furthermore, they can be used as fuel for vehicles. Brazil has been using gasohol, as mixture of alcohol and gasoline, quite successfully. Unfortunately, all is not well with this solution either. To make more biofuels, more trees have to cut down. This results in climate change. Another adverse effect is that with millions of tons of edible corn and edible oil ending up in biofuel, the price of food (corn and cooking oil) has become more than twice as much as it was only a few years ago. The bulk of the burden of higher food prices is being felt by the poor and down-trodden of this world, who were already suffering under the yolk of poverty.

So it can be seen that the problem of finding a clean, safe, renewable and economical alternate fuel is of prime importance. In the words of Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.”