The ABC of Energy: Clean or Dirty Sources?

By George H CroyPart Five of a Gaia Discovery Energy Series based on his book "The Energy Trail – Where Is It Leading".

If we were to consider energy as something from which we get useful work, have you ever stopped to consider the pollution caused by our energy sources prior to the point of being useful? For sure everyone is familiar with at least the photographs if not the reality of smoke stacks belching enormous quantities of black soot and steam into the atmosphere, coal driven engines trailing black, sparking soot in huge plumes of steam as they thunder through the night. This is the price we pay and have paid for using coal and was one of the main driving forces behind converting to oil and gas as an energy source.

Just hold on a second though. Both oil and gas contain basically the same chemical structure as coal (hydrocarbon) and therefore still emit polluting exhaust gases. Even electricity, an end-result energy source, is a pollutant, creating ozone which at ground level is poisonous, destroying plants, cracking rubber, corroding metals etc.

But the real ‘dirty’ aspects of our energy sources are in finding and producing them. We have been front-row spectators to the pollution caused by the well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico with the coverage given. This kind of thing has been going on since oil was first discovered! Think how much pollution there is around the world because of our demand for crude oil!! There is a detailed description of the effects in my book, The Energy Trail – Where it is leading*

However, to produce a ton of coal perhaps 100 tons of earth needs to be dug up, especially in surface, or opencast mining. Where to put it all? What to do with it? Underground, as the coal is hewn out of the earth, coal dust covers everything, invading the lungs of the miners digging it out, making it one of the dirtiest energy sources.  Even gas, our ‘natural, clean energy source’ is no different to oil in its production process. During exploration, when a drilling rig ‘strikes’ a resource, it could be oil or gas, but up until then the equipment, the process, the pollution is exactly the same.

What about wind and wave energy? Anything that moves needs lubrication and while there is much less pollution from this than in hydrocarbon energy sources, there is still the risk of leaks etc., dripping oils and greases into the environment. Hydro-electric sources, dams etc., trap floating debris and water borne pollutants which build up behind the dams. And nuclear energy, without doubt, is a ‘dirty’ source because of its by-product list from nuclear fission. 

Really, the only ‘clean’ source of energy is the heat from the sun. But then that heat -and light - has to be converted into a usable energy source (mostly electricity) with the ensuing environmental pollution of heat panels, solar cells, mirror farms. So it would appear that it’s a choice we have to make on which energy sources we will accept. Much has been done to improve the quality of both production and use of hydrocarbon sources and it would appear that our best options are to use what we have in the most acceptable manner while each lasts. Government legislation can curtail unruly or thoughtless use of energy sources (CO2 reduction in vehicle emissions for example). Better maintenance of engines (e.g., heavy trucks and buses belching diesel fumes into the air) will also help. Nuclear fuel waste disposal will always be a problem but there are solutions. It all depends on the cost.

And that is the bottom line. Despite their polluting ways, hydrocarbon sources are still the cheapest, most versatile form of energy available and we will continue to use them for as long as possible. We need to clean up our act however. There are few people today who would deny any connection between the pollutants we have been injecting into the atmosphere and the changing weather patterns we are witnessing. And it will get progressively worse as the volume increases. A growing population demands more energy consumption. More energy consumption means more pollution being created.

The Earth is slow to react and we will be experiencing the pollution effects of hydrocarbons long after they are but a faded memory. Even if we start now, today, to clean up our act. We have no time to spare.

It has been my questionable privilege to live through ‘The Hydrocarbon Era’ and soon we will face its ultimate demise. What happens after that will be the final column in this series. 

Next: How to live without hydrocarbons 

"The Energy Trail – Where Is It Leading"  is available at Amazon & other good book stores. Produced  by World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte Ltd (www.worldscientific.com)

ISBN-13 978-981-281-857-7

Previous in the series:

Part One - The ABC of Energy: What is Energy

Part Two - The ABC of Energy: The Definition of Energy

Part Three - The ABC of Energy: Energy Sources

Part Four - The ABC of Energy: Applications & Consumption