Sustainable Development and Energy

Sustainability in the modern world

Sustainable development is defined by the World Trade Commission on Environment and Development is the key to the survival of all life on earth not just the survival of the human species.  This topic outlines the use of a few renewable energy sources as a key principle toward the ultimate goal of sustainable development: a “fully sustainable, urban society” that spans globally.

1.1 Gasoline Powered Transportation

Petroleum, also known as gasoline, a common by-product of crude oil refinement is one of the most popular non-renewable energies used today due to its current economic availability.  The rampant use of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines accounts for abut 30% of the earth’s volatile air pollutants, operate from non-renewable energy resources and aid the worldwide extinction of the earth’s crude oil reserves that stands as a threat to the well being of future generations. (Prost used as source of information)

Research Evaluation:

Gasoline powered transportation is not a form of sustainable development since they..

  • Are harmful to ecological systems by adding to air born pollutants that leads to:
    • Pollutants entering the hydrological cycle and producing “acid rain”
    • Birth defects, cancers and other fatal respiratory diseases in humans and animals
    • Depletion of the ozone layer
    • Extinction of plants, animals and diverse aquatic life forms
  • Compromise the ability of future generations meeting their needs by:
    • Aiding the depletion o crude oil
    • Creating a toxic, polluted, unstable natural environment with an ever-increasing risk of natural disasters
    • Providing less hope for fully renewable methods of transportation

1.2 Natural Gas for Residential Heating

Natural Gas, mostly composed of methane (CH4), is one of the most popular forms of residential heating in North America due to its abundance in availability beneath the earth’s surface and can be extruded in an economically feasible manner (Gibilisco 28).

Some advantages of methane for heating purposes include:

  • System efficiency: most of the potential energy in methane can be converted into usable heat in most furnaces equipped with exhaust condensers
  • Natural gas pipelines as part of the municipal infrastructure in most cities and towns making it readily available for economical, residential heating purposes
  • Natural gas furnaces burn clean, producing little air pollution and basically no smoke
  • Natural gas furnaces eliminate the need for a chimney with their ability to vent exhausts to the outside directly through a wall (Gibilisco 29-30)

Some disadvantages of methane heating include:

  • The world’s naturally-occurring methane supply is not renewable and is diminishing
  • Recent problems and price violability continue to mar methane’s reputation as the most reliable residential heating source
  • Methane gas is highly explosive and potential leaks may cause flash fires
  • The transportation of methane is extremely risky since it is a gas at normal pressure and temperature, making it difficult to store in large quantities and an unreliable source of heating in remote dwellings, farms or ranches
  • In most rural and undeveloped parts of the world, natural gas pipelines are not included in the infrastructure
  • Difficult to ship across oceans (Gibilisco 30)
Research Evaluation:

Natural gas heating is much more feasible and environmentally friendly than conventional heating methods such as firewood and coal but is not a sustainable resource when comparing it to the passive solar energy technologies now available for public use. During building and structure design processed it is essential to embrace passive solar heating technologies in order to reduce the heating and cooling effects on buildings.

Passive solar heating includes techniques such as proper window orientation, high performance windows, effective shading and building materials that store solar heat during the daytime hours and release this heat during the evening hours.

Through public embracement of passive solar heating and other renewable heating methods, such as solar air heating systems, solar water heating systems, biomass heating systems, ground or water source heat pumps and combined heat and water (CHP) technologies, the widespread use of natural gas heating can be dramatically reduced and may eventually go extinct. Since the extinction of natural gas heating is highly unlikely in this generation, the first steps we can take toward “fully sustainable heating methods” is to reduce the public’s dependency on naturally occurring methane as the primary heating source.

1.3 Nuclear Power Generation

In many countries throughout the world, nuclear power is being implemented as an alternative power source in the event of diminishing crude oil and natural gas reserves. Since all nuclear power plants produce power through the process of “nuclear fission” they can be very dangerous if not properly engineered and maintained. The catastrophic explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Prypiat, Ukraine on April 26, 1986 is the prime example of the sheer horrors involved with a nuclear power plant accident. This incident is known to be the most severe nuclear power plant accident in the world and spread nuclear radiation throughout many parts of Europe (“Chernobyl”).

Some advantages of fission nuclear power plants include:

  • Uranium can be found in most regions and is relatively inexpensive
  • Fission power plants do not create air pollutants such as CO2 gas, greenhouse gas emissions or particulate matter such as residue from coal-fired power plants
  • A uranium fission reaction produces large quantities of heat energy for long periods of time when properly controlled
  • There is little risk of an explosion with U-235 that has been properly refined for nuclear reactors in a “properly controlled” refining process
  • Fission power plants have the ability to eliminate the world’s dependency on conventional, fossil-fueled power plants
  • Fission reactors can operate without oxygen making them able to be built underground or under water, thus greatly reducing their ecological footprint (Gibilisco 224)

Some disadvantages of nuclear fission power plants include:

  • Uranium mining may release radioactive dust into the air and water
  • Uranium refining can expose workers to radioactive dust
  • If the fission reaction process is not properly controlled it creates a superficial “meltdown” that results in polluting the air, water and soil with radioactive waste
  • Radioactive waste of Uranium 238 Alfa-particles have an estimated half-life of about 4.5 billion years
  • Transporting nuclear materials is not a secure business in the possible event of a security breach
  • Nuclear terrorism or blackmail could be the results of nuclear waste getting into the “wrong hands”
  • Disposal of nuclear waste created by fission power plants is the subject of severe environmental, technical and political problems worldwide
  • Wide-spread use of fission reactors faces a large opposition from certain subordinate groups due to the negative factors mentioned above (Gibilisco 224-225)
Research Evaluation:

Although nuclear fission power plants are economically viable and produce large amounts of power for long periods of time, they are also subject to environmental gradation through their production of radioactive waste. Nuclear fission power plants are not considered a sustainable development strategy since they involve numerous problems associated with safety, nuclear waste disposal and international security. Nuclear fusion power plants, on the other hand, would be more economically sustainable and may even be part of the “sustainable development process” in the future, providing an inventor or scientific team manages to design a “workable” nuclear fusion reactor. Nuclear fusion is hypothesized to be more efficient in converting mass to energy and no radioactive waste is produced in the process.

1.4 Solar Power

Since solar power is radiated from the Sun, it is almost infinite in it’s supply and is the only other form of renewable energies besides moving water and air that is “almost eternal” in its supply. Physicists believe that the Sun produces her vast amounts of energy through the process of nuclear fusion where hydrogen is converted through helium causing extremely high temperatures.

Solar energy can be converted to electrical power via technologies known as Photovoltaic (PV) Cells which are a specialized form of “semiconductor diode” that converts UV radiation, IR radiation or visible light into electricity. PV cells continue to produce electricity even during overcast conditions due to their ability to convert visible light into electricity.

Research Evaluation:

The conversion of these renewable, almost infinite sources (UV and IR radiation) of solar power into electricity makes solar power a “low impact” and “sustainable” source of energy since it happens naturally, does not produce harmful emissions or particulate matter and has little effects on the environment and human health.

1.5 Hydro-Electric Power

Moving water is one of the most natural forms of alternative energy found on earth and is almost infinite in its availability. The environment impacts of hydro-electric power plants may consist of a dam on a river or a large reservoir. The potential energy created by these dams and reservoirs is produced by channeling water through a narrow medium that propels a turbine that generates electricity. (Gibilisco 193-194)

1.5.1 Common Types of Hydro-Electric Power Plants

Some of the most common types of Hydro-Electric Power Plants include:

Impoundment Hydro-Electric Power Plant
  1. Consists of a dam and reservoir
  2. Works great on mountainous terrain for building high dams and deep reservoirs
  3. Water is funnelled through a penstock to drive the turbine
  4. Consists of an electric generator and step-up transformer
Diversion Hydro-Electric Power Plant
  1. A river is channeled through a pipeline or canal to drive the turbine
  2. A dam is not required
  3. Ideal near natural rapids and waterfalls
  4. Will not work if the river dries up or freezes completely from bottom to surface
  5. Can be connected to electric resistance heating systems
  6. Works great on mountainous streams

Pumped Storage Hydro-Electric Power Plant
  1. Consists of two or more reservoirs placed at different locations
  2. Water flow can be regulated from higher reservoirs to lower reservoirs to meet electricity demands and decreases
  3. Require dams to hold water in reservoirs
  4. Works best in areas where the terrain is gently rolling or hilly as long as there is a significant difference in elevation from one reservoir to another
  5. Water passes through penstocks to operate turbines (Gibilisco 193-195)
Some advantages of hydro-electric plants include:
  • They generate no CO, CO2, SOx, NOx, waste products, particulate matter, ground water or soil contamination
  • Water is considered a renewable source of energy, considering the waterway does not dry up
  • They can be controlled by changing the volume and method of water flows to meet the demands of electrical energy during peak times
  • Large reservoirs may provide dramatic scenery and can be used for recreational purposes
  • Large reservoirs can also be used for irrigation or the drinking water supply
  • The source of potential energy is constantly replenished by the hydrological cycle in the form of rainfall, water runoff, snow fall and melt (Gibilisco 195-196)
Some disadvantages of hydro-electric power plants include:
  • Breaking dams can cause catastrophic floods that destroy valuable farm land or whole towns causing severe economical hardships
  • They are not practical in areas with flat terrain
  • Prolonged droughts can seriously mar the production of electric power
  • Dams are known to interfere with fish spawning on rivers
  • Dams are known to halt normal river flows, causing oxygen levels in the water to drop to the point where it kills fish, natural aquatic plant life and other aquatic species
  • Most potential sites for large-scale electric power plants have already been exploited (Gibilisco 196-197)
Research Evaluation:

Large scale hydro-electric power generation does not result in harmful air pollution, although it has been known to result in ecological disasters such as flooding due to breaking dams, loss of water flow in rivers and streams which dramatically reduces oxygen levels in the water that results in the loss of aquatic life forms. This type of power generation is only sustainable at locations that do not result in ecological disasters. Large scale hydro-electric power systems such as the Sir Adam Beck Stations on the Niagara River are a much more sustainable electric power source than coal-burning power plants.

Hydro-electric power plants also have the ability to provide a more sustainable source of power to a large, urban area. Where located in harmony with the natural environment and properly maintained, hydro-electrical power generation is ideal over nuclear fission power plants since they do not produce any radioactive waste.

From an environmentally-friendly point of view, small scale hydro-electric power systems are generally favourable over large-scale ones since they do not require large dams that impede the flow of waterways. A small scale hydro-electric power system can be created by building a small dam or artificial water fall on a local stream or by building a small pond on someone’s property. They may be associated with small environmental impacts but are rarely significant. The main limitation to these systems is that they take much longer to pay for themselves and are mostly economical for rural or remote locations (Gibilisco 198).

1.6 Tidal Electric Power Systems

At coastal locations, tidal electric or wave electric power systems are a more sustainable solution to generate electricity than conventional coal-fired power plants. They create no harmful air pollutants or nuclear waste, making them ideal over nuclear fission power plants from an environmental perspective. These types of systems are not ideal farther inland due to the requirements for long transmission lines.

Tidal Electric Power System Versus a Wave Electric Power System:
Tidal Electric Power System
  1. Tides are a renewable, predictable source of energy
  2. Maintenance of a tidal barrage is not difficult
  3. Installation is a more expensive project
  4. Tidal barrages also serve as a bridge across a bay or estuary
  5. Can be built entirely under water
  6. It affects turbidity and sedimentation
  7. It can promote tourism and additional revenue
  8. Generally not destroyed by “100 year” storms
  9. Do not create noise, since turbines are located below water surface
  10. Can be difficult to install since the best tidal locations are often in treacherous waters near rugged shore lines (Gibilisco 199-205)
Wave Electric Power System
  1. Ocean turbulence is a renewable resource
  2. Maintenance is not too difficult
  3. Are relatively inexpensive to install
  4. Does not have an alternative function
  5. Blend well with the local scenery
  6. Proper designs do not affect water quality
  7. Can be destroyed by “100 year” storms
  8. Must be carefully sited due to the noise they create since they are located at the water surface
  9. Are generally simple to install but do not produce electricity when the waters are calm (Gibilisco 199-205)
Research Evaluation:

A hydro-electric power generation is not 100% sustainable or “fully sustainable,” although it is much more environmentally-friendly than conventional coal-fired power plants in terms of air pollution. In terms of waste generation, hydro-electric power generation is ore acceptable to society than nuclear fission power generation. Radioactive waste is a huge environmental issue concerning nuclear fission reactors.

“Certain jurisdictions throughout the world do not consider hydro-electric power generation a “sustainable resource” due to the human, economical and environmental impacts of dam construction and maintenance” (Hydroelectricity).

If the location of a hydro-electric power plant is properly sited and the plant is properly engineered, the environmental impacts can be greatly reduced. Hydro-electric power generation plants generally have longer economical life spans than fossil-fuel fired power generation plants. Operating costs are generally low in hydro-electric power generation, since most plants have fewer workers on site during operational hours compared to conventional power plants. The large reservoirs created for hydro-electric plants create water sports facilities and attract tourists which could have an adverse affect on aquatic life.

Example: The Three Gorges Dam that spans the Yangtze River in Sandouping, Yichang, Hubei, China provides economic benefits such as flood control, clean hydro-electricity and navigation, although there are concerns about the relocation of local residents, siltation, loss of archaeological and cultural sites and the impact on the regional ecosystem. (“Three Gorges Dam”)

Works Cited/Consulted

“Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant” Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant – Wikipedia the Free Encylopedia. 4 Feb. 2009. Wikipedia Foundation Inc. 7 Feb. 2009  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_Nuclear_Power_Plant.

Gibilisco, Stan. Alternative Energy Demystified. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2007. 2-8, 21-25.

“Hydroelectricity” Hydroelectricity – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 7 Feb. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. 8 Feb. 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroelectricity.

Prost, Corey. “Gasoline Vehicles” Your Guide To Sustainable Driving. Dynamic Drive. 7 Feb. 2009  <http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~coreyp/index.html.

“Three Gorges Dam” Three Gorges Dam – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 7 Feb. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Gorges_Dam.