What is Energy?
Practically speaking, energy refers to the capacity to do work. In the context of modern environmentalism, energy often refers to the fuel that is used to generate heat, light, and motion. Modern civilization is possible because we have learned how to change energy from one form to another, and use it to do work for us and to live more comfortably. For example, electrical energy is converted to light and heat by a light bulb. Energy can be acquired and used through a variety of natural and man-made processes, like burning fossil fuels, harnessing natural elements, or creating nuclear reactions.
Many industries, both private and public, have emerged to produce and distribute energy in different forms.
Renewable Vs. Non-Renewable Energy
Renewable energy refers to any energy source that can be easily replenished. This includes solar energy from the sun, geothermal energy from Earth itself, and the wind, which can be harnessed through windmills. The biomass of plant life can be used to produce fuel, such as firewood from trees, ethanol from corn, and biodiesel from vegetable oil. Naturally moving water, such as in a river, can power hydro-turbines, which in turn produce hydropower.
Non-renewable energy sources cannot be replenished once they are used up. Most of the energy for personal and industrial use on Earth is produced from non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. Another non-renewable energy source, uranium, is used to create heat and electricity via nuclear fission.
As population increases, the manufacturing, agriculture, water, technology, and information industries continue to grow. Starting with the First Industrial Revolution, these industries and the people they’ve served have increasingly required more and more energy to function. To meet this new demand, the energy industry itself has continued to grow dramatically.
The development and expansion of fossil fuel use following the industrial revolution has also brought significant new challenges to the world population, such as increased industrial emissions, depletion of the planet’s natural resources, and safe disposal of waste.
How Energy is Generated
Energy is never created nor captured, it is simply transformed from one form to another. This can be accomplished by combusting fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, harnessing energy from the movement of water and wind, using sunlight to create electricity, and generating nuclear fission reactions to heat water.
Electricity, one of the most commonly used forms of energy, is often the end product of these processes, and for that reason is considered a “secondary” source of energy. Whichever materials are used to generate the electricity are known as “primary” sources of energy. Electricity itself is not inherently renewable or non-renewable — that depends upon how it is produced.
The price of using energy varies locally based upon which types of energy are being generated, the source of the energy being generated, and where the energy is sourced and generated.
Environmental Costs of Energy Industry
These processes all require specialized equipment, which must be constantly serviced and replaced as necessary. Furthermore, the acquisition of each type of energy comes with unique pollution hazards. Mining and drilling for fossil fuels destroys ecosystems. The burning of those fuels for energy then releases greenhouse gases and more pollution. Accidental leakages like oil spills, natural gas leaks, and coal tailings cause pollution by releasing toxic materials into the environment. Major disasters like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon present severe, irreparable, and often uncontainable damage to ecosystems and animal life.
Investments in clean, infinitely-renewable power like solar and wind may be initially more expensive, but the costs of new infrastructure and land will eventually lead to tremendous long-term savings for individuals, businesses, governments, and, of course, the environment.
How Consumers Can Conserve
There are many ways that individuals can meaningfully contribute to energy conservation in daily life. Becoming conscious of energy usage in the home and choosing to use less is a strategy everyone can partake in. Next, consumers can purchase energy-efficient products like hybrid, electric, or natural gas-powered vehicles, and ENERGY STAR appliances. For home and business energy solutions, local providers like power and gas companies often offer alternatives for lower-impact energy sourcing.