2. Nonrenewable Resources
2.1 History of Their Use
For centuries before the Industrial Revolution, people relied on the chemical energy of plants and animals and the natural forces of wind and water to provide the necessities of life. As more efficient ways were discovered to use these energy sources, changes took place in the way people lived. After the 18th century when power devices were found that could convert steam and, later, fossil fuel into work, energy consumption grew and people underwent rapid social changes. There were switches from wood to coal and from whale oil to petroleum. Then came the internal combustion engine; electricity; steam, gas, and water turbines for generating power; and then the nuclear age.
The trend has been away from dispersed natural forces available for large numbers of people to limited reservoirs of intensive chemical energy (fossil fuels) controlled by a few corporations. People have become more dependent, in that they’ve lost more control over their energy resources.
On a global scale, there are two main patterns of energy consumption:
- About 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels, about 20% from dung and vegetable wastes, and about 1% from water power (mostly hydroelectric), and minor amounts from nuclear, solar, geo-thermal, and wind power.
- About 75% of the world’s energy is consumed by a few rich countries representing less than 30% of the world’s population. (The U.S. has about 6% of the world’s population, yet it uses 35% of the total energy.)
Energy consumption is encouraged because it is said to reflect growth, though unemployment often increases despite or because of increased usage. Much money is spent to increase energy production, but there should be more interest in energy conservation and use of renewable resources. Nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels are limited and destined to be exhausted. If people make themselves totally dependent on dwindling supplies, the threat of war over what’s left becomes a horrible specter.
Today many of us in the United States draw on what would be the equivalent of 70 mechanical slaves to “enjoy the good life.” The first waterwheels produced about 1/2 horsepower, with later versions producing 70 horsepower. Cars can have several hundred, aircraft engines thousands, and a rocket engine for spacecraft may produce more than 20 million horsepower. Electric power plants generate millions. Much of the world suffers from hunger and malnutrition (70,000,000 people face starvation yearly), so if we and our fellow human beings are to have any quality of life, we should cut down on our energy consumption and look to new sources of renewable energy for power.
2.2 Disadvantages of Nonrenewable Energy Sources
Aside from the fact that nonrenewable energy sources are in limited supply, the main reason for not using them is the pollution, health, and safety risks involved. Some say there are “three environmental time bombs”; toxic chemical pollution, carbon dioxide (CO2) buildup, and acid rain.
The buildup of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is often referred to as “the greenhouse effect.” By burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, people have caused an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which can cause temperatures to rise on a world level. A few degrees difference may not seem important, but on a world scale it can have a dramatic effect. (Some say there would be increased melting of polar ice caps, for one thing.)
As coal, oil, and natural gas are burned worldwide, smokestacks of electricity—generating plants, industrial boilers and smelters release sulfur dioxide (SO2) arid nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides also come out of auto exhaust pipes and slowly escape from chemical fertilizers. These emissions have resulted in “acid rain” which damages vegetation and wildlife and can corrode metals. Fish are being destroyed in sensitive areas, and acidifying soils can result in increased leaching of some trace elements, a slowdown of the organisms that break down the contents on the forest floor, and reduced organic nitrogen. For decades, acid rain has eaten into structures like steel bridges and statues. Not only is acid rain destructive, but winds carry the emissions from factories and exhausts into other countries as well. There are no boundaries for air pollution. Some beautiful areas in Scandinavia are getting acid rain from Europe’s industrial belt and in some lakes, fish have been virtually eliminated. Canada gets its share of America’s acid rain. In an unprecedented lawsuit in 1981, Maine Attorney General, James Tierney, said he was considering suing the federal government and other states because of drifting air pollution that caused acid rain. He wanted laws concerning sulfur dioxide emissions strengthened, and states with weak laws held liable.
No one yet knows for sure what acid rain might do to humans. Dry, airborne pollutants are largely associated with respiratory diseases. One estimate in 1975 suggested that “acid sulphates from fossil fuel emissions are responsible for 7,500 to 12,000 deaths a year.” This can’t be proved, of course, since so many factors influence peoples’ health that one particular cause of death is always difficult to pinpoint, (as in cases of radiation exposure).
2.3 Water Pollution
Forty-three percent of America’s community drinking water systems are reporting violations of federal health standards. In addition, 13,600 of the nation’s 65,000 systems have inadequate treatment facilities. People often aren’t aware of any dangers in their water. In 1980, of 146,000 violations recorded, public notice was made in 16,000 cases. In 1981, New Hampshire officials warned 14 communities that traces of arsenic had been detected in their public water supplies. Virtually every stream, river, and lake in the country is polluted. There is runoff from fertilizers and insecticides, industrial waste, and thermal pollution in overheated waters. (Nuclear power plants produce more thermal pollution than conventional steam electric plants.) In New Orleans, 112 different chemicals were found in a sample of drinking water, and the rate of cancer is going up. At least 40% of the population is using water that has been used at least once before for domestic or industrial purposes, sometimes as many as five times by other people.
Some chemical substances interact with one another in water to form entirely new, often dangerous, chemicals. Chlorine can react with decomposing leaves and become chloroform. Chlorine has been accused of causing cancer, yet most of the “drinking” water in America is now chlorinated, fluoridated, and so on.
2.4 More Environmental Pollution
In 1970, a study showed that 200,000 children in the U.S. had overly toxic levels of lead in their bloodstream. A more recent article stated that this number is more like 600,000. These figures don’t include adults, and most people aren’t even tested for lead in their bloodstream anyway. Auto exhausts and industry are putting this lead into the environment.
According to a study by the National Wildlife Federation (the country’s largest nongovernmental conservation group), most of the environmental indicators of the “quality of life” show deterioration. Supposedly, 90% of all major U.S. factories now comply with pollution laws, but the report said most Americans live in areas where it is still unsafe to breathe. Land is unwisely used, soil erodes and gets poisoned, water is wasted and polluted (with over 70,000 chemicals in current commercial use, runoff can bring many to waterways), and the endangered species list has more than doubled. All these gloomy changes reflect our choice of energy consumption, and much waste and greed.
2.5 Nonrenewable Energy Used In the Home
With today’s increased interest in good insulation, one must be extremely cautious in providing adequate ventilation since fumes, gases, and other toxic vapors are the byproduct of nonrenewable energy use. (This is the advantage solar power has over fossil fuels—it is clean and safe.) If you’re using “traditional” energy sources, you must be aware that in insulating to retain heat, you may also be retaining such things as radioactive radon and its decay products or formaldehyde escaping from some types of insulation (a popular new insulation is urea formaldehyde— beware). For insulation one can use vermiculite, perlite, and expanded silicate—inert minerals that don’t release fumes. You may be retaining formaldehyde fumes from particle board, hydrocarbons from gas stoves, and petrochemicals from paints to cleaning fluids. Soft coal fires put benzopyrene (another carcinogen) into the air. At only one part per two million, formaldehyde can cause swelling of mucous membranes. Higher levels can result in coughing, chest pains, headaches, cold- and flu-like symptoms, eye and nose irritations, bloody noses, scratchy throat, nausea, and possibly cancer. Recently, some investigations were made into complaints from people in new, well-insulated mobile homes where formaldehyde gas was detected.
Many people didn’t link symptoms, which are so often associated with other “common illnesses, to anything serious so it took awhile for any connection to be made to formaldehyde. Often the most common building materials— concrete, brick, stone, and adobe—contain trace amounts of radium and uranium. These levels, are measurable with equipment similar to a geiger counter. As insulation to a home increases and drafts and ventilation decrease, more radon is retained at higher levels. Normally, when fresh air seeps into a house, the air is completely exchanged in one hour, but heavy insulation can reduce this air exchange to once every five hours. Some heavily-insulated homes have been measured with an annual dose exceeding permissible levels for uranium mines. The Environmental Protection Agency examined the radon issue and concluded that 10,000 lung cancers diagnosed yearly could be caused by this radioactive gas, and warned that deaths could double or triple with increased heavy insulation. Ventilation with fresh air is necessary.
Gas appliances, stoves, and heaters are another source of indoor air pollution. Natural gas is one of many petrochemical agents capable of creating symptoms like arthritis, depression, water retention, and abdominal distention in even the best-ventilated homes. (Here, one must realize that one should not inhale a toxic fume—indoors or outdoors—because toxic is toxic, so ventilation isn’t really relevant here. If one does use gas though, one should of course still ventilate as much as possible.) With gas stoves, emissions from combustion are exhausted directly into the air. Such an oversight would never be allowed with any other burning material, because we know that the products of combustion are hazardous to inhale. The two major pollutants produced by combustion are carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. Carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in our blood’s hemoglobin, and can cause headaches, exhaustion and asphyxiation. Nitrogen dioxide is a byproduct of high-temperature combustion, and studies have shown that levels may be five times greater indoors than outdoors, especially in major cities. One investigation found that operating a gas oven at 350 degrees for one hour, with little ventilation, resulted in excessive levels of carbon monoxide in the house. Excessive amounts were also found with moderate ventilation, but levels did decrease when speed of ventilating fans was increased. The health hazards of cooking with natural gas are mostly respiratory in nature, and some studies showed a statistically significant difference in lung capacity between children living in homes with gas stoves and those with electric ranges. Another study showed that twice as many residents with gas reported chronic coughing, and three times as many had impaired lung function. (Fortunately, those of us on raw food diets need not be burdened with these worries but not everyone is so fortunate.)
Kerosene heaters, sold by the millions the last five years, give off substantial amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. These emissions are said to be especially dangerous to pregnant women and their fetuses, babies, and persons with respiratory problems, anemia, angina pectoris, or a heart condition. Any unvented heaters are obviously sending combustion byproducts right into the room just like a gas stove. (Some heaters also present fire hazards if improperly used.)
Lignite is a low-grade coal that poses several health problems. Uranium in the material above lignite deposits could cause both pollution and health danger when disturbed. Those operating a lignite plant are working close to known carcinogens, and emissions from the plant include sulfur oxides, which combine with moisture in the air and produce sulfurous acid, sulfuric acid, and ammonium sulfate which can corrode buildings, damage vegetation, and cause respiratory ailments. Much carbon dioxide is formed and released, and it combines with water to form acid rain. Lignite has been presented in some areas as an alternative to nuclear power, but people living near lignite plants would absorb about five to six times as many milli-rems of radiation as the “accepted maximum dosage allowed” for areas around nuclear power plants. When lignite burns, radioactive isotopes are released. Nearby water risks contamination and depletion because vast amounts of water are used at all stages from mining to burning and sludge disposal.
We can see why it will be a welcome relief to make the switch to a cleaner, safer energy source that doesn’t result in so many complications and compromises! Yet the negative side-effects of all these nonrenewable energy sources pale in comparison with the problems encountered with nuclear power.
- 1. Solar Energy
- 2. Nonrenewable Resources
- 3. Nuclear Power
- 4. Solar Systems
- 5. A Solar Home
- 6. Solar Energy And You
- 7. The Future And Politics Of Solar Energy
- 8. Other Renewable Energy Sources
- 9. Questions & Answers
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- Article #5: Solar Energy Will Revolutionize Your Life