The Honors Earth Science class conducted two days of research and presentations about energy production. They compared the current preferred method of electricity production with six other alternative energy production methods. After comparing the methods to produce electricity, they were given a scenario: “You have been selected to serve on President Obama’s energy committee. After reviewing the methods to produce electricity, the President wants to focus on one method to produce electricity for our country for the next 100 years. He has a $1B grant to award to that industry. Which industry would you choose and why?”
Here is what the students discovered and reported about each energy source.
Fossil Fuels: About 68% of all electricity in the US and 55% in NC is produced by using fossil fuel. The cost per KWH averages $ 0.05. The current plants in operation have about 30 years left on average before they need to be replaced.
- Cheap source of electricity.
- Infrastructure already in place.
- Cheap, abundant fuel is found in the US.
- Ash can be used in construction and other industry.
- Adds lots of extra greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
- Adds to acid precipitation.
- We produce more waste than can be used.
- Limited, non-renewable resource. We are going to run out of coal and oil in less than 100 years.
- Mining is extremely hazardous.
Nuclear: About 20% of all electricity in the US and 35% in NC is produced by using nuclear. The cost per KWH averages $0.04. The current plants in operation have less than 40 years left on average before they need to be replaced. There has not been a new nuclear power plant built in the US since 1996. Several on the books to be built but it takes over a decade from approving the plan to producing electricity.
- Cheap, abundant electricity from a small fuel source.
- Does not add greenhouse gas to the atmosphere.
- Can produce abundant electricity on short notice.
- Fuel can be reprocessed several times and extend the longevity of the fuel.
- VERY high paying jobs.
- Plants are terrorist targets.
- NIMBY! Not in my back yard. No one wants the power plant near their house.
- No good long term plan to take care of radioactive waste.
- One of the most expensive power plants to build. Requires subsidy to construct.
- People do not understand how nuclear plants create electricity and are afraid of them.
Less than 2% of all electricity in the US and less than 0.5% in NC is produced by wind power. The cost per KWH averages $0.05. Each wind turbine can create enough electricity for 6 houses. Wind turbines cost about $10,000 and can be built within a couple months. Each turbine has a life expectancy of 30 years before they need to be replaced.
- Free, abundant fuel.
- Creates ‘tourist attractions’.
- Can be placed anywhere there is constant wind.
- No greenhouse gases released.
- Can be built in farm land and farmers can grow crops below them.
- Prices for technology have been falling 10% per year and have become affordable.
- Old turbines have killed a lot of birds. People do not know about new technology.
- Old turbines were noisy.
- Old turbines were ugly.
- New turbine farms take up entire skylines.
- Limited locations: you have to have constant wind.
About 10% of all electricity in the US and 4% in NC is produced by hydroelectric power. The cost per KWH is about $0.07. Hydroelectric plants take from 10 to 50 years to construct from the day they are approved. Hydroelectric plants have a life expectancy of 70 years.
- Reservoirs create recreation, water sources for cities, habitat for wildlife and help control flooding.
- Control the amount of sediments getting into rivers.
- No greenhouse gases put into atmosphere.
- No waste products to dispose.
- It is renewable.
- Reliable. It takes a severe drought to stop energy production.
- Destroys native habitats.
- Displaces families.
- Nearly every river in the US that can be blocked is already blocked.
- Cost to replace dams cannot be done without government subsidy.
Less than 1% of all electricity in the US and NC is produced by solar power. The cost per KWH is about $0.10. Solar panels can be installed anywhere you have direct sunlight from about 60 degrees latitude and south. Life expectancy of each solar panel is about 15 years. Recent technology breakthroughs have cut the cost of solar panels by as much as 70%.
- No greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere once the panels are made.
- Can be mounted on roof tops, sides of buildings, anywhere there is direct sunlight.
- Reliable: can generate electricity even with 100% cloud cover.
- No wastes to dispose: panels can be 100% recycled.
- Creates a lot of heat.
- Reflections have disrupted bird flight patterns.
- Not very attractive.
- Expensive source of electricity.
Less than 1% of all electricity in the US and about 2% in NC is produced by biomass burning. The cost per KWH is about $0.08. The fuel will never run out because any organic material can be burned as fuel. Plants can be constructed near cities since cities create abundant waste that can be used. Plants are expensive to build and require subsidies to get built.
- Abundant fuel.
- Existing coal plants can be converted to use biomass.
- No toxic waste to dispose: ash can be used as soil or fertilizer.
- No new greenhouse gas is added to the atmosphere. Only what was taken out by the growing plants.
- NIMBY! The power plant stinks.
- Takes food crop land out of production for energy crops.
- Creates smoke and fog.
- Expensive to operate.
After discussing the sources of energy, the class decided that the US should focus on a combination of wind and solar. These energy sources can be built quickly and in lots of places, even downtown areas. The long term fuel source was the other deciding factor to choose these two. Out of 28 students, 27 chose these two energy sources with very little discussion.