With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s came the switch to using coal as the primary source of energy rather than the previously used biomass, wood. Wood became expensive and scarce, so coal’s abundance and long-lasting energy provided an alternative source to fueling the internal combustion engine and other new technologies (Trefil and Hazen 66). However, coal and other fossil fuels, like petroleum and natural gas, come with the consequences of gas emissions and dwindling supply as their use increases with energy consumption.
In the modern era, industries drill or mine fossil fuels, then burn them to produce electricity to fuel turbines and generators. By burning these substances, they are reacted with oxygen in air to break the bonds between the atoms and form the products carbon dioxide and water, and release the energy stored in the bonds in the form of heat. This heat is transformed into electrical energy in a turbine or generator (Enzler). From the standpoint of thermodynamics, the potential energy stored within the chemical bonds of fossil fuels is converted into thermal energy. This conversion maintains the total amount of energy in the universe, satisfying the first law of thermodynamics (Trefil and Hazen 65). However, thermal energy is lost to the surroundings in the system and cannot be used again. This slowly diminishes the supply of fossil fuels and will eventually be depleted.
The burning of the fossil fuels can produce carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), all of which impact global warming. Over the past 250 years, “it has been estimated that 356 billion tons of carbon has been released into the atmosphere due to the utilization of fossil fuels since 1751 globally” (Annamalai et al.). These gas emissions increase the concentration of greenhouse gases, which trap heat radiated from the Earth in the atmosphere rather than going towards space and cause the Earth’s temperature to rise. This leads to changes in the Earth’s climate system, such as increased number of hot days per year, increased sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification, and increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events (“Observed Changes”). This negatively affects aquatic and human life by making certain survival situations more difficult and dangerous if the growing species does not adapt in time with the changes to accommodate them. It is probable to worsen as the energy consumption increases with population growth.
As the global population grows, the energy consumption will follow. However, there is only a finite amount of the current resources to sustain the energy needs of the population. By certain models, oil reserves will be depleted in approximately 35 years, gas reserves in 37 years, and coal reserves in 107 years (Shafiee and Topal). Given that these estimations were done in 2006, this means that coal “will be the only fossil fuel remaining after 2042” and will be available up to 2112 (Shafiee and Topal). With fossil fuels currently making up “81.5% of total U.S. energy consumption”, drastic changes are necessary if energy consumption is to be sustained (“Fossil Fuels”). Otherwise, industries that rely on large amounts of energy consumption are at risk. For example, agriculture and food production are affected by global warming and decreasing amounts of fossil fuels. On a long-term basis, global warming will increase aridity and lead to erratic precipitation amounts and intensity, causing reduced food production from changes in standard crop patterns. On a short-term basis, the decreasing oil supply affects processing, storage, and transportation of food products because they all depend on oil and natural gas supplies (Holechek). Food security is a concern if resources are exhausted.
Alternative energy sources are constantly being explored to support the energy needs for consumption. Some of the fastest growing resources are the renewable energy sources, solar and wind energy. In 2015, these energy sources contributed 10% of the energy consumption in the United States (“Fossil Fuels”). Solar energy uses solar photovoltaic and thermal solar energy methods to convert sunlight into electricity. The solar photovoltaic method uses “semiconductors to convert sunlight directly into electrical current” and the thermal solar energy method uses mirrors to collect and focus sunlight in order to heat a fluid “used to run a large electrical generator… by producing steam” (Trefil and Hazen 68).
Wind energy uses incoming sunlight and the rotation of the Earth to power modern windmills to generate electricity (Trefil and Hazen 67). These renewable energy sources have the benefit of not contributing to global warming and are considered to be inexhaustible. However, these methods are costly and do not produce enough electricity to meet energy needs. Solar energy depends on the location of collection and costs about five times more than electricity generated by coal. Wind energy is also location-specific and “is comparable to peak load costs for electricity generated by conventional means” (Trefil and Hazen 67). There is also the issue of storage. The sun sets at night, so no solar nor wind energy can be collected. This means that the energy needs to be stored for use at night or times when the sun is not out. This inevitably increases the cost of both resources (Trefil and Hazen 69).
Changes are undeniably necessary to combat the energy needs of society. No matter what, fossil fuels will eventually run out. With research and development into new technologies, alternative energy sources will become more prevalent in electricity generation at a more cost-effective rate. This would inhibit further damage to the environment and solve the issue of diminishing supply. Regardless, alternative sources are the future of energy consumption, even if the change is not immediate.
- Annamalai, Kalyan, Siva Sankar Thanapal, and Devesh Ranjan. “Ranking Renewable and Fossil Fuels on Global Warming Potential Using Respiratory Quotient Concept.” Journal of Combustion, 2018, doi:10.1155/2018/1270708
- Enzler, S.M. “Fossil Fuels.” Lenntech, Lenntech B.V., https://www.lenntech.com/greenhouse-effect/fossil-fuels.htm
- “Fossil Fuels Still Dominate U.S. Energy Consumption Despite Recent Market Share Decline.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=26912
- Holechek, Jerry L. “National Security and Rangelands.” Rangelands, vol. 29, no. 5, Oct. 2007, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4640323?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
- “Observed Changes in our Climate System.” Australian Government: Department of the Environment and Energy, Commonwealth of Australia, http://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/climate-science-data/climate-science/understanding-climate-change/indicators
- Shafiee, Shahriar, and Erkan Topal. “When Will Fossil Fuel Reserves be Diminished?” Energy Policy, vol. 37, no.1, Jan. 2009, doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2008.08.016
- Trefil, James, and Robert M. Hazen. The Sciences: An Integrated Approach. 8th ed., Wiley, 2016.