About half the electricity used in the United States as of 2010 comes from coal-fired plants, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Coal, like oil and gas, is a fossil fuel, formed from plants and animals that lived 300 million years ago. But coal is only one choice for energy generation, and each option has advantages and disadvantages.
The United States has abundant supplies of coal, making it an inexpensive and readily available energy source. New technology makes burning coal cleaner than ever, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Burning coal produces greenhouse gasses, which contribute to global warning. Carbon monoxide, sulfur and other compounds in coal smoke pollute the air. Mining coal requires digging tunnels or widespread clearing of land, changing the appearance and contributing to soil and water pollution. Coal mining is a dangerous occupation; by September 1 of 2010, the United States Department of Labor reports that 43 people had died in coal mining accidents.
OIl and Gas
Along with coal, oil and gas provide much of the fuel to heat homes and generate power in the United States. In addition oil and gas power cars, trucks, buses, trains and airplanes. Abundant supplies of petroleum make it relatively inexpensive, petroleum can be converted into many products, from plastics and fertilizers to fuel.
Like coal, oil and gas are fossil fuels which produce hydrocarbons and other pollutants when burned to generate energy. Drilling for the oil and gas and operating the wells may also produce pollution. Accidents, such as well blowouts and gas fires, can endanger the lives of workers and residents near the wells. Finally, like all fossil fuels, the supplies of oil and gas are finite.
Whenever the sun shines, solar energy is available. Photovoltaic cells convert solar energy to electricity, while you can use radiant solar to heat water and cook meals. Solar doesn't pollute and, according to the United States Department of Energy, photovoltaic systems, once in place, require little maintenance.
Solar electricity only works when the sun shines, so cloudy areas of the country will generate less electricity. Solar energy systems have to have batteries to store energy for use at night and on cloudy days. These batteries are expensive and contain mercury and other chemicals that make disposing of the batteries when they no longer function difficult. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that in most parts of the country, solar energy still costs more than other forms of energy.
In areas where the wind blows, there's an unlimited potential to produce wind energy. Wind power doesn't pollute, and you don't have to import it from another country or transport it over long distances.
Not every location produces high enough winds to generate power, so the use of wind energy is limited to coastlines, plains and other high-wind areas. According to the U.S. Department of energy, the high cost of building the infrastructure necessary for wind power production -- turbines and generators -- presents the chief challenge to wide-spread use of wind energy. Wind turbines can be noisy, and they present a hazard to birds, which may fly into the wind turbine rotors.
Generating power from the flow of water -- hydroelectric power -- may be one of the oldest methods of power generation, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey. The U.S.G.S. reports hydroelectric plants are economical to operate and reliable. They produce very little pollution.
You can only take advantage of hydroelectric power where you have flowing water. Building hydroelectric plants requires damming rivers and streams. This construction alters the course of the waterway and can impact fish and wildlife habitat. In some areas, homes have to be relocated to make way for power plants. The plants also require a large investment to build.
- coal image by robert mobley from Fotolia.com