This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature 'What Resource Do We Most Need For Our Future?'
The Deepwater Horizon disaster — which spilled an estimated 4.4 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the 5-month long ordeal — is a tragic and visible reminder of our nation's toxic love affair with petroleum-based fuel.
According to The U.S Energy Administration, oil supplies close to 40 percent of our total energy demands, while coal provides 23 percent and natural gas supplies 22 percent.
But America's growing thirst for the black goo is expensive. We spend more than $13 million per hour (that's $200,000 per minute) on foreign oil, based on estimates published by the Natural Resource Defense Council.
And then there's global climate change.
The best scientific evidence shows that global climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas), which emit carbon dioxide (greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere. The carbon gases act like a bubble around the Earth, trapping heat in, and in turn, causing temperatures to rise on the planet's surface. This phenomenon can be observed through shrinking glaciers, thawing of permafrost, rising sea levels, and lengthening of growing seasons.
It's not all bleak, however.
Over the last five years, countries around the world, including the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and China have been investing in clean and renewable energies in an effort to lower carbon emissions and transition to a more sustainable power source.
Renewable energy is energy that comes from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, tides, and geothermal heat. Unlike oil, these energy sources are in endless supply (although highly unpredictable) and carbon-neutral.
See what happens when human-engineering teams up with Mother Nature to produce some of the most innovative renewable energy plants.
Wave Snakes use the natural up-and-down motion of waves to generate electricity
The 460-foot long, British-made floating tubes represent the world's first commercial-scale wave-power stations.
The snake-like power farms, which were first launched off the northern coast of Portugal in 2008 from the town of Aguçadoura, are an original concept in clean energy design.
Using the natural up-and-down motion of waves, the stations are able to convert enough electricity to power more than 1,000 homes.
The Wind Blimp is equipped with spinning blades to catch wind and generate energy
Magenn Power Inc. developed its first wind blimp prototype in 2008. The MARS (Magenn Air Rotor System) is essentially an extremely lightweight wind turbine that is anchored to the ground by a tether. Helium is used to lift the blimp, which is equipped with spinning blades to catch wind, generating energy. The electricity is then transferred by the tether to either a power grid or batteries.
MARS has several advantages over other wind systems due to its size, weight, and the ability to operate in very light wind speeds. The blimp is transportable, easily deployed, and well-suited for off-site or remote locations. The floating wind turbine also has the potential to produce electricity at under $.20 per kWh versus $.50 cents to $.99 cents per kWh for diesel.
Archimede is the first solar power plant to use molten salts as a heat transfer fluid to store energy from the sun
Location: Syracuse, Sicily.
On July 14, 2010, Italian utility Enel unveiled "Archimede," the world's first solar power plant to use molten salts as a heat transfer fluid. The system contains 30,000 square meters (320,000 square feet) of parabolic mirrors that concentrate solar rays onto 5,400 meters of high heat-resistant pipes that carry the fluid molten salt. The fluid is then collected in special tanks and used to produce steam, which eventually contributes to electricity generation.
The salts—a mixture of sodium and potassium nitrate—are an extremely efficient heat transfer mechanism. Unlike synthetic oils used in traditional concentrating solar plants, molten salt can work at much higher temperatures (up to 550°C instead of 390°C). The salts store enough energy to keep the plant generating power at night or on cloudy days, which is a common limitation of many renewable energy sources.
This is the world's largest biomass power plant running solely on chicken poo
Location: The Netherlands
The Netherlands hosts the world's largest biomass power plant running solely on chicken poo. The European plant converts roughly 440,000 tons of chicken manure into enough renewable electricity to power 90,000 homes annually. The plant has a capacity to generate more than 270 million kilowatts of electricity per year.
But the power plant is not just “carbon neutral.” It also takes care of another massive problem—managing the excess of chicken waste, which if left untreated, releases methane—a very potent greenhouse gas.
The Geysers use naturally occurring geothermal energy in the form of steam as a power resource
Location: Northern California
Geothermal energy is power extracted from heat stored in the earth. Geothermal electric plants are typically built near tectonic plate boundaries, where high temperature geothermal resources are available near the surface.
The largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world, The Geysers, is located in the Mayacamas Mountains of Northern California — one of only two places on the planet to use dry steam as an energy resource. The Geysers provides nearly 60 percent of the average electricity demand from San Francisco to the Oregon border.
Building-Integrated Wind Turbines connect the Bahrain Word Trade Center towers
Location: Bahrain World Trade Center
The world's first building-integrated wind turbines were successfully installed in 2007 on the Bahrain World Trade Center.
The twin skyscraper complex in Manama, Bahrain, a small Middle Eastern island, is designed with three massive wind turbine blades that are supported by bridges spanning between the complex's two sail-shaped towers.
The wind turbines deliver approximately 11-15 percent of the energy needs of the building, or enough to provide light in 300 homes for over a year.
Slaughterhouse Waste from butchered turkeys is transformed into renewable diesel, fertilizers, and chemicals
Location: Carthage, Missouri
In 2004, a company called Changing World Technologies began transforming turkey waste — including fats, bones, greases, feathers, heads, and feet — into renewable diesel, fertilizers, and specialty chemicals.
The plant, located in Carthage, Missouri, is parked about 100 yards from ConAgra Foods' Butterball plant, where 35,000 turkeys are butchered daily, the corpses then trucked next door to be converted into oil.
The turkey-to-oil process is known as thermal conversion, which uses water, heat, and pressure to transform organic and inorganic wastes into oils, gases, carbons, metals and ash.
Unfortunately, Changing World Technologies had to close its Carthage site in 2009 due to financial troubles (residents also complained about the awful stench).
Whiskey distilleries by-products are transformed into enough electricity to power 9,000 homes
The Combination of Rothes Distillers (CoRD), in joint venture with Helius Energy, plans to build a new heat and power plant that uses the distilleries by-products — instead of fossil fuels — to generate 7.2MW of electricity —or enough electricity to power up to 16,000 homes.
It is estimated this would save about 46,000 tons carbon dioxide per year. The plant is expected to be fully operational at the beginning of 2013.
Europe's first commercial Solar Thermal Tower is a 40-story high concrete tower surrounded by 600 steel reflectors
Location: Seville, Spain
In 2007, Seville, Spain — which gets up to 300 days of sunshine per year — became home to Europe's first commercial solar thermal power plant, PS-10.
The most unique feature is a 40-story high concrete tower surrounded by 600 steel reflectors that direct the sun's rays to a heat exchanger (receiver) at the top of the tower. The receiver converts concentrated solar energy from the mirrors into steam. The steam is then stored in tanks and used to drive turbines that will produce enough electricity for up to 6,000 homes.