Electrical energy is a necessity for cities, industry and households, but while the demand for electricity is steady, the source of that power can change. New options for renewable energy promise less environmental impact and greater efficiency, while more traditional methods hold their own advantages.
Burning coal to create steam and power turbines is still the most common source of electrical power. Coal power has several advantages over other sources of electricity. Coal is relatively inexpensive and readily available around the world, removing the need to ship it over great distances or mine it in unstable regions. Modern coal power plants can also use clean coal techniques to capture and sequester some of the carbon emissions, reducing the environmental impact of this old-fashioned electricity source.
Nuclear power is currently the second-most-common source of electricity in the United States. Nuclear power plants can generate large amounts of power using minimal resources by producing a fission reaction with radioactive materials. Despite some notable nuclear accidents in past decades, nuclear power has a safe history and produces little pollution.
Solar power is one of the most promising forms of renewable energy. It takes advantage of the large amounts of energy emitted by the sun and absorbed by the earth as heat and light. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electricity, storing it in batteries or sending it directly to the electric grid for use in the future, regardless of whether the sun is shining. Solar electricity has no negative environmental impact and can be produced locally on rooftops or on vast, remote solar farms located in areas where sunlight is frequent and land is inexpensive.
One seldom-used source of electricity that has gained attention in recent years is biomass, which refers to the burning of biological material such as wood, food waste and agricultural byproducts. Turning biomass material into electricity takes advantage of the potential energy trapped inside the material that would otherwise be wasted. It also prevents the material from being sent to a landfill, where it will take up space and break down more slowly.