How Sustainable Is Sustainable Energy?

If something is to be called “sustainable” it conveys an understanding that it is able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. As fast as it is used, it is replaced. When we talk about sustainable energy it can make many people feel quite excited that they won’t be contributing to the detriment of earth’s natural resources. But, really, how sustainable is sustainable energy?

First, we must agree on what types of energy are commonly understood to be “sustainable”. The common types of energy that are referred to as being sustainable are:

  • Biomass
  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Hydro
  • Tidal
  • GeoThermal

Sustainable energy has an opposite. The opposite of sustainable energy is called Fossil Fuel. Fossil fuels are a natural fuel such as coal or gas, which has been formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms. Fossil fuels are slow to develop and time, lots of time, is required in order to have reserves for humans to use.

Whereas in the past life seemed to move at a slower pace, slow and life rarely go hand in hand now. Time is always of the essence and when people want things they want them now, there is no time to wait for geologists to find the next reserve to tap into.

This is where sustainable energy is advantageous. Where fossil fuels have served mankind for centuries, the worry we currently have is how far these fossil fuels can be used considering the fact that they are fast being depleted. Often case when fossil fuels are used, they cause some serious environmental problems which have been shown to contribute to global warming and climate change.

In order for an energy source to be considered “sustainable” it needs to fit within three parameters – environmental, social and economic sustainability. This means that the energy source needs to be able to:

  • Be naturally replenished.
  • Increase its’ efficiency by way of technology
  • Be available long term

Let’s look at the various types of energy that have been identified as “sustainable” and see just how sustainable they are:

Solar Energy
This form of energy almost always comes out on top when looking at sustainable options. Solar energy provides power in two ways: light and heat. Not only can we harness its energy for our day to day lives but solar energy can also be used for plant generation and to help us grow food. Because of this, solar energy systems generate confidence and ensure that how we live does not cause any further harm to our environment.

Wind Energy
Wind turbines can produce vast amounts of power by harnessing our natural resource of wind. Although a relatively new form of sustainable energy, many large companies have started to invest into wind turbines in order to tap into this energy source. In the future, wind power will be able to be on sold to people to power their homes and possibly even industry will be able to be powered. Wind power will allow fossil fuel exploration to stop.

Geothermal Energy
New Zealand is a great country for geothermal activity. The amount of power lying beneath our tectonic plates is undetermined but when you look at places like Rotorua, it is obvious that this is an energy source that we could draw from more so than we currently do. Geothermal energy is captured by installing geothermal power stations that use the heat coming out from inside earth and use it to generate electricity. There is a limitation to Geothermal energy in that it can only be harnessed in areas that have high seismic activity, however they are environment friendly and can produce energy throughout the day.

Tidal Energy
With around 14,000 kms of coastline, New Zealand is literally surrounded by water. On top of this, around 70% of the earth is covered with water. When tidal energy is harnessed correctly, it can be used to power millions of homes. The power of the waves can be used by oceanic thermal plants to convert the kinetic energy in the waves into mechanical energy. Once this has happened the mechanical energy can then be converted into electrical energy for use in homes and industry.

Biomass Energy
Biomass is produced by burning waste. It’s a form of recycling. Biomass energy can be created by burning wood, timber, landfill and agricultural waste. As humans continue to create waste, biomass energy is completely renewable. There is technically no production of carbon dioxide when biomass is made. Yes, burning items causes carbon dioxide but this is compensated for when the plant creating the biomass energy reuse the carbon dioxide created and produce oxygen. The creation of biomass energy also helps reduce the amount of rubbish that ends up in landfills.

Hydro Energy
Hydro Energy, or hydroelectric power, is very common. It is used to generate power in most parts of the world. The energy found in rivers and waterfalls is captured by directing the flow through turbines which generate power. This power is then on-fed through power lines throughout the country to power homes and industry.

Really, any form of “sustainable” energy is our best form of energy to use. Unless the sun stops shining, the moon stops influencing tides, humans stop creating waste to be used for biomass, the geothermal fields dry up and the rivers stop running, sustainable energy is sustainable for the next generation and for millennia.