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Alternative Energy Looking a Little Green


Renewable power far from replacing fossil fuels.

Record-high gas prices, fears of looming fossil-fuel shortages, rising electricity demands and environmental concerns are making Americans frantic to find sources of green energy.
It's also turning them into small-time Lance Armstrongs: Bike sales have increased, and new solar-powered lights brighten the doors of many homes. Democrats are hiring "directors of greening" to design an environmentally friendlier Democratic National Convention, complete with free public bicycle stations and a solar- and wind-powered Media Pavilion, among other conservation-minded features.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both expressed concern for the future of energy. Of course, they vehemently disagree about what's to be done: Obama is in favor of using renewable energies like solar and wind power, while McCain's adamant about nuclear power. If elected, he promises to build 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030.
While alternatives to fossil fuels like wind, solar and nuclear power have lower environmental impact, confusion persists as to which source of energy can be called the "greenest."

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Consider wind power: Turbines -- from the homely windmill to large-scale wind farms -- harness wind into usable forms of energy (such as electricity).

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), $1 million in economic development is generated for every megawatt of wind energy produced - and investors like T. Boone Pickens, Clean Energy's (CLNE) majority shareholder and founder of BP Capital, is one of its most vociferous advocates.

In 2007, the US added 5,243 megawatts of wind power to its electric grid, the largest amount ever added by a single country in a single year. Globally, wind power has increased almost fivefold from 2000 to 2007.

Despite this increase, wind only accounts for 1% of worldwide electricity use and 5% of US energy. This may be due to the fact that modern turbines are massive and cost-prohibitive, making smaller facilities unviable.
Not having to pay fuel costs for wind is a perk, but the level of subsidies, the paucity of energy needs met and the uncertain financial return of wind projects make wind power inferior to other energy sources.
Wind power doesn't displace fossil fuel's generating capacity on a one-to-one basis. And some say it doesn't actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions, because its inconsistent output keeps it dependent on fossil fuel plants. Other environmental hazards include: Light pollution from the turbine's aircraft warning lights, as well as lubricating oil or hydraulic fluid leaking down turbine blades and contaminating drinking water.

Many environmentalists, as well as politicians like Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, have raised objections to wind power on environmental grounds - particularly since wooded land may be cleared to accommodate wind farms, destroying trees and displacing wildlife.

And turbines not only pose a threat to crop-dusting aircraft, but also to bats and birds. In 2004, more than 22,000 bats and 1,766 to 4,721 birds have flown to their deaths by flying into turbine blades.
On the other hand, AWEA enthusiasts praise wind power for creating jobs, revitalizing rural communities, cost benefits, low emissions, cleaner air and the potential for growth.
Probably the most common renewable energy source is solar power, which can directly convert sunlight into electricity by means of photovoltaic (PV) cells, or solar panels. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, global PV growth has averaged 25% annually over the last 10 years and 35% over the last 5. But like wind, solar power accounts for only a small percentage of electricity worldwide, and for only 1% US energy.
PV powers many everyday items like calculators and wristwatches, as well as complex systems like water pumps, communications equipment, highway construction signs and call boxes. Solar thermal energy has been used to regulate temperature in homes and businesses, among other things. PV manufacturers like SunPower (SPWR), once given up for dead, have been resurrected by the green energy boom and now report earnings in the billions each year, and Shell Oil (RDS) is currently seeking to expand its solar capacity.
While solar energy has many advantages (the fact that sunlight's free, to name just one), the initial cost of installing a solar energy system can be exorbitant, particularly as compared with non-renewable electricity, since semiconductors are pricey. With energy shortages, it'll only get costlier. Solar panels' size, capricious weather patterns, variable sun locations and the sun's inconvenient habit of setting are also deterrents.
But the pros of solar power outweigh the cons. For one, solar is cleaner and cheaper than extending a power line or using liquid fuels. The government also offers financial incentives for residential solar power use. If a system produces more energy than is used, utility companies can buy it back. This is called "net-metering."
Solar power can be used alongside other forms of energy, operate independently, reduce dependency on foreign sources of energy and provide local jobs. Though installation might be difficult and costly, there's virtually no maintenance necessary. The systems last for years, operate silently, don't require fuel and can easily be enhanced.
Solar and wind power are the most well-known renewable energy sources, but nuclear power is more commonly used. McCain's nuclear power campaign is part of a global trend. As of February, 31 states had 104 nuclear powered reactors fully licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear energy provides 20% of U.S. electricity, 76.8% for France and 30% for the EU overall. In March, 30 countries worldwide were operating 439 nuclear reactors; 34 new nuclear plants were under construction in 14 countries.

Some energy firms, including Entergy (ETR), Exelon (EXC) and Dominion (D) have recently bought dozens of nuclear plants on the cheap. Some companies, like General Electric (GE), manufacture equipment used in all 3 forms of alternative energy production - and also purchased Enron Wind, once the only American wind turbine manufacturer.

Like wind and solar energy, nuclear power doesn't produce greenhouse gases or pollutants. Unlike wind and solar, however, nuclear power plants don't take up a lot of space and produce a great deal of energy from small amounts of cheap fuel.

The major disadvantage? Storing nuclear waste material, which must be sealed up and buried for eons. Current facilities aren't large enough to store the world's nuclear waste, which limits the amount of nuclear fuel that can be used per year. There's also the threat of nuclear proliferation, if those atoms were to fall into the wrong hands.

Another cost of nuclear power: Buckets of money have to be spent on safety. Just ask the folks in Chernobyl.
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