A coal-fired power plant near Winfield, W. Va.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Altos High School

Opinion: The ambition for clean, cheap and plentiful energy

Writer’s note: This is an open letter in regards to the United Nation’s Goal 7 to achieve affordable and clean energy.

Clean, cheap, and plentiful energy has been the ambition of many. However, it has thus far eluded modern civilization. Clean sources of energy thus far have been neither cheap nor plentiful. To reach the UN’s Goal 7 of its Envision2030 initiative of providing the “affordable, reliable and modern energy service” we all need to work much harder.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency renewable energy has three primary benefits to society (2019): (1) no greenhouse emissions, (2) diversified supply and reduced dependence on imported fuel, and (3) create new green jobs. Current forms of clean energy can typically be traced to solar, wind, and hydro — each has benefits and negatives.

Nuclear once was considered a form of clean energy due to it not releasing carbon emissions, but the inherent danger of its fuel and the long-term storage of spent fuel has lessened it as a favorite choice going forward. Solar is only as good as the amount of sunlight visible — areas under continual smog and cloudy conditions may not benefit.

Materials that are required for solar power are costly and typically have an efficiency rated from 20% to 40% according to the website SolarPowerIsTheFuture. Wind is feasible in areas where air flow is continuous. Attempts to install wind farms on land and offshore each have run into their own compilations (zoning, environmental, bird deaths). Hydro power is also an excellent source of energy where there is nearby water flow or waterfalls.

All forms of clean energy also suffer from additional complications that the industry must overcome to allow wider acceptance over fossil fuels — technology efficiency, power storage, and transmission. When the sun falls and the wind dies down, power is not being generated. Therefore, efficient new forms of battery storage are also a prerequisite of any future form of clean energy.

Beyond storage is the transmission of power and the infrastructure needed. Large wind and solar installations are typically located far from urban centers and the transmission of the power adds a large costs factor. Governments and the industry need to formulate more efficient methods of transmissions or centrally locate the power plants closer to urban centers. The final hurdle that the world must overcome is the technology.

According to some estimates from SolarPowerIsTheFuture, existing solar power panels are no more than 40% efficient. Increasing the efficiency will allow greater power generation and smaller panels needed. It is an exciting time for clean energy. As a civilization, we have come a long way but much more work is needed to drive down the cost and availability of clean energy.