There is no easy answer to what is the best source of energy or electricity. Is the priority reliability, affordability, the economy, international human rights, limiting greenhouse gas emissions, preserving environmental resources, or human health?
It’s undeniable that today — whether we like it or not — humans worldwide are overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. Everything eaten, worn, lived in, and bought is tied to availability of fossil fuels. Even if 100 percent of politicians were determined to stop using them today, society has neither the electricity grid nor the vehicular and industrial technology to sustain the current American lifestyle on non-fossil sources of energy. Yet.
When comparing sources of energy, it’s easy to forget how universal fossil fuels are. These sources continue to dominate for reasons that are difficult to measure, like political influence, advertising clout, and control over energy infrastructure. Other sources have disadvantages purely because they don’t fit in as well.
Volume brings another difficulty in comparing sources of energy. There is so much more fossil energy, and it’s been used for a long time, so we know a lot more about its hazards and benefits. More modern technologies are harder to quantify. Some are renewable but still pollute (biofuels), some are very clean except in accidents or waste disposal (nuclear). Most electricity sources (renewable or not) use steam turbines, and all the water to make steam has to come from somewhere, but how important should that factor be?
Clicking the graphic above will give an abbreviated chart comparing sources line by line, but that doesn’t provide anywhere close to the whole story.
Each of the following topics compares the major sources of energy through a different lens. Though environmental and local issues may seem the most important to those of us who don’t own power plants or utility companies, the cost of energy drives which sources are actually in place today and which sources will see investment tomorrow.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration