Energy Sources: Here’s What’s Important

By Lilly Martinez 

February 5, 2024

It’s no secret that our planet is drastically changing due to the effects of climate change. There are many factors that feed into the rapidness of these changes, but an extremely significant one is energy sources. The burning of fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and renewable energy are the three sources that the world pulls energy from every day. What are the differences between them and what are the risks associated with each one?

The Burning of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are turned into energy by burning buried remains of plants and animals from millions of years ago. Due to the high carbon content of these plants and animals, burning their remains releases that carbon into the atmosphere. These released carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to the warming of our planet.

Additionally, forests and mountaintops are often scraped away to expose underground coal or oil. This destroys many animals' habitats, which leaves them unprotected and without their usual food source. This causes a major decrease in certain species and a disruption in the ecosystem. 

The ocean also faces the consequences of burning fossil fuels. Usually, there is toxic runoff into the ocean from coal mining and oil contaminants from spills during extraction and/or transport. The carbon emissions in our atmosphere also contribute to ocean acidification. 

Our seas absorb as much as ¼ of all man made carbon emissions. This makes the ocean more acidic, leading to less calcium carbonate* in the ocean, which can damage entire food chains. 

Ergo, the burning of fossil fuels is extremely harmful to the environment and there is very little, if any, argument that fossil fuels are a positive source of energy. 

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy is a topic that has been protested from both the positive and negative angles for years, which has resulted in many nuclear power plants being shut down around the world. In fact, California only has one remaining nuclear power plant-- Diablo Canyon Power Plant, located near Avila Beach and operating since 1985. 

Nuclear power is created through atoms (typically uranium) going through the process of nuclear fission*, then the heat produced through that is put through a coolant system; the reaction from this is steam and that steam powers an electricity generator. 

During this process, nuclear waste is produced. It is critical that this waste is disposed of properly, as it is harmful to humans, animals, plants, and the environment. However, because nuclear power plants are run by humans, it would be foolish to not expect mistakes. 

“The fear surrounding nuclear power essentially comes from man made mistakes; is man going to screw up?” shared Laura Van Zee, a government and economics teacher here at Morro Bay High School. Her opinions on this topic are valuable, as she is well educated on all things nuclear and passionate about her views. 

Van Zee supports interest groups that fight for nuclear power, and she hopes for more nuclear power plants in the future with advanced technology. In response to people who are pro-fossil fuels, Van see says, “when it [air pollution due to the burning of fossil fuels] is not as obvious, that somehow means that it’s better [than nuclear pollution].”

However, Greenpeace, an activist organization that has been protesting against nuclear power since 1971, says the same thing about nuclear energy, “just because nuclear pollution is invisible doesn’t mean it’s clean.” Greenpeace is pro-renewable energy, as are many others.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy consists of three main types; solar, wind, and geothermal. As with the other energy sources explained in this article, there are arguments from both sides. 

What exactly is renewable energy? defines it as, “energy derived from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed.”While renewable energy is a carbon free energy source, it also requires a significant amount of land. Deciding whether or not the U.S. has the appropriate amount of space to go 100% renewable energy is something that raises a lot of questions. 

The addition of more renewable energy in the U.S. would result in hundreds more acres of land being used. This land could be used for other purposes, such as housing or farm land, or could potentially be the habitat of animals. By taking habitats away from those animals, the same concerns discussed under the burning of fossil fuels section arise. 

It is extremely valuable to be educated on the different energy sources available around you and the consequences each one has. Take your knowledge beyond this article and explore other resources related to the topic. 

* ”Calcium carbonate is used by molluscan shellfish to build their shells, so it is crucial for proper shell development”

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* “During nuclear fission, a neutron collides with a uranium atom and splits it, releasing a large amount of energy in the form of heat and radiation.”

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For more information:

What is Nuclear Energy? The Science of Nuclear Power | IAEA

Nuclear Energy - Greenpeace USA  

What is renewable energy? | United Nations