States and provinces within a country should be weighing up different considerations when deciding the share of each energy source in their overall energy mix (for a power grid).
In this guide, we list some of those potential considerations – social, environmental, economic, practical, and so on.
(*Note – these are only some the many considerations individuals, cities, countries and businesses might make. Also note – some energy sources are going to be better for specific applications (electricity vs vehicle energy for example) than others.)
Summary – Considerations For Choosing Different Energy Sources To Make Up An Overall Energy Mix
Environment, and Sustainability
- Is it renewable or finite?
- If finite, how many years proven reserves are left, and what is the potential for future proven reserves to be confirmed
- What levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and individual air pollutants result from the lifecycle of the energy source (mining, manufacturing, combustion and operation, and waste stages)
- Is there any waste product that comes from the spent fuel of the energy source/the operation stage (and, how does that waste need to be managed)?
- How much construction materials are required for the energy source, and what type of materials? (nuclear uses less construction materia than solar and wind. And, solar uses rare Earth metals and oil)
- Can waste be re-used or recycled in sustainable way?
- Are there any primary or secondary environmental issues that the energy equipment can contribute to or create? (secondary issues might include acid rain, changes in climate and so on. Geothermal has been linked to earthquakes, and there’s alleged issues with fracking)
- Does the energy equipment impact wildlife, habitats and ecosystems in any way? (during mining, and operation)
- How much water does the energy source use?
- How much land does the energy source use?
- Does the energy source use other resources (like some biofuels might)?
Human Health & Safety
- How safe is the energy source overall in terms of key measurements like health related diseases, mortality rates, accidents, and so on? (on both a short term, and long term scale)
- Is there any hazardous waste produced from the energy source? (such as nuclear waste for example)
- Are there any other issues to consider like radiation, toxicity risk, risk of explosion or flammability, terrorism or security risks?
Technical & Practical
- How much energy does the energy source currently provide worldwide – is it proven, or prospective?
- What is demand like – do people want to use it?
- Has there been growth over the last few years and decades, or, has growth stagnated? (large scale hydro and nuclear has mostly stagnated in growth worldwide)
- What is the variability of the energy source? – is it consistent, or does it fluctuate like solar and wind do?
- Is energy output adjustable when equipment or power plant is in use?
- What is the energy density, energy per unit output, and fuel to power output like? (nuclear and fossil fuels tend to be more energy dense than solar and wind, and water tends to be more energy dense than wind as well)
- How efficient is the energy conversion process – from the energy source, through to producing and using electricity?
- How long does it take to build, construct or set up the power plant or power site?
- Can building be staged, or does it require all in one construction?
- Can power sites be distributed across multiple sites with a modular set up, or does a power plant have to be built on one site only? (solar panels for example can be set up panel by panel, and across different sites, whereas a coal power plant has to be set up in one spot – this can be an important consideration for places where natural events might impact power supply)
- What is the operation lifetime of the power plant or energy equipment?
- Can existing power plants or equipment be upgraded in terms of capacity and performance, or, can plant lifetime be extended? (nuclear for example can)
- How much more development does the technology involved with the energy source have left – how much more can it be improved or advanced?
- What is the remaining potential/capacity for power production worldwide, and in different cities, of the energy source?
- What scale of power production is the energy source suitable for – large cities, or small populations of people?
- Can the energy source be set up in rural or isolated areas?
- Is the energy source portable?
- Can the energy source provide off grid energy?
- Can the energy source provide energy independence to individuals and States?
- What does the energy equipment look like aesthetically? (wind farms might look visibly ugly)
- Does the equipment make noise? (wind farms might)
- Can cities and towns realistically transition to the energy source from their existing energy source/s?
- How does an energy source work in with other energy sources in a city’s energy mix – is backup power needed? Will excess power need to be sold off or unloaded when there’s too much power being produced?
- Can the energy source ramp up and down quickly? (coal and nuclear can take hours and days to cycle up and down, whereas natural gas can fire up within a few minutes)
- What is power transfer and transmission like for the energy source – does much power get lost in transmission?
- What sort of infrastructure and supporting equipment needs to be set up for the energy source – can that be integrated with the existing power grid?
- Is energy storage such as batteries required for the energy source?
- Is energy locally available?
- Are there land rights issues to worry about if new land is required for the energy source?
- Can equipment be installed on places other than land, such as in the ocean, in rivers, on buildings, and so on?
Cost & Economics
- Does a city have the financial means to develop and continue to use an energy source?
- Can a country or city’s economic stage support that energy source? (developed vs developing economies, growing vs established economies, and the types of sectors that are most prominent in an economy and need certain types of energy to grow)
- What are the production side costs for the energy source – research and development, investment to build and set up equipment, investment to set up infrastructure and upgrade existing infrastructure and power grid equipment, costs for operation stage (re-fuelling, maintenance, repairs, oiling cleaning, etc.), fuel handling and decommissioning costs, and so on?
- What are the consumer side costs for the energy source – electricity prices, home/off grid equipment set up costs, taxes and rate payers costs, and so on?
- How will demand be impacted by dips in oil prices?
- What is the likelihood that investors or buyers can money back on their investment/purchase, and how long does that usually take? (for individuals, homeowners, and large scale private investors)
- Where has investment money in energy technology gone in the last few decades, and where is it forecast to go over the next few decades?
- What level of subsidies will be required by the government and society to develop and use the energy source?
- How many jobs does the energy source provide?
- What is the value of the energy source to the economy?
- What are the economics of transporting the energy source for use? (e.g. brown coal can be non cost effective to transport certain distances)
- Are there any direct or indirect human health system or environmental/wildlife costs as side effects from using the energy source?
Considerations When Choosing Different Energy Sources In The Future For Cities & Countries
- Is fuel renewable or finite?
Solar and wind for example are renewable sources of energy (that come from the sun and wind patterns), whereas fossil fuels are found in the ground and tend to be finite in supply.
- If finite – how many years of supplies are left in the ground or elsewhere?
Different fossil fuels have different supply quantities left.
Uranium for nuclear energy is also finite – although, technology and scientific advances in the future could change that.
- Are there operational emissions or air pollution?
Some energy sources emit greenhouse gases or air contaminants during burning and operation, whilst others are clean.
- Are there emissions in the manufacture of the infrastructure and equipment?
Even though solar and wind are clean in operation, there is still a carbon footprint to manufacture solar panels, wind towers etc.
- Is there any waste when it comes to spent fuel of the energy source?
Nuclear has waste when the fuel is spent. Clean energy like solar doesn’t have waste.
- Variability of the energy source
Solar and wind energy for example can be more variable than other energy sources as the sun isn’t always shining, and wind isn’t always blowing.
This is in comparison to say a coal plant where as long as there is coal to burn, energy will be produced. So, coal can be said to have less variability than the above two energy sources.
- What is the power production density, or energy per unit output like?
Nuclear has great energy density of power per unit energy production compared to solar and wind energy.
- Set up costs
The cost to set up energy generation equipment and infrastructure.
- Running costs
The cost to operate a power plant or power generation equipment.
- Maintenance – how easy is it to maintain, and how much does it cost
Offshore wave energy farms for example could be difficult and costly to maintain.
Whereas, solar for example usually only requires cleaning of the panel a few times a year.
- Does it require re-fuelling?
Coal for example requires re-fuelling, whilst something like solar or wind doesn’t.
- How long does it take to build or install (months or years)?
Coal and nuclear power plants for example can take 6-8 years to full build.
On the other hand, smaller solar setups can be installed in a day or a few days.
- Can building be staged or is it an all in one construction?
Coal and nuclear power plants need to be built all in the one project.
With wind farms or solar farms for example – you can choose exactly how many wind towers or solar panels you’ll set up, and add to that if required. Building/installation can essentially be staged depending on your timeline and budget.
- Decommissioning costs
Some power plants are very expensive to decommission and de-construct, where as a solar set up might be much easier.
- What is the lifetime of the power plant or power equipment?
Some power plants and energy infrastructure last much longer over their lifetime compared to others.
- Can private companies invest in the technology and make their money back on it?
Private public, or fully private partnerships can be a positive for energy and power projects as they open up more sources of funding.
The more profitable energy is, the more potential funding there might be available, and the cheaper and more accessible power can become.
- Is there any hazardous waste produced by the power plant
Nuclear power produces hazardous or radioactive waste that needs to be managed and disposed of in a special way – this can be expensive.
- How safe is the energy source whilst in use
Nuclear energy for example has had a few nuclear reactor accidents in the last few decades.
- Costs for the consumer – what are energy prices like?
Some energy sources are more expensive than others for consumers due to various factors.
- How many jobs does the energy source create?
Some energy sources create more jobs than others. If an energy source doesn’t create jobs – can it help contribute to society and the economy in other ways?
- Potential for small scale energy supply and production
Some energy sources are great for small scale energy production on a household or individual level, whilst others are not
- Potential for medium to large scale energy supply and production
Some energy sources are great for large scale energy production for whole towns or large cities, whilst others are not
- Potential for remote or rural area energy supply
Wind and solar for example can be use in remote or rural areas fairly easily – as long as there is wind and sun there. Other energy sources can face logistical challenges in isolated or rural places
- How much more can research and funding continue to advance technology and capabilities/capacity in a positive way?
Some energy sources have a lot more potential and capability once technology develops more or the energy source can be utilised in different ways. Nuclear is one example of this with different nuclear energy generation techniques still to be researched, and different sources of uranium still to be explored.
- Can it supply energy off the grid?
Solar is an example of an energy source that can supply energy off the grid.
Solar has the ability to feed energy into a power grid, or, it can store energy in batteries for later usage.
- Can it give energy independence to individuals?
Solar is an example of an energy source that can give energy independence to individuals by allowing them to go off the main electricity grid.
- Is it portable?
Solar is an example of a portable energy source. You can get large solar panels that are permanently installed, or small solar panels you can take hiking or camping that are portable.
- How does it look aesthetically?
Wind farms are sometimes blamed for being ugly and unsightly aesthetically.
- Does it make noise?
Wind farms are sometimes blamed for being noisy while in use
- Does it impact the environment, wildlife or local populations in a negative way whilst in operation?
Wind farms for example can be blamed for hindering flying wildlife. Coal power plants indirectly cause air pollution which can impact the environment. Onshore and offshore wave and tidal energy equipment can hinder marine wild life. Hydroelectric dams can impact aquatic species.
- Is there any mining, or other fuel source processes that can damage the environment and local communities
Mining for fossil fuels can have extensive negative impact on the environment, wildlife and local communities.
Refining and processing petroleum can use water and other important resources.
- How can an individual or city practically incorporate, implement or transition to this energy source in the short and long term (China’s transition to natural gas and renewables)
China is an example of a country that faces large challenges in transitioning from coal as their main primary energy source, to natural gas, nuclear and renewables.
- Will the government subsidise it
Governments subsidise some energy sources more than others. China is an example of a country that currently subsidizes coal to an extent.
Pros & Cons Guides Of Different Energy Sources
In addition to the above considerations, you can check out the pros and cons of different energy sources below:
- Nuclear Energy Pros & Cons
- Oil Energy Pros & Cons
- Coal Energy Pros & Cons
- Hydrogen Energy Pros & Cons
- Natural Gas Energy Pros & Cons
- Geothermal Energy Pros & Cons
- Biomass Energy Pros & Cons
- Hydroelectric Energy Pros & Cons
- Wave Energy Pros & Cons
- Tidal Energy Pros & Cons
- Wind Energy Pros & Cons
- Solar Energy Pros & Cons