Ask Glenn

Will we ever run out of electricity?

Maybe, maybe not. We can probably keep making electricity for as long as we need it, but it’s how we make it that’s the problem. There’s not much use in having lights and electronic gadgets if we have to destroy the planet to use them.

So we can just keep making electricity forever? So why are we always told that we need to save energy?

Because whether or not we run out of electricity depends on two things – how much we use, and how much we produce. Most of us don’t have much control over how much (or how) electricity is produced, but we can control how much we use.

That said, most of us are already using quite a lot more than we were thirty or forty years ago, and, as technology develops and plays a bigger role in our lives, we’ll probably use even more in the future.

So won’t it all eventually run out?

Well, let’s think about it for a minute. Where does your electricity come from?

Err... the plug.

Right. And before that?

Those big pylon things outside.

And before that?

Assorted power stations

Errr... a power station somewhere.

And what happens there?

Well... they burn stuff, or use nuclear stuff... and smoke comes out... and they make electricity.

Right. More or less. The stuff they burn is usually either natural gas, coal or oil. They burn it to heat up huge vats of water to make steam. Then the steam turns a series of turbines (which look like big propellers or electric-fan blades), which are connected to a generator. There, the motion of the spinning turbines gets transformed into electricity. If it’s a nuclear power plant, then the heat released by two chunks of nuclear fuel when you place them together is used to boil the water instead. From there, you get steam, spinning turbines, and electricity in pretty much the same way.

The problem is that coal, oil and gas supplies are gradually running out, and burning so much of them is probably adding to the greenhouse effect, which causes global warming. And while nuclear fuels can probably provide all the electricity we need, the nuclear waste they leave behind can damage the environment.

But what about solar power and wind power? Couldn’t we use those instead?

You’re right – solar and wind power are not only safer for the environment, but also potentially limitless, as it’s unlikely that we’ll ever run out of wind or sunlight. But they do depend on windy and sunny days, and, in general, neither of these methods alone could produce and store enough energy to meet all of our needs. That said, there are other kinds too (like wave, tidal and hydropower), and we do need to use renewable sources of energy like these if we are to keep producing electricity once the coal, oil and gas are gone. Especially if we don’t want to use nuclear.

So what’s the answer? Which one is best?

No single method is best – the real solution is probably for each country to use a combination of energy-producing methods best suited to its climate and its energy needs. Britain, for example, could use wind, wave, solar and hydroelectricity, whilst sunny African countries might get by on solar alone.

But for the time being, we’ll probably have to go on using nuclear and gas-fired power stations until the technology for renewable energy can be improved, as, right now, we probably couldn’t meet our energy needs with solar and wind power.

Not even with a million windmills and solar panels?

Well, possibly. But then they would cost a lot of money (and still more energy!) to make, and not everybody wants one on or near their house. We all have to decide for ourselves, I guess.

I’m going to live in a cave, and use no electricity at all.

Hey – it worked for our caveman ancestors. But then, they didn’t have PlayStation...