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Economic Geography - "Natural" Resources Ð'- What Are They?

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The worldbank.org website defines natural resources as materials that occur in nature and are essential or useful to humans, such as water, air, land, forests, fish and wildlife, topsoil, fossil fuels and minerals. Thorough out civilization, the use of these resources has been the major factor in the continuation of the expansion of human life as we know it.

From the use of these resources by our ancestors hundreds of years ago, mankind has now advanced to a stage where the harnessing, collection, and detection of natural resources has become a main focus because of our over usage. Especially the use of fossil fuels, the impact of energy production on the environment has intensified with industrialization and the growth of vehicle traffic in the United States. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, drove the Industrial Revolution and left its mark as a heavy cloud that darkened the skies over the industrial centers of the Midwest and Northeast.

Development of the gasoline-driven, internal-combustion engine and the mass production of Henry Ford's Model T in the early 1900s marked the beginning of the ascent of oil as the main source of energy in the United States. Although oil is less polluting than coal, the increase in oil consumption that accompanied the rise in auto traffic more than made up for the difference. By the 1960s, smog caused by auto exhaust combined with coal-fired industrial emissions to foul the air in many American cities.

Today the focus of natural resources have changed, they have now become a focus for energy, the collection and sale of that energy from the countries that have, to the ones that don't. In the early 1970s, a series of energy crises awakened the country to its growing dependence on foreign oil. In response, lawmakers created federal subsidies to help develop and promote solar, geothermal and other renewable energy sources. The goal was not only to develop more domestic energy sources but also to reduce the air pollution resulting from fossil fuel use. Today, however, oil and gas prices have fallen, foreign oil supplies appear reliable and renewables - despite the subsidies - have failed to capture much of the energy market. Instead of relying exclusively on coal, nuclear power or natural gas - the traditional fuels used to generate electricity in the United States - many power companies now are expanding their fuel "portfolios" to include so-called renewable energy sources, such as hydropower, biomass, wind and solar. Unlike supplies of fossil fuels, which are depleted by use, renewables are virtually inexhaustible.

Coal and oil use are especially harmful. Coal-burning utilities and factories spew sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that cause acid rain and pollute the air for hundreds of miles downwind. Gasoline and other oil derivatives used mainly to fuel cars and other modes of transportation emit air pollutants and account for much of the carbon dioxide emissions implicated in global warming.

A heavier reliance on renewable energy sources would help solve both problems associated with fossil fuels. While some regions are better endowed with renewables than others, the country has considerable supplies of sun, wind, rivers, underground steam, ocean currents and biomass - plants and waste that can be burned to generate heat and electricity. The United States could certainly reduce its dependence on foreign energy if it relied more on renewable sources. Renewable energy offers several advantages over conventional energy. Unlike fossil fuels, renewables are virtually inexhaustible. [1] Renewables also are widely available domestically. But renewables are not without their drawbacks. Solar and wind farms cannot generate much electricity on cloudy or still days. As intermittent energy sources, they require vast systems to store the energy they produce, or must rely on the rest of the electrical system for backup. And despite federal subsidies to spur technological innovation, renewable sources have not become economical enough to seriously challenge fossil fuels in an open market.

As a result, renewables still accounted for just 8 percent of total U.S. energy production in 1995. Here is where the major renewable energy sources stand today:

* Hydroelectric: Hydropower is the means of turning the energy contained in moving water into electricity. Usually the water flows through turbines that activate electric generators. Dams ensure a constant supply of water and control the flow rate and build-up of pressure, or "head," above the turbine. So-called pumped-storage facilities pump water into uphill basins to augment flow at times of peak demand for electricity. Hydropower, produced at about 2,400 hydroelectric dams in 48 states, has always been the leading source of renewable energy in the United States and still accounts for 50 percent of the electricity generated by renewable energy sources.

Unlike other renewables, hydropower is a mature technology. Most of the dams were built in the first half of this century, and there are few remaining sites that are suitable for future construction of large dams. Expansion of hydropower also is impeded by environmental concerns. Dam construction profoundly alters wildlife habitats. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, stocks of salmon and other fish that migrate from the ocean to spawning grounds upstream of major hydroelectric dams have plummeted, despite the construction of fish ladders, screens to keep them from being sucked into the turbines' blades and hatcheries to compensate for losses. There are even mounting calls to actually dismantle some of the dams on the lower Columbia River and the huge Glen Canyon Dam upstream from the Grand Canyon to avoid what environmentalists say could be the wholesale extinction of several fish species. [2]

* Biomass: The oldest renewable energy source of all is a form of solar energy stored in organic matter. Apart from hydropower, biomass is also the most commonly used renewable source. It also is the most diverse renewable, using wood and other plant materials to produce heat, electricity, gas and liquid fuels. Biomass facilities often are cogeneration plants, which produce heat and electricity at the same time. Wood and wood wastes are the most common fuel, followed by municipal solid waste. Biomass accounts for about 5 percent of the country's total energy consumption and almost 90 percent of renewable energy, excluding hydro. Biomass power is growing by about 3 percent a year. [3] There are three main forms of biomass energy:

Wood, agricultural waste and dedicated energy crops: Most biomass energy consumption results from traditional wood burning, used by both homeowners and businesses for heat. In addition to cord wood, wood pellets produced from ground-wood fiber are a fast-growing

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