after millions of years of geological and chemical activity underground, turns into fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, or natural gas. Either way, we’re reclaiming the power of sunlight.
The only other original source of energy on Earth’s surface is found in more local nuclear reactions, where atoms of radioactive elements such as uranium split apart into smaller atoms and liberate energy in the process. Harnessed as heat, the released energy boils water, producing steam that turns turbines, thereby being converted to mechanical energy that generates electricity. Nuclear energy currently provides 20% of total electricity generation in the United States.
Finally, the heat of Earth’s molten interior, itself largely the result of the nuclear decay of radioactive
elements, provides geothermal energy. At present, it is chiefly used in only a few places, such as California and Iceland, where proximity to high temperature geothermal fields makes it practical.*
By the time energy is delivered to us in a usable form, it has typically undergone several conversions. Every time energy changes forms, some portion is “lost.” It doesn’t disappear, of course. In nature, energy is always conserved. That is, there is exactly as much of it around after something happens as there was before. But with each change, some amount of the original energy turns into forms we don’t want or can’t use, typically as so-called waste heat that is so diffuse it can’t be captured.
Reducing the amount lost—also known as increasing efficiency—is as important to our energy future as finding new sources because gigantic amounts of energy are lost every minute of every day in conversions. Electricity is a good example. By the time the energy content of electric power reaches the end user, it has taken many forms. Most commonly, the process begins when coal is burned in a power station. The chemical energy stored in the coal is liberated in combustion, generating heat that is used to produce steam. The steam turns a turbine, and that mechanical energy is used to turn a generator to produce the electricity.