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What are Some of the Most Common Energy Sources?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated: May 21, 2024

There are a myriad of energy sources available to humans, from the most basic forms of harnessing our natural environment, to cutting-edge technological forms, able to generate immense amounts of energy. Different energy sources are preferable for different reasons, ranging from environmental concerns, to economy of cost, to what is available in a given area. What follow are some of the most common energy sources used in the modern world.

The most common energy sources on the planet in modern times are those which use fossil fuels to generate their energy. More than 85% of all primary energy on earth comes from fossil fuels, and although this percentage is being reduced slowly, total energy consumption continues to increase. Basic fossil fuels have been used to generate energy dates back earlier than recorded history, with coal used as a fuel for thousands and thousands of years.

In the modern world, fossil fuels power nearly everything. Coal and natural gas power plants generate massive amounts of electricity, distributed through countries by national power grids. Gasoline and diesel are used as the primary energy sources for cars and trucks. Ships, planes, rockets, motorcycles, and virtually everything else that moves uses some form of fossil fuel.

The supply of fossil fuels on the planet is, however, a finite resource, and is rapidly dwindling, causing serious concerns about controlling steady supplies. At the same time, environmental concerns about fossil fuels are growing steadily. It is estimated that some 21.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide are generated by fossil fuels each year, with only about half of that absorbed by natural processes. This is thought to be contributing to global warming, and people are suggesting alternatives as a way to move away from such pollutive fuel sources.

One such alternative is nuclear fission, commonly just referred to as nuclear power. Nuclear power plants stimulate a nuclear reaction in uranium-235, which causes its atoms to split, releasing enormous amounts of energy. This energy heats up water, which then transforms into steam, which is used to turn turbines. These turbines create electricity, which can then be moved around the country. One of the major hurdles to mainstream adoption of nuclear power is a public perception of its dangers, and the difficulty of disposing of nuclear waste.

Hydroelectric energy is one of the less popular renewable energy sources available, but is still widely used, especially in certain countries. Hydroelectric generation concentrates the power held in a river’s slow descent, by building a dam or other way to regulate water flow, and then using that regulated flow to turn turbines, which in turn generate electricity. Basic hydropower is one of the older forms of renewable energy, making use of simple water wheels placed at strategic locations in rivers to do things like grind grains. Although hydroelectric power is renewable, there are environmental concerns over damming rivers.

The two most popular forms of renewable energy, and the forms where the most attention is currently focused, are solar power and wind power. Solar power makes use of photovoltaic cells to convert the sun’s energy to electricity, or passively lets sunlight heat air or water. Wind power uses massive turbines, which are moved directly by the wind, to generate electricity. Wind power is a very clean power source, and in certain regions, such as the United States, it is being seriously considered as a major contributor to national energy needs in the future.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By dartash — On Sep 05, 2014

Globally, concerns have been raised due to the increased use of the traditional sources such as fossil fuels to produce energy. This is due to their negative effects and severe consequences caused to the environment. Burning these kinds of fuels normally produces greenhouse gases (GHGs), typically carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and methane (CH4) which in turn contribute to global warming.

There are also fears that the traditional energy sources will not last forever, with additional concerns being the escalating cost due to regional, political and international economic changes.

By anon933101 — On Feb 14, 2014

this really helped me alt

By GenevaMech — On Oct 16, 2010

@ aplenty- Community wind development and other clean energy source investments are actually becoming very common across the states. A few companies specialize in some form of community wind development. Even some of the big names in wind, like John Deere, are getting in on the community wind action. I live in Boston, and I know that there is a municipal community wind project called Hull Wind One that supplies energy to the town of Hull just outside of Boston. The developers of Hull wind are even trying to develop offshore wind about five miles off the coast of Hull Wind I. There are also other utility-scale community wind projects across the state of Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, and California. If you are lucky enough to live in one of these areas, getting in on one of these investments during the development stage can be quite profitable.

By aplenty — On Oct 16, 2010

I especially liked the section in this article that talked about the focus on wind and solar energy sources. I drove through Minnesota and passed through a town called Levine (I think). I ate lunch with my fiancée in this town and we struck up a conversation about the nearby windmills with another couple sitting at the lunch bar.

The wind farm near Levine is called Minwind and it was one of the country's first community wind farm. The windmills were spread across farms that lined a local ridge. The farmers actually owned the windmills rather than leasing their land out to giant developers and utilities. I thought it was a great idea because everything related to the wind farm was local. All the investors were local, the technicians and engineers were local, and the profits from the farm stayed in the local community. The farm was tied into the grid and was sold, I'm assuming, throughout the region. I could see energy projects like this becoming commonplace in this country.

By Comparables — On Oct 16, 2010

Although fossil fuels are the most commonly used sources of energy, they are still a form of solar energy. Almost all the energy humans use is directly or indirectly derived from the sun, or the earth's interior energy. Fossil fuels are simply stored solar energy from millions of years ago. All of the organisms that decayed and became fossil fuels got their energy by converting solar energy.

Even most alternative energy sources of energy are indirect forms of solar energy or direct forms of the earth's internal energy. This article did a great job of breaking up energy into different categories, I just wanted to add a perspective often overlooked.

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