Air pollution, acid rain, oil spills from tankers, accidents in coal mines, oil rig fires - these are just some of the environmental and social problems associated with the use of coal, oil, and gas by our industrial civilisation.
Burning these "fossil fuels" also makes a major contribution to the rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The increasing "greenhouse" effect of this and other gases will probably cause a significant rise in global temperatures over coming decades, leading to disruptive changes in the Earth's climate.
Nuclear energy, although not contributing to acid rain or the greenhouse effect, also involves hazards to people and the environment. These can occur in the mining and transport of nuclear fuel, its processing and re-processing, and the storage of radioactive wastes. There is also a small but not insigificant risk of major nuclear power plant accidents.
It seems clear that if the energy needs of the planet's rapidly increasing population are to be met without irreparable environmental damage, there will have to be a world-wide drive to conserve energy and improve the efficiency of its use, in order to minimise the environmental impact of every tonne of fuel burned.
Equally important will be a major programme to harness the renewable energy sources, principally solar energy and its derivatives wind, wave, hydro and biomass. These have the potential to meet all our energy needs for the foreseeable future, cleanly, safely and economically.
Developing environmentally-benign energy systems for the 21st Century and beyond presents a formidable challenge, requiring a vigorous research and development effort.
In the Open University Energy and Environment Research Unit (EERU), we have been responding to this challenge since the mid-1970s. EERU is an interdisciplinary group of physicists, engineers, designers, environmental scientists, biologists and social scientists. The Unit currently includes some 15 full-time staff, post-graduate students and consultants.
Page Last Updated: 8 April, 2008