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Energy is a vital commodity for life; it is created from many sources including natural gas, coal, uranium (nuclear power), oil, wind, water, solar radiation, volcanic heat, plant material, and hydrogen.  The energy field is often divided into the sectors of exploration and production, which includes coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power, and distribution, which includes electrical distribution businesses that convert fuel to electricity and distribute that electricity to consumers.

energy production collage Coal, oil, and natural gas are the most-consumed energy sources in the USA.  Oil is currently the most critically necessary fossil fuel and coal is the most plentiful resource.  While coal is more abundantly available, cheaper, and easy to store and burn, it is also the dirtiest fossil fuel, responsible for almost 40 percent of carbon monoxide emissions in the United States.  To counteract this, the process of gasification has been developed, whereby coal is broken down into its basic chemical constituents after mining extraction.  If coal lies near the surface, it can be extracted by a method known as strip mining, while other coal deposits must be extracted through underground mining.  Oil and natural gas provide three-fifths of the energy needs of the USA, and they provide raw materials for plastics, chemicals, medicines, and fertilizers.  Workers in the oil and natural gas industry use various methods to find geologic formations where gas and oil are likely to reside.  They then install a derrick (a tall steel structure which supports the drilling equipment) and drill a hole deep into the earth.  Offshore drilling uses the same technique, but with a steel platform sitting on the ocean floor or floating on the surface.

Nuclear power is created by the fission (splitting of the atom) of uranium, plutonium, or thorium.  Approximately 15 percent of the electrical needs of the USA are provided by nuclear power, with the majority utilizing uranium.  The uranium is formed into pellets which are then arranged into long rods and bundled together.  The bundles are then submerged in water inside the power reactor.  Nuclear power is thought to be an extremely clean source of energy, but as evidenced by the recent events in Japan, nuclear plants have the capacity to release dangerous levels of radiation and other chemicals into the surrounding environment if damaged.  The USA has remained relatively conservative on the creation of new nuclear power plants, mainly due to the issues of nuclear waste and disposal, but there are still strong advocates who feel that nuclear power is a viable answer to the steady depletion of oil and gas reserves and the problems inherent in using coal as an energy source.

As traditional energy sources face depletion, alternative renewable forms of energy utilizing the forces of nature are becoming increasing attractive.  Solar energy is increasingly used for powering residences and in other applications, but it has a limited potential due to the realities of night and cloud cover.  Turbines used for harnessing wind energy have been the most rapidly increasing form of alternative energy in the last decade, but remain somewhat problematic due to the fact that relatively few areas have significant prevailing winds.  Hydroelectric power utilizes the potential energy of rivers; it supplies 17.5 percent of the earth's electricity.  Creating biomass energy involves the burning of agricultural wastes, but the logistics of harvesting and moving crops limit its effectiveness.  The sun, wind, tides, and waves cannot be controlled, complicating these sources of energy production, and the need for creative and effective means of harvesting renewable energy has become one of the most important issues facing our world today.

Find more information about the energy industry and its employment opportunities at the Department of Energy and Association of Energy Engineers websites.  Information about specific energy sources can be found at the American Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, National Mining Association, and Nuclear Energy Institute websites.

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