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Learn the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Nonrenewable and Renewable Energy Sources in Your World

How do you get your energy?

person holding a coffee

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No, not your personal energy. The energy that powers your home and your lightbulbs. Energy that gives you hot water and warm air and the internet. Energy that allows you to drive around in a car or powers your public transportation.

That kind of energy.

Do you know where it comes from?

Okay, sure, technically.

But big picture. The electricity that makes your toaster work doesn't just stream down from the heavens as useable electricity -- it has to come from somewhere.

And even if you're new to the energy investigation game, where it comes from matters. Like, a lot.

In fact, where your energy comes from could be the key in protecting and saving our planet.

So it's time to get on board.

Different Types of Energy

In really broad terms, energy sources fall into two categories: renewable energy sources and nonrenewable energy sources.

Both types of sources enable energy producers and users to take the primary source material (what it actually is to begin with) and transform it into useable power (secondary energy sources), like hydrogen or electricity.

Almost everything you use today requires energy, from your car to your coffee pot to your daily treadmill run. The type of energy you're currently using depends on a couple of different factors: how you get your power and the types of power that are produced in your area.

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Most people are using the energy that pumps through the grid to get to their home: the grid allows electricity to move from place to place, which is cool and helpful. However, many of today's grids are getting old, inefficient, and don't always allow for renewable energy sources. Some updating (probably to uber-efficient smart grids) is needed.

Additionally, the power you get is determined by the power generated in your location. If you're curious, look it up!

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Definitions, Please

Renewable: not depleted when used

You can keep using it and using it and using it and it's not going to disappear forever.

Nonrenewable: not capable of being replenished

There is only so much of it in the world, and when it's gone, it's gone. Period.

Nonrenewable and renewable energy sources are pretty self-explanatory at first, right?

And some examples make it even clearer.

Renewable Energy Sources

Nonrenewable Energy Sources

solar energy icon

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The sun (solar energy)
fossil icon

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Fossil fuel oil
hydro power plant icon

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Water (hydropower energy)
coal icon

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Coal
wind power icon

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Wind (wind energy)
gas pipe icon

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Natural gas
biomass icon

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Organic materials (biomass energy)
power plant icon

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Nuclear power
geothermal plant icon

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Heat (geothermal energy)

So cool. When you see those wind turbines slowly turning in the breeze or see train cars piled with coal barrelling down the tracks, you can identify each as a renewable energy source or a nonrenewable energy source. Good work!

Buuuuut it's far from over. The science, the history, the debate, and the benefits and consequences of renewable energy sources and nonrenewable energy sources get even more exciting than basic identification.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

You need some energy, say.

You're trying to figure out what you want to use.

You've got a lot of resources at your disposal and various ways to access said resources, so the choice is in your hands.

Before you even get into the pros and cons and benefits and consequences, there are a couple of pretty basic questions to ask yourself (as the creator and originator of these energy ideas, as you are).

Two big things.

1

How can you transform each resource into energy that you (and others) can actually use?

2

What will happen when you do that?


If you don't have a pretty efficient way to transform your resource into power, or the power that you get from the transformation is less valuable than what you put into it in the first place, you might want to experiment with a different option.

Even if you have an efficient and profitable way to convert your resource into energy, you should think a little bit more before jumping into it. If the production process causes a ton of pollution or is super dangerous to you, your employees, or the environment, you might want to consider investigating another less awful option. Unfortunately, lots of people haven't fully taken this next step.

But, lucky for you, those who came before have pretty much done the dirty work of researching and testing for you.

The Original Dirty Workers

Renewable energy sources were actually the original energy sources.

The people who used them didn't necessarily see them that way, though.

Up until the mid-1800s, people mostly used wood for their energy needs. Keep in mind they didn't need to worry about how to power their cars or where to plug in their alarm clocks.

However, in the late 1800s, the future of nonrenewable resources was born.

England had been using coal for heat and energy since the big ol' Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s (and really, people had been using coal for heat since 1000 BC). But it wasn't until people started to realize that they were chopping down and burning trees at an unsustainable rate that they really turned to coal wholeheartedly.

It took a little longer for people to figure out how best to really use oil and natural gas, though. Edwin L. Drake discovered the first oil reserve in Texas in 1859, and the world has never been the same. Throughout the next century, cars were born as was the modern oil industry.

When people first started developing energy from these nonrenewable resources, some acted like they didn't have a care in the world. The world's transition from wood energy to fossil fuels was fast, and most people never looked back.

Until now, anyway.

Better? Worse? What's the Difference?

The overall pros and cons of renewable energy sources and nonrenewable energy sources are enough to make you think about making the switch.

Unfortunately, it's not always that easy. And for many people, the choice really isn't that simple.

Because although there are many benefits to committing to using renewable energy sources, sometimes the benefits on the other side tip the scale.

Renewable Energy Sources

Pros
  • It's in the name: they will never run out. Once the right systems are in place and working, renewable energy sources should provide energy for a long, long time.
  • It's free. No one owns the sun or the wind, so if you build a way to harness and convert this power into energy, you won't be paying that utility bill anymore.
  • It's good for the environment.
Cons
  • Renewable energy sources can be difficult to harness. The wind might be blowing, but you can't just grab a plastic bag, catch some of it, and plug your laptop into it.
  • And it's not just the setup that takes time and know-how, the machinery and technology required to transform renewable energy sources into actual electricity is often expensive. Even though you won't pay for the wind, you'll pay to control and transform it.
  • It's not always guaranteed. Even if you live in a windy, sunny, or water-y place, you can't know for sure how much power your particular renewable energy source will produce in any given day. It's a bit more dependant on things outside your control.

Nonrenewable Energy Sources

Pros
  • Right now, it's pretty cheap. (But stay tuned -- it's not going to stay that way.)
  • It's also easy to use. People (especially in the United States) have been using nonrenewable resources for so long that it's a little abnormal to try to use anything else. If you haven't been thinking about it, you're almost certainly using nonrenewable energy sources right this minute. Easy, right?
  • Efficiency. Not only is it easy and cheap to go fill up your car with gas, it's pretty efficient. Most nonrenewable resources only require a small amount of the primary resource to create a large amount of power, so if the world wasn't using so much, we wouldn't need as much as we do right now.
Cons
  • Remember how it's cheap right now? It won't stay that way for long. Because these resources are, by their very definition, nonrenewable, as the world starts to run out of them, the prices will drastically increase.
  • And even if you can afford to pay the rising prices of power from nonrenewable energy sources, there will be a day when you won't be able to buy them, no matter how deep your pockets are. They're going to run out. And that's it.
  • The big one: the mining of fossil fuels and the process involved with turning fossil fuels into energy is one piece of the climate change puzzle. The toxic gas released into the environment to create energy from these sources is adding to global warming, changing the face of our planet (and not for the better).

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix it?

Well, our reliance on nonrenewable energy sources is pretty broke, to be honest.

But people have been using nonrenewable energy sources for years, right? Are you thinking that it was good enough for them it should be good enough for you?

Even without the pollution and the destruction of the environment and global warming, there's an even bigger problem with nonrenewable resources.

They don't renew.

We won't get more.

When it's over, it's over.

Done.

So even if you're pretty comfy with the fact that nonrenewable resources are destroying our world at a pretty rapid rate, sooner or later, you won't even have a choice.

Go Deeper: Nonrenewable Energy Sources

However, despite the benefits of renewable energy sources, the vast majority of energy in the United States comes from nonrenewable energy sources, all with their own unfortunate side effects. In some cases, when it comes to nonrenewable energy sources, the fact they're going to run out soon might be the least of our worries.

Almost all of our nonrenewable resources come from one category of material: fossil fuels.

dinosaur fossils

Dinosaur Fossils via Wikimedia.com

Kind of like that.

Fossil fuels started their lives as actual fossils -- remnants of organic material, like plants or animals -- that died and were buried in rock and left undisturbed for millions of years. Over time, this material transformed into different types of fossil fuels, like coal and oil.

The type of fossil fuel that developed in each location depended on the type of original organic material, the pressure and temperature on the organic material, and the length of time it was left alone. All of those conditions combined to give us a world full of different types of fossil fuels.

Just like there are many different types of fossil fuels, there are many different ways to get them, produce them, and use them. Check it out.

Coal

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Coal is the big one.

It is the largest energy source produced in the United States, and much of our electricity comes from it. In 2017, about 14.2%of energy in the US came from coal; this power was primarily used for electricity and manufacturing. It's a big deal.

There is a ton of coal in the US: 477 billion short tons, to be specific.

So How does a Black Rock Turn My Computer On?
After the coal has been mined (probably in Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, or Wyoming), it gets crushed.

Literally.

This super-fine coal dust powder is then burned and used to turn water into steam.

The steam spins a turbine (really fast) which then is connected to an electric generator. Inside the generator, big copper wires are filled with magnets. When these magnets move, they create electricity.

What's Wrong with That?
Coal production has some awfully serious consequences. And not just for the environments impacted by mining.

The biggest of the coal power negatives are air pollution and global warming.

During the coal burning process, a lot of chemical reactions occur. Some of them are good, like the ones that create energy, but some of them release toxins into the air. Toxins like mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead, carbon monoxide, arsenic… the list goes on. All of these have pretty serious health implications for those living near plants, working in plants, and in the world overall.

And that's not all. The carbon dioxide and methane released into the atmosphere from coal production is also a major factor in global warming. Not great.

Maybe it'll Change?
There is a push, however, to investigate how coal can be produced in a less awful way. One of the most promising new technologies includes finding ways to collect, store, and transport the CO2 created through the coal production process to prevent it from being released into the atmosphere, but it's still prohibitively expensive.

Oil

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You've probably heard the most about this one. Foreign dependence, anyone?

Chances are, you use oil to power your car, but it also might be heating your home.

Oil prices have risen in the United States, but it's still the most popular power choice, accounting for about 37% of energy used in the US in 2017.

Just like coal, oil is a fossil fuel found and mined deep in the ground. After it has been extracted, it can be transformed into a variety of useable products, like gas, kerosene, jet fuel, propane, and diesel.

The process of changing oil itself into energy or gas is remarkably similar to the first steps in the coal process: burning. And this is where another negative side of oil dependence comes in.

Burning oil sends pollutants into the air just like burning coal does. There is also the strong possibility for water and soil pollution around oil power plants, and because the process of making energy from oil uses a lot of water, the plants aren't only poisoning the water, they're using up potentially potable water that could be used in other ways. Like, you know, drinking.

Even oil drilling and transportation has its laundry list of negative effects: pollution, potential accidents and disasters, creation of hazardous waste. It's not good.

Natural Gas

Image via Pixabay

Although still a nonrenewable fossil fuel, natural gas is a tiny step closer to renewable energy sources in a couple of ways.

First, it's known as the cleanest of the fossil fuels. Although it still has to be mined from the ground and processed to create usable energy, its processing doesn't create as much pollution as coal and oil.

Much like oil, natural gas is formed and stuck between layers of rock deep in the Earth's surface. When researchers and companies find a natural gas deposit, they can drill down into the rock and retrieve it. As it is a gas, when the pipeline reaches the deposit, it will naturally flow up to the surface.

Used for almost 30% of America's energy, natural gas is a popular choice. However, even though the pollution emissions are significantly smaller, the contribution of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is still a contributing cause to climate change.

Nuclear Energy

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Hold up, this isn't a fossil fuel.

You're right, it's not.

But since it's created using uranium, which is found in rock and is definitely a nonrenewable resource, it still fits in the bigger category.

The complicated science of nuclear energy makes up about 20% of America's energy and is understood by maybe that same percentage of the population.
Atoms, which make up everything, each contain a nucleus of protons, electrons, and neutrons. The bonds that hold these pieces together are very strong and contain a lot of energy. So when the bonds are broken, the energy is released. To break these bonds, companies and researchers use nuclear fission, which produces electricity.

Okay. Now the next step.

Almost all nuclear power plants use uranium atoms because they are relatively easy to split (in the right circumstances) and the split gives off a ton of energy.

The rest of the process is pretty similar to the processes of burning fossil fuels to get energy. After the atoms split, the resulting heat is used to power turbines and etc. etc.

Nuclear Issues
Heard of a nuclear bomb?

nuclear bomb blast

Image via Wikimedia.com

That's a pretty serious (and relatively unlikely) consequence of nuclear power plants, but still.

Nuclear power plants don't create the same types of pollution as fossil fuel plants, but the waste has to be safely stored and a lot of water is used during the energy-creation process.

Energy Is All Around You

Time for the good stuff.

You might be using nonrenewable and polluting energy sources right now, but at least if you learn about some of the other renewable energy sources out there you'll know what your options are when it's time for you to make a choice.

Also, most renewable energy sources have a much more straightforward energy-creation process than nonrenewable energy sources do -- not a whole lot of burning and turning and polluting here.

Solar Energy

Image by Tom Fisk via Pexels

Ever had a bad sunburn?

If so, you know firsthand how powerful our star can be.

Solar energy is harnessed by solar panels and then converted into energy that you can use to power your home and all of the stuff in it. Solar panels are pretty popular now -- you've probably seen them around your neighborhood, even -- and although the panels take up space and the sun isn't always shining, solar power can be a great way to pay a significantly lower utilities bill each month. Right now, solar power is almost 1% of the United States' current energy usage, just FYI.

Some countries (like China) are even researching the next step in solar power: they're trying to create a farm of solar panels that would orbit the earth, collect solar power, and convert it into usable energy for their people. Pretty cool, huh?

Hydropower

Image by Ali Madad via Pexels

It's water!

And just like solar power, the energy in rivers and lakes and streams is pretty easy to see for yourself.

Hydropower (or hydroelectric) energy is produced by turbines that spin and create electricity using the water's own power. Sometimes these turbines are put in natural rivers and streams, and sometimes they're included in dams and man-made lakes.

Places like Switzerland are powered almost exclusively by hydropower (thanks to their giant glacier-filled lakes), so this is pretty powerful stuff. It's only about 3% of the energy used in America, so there are some untapped water sources just waiting to be useful to us as well as the fish.

Wind

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This one is obvious, both in its name and its impact on the scenery.

Wind is most commonly harnessed through tall turbines that spin in the breeze and create electricity. Turbines can be difficult and costly to set up, and they obviously work best in pretty windy locations. But wind power is one of the cleanest renewable power options!

Geothermal Energy

Image by Kerry via Pexels

This gets a little funky.

So the core of the Earth is hot, right? And sometimes the heat rises to the surface. Sometimes it rises so high through the crust of the planet that we can even reach it.

This extreme heat creates steam, which, when accessed and transported correctly, can run turbines and create electricity.

It takes some set-up, but once you've found your steam and it's all happening, it's a pretty sweet (and clean) deal.

Biomass Fuels

Image via Pixabay

Organic material. Burning. Occasional pollution.

Sounds like you're back to fossil fuels, doesn't it?

Not quite. Instead of drilling to find organic materials that have transformed into other substances over the course of millions of years (like fossil fuels), biomass fuels are made from organic materials that were living really recently.

Like weeks ago recently.

Biomass fuels can come from just about anything, but it's typically wood, crops, or even garbage. The organic material is then burned to create power.

Like fossil fuels, burning biomass fuels can cause dangerous chemicals to get into the air or water. Unlike fossil fuels, however, these materials (wood, crops, and for sure garbage) just keep coming, as long as we keep growing them. While biomass fuels aren't necessarily the very best renewable energy source, it's a step in the right direction.

You're Convinced… Now What?

Unfortunately, it's not all that easy.

Even if you live in a windy place or right next to a river, you can't necessarily just set up a windmill or a watermill and cut off your access to power lines.

And even if you could, what about the rest of the world?

power plants with one wind turbine

Image via Pixabay

Don't panic just yet, though. There are some options and there is still a little hope even amid the challenges.

Money

Image via Pixabay

Setting up new stuff is expensive.

Whether you're planning on building a solar farm or a wind turbine, it probably won't be cheap.

For a residential solar panel system, the initial cost to build and install the panels was around $3,700 per kilowatt (measure of power). At about $2,000 per kilowatt, a big system isn't that much better. Comparatively, a natural gas plant might cost around $1,000 per kilowatt. Wind energy is a little more affordable (about $1,200 per kilowatt), but that's still a hefty chunk of change.

Good news, though: if you consider the overall timespan of the machinery and the energy it should create over the course of its life, the initial sticker shock should wear off a bit. Wind power is then down to around $30 per megawatt-hour (another energy measurement), and solar power is around $45 for the same amount of energy. Coal is at least $60.

The costs of building renewable energy source generators have also significantly dropped in recent years, so chances are they'll continue the trend and give everyone the opportunity to jump into the renewable energy sources market.

Where to Put Them and How to Transport Them

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Coal plants, natural gas plants, and oil plants are pretty centralized: they only use a couple of plants to make a ton of power.

Renewable energy sources, however, are decentralized: wind turbines can be spread out all over the place, for example.

lighting an electric bulb diagram

This is good and bad.

It's bad because in order to create big, sustainable, transmittable renewable energy sources, infrastructure needs to be created, and that's often expensive. How are you going to collect the energy generated from all of those turbines and get it to the people who need it?

On the other hand, it's a pretty good situation to be in. If there are renewable energy creators in a lot of different locations, it makes the creation of that power more resilient. Not sunny today in your home state? That's okay -- it's always sunny in Philadelphia!

It's not, but you get the point.

Big Stuff

Image via Pixabay

Politics, money, misconceptions… these all make it more difficult for the world to move into a future where renewable energy sources are the norm.

But you can help! Inform your politicians of the importance of renewable energy sources, give money and support to candidates and policies that emphasize the importance of research and development in these areas, and tell anyone and everyone that renewable energy sources are valuable, predictable, and so much healthier than what we're using now.

Make Yours a GreenHouse

After contacting politicians, digging yourself out of a climate change internet rabbit hole, and convincing your family and friends of the importance of renewable energy sources, you're probably ready for a break.

Just kidding!

Don't rest on the hope that someday someone else will do something! Today you can start including renewable power sources in your very own home.

person standing outside a house with a hammer

Image via Pixabay

Choose one, choose them all, or start making a “someday” list. Just remember: every little bit helps!

Image via Pixabay

Solar Panels

They're pretty popular for a reason, and it's not just their aesthetic appeal.

Solar panels are an excellent way to save some money on your utility bill, and maybe even make some extra cash. Many utility companies will buy back any electricity your solar panels generate that you don't use, so you'd be benefiting your neighbors, too.

Do some research in your area as far as what options are available: there are the standard panels that go on the top of your roof, but you can also invest in solar panel shingles.

Image via Pixabay

Wind Turbines

Most wind turbines live out in big fields with all of their friends.

But if you have the space and can stand the noise (or can build it far enough away from your actual house), a wind turbine can probably produce all the energy you'll ever need and more.

Make sure you check your local regulations and laws -- it's illegal to build a wind turbine on your property in some places -- but depending on the weather and your property setup, this might be the way to go.

Image via Wikimedia

Future Food Prep

If you want to experiment with solar power in a small way, start by building and using a solar oven.

Your solar oven can be as affordable or expensive as you want -- build it out of cardboard and aluminium foil or out of wood and sheets of metal, it'll do the same thing.

With a solar oven, you won't be spending money to cook or heat your food, and if there are frequent power outages, you'll be covered.

Image via Pixabay

If You Have a River…
… install a hydropower generator!

You'll obviously have to have the right type of property and legal, easy access to a large stretch of flowing water, but hydropower is consistent, strong, and awesome.

It takes a lot of work and engineering know-how to build a hydropower generator, even if you've got the river access, so you might want to consider hiring a professional to do it (or at least help). But if you're in for a project, there are plenty of online resources that will help you on your way to self-sustaining power.

Image via Wikimedia

With their Powers Combined…

Solar energy doesn't just have to be used in solar panels or to cook. You can set up your very own solar water heating system.

Easier to set up than solar panels and much more affordable than using electricity or gas to heat water, building your own solar water heater can be a great way to start using the sun for good.

There are lots of different solar water heater options, so do your research instead of jumping on the first one you see. And consider using your solar water heater for the next renewable energy source option as well.

Image via Wikimedia

It Feels Ironic

Hot water can also be used to power your air conditioning and bring down one of the biggest costs of your utility bill, especially if you live in a hot place and love your AC.

If AC is a major player in your electric usage, consider installing a solar water heater and an associated hot water AC system. If you're lucky, your hot water could power your air conditioning and give you hot water, too.

Image via Pixabay

Heat from Below Deck

Geothermal power can be tapped and utilized in your very own home.

Ground source heat pumps are an easy and efficient way to heat or cool your home, and they use less than half as much electricity as a standard heating or cooling unit. They also have a pretty long shelf life, lasting for between 25-50 years, so you should see it pay for itself pretty quick.

Image via Wikimedia

Ready for Something New?

This is both the easiest and the most difficult way to make sure your home is energy efficient and harnesses the power of renewable energy sources: buy a house that has good insulation and well-placed windows.

Solar panels aren't the only way to use the sun to heat your home -- a few well-placed windows and good insulation will let the heat of the sun in on cold days and keep it inside for you to enjoy. Good insulation will also keep your home cool on days when you aren't interested in basking in the sun's burning rays.

Don't Get Mean, Get Green

Renewable energy sources are the future.

They're better for the environment, they're more reliable, and they're not going to disappear any time soon.

Don't wait for the day when gas spikes to $10 a gallon or when your utility bill is more than your mortgage.

Choose today to make the change. The world will thank you for it.

 person holding green earth

Image via Pixabay

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