Coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power are not viable energy sources in the long term. However, there are several energy sources that promise to be a long-lasting solution.
Types of Renewable Energy
Every resource on the planet runs dry eventually. Coal, oil, and natural gas are all sources of energy that have powered our civilization for centuries. However, they won’t last forever. Even those that have abundant amounts have been shown to lack cleanliness and safety. Nuclear power, for example, may be effective, but it isn’t clean; Chernobyl and Fukushima prove that.
These two nuclear disasters left radioactive fallout to ravage the surrounding environment, and their effects are being felt years later. Nuclear waste has the potential to remain dangerously radioactive for over 10,000 years. Also, we have a finite supply of uranium. Therefore, nuclear energy is not the best energy source to reduce our dependence on petroleum and natural gas.
Luckily, we have found out how to harness different sources of energy. There are five main types of renewable energy that we can presently use:
Electrical Energy Basics
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Many of our energy sources use some type of force to generate momentum to drive generator turbines. The turbine of a generator contains magnets that spin inside a copper wire coil. The rapidly alternating magnetic polarities cause the electrons in the wire to switch directions rapidly. This is what creates alternating current, or AC.
As the electricity travels over the main power lines from the power plant, it passes through step-up transformers which boost the power, and step-down transformers at the end of the line to make the electricity safe for household use.
Deep in the Earth’s interior, temperatures reach hundreds or thousands of degrees. This heat transfers to underground water reservoirs. The pressure of the earth’s crust keeps the water in a liquid state, despite it being far hotter than the boiling point of water. Geothermal energy plants usually tap into these underground reservoirs and use them to drive generator turbines.
Geothermal energy is also produced by the heat generated at seismic hot spots. The earth’s crust is broken into a series of plates that slide around on convection currents. At the boundaries of these plates, there’s a vast amount of geothermal energy waiting to be used. At the interior of the plates, the crust is thinner, allowing heat to radiate upward to the surface.
Geothermal plants have their pros and cons. As we’ve mentioned, geothermal power often has little to no pollution, because it uses already-existing resources and processes from the earth’s interior. There are few, if any, byproducts. Also, even small households can access geothermal power to achieve benefits in their climate control.
Also, geothermal power is relatively stable. You don’t have to worry about fluctuations in wind or sunlight, as you would with wind or solar power.
However, there are some downsides. First, it costs more to install a plant and get it up and running than it does to set up other types of renewable energy sources. Secondly, it is possible to release greenhouse gases through geothermal power. Methane, carbon dioxide, and others are trapped in groundwater.
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Hydroelectric power is simple. Humanity has always been able to use water to do work; just look at a water wheel connected to a grain mill for example. Hydroelectric power simply takes the concept of using water for power and extrapolates it. The old-fashioned water wheel is replaced by a wheel connected to a generator’s turbine, and the force of the running water turns the turbine to generate power.
Hydroelectric power plants are located, on rivers or near waterfalls, and rely on dams to control the flow of water and regulate how much energy they produce. Some of the biggest hydroelectric dams are located in the United States. Hoover Dam is the most famous example, located on the Colorado River.
As far as renewable energy goes, hydroelectric power is one of the ones we have the most control over. Humanity has been building dams and plants since the mid-20th century. The hydrological cycle, or the water cycle, is to our knowledge stable. We’re not losing or gaining water, because it travels through the atmosphere and the ground.
Unfortunately, hydroelectric power has some drawbacks as well. It can have a negative effect on aquatic wildlife; for example, fish are most affected by the water level, rate of flow, and availability of shelter. Damming a river drastically alters its natural characteristics. Also, this power source is dependent on how much water is available.
For example, if it doesn’t rain, the water level of a river will drop. If it rains too much, it floods and puts stress on the dam gates. Aso, it is extremely expensive to build a plant with a dam attached.
If you’ve driven across the Plains states or been to the Netherlands, you know about wind power. The Netherlands has an abundance of windmills, which are fans that catch the wind and turn as the wind blows on them. The blades are attached to gears, which turn some apparatus in the windmill.
A wind turbine works by the same principle. As the wind blows the fan blades, the rotation is transferred to an assembly of gears, which in turn rotates a turbine to generate electricity. Wind power is one of the greenest forms of energy available and has the least land footprint. All you need is an assembly of windmills.
Wind power causes absolutely no pollution because it uses the wind and the force from the wind to do its work. Also, you can get more energy with wind than you can with potentially any other source.
Of course, the wind being what it is, wind power isn’t always reliable. If wind power is to be viable, the system has to be connected to a battery backup, a hydroelectric plant, a solar power system, or something similar. Wind doesn’t blow all the time. Another big problem with wind turbines is that they pose a threat to birds.
A bird flying into an airplane propeller isn’t a pretty sight or thought. Although wind turbines don’t move nearly as fast, they are much larger and closer to ground level and would have much the same effect as a propeller. Therefore, they can seriously injure wildlife like birds or bats.
Finally, wind turbines generate a lot of noise, as you would expect. However, if you don’t mind this fact, wind power is one of the best forms of renewable energy as long as it’s supplemented by backup power.
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Solar energy produces electricity directly. Rather than using force to turn a generator to produce power, solar panels generate energy by using the photoelectric effect. This effect occurs when light strikes a material. The photons, or light particles, gradually impart energy to the atoms of the material. On occasion, the photons cause an electron to be released.
Electrons are the basic particles that travel to produce electricity. It occurs without any input from anything other than the sun. Solar panels made of photovoltaic cells can be used to provide electricity for an entire community and even feed power back onto the grid.
Solar power has some of the same problems as wind power; namely, the sun isn’t shining all the time. Therefore, you need to have a battery backup to supply power at night or on overcast days. Solar cells themselves can be made of rare-earth metals, some of which include cadmium and gallium.
All of these concerns aside, solar energy is one of the most potent sources of renewable energy in existence. Every bit of energy on the planet ultimately comes from the sun.
Biomass refers to any organic matter that’s burned to produce steam for turbines. You can burn decaying plant matter, animal waste, or other organic sources. This is perhaps the most renewable resource aside from sunlight or geothermal energy. Life is constantly reproducing. Some of the biggest sources of biomass energy are dead crops and animal manure.
The problem with biomass is that it can release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, especially in the case of organic garbage. The upside is that plants consume carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and convert it to oxygen so that it can be carbon neutral. Unfortunately, processing biomass for energy takes a lot of space.
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If humanity is to survive and prosper, we have to move away from environmentally-damaging fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. These types of renewable energy, although powerful, are damaging and ultimately not renewable. If we run out of petroleum before switching to an alternate energy source on a wide scale, it could have drastic effects on civilization.
Every form of renewable power has its benefits and drawbacks. Because solar and wind power are not always reliable, it’s best to supplement them with biomass burning, geothermal and hydroelectric power. Solar and wind power, however, produce less pollution and byproducts.