What is Considered Renewable Energy?
The world is spiraling full-tilt into climate disaster, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. This isn’t an expression of hopelessness or despair, but a cold, hard fact.
We’ve missed our window to prevent the spiral from occurring. If this were a fantasy novel, the Great Ancient Evil slated to destroy the world would already have been released.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t slow the spiral down or work to reverse it. One of the best ways we can do this is through the use of renewable energy.
What is renewable energy, and what sources can we use for it? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Renewable Energy?
Before we dive into the different types of renewable energy, we must first understand what renewable energy is. Renewable energy is a type of energy that pulls from a renewable resource.
What Qualifies as a Renewable Energy Source?
In order to qualify as a renewable energy source, the resource in question must be, to a certain extent, infinite. It must be restorable either naturally or with minimal processing. This is why many renewable energy efforts focus on harnessing power sources already present in the natural world.
Unleash the Power of the Sun
Solar energy is among the most popular sources of renewable energy, and often considered the best renewable energy for home use. The reason for this is the sun’s sheer abundance. Every person on the planet receives its energy in some form or another.
Why Solar Power Works
Solar power is so effective because the sun itself releases enough energy to power the entire world’s electronics for two hours each second. Making use of that kind of power generation could solve our energy concerns for good.
How Solar Power Works
There are two basic systems feeding into solar energy: photovoltaic and concentrating solar-thermal.
The former provides the now common solar panels you see atop buildings or lining sunny roads. These panels absorb solar energy, which then converts into electricity within the photovoltaic cells.
The latter uses a series of mirrors to reflect or concentrate light and heat onto a central point. This heat energy gets stored, then later converted to electricity.
PV panels are more common for residential use, while CSP systems are more common in large plants. If you want to make the switch to solar, make sure you research solar providers near you to see which solar power system they use.
Harness the Winds
Humans have harnessed the power of the wind for literal millennia. Ever since we first started sailing ships or using windmills to power machinery, we’ve known how to use this renewable energy source.
How Wind Energy Works
Wind energy has one of the simplest energy generation processes. The wind blows through the blades of the turbine, spinning them. The turbine is connected to a rotor, which spins a generator, creating electricity. Simple, but effective.
However, wind energy is not without its concerns. Chief among these is the potential interference with radar and other electrical signals. Environmentalists also feel concerned about the potential impact on birds and other airborne wildlife, as the turbines could harm them.
Plus, as you might imagine, wind power accomplishes nothing in an area with little to no wind flowing through it. Companies are working to innovate in this regard, perhaps expanding to airborne turbines and smaller-scale microgenerators.
Keeping Power Hydrated
As with wind, humanity has harnessed the power of flowing water for thousands upon thousands of years. Ancient farmers and millers often lived alongside rivers to make use of watermills and simplify the grinding process.
When we entered the Industrial Revolution, water-powered and steam-powered engines were among the first things we constructed. As far as the US is concerned, we’ve had hydroelectric power plants since the late eighteen hundreds.
How Hydroelectric Power Works
As with wind, the way hydroelectric power works is simplicity itself. Hydraulic turbines harness the power of flowing water into mechanical energy. Then, a piece called a hydroelectric generator converts that into electricity.
However, water-based power isn’t without its potential issues. Hydropower has damaged marine wildlife in areas where it’s implemented. It also has the potential to affect water quality, and as you might imagine, prevents any recreational use of the river.
Water power also only serves a useful purpose where water flows. As global temperatures rise and once-hydrated places dry up, we might see diminishing returns on what hydropower can accomplish. This is why many environmental energy experts recommend combining hydropower with wind or solar to cover any gaps.
Rumblings in the Earth
Geothermal energy is, by necessity, a newer form of renewable energy. It’s one of the newest, next to solar. It harnesses the power of the superheated contents of our planet to create electricity.
How Geothermal Energy Works
To harness geothermal energy, power plants drill holes around one to two miles deep. These holes let steam from deep wells surge up through the earth.
Once above the surface, the pressure drops, and the steam spins a turbine, generating electricity. Afterward, the hot steam moves into a cooling chamber, where it condenses back into water droplets. The newly-cooled water then pumps back into the depths of the earth, allowing a nearly infinite feedback loop of energy.
The first major drawback to geothermal energy is its high initial cost. While cost becomes irrelevant after the initial investment, the digging costs are high enough to scare off most investors.
There is also the concern of gas release. Many of the gases trapped beneath the earth’s surface are not safe for us to breathe and could worsen existing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Geothermal energy works best in places with a large number of hot springs or active volcanoes. As you can imagine, this doesn’t lend itself well to high population density. This makes it a difficult form of renewable energy to invest in.
The Nuclear Question
This question has burned in many advocates’ minds for decades: Does nuclear energy count as a renewable energy source? The answer to this is that, well, it’s complicated.
Nuclear energy, that is, the energy produced by atom fission, is a renewable source of energy. However, U-235, the variant of uranium used in most nuclear power plants, is incredibly rare, making it a non-renewable resource.
How Nuclear Power Works
Nuclear power, as mentioned above, comes from splitting atoms of U-235. This fission sets off a powerful chain reaction that produces heat. This heat then turns surrounding water into steam, which spins turbines that produce electricity.
This process does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, making it an appealing alternative to fossil fuels.
Drawbacks to Nuclear Energy
As with geothermal energy, nuclear energy requires a large initial investment for constructing the appropriate facilities. Nuclear power plants also require highly specialized engineers and technicians to keep them running.
As for the potential environmental consequences? One need only look at the explosion of the Chernobyl power plant to see the devastating ill effects that a poorly-maintained or designed system can have.
Other Energy-Extending Innovations
While the above sources of renewable energy have done a great deal to help us combat fossil fuel emissions, there’s more to be done. Thankfully, there are many fascinating energy innovations coming in the years ahead. These innovations include:
Tidal Wave Energy
An altered form of hydropower that uses the ocean’s waves to generate electricity. Scientists’ efforts have been stymied while they try to sort out a way to construct these plants without causing too much damage to the ocean’s wildlife. The cost in the US is still too high to implement, but some Asian countries have seen success in implementing similar systems.
This form of energy ‘stinks’. No, seriously. It harnesses the methane produced by decomposing substances, combusts it, and turns that into electricity. The concerns with this form of energy mirror many levied at natural gas energy.
Radiant Wave Energy
Radiant wave energy is an exciting newcomer to the field. Scientists are testing pilot after pilot for devices harnessing electromagnetic wave motion. These devices, once perfected, could run themselves perpetually, without the need for interference, oversight, or fuel.
Stay tuned to see what happens with this resource, as if it works, it could save almost all of our current energy costs.
Reviewing Renewable Energy
Whether you want to save the environment or a few dollars from your electricity bill, examining renewable energy is a valuable use of your time. Between wind, solar, water, and geothermal, there are many true renewable sources at your disposal. No matter which method you choose, you’ll be reducing our current greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing in some small way to the future of the planet.
It may be too late to stop climate catastrophe from occurring, but every little step we take helps mitigate the effects. Even one small switch can help save the world.
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