As political and economic aspects of fossil fuels grow more harrowing, renewable energy is gaining popularity. Here’s an overview of renewable energy.
Renewable Energy Overview
Renewable energy is more difficult to define than you might imagine. Since it is a catchall phrase for a variety of energy sources, any definition has to be broad. With this in mind, let’s define renewable energy as any energy source that naturally occurs and is very abundant.
Ironically, almost all renewable energy sources rely on nuclear power. Fortunately, the nuclear power is in the form of the sun at the heart of our solar system. One giant nuclear reaction, the sun produces solar radiation and sunlight that is converted on our planet into energy through natural resources. In one form or another, sunlight is the basis for solar power, wind energy, biomass power, and so on. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are a form of biomass energy, but an ancient one with resource limits and brutal side effects in the form of pollutants.
Solar Energy is the most basic and direct form of renewable energy. Depending on the type of platform used, sunlight is converted directly into electricity or heat. Solar energy is considered a renewable energy because it will exist for as long as the sun, which should be over 4 billion years. Once the sun burns out, we will have much larger problems than energy!
Wind energy is another form of solar power. Wind is created when the sun heats up different areas of the surface of the Earth at different rates. You inherently are aware of this if you think about the temperature differences when standing on a black parking lot versus grass in a park. Heat rises and so does hot air. Air above a hot surface will rise and colder air from surrounding areas will rush into to fill the void. This temperature-induced movement creates wind in its most basic form.
To take advantage of the energy, man has produced windmills and turbines that convert the energy into electricity. Modern wind turbines are between 25 and 35 percent efficient at converting wind energy into electricity. Wind power is now the fastest growing energy platform in the world.
When water moves, it tends to carry a lot of inertia and stored energy. Unfortunately, the tsunami in Asia was a perfect example. On a less disastrous front, man has learned to use the power of moving water to produce electricity. The first, and most common, use is in the form of hydropower. Mostly seen on large-scale projects, hydropower typically is used in the form of dams. A dam is placed in a river, creating a reservoir. Using gravity, water is then released through pipes in the dam. The moving water spins turbines, producing massive amounts of electricity.
Tidal power has been on the books for a long time, but hasn’t been seen in large-scale projects. This is beginning to change. The basic idea is very similar to hydropower. Depending on the system being used, pipes with large turbines are placed in strong tidal areas. As the tide changes, massive amounts of water move to and fro in the pipes spinning the turbines and producing energy. Although the tides move relatively slowly, the contain massive amounts of energy. Once thought an odd energy idea, tidal energy is coming on strong as an energy platform in Europe.
Geothermal energy is a form of energy using the inherent warmth of the ground to create power in primarily the form of heat. Roughly six to seven feet below the surface of the ground, the temperature of the Earth is regulated. By exchanging liquids between above and below ground areas, temperature regulation can be achieved. This is mostly seen in residential situations.
Biomass energy is a renewable energy source, but not necessarily a clean one. Biomass is simply organic materials such as manure, corn and so on. The idea behind biomass energy is to convert the chemical energy in the biomass into usable power. This often occurs by burning it, which is problematic since doing so causes pollution. It also has to be grown, harvested and converted into power. Of all the renewable energy sources, biomass is the least attractive.
We have a lot of options when it comes to kicking the fossil fuel habit. Although there is a chance one of these options will become dominant, it is more likely that a combination of all the above renewable energy platforms will be the answer.