For centuries untold, we have harnessed the power of renewable energy. From the first time the wind caught our sails to propel our ships through the water, to burning the biomass material wood to cook our food, to using the geothermal energy from underwater reserves to heal our aches and pains. It’s only been within the last century or so that we have turned our backs on these valuable sources of energy and turned to less expensive (then) and caustic energy sources such as petroleum, coal, and natural gas.
By using these cheaper forms of energy, we have managed to produce an excessive amount of pollution and waste and the time to return to the more natural, clean, and sustainable energy sources has become a key to securing our future as a profitable and healthy society. As it stands, only 2% of the world’s energy came from renewable resources last year. By burning harmful fossil fuels, we release poisons such as carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, and sulfur, which causes acid rain. The United States alone is responsible for more than 21 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
Change is coming though. There is a current movement underway to discover new and more efficient ways of harnessing these renewable energy sources. A pilot project in Germany at the University of Kassel called the Combined Power Plant, studied the possibilities of combined multiple sources of renewable energy to generate electricity. Their research proved without a doubt that renewable resources can provide a reliable source of energy. The plant links and controls 36 wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower installations throughout Germany and provided clean and efficient energy.
There are many different types of renewable resources that can be used to meet the rising demands of energy production.
Perhaps the most known source of renewable energy, solar power is literally the process of harvesting the sun’s energy and is one of the most abundant energy sources in the world. In the United States alone, if we were to install solar power plants in the southwestern deserts, we could power the entire country with absolutely no pollution.
Although solar power is an intermittent energy source, meaning it’s not available all the time, and less energy is produced during colder months of the year, it is still a viable option for renewable energy and can be used in conjunction with other renewable energy sources.
Growing in popularity lately, wind power is created when the force of the wind turns wind turbines and generates electricity. The United States uses only 1 percent of wind power for energy use, but the rest of the world is benefiting greatly from this clean energy source. Denmark, Portugal, and Spain receive more than 20 percent of their electricity from wind power 5.
The Unites States has great potential for this power sources as up to 46 states have winds that can be used for commercial use. North Dakota could supply up to a third of our energy needs.
Hydroelectricity is created by the force of falling water and is harvested by constructing a dam. The water in the created reservoir flows through a pipe and turns the water turbines as it falls, thereby generating electricity.
A huge advantage to a hydro power plant is the ability to store energy. Because the reservoir of water is essentially a storage system for the hydro power plant, it can be used to produce energy whenever needed. There are about 80,000 dams in the United States, but only 3 percent of them produce electricity 6.
Biomass energy is produced when organic materials that come from plantlife and animals are converted into electricity usually by burning the biomass materials. The most common biomass material is wood.
Ethanol alcohol is also considered a biomass fuel and is created by the fermentation of certain crops, mostly corn and sugar cane, but it can also come from sugar beets, potato skins, rice, and wheat. Ethanol is used as a transportation fuel and can be either used as a replacement for gasoline in certain engines or a mixture of ethanol and gasoline can be used to power regular automobiles.
Literally meaning earth’s heat, geothermal energy has been used for centuries dating back almost 10,000 years when the Paleo-Indians used hot springs to cook their food. Geothermal power plants convert geothermal energy by converting the water rising from underground reservoirs into steam that can power an electric turbine.
Geothermal plants are extremely reliable as their resource, unlike solar and wind, are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The United States is the current leader in geothermal energy.
Tidal power harnesses the energy created by the force of the rise and ebb of the tides. The force of the current propels underwater turbines and causes them to spin, thereby generating electricity.
Because the power comes from the predictable tides, tidal power is an extremely reliable source of energy that is not affected by outside forces such as the weather. However, there are only certain locations throughout the world that have the potential to generate enough power from the tides to actually produce a substantial amount of electricity.
The Future of Renewable Energy
The rising pollution and the increased demands for energy make renewable sources of energy that much more significant in the role they play in our future. Today, we consume coal, petroleum, and natural gas as the main sources of our energy. And, petroleum usage is almost half of our total energy consumption. With more than 60 percent of the United States’ total petroleum coming from foreign countries, exploring renewable resources that can be found within our own borders can increase our economy and reduce our dependency on foreign countries for our energy needs.
While there’s no one answer to meeting the demands of our energy needs, it’s obvious that renewable energy sources, when combined together can provide a lasting, reliable, and pollution free source of energy.