As energy derived from fossil fuels often brings with it some setbacks (such as air-pollution from older cars, etc.) or often times perceived setbacks, and as they can be quite spendy and in the hands of a few, humans have begun to look for cheaper and cleaner alternative energy sources, and that is where renewable energies come into play. Contrary to their fossil-based counterparts, renewable energies come from seemingly endless sources (although there’s actually more oil than most people realize), many of which are freely accessible for anyone to use, given the right equipment. Some of these renewable energies include hydro, wind, and solar (the three most popular), kinetic energy, trees (both a fuel and a building material, which can be regrown and responsibly managed), biomass (energy generated from plant-based material), and even air (compressed air, that is). While most of the latter of these requires more management and intervention, the former and most popular of them (wind, solar, and hydro energy) are almost “set and forget” accept for occasional maintenance.
With the rate that technology is advancing these days, this list can see more energy sources added to it. Perhaps at this rate, we might even be able to capture lightning one day and adequately store it for everyday use. From hydrogen generators to sterling engines, and even nuclear power plants, there are a plethora of different possibilities for renewable and/or alternative energy. Who knows, we might also be able to generate something from ‘cold fusion’ or the zero-point energy theory.
However, we may need to wait a bit longer for zero-point energy, and other more exotic energy sources. It means that we have to start utilizing and improving the technologies we already have readily available.
Humans have been gathering energy from the sun and converting it into electricity for a while now. The first attempt at harnessing the sun’s energy did not come until 1878, when Augustin Mouchot, a French inventor, successfully demonstrated a solar steam engine. From then on, subsequent attempts took place, and before we realized it, China was leading in water heating systems powered by solar energy with 70 GWth installed as of 2006. Nowadays, people harness solar energy for heating and cooling, ventilating, and cooking, among other uses.
The basic principle is simple: solar energy is “absorbed” and converted into electricity, which then powers various electrical instruments. The machines that turn this solar energy come in different forms, but they usually involve solar panels and an inverter. To install a solar panel, one would need around $7-$9 per watt, with an estimated average power cost of a household in the USA coming to $73 per month. The price varies depending on where you live, but you get the gist.
The Perks of Solar Energy
The sun has always been there since we’ve been around, and in some countries and seasons, it stays up even longer than our normal daylight times, lasting throughout the day and night for weeks or months. Of course, the opposite remains true, especially for regions near the poles. It’s the perfect example of renewable, passive, energy. You only need to let the solar panels work and absorb the sun’s ray (with the occasional maintenance). Furthermore, solar panels are quiet and cheap compared to other heavy machinery used to harness other energy sources.
Limitations of Solar Energy
Solar energy is highly weather dependent. While solar energy collection can still occur during cloudy days, the optimum functionality of solar panels is hindered during such days. In a bid to curb this downfall, some individuals have suggested the creation of energy technology that can capture more energy than is obtained by today’s standard solar panels. Excess energy can, of course, be stored in batteries or other storage devices such as gyroscopes but the initial cost of purchasing such equipment is high.
Different Forms of Solar Energy
Solar panels come in various forms. From thick, hard, and glass covered units, to similar but thinner units, flexible plastic sheets, and even spray-on solar panels. However, harnessing solar energy is not just limited to solar panels. Black tubing installed on one’s roof can absorb the sun’s heat for making hot water. Fresnel lenses and parabolic mirrors can center the sun’s energy to a focal point to facilitate cooking, starting fires, and even melting metal. Stirling engines in certain configurations, or in combination with the above methods, can also be used to harness the sun’s heat and convert it into mechanical energy, which in turn can generate electricity.
Wind energy is becoming as increasingly popular these days as solar energy, especially for industrial usage. It also has many configurations, types, and concepts. While wind has long been used to drive ships forward by putting their sails up high into the air, or to grind grain and pump water with windmills, it was only in 1887 that Professor James Blyth, a Scottish electrical engineer, and lecturer, made a 10-meters-high wind turbine. Taking inspiration from James Blyth, various wind-gathering machines were created throughout the 19th-20th centuries.
Wind turbines work by having their blades rotated when the wind blows them. This rotation then spins a generator to produce electricity. A wind turbine, due to its more complex build, typically costs thousands of dollars for private use and may even cost tens of thousands for industrial use.
The Perks of Wind Energy
Wind turbines don’t produce any atmospheric emissions that can cause a greenhouse effect or acid rain. They are clean energy converters and do not pollute the air. Moreover, wind energy comes in handy when solar power fails. In fact, during the night, wind speeds tend to pick up, increasing the amount of electricity generated.
The Limitations of Wind Energy
Despite its obviously high costs, wind turbines take up a lot of space (at least commercial farms for city energy do), require expensive maintenance, and can be noisy to operate. Furthermore, electricity produced from wind energy is wind dependent. Whenever there is no wind, the turbines won’t turn, and no power will be generated. This makes wind energy an extremely unreliable source of clean energy (except in some locations and altitudes).
Different Forms of Wind Energy
Before wind turbines, there were windmills and ship sails using the wind for mechanical power. As for modern wind energy devices, there have been several configurations for dependable wind turbines such as vertical turbines. Other forms have been dreamed up as well including inflatable rotating blimp-like turbines and even large kites which tug and pull on energy creating devices on the ground and fly in predictable patterns.
As reported by National Geographic, the power of water generates nearly 20% of the world’s electricity these days. A French engineer, Bernard Forest de Belidor, published his description of hydraulic machines in the mid-1770s. This publication then led to the advancement and development of hydro-based electrical generators in the late 19th century.
Hydropower generators, which can sometimes be built together in the form of a large power plant, work by capturing the kinetic energy of falling or moving water. It is then converted into mechanical energy, which is then converted into electrical energy. As for the cost, the average price stands at $0.85 per kWh in the USA, which can save you about 60% if you were to use fossil fuels or 75% if you were to use natural gas.
The Perks of Hydro-Energy
Hydro energy is a clean and renewable fuel source. It doesn’t pollute the air nor the environment. Furthermore, hydro energy is reliable and flexible. Reliable as there are little to no fluctuations concerning electric power generation. It’s flexible as it can be controlled to meet any differences in demand. In addition to helping in the delivery of sustainable electricity, hydropower plants can often offer additional benefits such as flood control, water supply, higher water levels for plant and animal life, and irrigation – accomplished with dams. Hydro energy is in most cases continuously available.
The Limitations of Hydro-Energy
Large scale hydro energy is harnessed through the construction of large hydroelectric power plants. Setting up this power plants is exceptionally costly and comes with a plethora of disadvantages. It is said that the construction of large dams, for instance, can cause geological damage to the site with reports of some causing earthquakes and land depressions (though as mentioned, dams also have many benefits that are good for the land). The most obvious limitation is… you have to have a good source of water.
Different Forms of Hydro-Energy
Hydro-energy was first harnessed with waterwheels. Modern hydro generators come in a variety of shapes and forms. Some are designed to take advantage of small streams, rivers, or directed channels, while others are designed to take advantage of ocean tides and waves. Others take advantage of directed pressurized streams that can be as small as a box. Dams take advantage of hydro energy and at the same time raise water levels (and can also provide other benefits). This improves the ecology of a region and provides more water to the surrounding lands. When water is heated and turned into steam, it can also be a powerful source of energy. Steam engines are known for leveraging steam energy to operate.
Obstacles to Full Renewable Energy Adoption
As much as we do admire these renewable energy sources and hope for their continued research and implementation, all technology, including everything listed above, requires mining, refining, transportation, and manufacturing to be produced, delivered, installed, and maintained. All of these activities need energy, probably often in the form of fossil fuels. This is usually overlooked merely because of names such as renewable energy, clean energy, green energy, etc. Renewable energy can often be more expensive and inefficient than people realize – even though they’re totally worth the investment.
However, they exist, and as long as we have the freedom and opportunity to invent, improve, and implement, we can improve upon the technologies that utilize them. Furthermore, fossil fuels are not as bad as they are politicized to be, the equipment that utilizes them has become (and continues to become) more efficient, and millions of people depend on them for survival – many of whom can not afford the costs involved with renewable energy (initial purchase + batteries, etc, instalment, and maintenance). It is highly unlikely that fossil fuels will be completely replaced anytime soon, and attempting to forcefully transition through legislation by shutting down or fining the individuals who depend on them for their only source of power, could mean the deaths of millions. In a time when so much depends on energy – travel, lighting, study, electricity, food, etc – taking that away because someone thinks it’s terrible for the environment (when it’s not as bad as they think), and they want to virtue signal to the world, would not only be wrong, it would be barbaric. The key here is to remain level-headed and gradually move into a renewable energy future, as time and finances allow. And might we suggest that renewable energy equipment manufacturers build their equipment to last, and not with planned obsolescence or software rot, as we’re trying to move into a renewable and efficient future, not become entrapped to ever-purchasing your products and creating unnecessary waste – there are plenty of potential customers to go around. I don’t know about you, but I personally admire good quality equipment that lasts.
There are a plethora of good reasons to consider switching to renewable energy sources. However, just because they are clean and renewable, doesn’t mean they don’t come with their fair share of thought-to-be negative factors. Adopting renewable energy sources is usually a commendable step towards a brighter future. However, what works well for one individual or location may not work so well for another for the time being. Therefore, it’s extremely important to research what type of renewable energy to invest in, and take transition one step at a time. It’s also important to focus on making renewable energy more efficient and more affordable and available if we want wider adoption. It must be able to compare with or beat fossil fuel systems in power output, availability, and cost, if we want people to transition.