A Beginner’s Guide To Renewable Energy Sources
Green Energy Is The Future
We’re living in an incredible time of advancement and expansion of consciousness around how we can preserve this beautiful planet.
We know that the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels and coal is playing a huge role in climate change. Incredible alternative energy sources are cropping up, all aiming to solve to the energy crisis—but we don’t have a perfect solution just yet. What we do have are intelligent alternatives. Each one of these systems is not perfect and learning the pros and cons for each is important for understanding or future of green energy solutions.
Below are the six main renewable energy sources, plus the science behind them, their pros and cons, and how they are helping to bring us to a more sustainable future.
1. Solar Energy
The 101 | Solar energy is the most widely abundant clean energy source on the planet. As technology advances, it’s becoming more accessible for businesses and homes to easily install solar panels.
How It Works | There is a lot of science that goes into creating the makeup of a solar panel. Essentially, the panels are made from solar cells made of a positive layer and a negative layer (like a battery) that create an electric field; the panels then capture the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity. Because the panels are receiving so much sunlight throughout the day (more than the home would need in a day), the electrical currents are able to be stored inside the panel grid for nighttime and cloudy days.
Pros | Solar is a renewable energy source. Solar panels are also able to create power for remote areas and places that do not have access to electrical grids.
Cons | A tremendous amount of land is needed to create large scale “solar farms” that power towns and cities. Alongside, scientists are concerned about what will happen to solar panels at the end of their lifecycle.
2. Wind Energy
The 101 | Wind energy is also one of the fastest-growing renewable energy sources in the world. The most commonly recognizable wind energy structures are the giant alien-like propeller statues, seen in areas with an abundance of sprawling flat land.
How It Works | The process to obtain wind energy starts with a technology called a Turbine. There are two types of turbines: horizontal-axis and vertical-axis turbines. The giant propeller-like structures are horizontal-axis turbines whose large blades face the wind. Turbines convert the kinetic energy (energy created by motion) of the wind into “mechanical power.” Once the wind gets the propellers moving, the connected shaft spins a generator to create electricity.
Unlike solar, people can have wind energy as their main power source without having to install a complicated system. Wind energy can generate clean energy for entire towns and cities. However, the size and location depend greatly on how much energy the turbine can produce.
Pros | Wind energy is a renewable and clean energy source that produces zero emissions.
Cons | Wind is unreliable, so if there isn’t enough wind in an area there can be electricity issues. Installing turbines can also have a lasting effect on the environment that surrounds the structures, especially posing a danger to the birds living in the area.
The 101 | Hydropower is the process of capturing energy from water using turbines and generators. Hydropower has been used since the late 19th century to create electricity.
How It Works | Just like wind energy, hydropower works by harnessing the kinetic energy of water to create electricity. Within the system of a hydroelectric plant, there are three main parts: the power plant where the electricity from the water is made, the dam that is used to control the water flow by opening and closing, and a reservoir where the water is stored.
Hydroelectric power plants are most commonly built inside of dams in places that receive a lot of rainfall, like Oregon and Washington for instance. Hydropower can generate a flexible amount of energy region-to-region and state-to-state, depending on the water that surrounds the area. Though hydropower is a renewable energy source, there are still concerns about how it affects the water and fish populations.
Pros | Hydropower is renewable, and hydroelectric technology continues to advance.
Cons | Hydropower can negatively affect aquatic ecosystems. There are also functionality issues in areas experiencing drought.
4. Biomass Fuels
The 101 | Biomass is the process of using organic waste matter from plants and animals to generate bioenergy.
How It Works | Biomass is one of the oldest methods of obtaining energy, that harnesses energy stored in matter, like animal waste, decomposing waste, and plants. One common method for biofuel production consists of catching the matter on fire, which then produces steam. This steam energy then powers a generator through the use of a turbine, and voilà—electricity! This process is carbon neutral, unlike fossil fuels, though there is still pollution emitted.
Pros | Biomass production is carbon neutral, and helps with the overall waste reduction of organic materials.
Cons | Biomass energy still produces pollution—specifically methane from animal waste, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Deforestation is another issue because wood is one of the main materials used by biomass power plants.
5. Geothermal Energy
The 101 | Geothermal energy extracts the steam from the geothermal reservoirs beneath the earth’s surface (think hot springs). This is also one of the least-explored renewable energy sources in the US.
How It Works | A hole is drilled into the earth’s surface that taps steam and very hot water to power generators on the surface, which then creates energy. It sounds a bit intense to think about drilling into the heart of the earth, however, the methods of extraction are actually quite low-impact. There are concerns with surface instability, however.
Pros | Geothermal energy has a low environmental impact because the process is underground, and it is one of the more environmentally-friendly options.
Cons | There are concerns about surface instability, since the earth’s crust is always moving. Water usage is also a concern, since this method needs a lot of water to run the geothermal power plants.
6. Nuclear Energy
The 101 | Nuclear energy is the largest low-carbon source of electricity. Nuclear is a highly-debated and complicated scientific system that some believe, if done right, could be the true answer to a lasting and sustainable green energy solution. This TED Talk is a wonderful intro to this complicated debate and sheds light on the pros and cons of green energy resources and explains the pros of nuclear energy.
How It Works | To put it simply (just kidding there is no way to put this simply), the process starts by mining a small amount of uranium (a heavy metal formed billions of years ago) from the earth’s crust. The uranium goes through a process called “fission” (splitting of an atom). This process creates a tremendous amount of heat—which is used to produce steam that is collected by a turbine generator to make electricity. Once this complicated fission process begins, it does not stop for a long time, meaning that with nuclear energy we could have power for centuries.
The biggest concern with nuclear is the waste. Because uranium is a radioactive material, disposing of it safely continues to be a question for the future. However, newer technology allows for the use of less uranium, which will greatly lessen the chance of a nuclear meltdown. Though nuclear energy does produce hazardous waste, it does not produce a lot of it, especially in comparison to coal and fossil fuels.
Pros | Nuclear energy has a small environmental footprint, and needs much less land to set up than both wind and solar. Plus, it’s completely carbon neutral.
Cons | Though there are a lot of innovative ideas about how to dispose of the waste, there is still concern about how to safely dispose of it and avoid nuclear meltdown.
One reason nuclear energy is a viable clean energy source is that it’s a man-made operation that does not rely on natural resources to stay on. We use so many natural resources for other green energy alternatives, and it’s important to have options like nuclear that don’t need as much space to generate electricity.
There is a tremendous amount to be learned about each one of these energy alternatives. But it is clear that each one will play a role in the future of receiving our energy. I encourage everyone to continue to learn more about green energy and gain knowledge on the alternatives that are the most sustainable for our planet.
Learn more from these green energy resources:
Courtney Jay Higgins is the Associate Editor at The Good Trade. She is also a Yoga Instructor, vegetarian, wellness and fashion enthusiast. Originally from Colorado, her soul found California when she came to get her degree in Visual Communications at the Fashion Institute Of Design & Merchandising. She has a background in telling a story through writing, creative direction and content creation. Check out her blog and Instagram for her unique perspective on the mergence of fashion and spirituality.