Understanding different kinds of renewable energy

Understanding different kinds of renewable energy

(Kristen Murphy, Deseret News)



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SALT LAKE CITY — In a time where climate change is constantly in discussion among Utah residents, the question of renewable energy as a solution remains enigmatic to many.

There are five major types of renewable energy relevant in the United States, According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Here’s a guide to the benefits and drawbacks of each major type:

Biomass

Biomass fuels are a renewable energy source utilizing the combustion of organic material from plants and animals. Plants are the primary substance used in biomass fuel, as photosynthesis is highly conducive to the the energy creation process. The absorption of the sun’s energy creates a reaction yielding chemical energy, which is then released as heat when biomass is burned. It can either be burned directly or converted to a liquid biofuel, like ethanol or biodiesel, before combustion.

Biomass can also be converted into biogas through the process of decomposition or burning. The gas is primarily composed of methane and CO2, which naturally occurs as waste decomposes. Biogas can be harnessed and used in the production of electricity. The fuel successfully produced 5 percent of the energy used in the United States in 2017.

  • Advantages: Biomass is both a clean and renewable energy resource. Unlike wind and solar, it can be harnessed whenever it is needed. If sustainably farmed, plants grown for biomass fuel can also offset carbon emissions as they grow.
  • Disadvantages: Biomass fuel can become nonrenewable if the stock of plants or animals being drawn from is not being replenished as efficiently as it is being used. Further, the burning of biomass fuel produces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, monoxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, and more if the emissions are not properly harnessed and recycled.
Scientists have actively been hunting for a more efficient way to utilize biofuel. One eccentric researcher, the founder of ‘Xyleco,’ believes he might have found an effective solution, according to 60 Minutes. Marshall Medoff has spent the past decade developing a way to take food waste (trash that’s being taken to the dump) and repurpose it to convert it to usable biofuel and biogas. He even found a way to create a more healthy version of sugar as a byproduct.

The field has a long way to go, but many environmental scientists believe that biomass fuel has incredible implications for the future of renewable energy.

Solar

Solar technology utilizes solar panels to collect light rays from the sun that generate heat, which are then converted into usable electricity. The panels employ solar photovoltaic cells which are able to directly transform sunlight into electricity.

  • Advantages: Solar energy does not produce any air pollution or particulate matter, and solar energy systems installed on buildings have very little negative effect on the environment. Though they are expensive to install, solar panels on houses can save homeowners a lot of money as they no longer have to pay for power bills.
  • Disadvantages: The amount of sunlight hitting solar panels is entirely dependent on weather, time of day and the earth’s orbit, making it less consistent of a fuel source. Further, a large surface area of panels is necessary to produce a lot of fuel. Solar panels intended to power a significant amount of homes and buildings requires a large land area dedicated to hosting the technology.

Wind

Wind turbines harness the natural gusts of air across the earth’s surface and utilize it to create electricity. Wind hits the turbine blades, causing them to turn and spin a generator to create kinetic energy. They are able to convert kinetic energy into mechanical power, which can then be used to create electricity. Wind turbine farms tend to have dozens of the 20-feet-tall contraptions arrayed to maximize as much energy as possible.

  • Advantages: Wind is a completely renewable resource that produces no pollutants or greenhouse gases. Once the turbines have been made, there’s next to no cost and all electricity produced is completely free.
  • Disadvantages: Energy production is not continuous, and if the wind is not blowing the electricity stops flowing. Locals living around windmills complain that they are loud and disrupt the natural landscape, and they have been known to kill bats and birds as the fly past.
Industry experts believe that by 2050 an estimated 33 percent of the world’s electricity could be produced by wind turbines.

Hydropower

Hydroelectric power plants tend to contain three components, according to National Geographic: a reservoir where water is stored, a dam to control water flow and facilitate the collection of kinetic energy, and an electric power plant where the energy is produced.

Water stored in the reservoir is allowed to enter an intake in a dam, where it flows against turbines. The turbine spins, which creates kinetic energy which is then converted into electricity. The energy can be transported across long distances to power homes, buildings, and cars.

Hydroelectric power produces almost one-fifth of the world’s electricity, according to National Geographic.

  • Advantages: Hydroelectric is the cheapest means of generating electricity, and it is a clean fuel source that is renewable based on yearly rainfall. Additionally, reservoirs provide great opportunities for outdoor recreation and industry.
  • Disadvantages: Damming rivers causes serious disruptions to wildlife and surrounding nature, causing some people to become concerned that the natural impacts may result in more damage than they are worth.

Geothermal

Geothermal energy, which is completely renewable, comes from the heat naturally produced by the earth underground. The slow decay of radioactive particles underneath the planet’s crust along with the gaseous releases caused by shifting tectonic plates causes steam to rise from below. The steam can then be harnessed and used to generate electricity and heat.

To capture the geothermal energy, deep wells are drilled into the earth’s crust where they access underground reservoirs of steam. The power of the steam turns turbines, which produces kinetic energy to create electricity.

Iceland is a pioneer for geothermal energy, as the country’s heavy geologic activity makes it readily available. Currently, geothermal energy powers 25 percent of Iceland’s electricity, and it is used to heat water in most households.

  • Advantages: Geothermal energy is an affordable, clean resource which can be harnessed without using any fossil fuels. It produces one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide as clean natural gas power plants, and it is available 24 hours per day, all year round.
  • Disadvantages: Geothermal heat extraction releases a rotten egg smell caused by hydrogen sulfide gas, and it also requires the disposal of geothermal fluids which might have some toxic materials in their contents. Further, it's not an easily accessible resource in many locations.
To learn more about renewable energy sources, check out the Renewable Energy Information Administration's website.

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