With the COP28 conference behind us, the world is buzzing about alternative energy sources again. Nations around the globe have been implementing the latest technology to generate electricity from other sources than fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and natural gas. As the planet migrates towards alternative and renewable energy, it’s essential to understand the particulars of each source.
Seven primary alternative sources of energy are available, each utilizing unique technology, methods, and natural resources to provide the electricity that powers your grocery stores, computers, and homes. We’ll cover the seven alternative energy sources and how each impacts a unique sector of the globe.
What Qualifies as an Alternative Energy Source?
Alternative energy sources come from natural resources that are sustainable and renewable. Unlike traditional fossil fuels, like coal and oil, alternative energy sources produce lower emissions of greenhouse gasses, like CO2. These alternative resources are considered a cleaner energy source and a viable means of generating electricity.
Although there are many variations of alternative energy production, some of the most popular include:
- Solar energy
- Wind power
- Geothermal electrical production
- Wave and tidal power
- Hydrogen energy
While each of these brings a different dynamic and utilizes unique resources, they bring something to the table for renewable and alternative energy forms. These primary energy alternatives represent individual industries and entire sectors in energy production. Although we can’t go into the thorough details of each energy source, we’ll cover the highlights. Here’s a brief breakdown of alternative sources of energy.
Solar Power: Embrace the Shine
Perhaps the most well-known alternative energy form is solar power. Solar energy is a rapidly expanding renewable energy method that harnesses energy showering down from our closest star. The process involves installing photovoltaic (PV) cells into wide, thin panels to capture and conduct photons from sunlight and transform them into electricity.
Solar energy produces a direct current flow by initiating electron flow through semiconductor materials. Once the DC flow is established, it is compatible with the existing power grid to supply electricity to homes, industries, and facilities.
When this technology first became available, it came at a hefty price tag. However, the cost requirements for manufacturing PV panels have dramatically lessened, driving solar power to become one of the leading methods of creating renewable energy.
Solar farms can produce varying amounts of electricity based on size and scale. The more ground a solar farm covers, the more electricity it can produce. One of the difficulties of creating a solar infrastructure in wide, remote places is transporting the electricity across great distances. The challenge presents logistical concerns, transportation costs, and infrastructure expenditures.
PV Magazine reported solar panels accounted for 4.7% of our electricity in 2022. This represents a 10% increase from 2021, making it a banner year for solar.
Wind Harnessing: Feel the Breeze
If you’ve ever driven through the Midwest, you’ll notice massive wind farms along your drive. These wind farms comprise gargantuan windmills that utilize the natural air movement to generate kinetic energy, transforming it into electricity. This renewable energy resource is fueled by the Earth’s rotation, Sun’s Heat, and natural airflow.
Although harnessing the power of wind is a relatively new technology, windmills have been around since ancient days. In earlier civilizations, windmills were used to grind stones together to crush grains into fine ingredients, like corn and flour. These early windmills were the ancestors of the modern wind farms today. Instead of grinding mill stones together, modern windmills generate electricity.
The rotating propellers on a wind turbine spin as the wind pushes, converting this motion into electricity, which travels through a generator and creates a direct current flow.
While wind power has become a widely popular option, some question its ability to produce sustainable electricity for the cost of construction. Additionally, windmills require constant maintenance, with risky conditions. Another concern is the massive footprint wind farms need. To help combat this issue, scientists developed floating wind farms, which can be located slightly off the coast in non-channeled waters, making offshore wind a massive move for energy investors.
According to the Energy Information Administration, roughly 10% of the energy consumed by the United States is produced by wind, making it one of the most prominent renewables.
Geothermal: Like a Warm Hug
A creative way of harnessing energy is using the Earth’s internal heat to produce electricity. Geothermal technology processes heat from the Earth’s core, where extreme temperatures constantly reside. Generally, water is pumped into deep wells near the Earth’s core. The boiling water or steam is brought to the Earth’s surface through natural evaporation, which drives turbines to generate electricity.
This ingenious system uses Earth’s natural resources, like water and heat, to produce electricity with minimal greenhouse gas emissions, making it a key component of the clean energy transition. Additionally, geothermal energy requires a much smaller footprint than that of solar panels or wind turbines, meaning it has minimal impact on the landscape.
Consistency is one of the greatest benefits of utilizing the Earth’s natural molten core to produce electricity. Unlike other methods, geothermal technology provides a consistent supply that is not dependent on weather conditions or unpredictable circumstances.
Hydropower: Go with the Flow
Hydropower, or hydroelectric power, is the process of harnessing the energy caused by natural flowing water found in waterways. This renewable resource utilizes massive paddles to turn turbines using the river’s existing force. Where little natural force is present, dams are erected to pressurize the water flow, increasing the turbine rotation.
Putting the natural current of rivers and streams to work is nothing new to humanity. Water mills have been used throughout history to operate factories, produce grains, and operate machinery.
Unlike the old water mills, new hydroelectric dams are used to generate electricity, which has become a key player in global energy development. Because hydroelectric power can be generated consistently, it presents a pivotal opportunity to produce power with reliable flow and sustainability.
One drawback to hydropower is the large footprint it can have on the wildlife and natural environment. New hydroelectric technologies are being developed daily to help counteract this issue and minimally impact the waterways and natural ecosystems.
Ocean Energy: Ride the Waves
Similar to hydroelectric power, ocean energy uses the energy found in ocean waves and currents to generate kinetic energy, which can be turned into electricity. This technology is relatively new in the world of energy and development, but it has massive potential as a part of the transition to green energy. The process involves building turbine structures along coastal waterways that are pushed and pulled by oceanic waves. Because waves provide reasonably constant motion, these turbines can’t continuously move and produce electricity.
One of the significant drawbacks of harnessing ocean wave energy is the maintenance and expensive technology. Unfortunately, saltwater tends to erode nearly anything over time, causing severe damage to oceanic energy technology and maintenance costs. Additionally, unpredictable weather conditions can also damage the turbines or delicate components.
However, each turbine has the potential to utilize the oscillating waves to produce enough energy to power 35 homes or 100 kilowatts. Consistent production of offshore floating turbines can produce great potential for clean energy solutions.
Hydrogen: The New Frontier of Untapped Potential
Hydrogen power has been booming lately, and we have seen a drastic surge in advances. Despite hydrogen being the first element on the periodic table of elements, it’s found in its unadulterated form. However, this versatile energy carrier has massive appeal for the movement toward green energy because excess water is the only after-effect it produces.
Although hydrogen power has excellent potential, transporting the volatile energy has proven risky, though not unachievable. When proper safety measures are taken, utilizing hydrogen energy can be both economical and nominal.
Bioenergy: The Power of Natural Elements
Bioenergy utilizes biological materials like wood, charcoal, manure, and flora to produce heat through controlled burning. These organic materials can be drawn from anywhere, like farmland, industrial gardens, dedicated crops, and more.
The energy created from burning biomass can be used to produce electricity, heat, cooking, or other useful applications. Naturally, one of the key benefits of burning biomass is its lower release of emissions than burning other materials, like fossil fuels.
On the other hand, one of the drawbacks is the elevation in bioenergy production has led to deforestation and overuse of natural materials. However, when handled properly, bioenergy is a critical aspect of the future landscape of energy production.
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