By: Maya Albold
The goal of any society is to achieve sustainability. In recent years, many countries have attempted to achieve this goal by redesigning the way they support and fuel production. These newly introduced methods all fall under the umbrella of a phenomenon known as “clean energy,” but what exactly is it?
Clean (or renewable) energy is derived from renewable resources[i]. These resources include wind, sun, rain, rivers, and geothermal heat, which are all easily and naturally replenished fast enough to meet the long term needs of humans. The purpose of clean energy is to utilize the resources Earth naturally provides and restores to fuel our consumption of energy in a way fossil fuels cannot.
With the growing popularity of clean energy alternatives, many people question where the conflict lies in fossil fuel use. The main problem with fossil fuels is they’re non-renewable and the damage the environment suffers when they’re obtained. Fossil fuels are formed through a process involving the placement of extreme heat and pressure on decayed plants and animals and takes hundreds of millions of years to complete[ii]. This prolonged formation period is the reason fossil fuels are considered one of the most non-renewable resources there are, but yet, one of the most commonly used. The gallons of gasoline millions of Americans pump into their cars each day; the coal powering factories all over the world; and, the fuel powering 300-ton planes around-the-clock—all fossil fuels. While it may seem as though countries in the Middle East, the largest area for the exportation of oil, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, have a never-ending supply of oil, they do not! The most widely accepted explanation for the existence of 48% of Earth’s oil in the Middle East dates back 175 million years ago when the theoretical supercontinent of Pangea broke apart and the fossils of creatures that lived in the depths of the Tethys Sea, modern-day Middle East, were left to heat within the Earth’s crust and become oil[iii]. Theories and explanations aside, at the rate humans consume energy for development and production, clean energy is quickly becoming essential for a successful nation.
According to the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, clean and affordable modern energy is a must for society’s global future.[iv] A comprehensive plan for complete renewable energy dominance is set to be achieved by the year 2030. This plan relies on the revolutionary new inventions harnessing the elements to generate environmentally sound energy reserves. These unique technologies take advantage of the untapped power of rain, solar, wind, water, and geothermal energy and can be divided into these categories based on each.
Rain is the natural precipitation of liquid water occurring within Earth’s hydrological cycle. It’s more commonly seen as a nuisance interrupting outdoor activities or a convenient source of water for home gardens and plants, but it is also an energy source. A 15-year-old from the small country of Azerbaijan has invented a device called Rainergy[v]. The device works by collecting rain water in a reservoir within, shooting it at high speeds through the generator to produce energy, and storing it in a battery that can aid in providing electricity along with the nearest power grid. The project received funding and support from the Azerbaijanian Government and has many prospective investors around the world. This is a smart alternative for smaller, more impoverished countries who don’t have the resources to build solar panels and wind turbine fields. The simple machine is compact enough to be incorporated into any home or town with little maintenance. An added benefit is that rain energy produces less carbon dioxide byproduct than other alternative energy options. This is a simple model of how rain energy can be harnessed, but there are inventions crafted for large-scale use. Researchers from CEA/Leti-Minatec, an institute located in Grenoble, France, have designed a machine that utilizes the vibration energy from a piezoelectric[vi] plate composed of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) polymer[vii]. The energy comes from the impact of the fallen rain drop that creates an inelastic shock when it hits the PVDF and causes vibration within the polymers. Embedded within the polymers are electrodes that gather the resulting electrical charges. The hope for machines like the ones mentioned above is that they will be a renewable energy source for areas where heavy rainfall is common and there is too little sunlight for solar energy alternatives.
Solar power is one of the more popular and commonly known forms of clean energy. It is not as likely for a person to see a Rainergy device in someone’s home as it is to see mini solar gadgets that bob back and forth on windowsills, solar panels on the rooves of buildings, and even in pocket calculators! The National Renewable Energy Laboratory claims that “more energy from the sun falls on the earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year.” With this huge, untapped reservoir of natural energy it is no wonder that solar energy has become the most popular in terms of household and business use. Solar panels are the most recognizable of all solar energy devices, and they work by particles of light, called photons, releasing electrons from atoms to create energy[viii]. The panels aren’t simply one big device, but many smaller units combined. The units are known as photovoltaic[ix] cells, and once they form panels, panels can form arrays. The variance of structure types makes solar energy a viable option for both small trinkets and whole cities[x]. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plants can store energy from the sun, so it does not have to be utilized immediately[xi]. The plants operate by utilizing mirrors that capture the sun’s energy to power a steam turbine and produce electricity. The prime locations for these plants are in dry, sunlight-dense area such as the United State’s southwest region and the United States has been a leading nation in their use. Solar energy can also be utilized for residential heating and cooling through Integral Collector Storage (ICS) and evacuated tubes. ICS systems are water heating systems that involve heat absorbing tubes concealed in a box with a “glazing sheet” that aids in sunlight absorption[xii]. These are an easily installable alternative to larger water heaters that rely on oil. A downside is the lack of consistency in when the water will be hot, due to the reliance upon sunlight for heat. Evacuated tubes function similarly, with the water moving through the tubes to be heated using sunlight but can also be used for air conditioning purposes if cooled in the adjoining boost tank[xiii]. The applications for solar energy are seemingly limitless, and it is undoubtedly a key part of a sustainable future that harnesses the Earth’s power to its fullest potential without depleting its resources.
Wind power is another alternative that one can likely see as they drive past the fields of the United States Midwest. States like Iowa, North Dakota, and, slightly farther out, California are taking advantage of wind-based energy through giant turbine fields filled with rows upon rows of the tall, rotating structures. Wind power is such a unique and effective source of energy that it accounts for 8% of the United States’ electric generation capacity. Wind power is usually divided into three classifications: utility-scale wind, distributed wind, and offshore wind[xiv]. Utility-scale wind includes all turbines 100 kilowatts or larger that send electricity to power grids using operators. These take the shape of wind farms full of towering turbines that are linked to the entire nation’s transmission system. Turbines are among the fastest growing energy alternatives and have more than 52,000 units spanning across 41 states, Guam, and Puerto Rico[xv]. Distributed wind encompasses all turbines smaller than 100 kilowatts that are normally used to power homes and farms. Therefore, it is natural to see turbines in the Midwest, America’s agricultural hub, on private lands to practice clean farming practices and possibly receive federal subsidies for eco-friendly technology. The third classification of wind energy is offshore wind. These are turbines in large water bodies, most likely the continental shelf. This is yet another growing area in United States energy use as various projects for offshore turbines are developing. Recently a block of turbines was constructed off the coast of Rhode Island, a step in the right direction for American energy independence. These turbines function by employing the wind in the air to rotate three blades around a rotor, the rotor then spins the shaft, and the shaft activates the generator to create electricity[xvi]. The relatively straightforward process can produce substantial amounts of energy useful for electricity.
Hydroelectric power, although not as visible as solar panels and wind turbines in everyday life, is the largest resource for low emission electricity worldwide. Most hydroelectric power generators work by simply harnessing the power from moving water to create electricity. The primary method of generating the power is dams on rivers and streams that are often causes of conflict due to negative side effects that can arise. By blocking the natural flow of the dams, can alter animal’s habitats, migratory habits of fish, and diminish water quality. Still, hydroelectric power is a smarter choice compared to fossil fuels, a fact reflected by the popularity of it when clean energy first began to advance. In 2011 hydroelectric power made up 16% of global electricity, beat only by fossil fuels, and since then it has only declined in use as other renewable energy sources are created[xvii]. Hydropower is an ideal solution for areas with access to many bodies of water, and thus is popular in the states of Oregon and Washington on the west coast. A more in-depth explanation of how hydropower works involves the force of the water spinning a turbine that rotates a generator and creates electricity. There are three different turbines most often used based on distance separating the dam and turbine: Kaplan, Francis, and Pelton. A Kaplan turbine is composed of a runner with three to six blades extending from it and possess the ability to be more effective by altering the blades’ pitch. A Francis turbine has a runner with nine or more blades that move the water in a unique axial flow. Lastly, a Pelton turbine includes specially crafted buckets attached to the exterior of a round disc. Pelton turbines are often employed in “high hydraulic head sites[xviii].” Hydroelectric power is a brilliant, if somewhat more disruptive, source of clean energy that can be implemented almost anywhere near a body of water.
Geothermal energy is the lesser known renewable energy resources, although it is just as sustainable. Geothermal means that the energy is derived from the heat of the Earth’s crust and magma. It is accessible through heat pumps that tap into hot rock and hot water beneath the Earth’s crust and sometimes even as deep as Earth’s magma stores. How is this any different from pumping for oil? It is different because it is only accessing the continuous heat energy within the surface of the earth because of the heat the emits from the Earth’s core. This heat energy is always within the Earth and does not drain from a limited store of accumulated biomass like oil drilling. It is also less damaging because it incorporates a system of heating and cooling vents buried within the ground in an area reserved for such use, whereas oil pumping often employs a method called fracking that is disruptive and impacts the organisms that live in the ocean near these sites negatively. Geothermal energy can heat homes and buildings by the heat pump delivering warm air from the heat exchanger pumps buried within the ground outside the building or taking the warm air out of the building to cool it[xix]. Hot rock is not the only location for geothermal energy pumping, hot water stores in the Earth’s surface can also provide energy. These areas use steam to power a turbine and generator or are directly used in greenhouses, fish farms, and production of pasteurized milk. Geothermal energy has yet to reach its maximum potential of magma use and is the least common clean energy source at only 2% of the United States mere 11% renewable energy usage for the total energy consumption in the year 2017[xx].
With each of the sources there are side effects, but nowhere near the amount that accompany fossil fuel use. If the United States, or any country, hopes to truly achieve sustainability and adopt eco-friendly practices, energy is ground zero. Energy, quite literally, powers the world and a major change in how it’s produced would advance the resolution of almost all environmental issues dealing with air quality and production. They may be a costlier and less reliable form of energy for the time being, but with the advancement of technologies over time they could become the commonplace machinery in place of coal furnaces and oil-driven motors. The best chance of this occurring is the most industrialized nations such as the United States, China, and England prioritizing use and research of clean energy alternatives that will benefit their country, and the world, in the long run. Investment in renewable energy does not have to be an investment in simply technology, but a stake in the future.