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Simply Sustainable: Renewable vs. Non-Renewable Energy

What is the difference between renewable and non-renewable energy?

Right now, most of the energy sources we use in the United States and around the world are nonrenewable. Meaning that we are limited only to the amount that we can take from the earth and that it will not be replenished once taken. 

Coal, petroleum and natural gas are some of the most used sources. They are referred to as fossil fuels. This is because they are actually buried remains of ancient plants and animals that are millions of years old. 

Petroleum and Crude Oil
Petroleum can be made from crude oil and natural gas. The remains of ancient animals and plants get covered by sand and rock and eventually turn into crude oil after millions of years of heat and pressure.
"The word petroleum means rock oil or oil from the earth" - EIA
Coal
Coal is a black rock that has a very high amount of carbon. It also takes millions of years to form.
It contains energy stored by ancient plants - rocks and dirt cover the plants over years and eventually the heat and pressure turn them to coal. 
Natural Gas
Natural gas contains high amounts of methane and is created the same way as petroleum and coal.
Not only are these sources limited, they are also dangerous and harmful to mine. They also contribute largely to carbon dioxide emissions. 
What is Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy comes from sources that are naturally replenished. Unlike non-renewable energy where we are limited to the total amount we can take.

But with renewable energy, the flow is limited. Meaning that the amount of energy we can obtain at a single time is limited but the source will eventually replenish itself. 
"As of April 2021 renewable energy accounts for 12% of energy consumption and 20% of electricity generation in the United States" - EIA
The different sources of renewable energy we will cover are:
  1. Solar
  2. Geothermal 
  3. Wind
  4. Hydroelectric 
  5. Biomass

Why does renewable energy matter?

Using renewable energy can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide energy security.

The use of renewable energy has been increasing and reached an all time high in 2020!

What is Solar Energy?

Light! Also called solar radiation or electromagnetic radiation, it is light emitted from the sun. 

Solar energy of power is the light from the sun that is converted into usable energy and stored for later use.

"Solar energy is the cleanest and most abundant renewable energy source available, and the U.S. has some of the richest solar resources in the world" - SEIA

How does Solar Energy work?

There are 3 main ways solar energy is created and all 3 use energy from the sun to generate some sort of electricity.

  1. Photovoltaics: This is utilized in solar panels. Energy from the sunlight is absorbed and directly generates electricity. 
  2. Solar Heating / Cooling & Concentrating solar power: These both use heat from the sun to provide heating or to run electricity-generators. 

Solar technologies are readily available both in the home and as large-scale systems. They can be pricey, but they pay off in the end!

What is Geothermal Energy?

Geothermal energy is heat from deep inside the earth. It is considered a renewable energy source because the earth's core continuously produces heat.

Heat from the earth's core is contained in rocks and fluids in the earth's crust. We are then able to access this heat via reservoirs of hot below the earth's surface. 

We use geothermal energy to produce electricity and heat. 

How do we convert geothermal heat to usable energy?

We can access these reservoirs by drilling into the ground, we then use the steam and water to generate electricity. 

There are 3 ways geothermal plants generate power:

  1. Dry Steam: Dry steam power plants work by using the steam coming from underground wells to directly drive a turbine. This type of power plant only uses steam coming from deep within the earth.
  2. Flash: Flash steam power plants are the most common geothermal power plants. Different from dry steam, hot water actually flows into the wells and produces usable steam that is then used to generate turbines.
  3. Binary: Binary plants use underground water to heat another fluid that is then vaporized and used to power a turbine. After the water is used, it is put back into the ground to be reheated by the earth.

Geothermal energy is the least used renewable energy source. This is because major geothermal plants are only located in very specific places, along the boundaries of tectonic plates.

What is Wind Energy? 

Wind energy or wind power is the use of wind to generate mechanical power or electricity. 

You have probably seen the giant wind turbines spread across landscapes, these wind turbines use their blades to collect the kinetic energy of wind. 

How does it work?

The turbine blades act similar to the wind of an airplane. In simple words, the wind causes the blades to "lift" and turn, which spins a generator to create electricity.

You can find wind turbines both on land and offshore, but you cannot just put up a wind time anywhere. 

According to the EIA, US states like Texas, Kansas, and Iowa are some of the main wind power generators. Producing about 56% of the United States wind powering generation. 

What is Biomass energy?

Biomass is organic material or waste that can be used to create energy. 

Examples: Wood, wood waste, agricultural crops, waste materials, biogenic materials, municipal solid waste, animal waste and sewage. 

Wood is probably the most common example, humans have been burning wood and other organic materials to use as fuel for cooking and heating for thousands of years.

Types of biomass energy 

  1. Biofuels - Biomass is converted into fuels like ethanol and biodiesel to help power our cars and even airplanes. 
  2. Biopower - Biomass is converted to use for heat and electricity by 1 of 3 processes: burning, bacteria decay/fermentation, and conversion. 
  3. Bioproducts - Biomass can also be converted into chemicals that help make plastics and other products. 

Benefits of using biomass 

  • Help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, burning of biomass also releases emissions but its emissions balance out with the carbon dioxide that was captured during the materials growth cycle. 
  • Helps to reduce the dependence on foreign oil. 
  • Increase in growing "dedicated energy crops" and supporting the shift to sustainably grown food as opposed to intensive food crops that ruin the land. 

Sources:

Geothermal
Solar
EIA
Wind
Biomass

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