What is Renewable Energy?
Many of us have heard of the term “renewable energy” in recent years. However, this is a rather broad topic that contains a nearly countless number of subcategories. One of the best ways to begin to develop a basic overview of this type of energy is to form a general definition. Only then will we be able to examine some of the discrete sectors that affect our daily lives.In essence, renewable energy is just what the term hints at. It is any form of energy that is not offered in only limited supplies. Examples of limited sources include fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and even drinking water. The primary advantage of renewable energy is the fact that it can always be replenished. In other words, it will theoretically never run out. Partially due to the ingenuity of mankind and partially arising from the way this power is harvested, renewable energy is indeed the way of the future. A handful of the most common examples here can include (but are not limited to):
- Solar power
- Wind energy
- Geothermal power
- Biomass conversion into fuel
As technology continues to develop, it is highly likely that even more innovative approaches will be taken. Some of the most intriguing research projects now involve converting inorganic and organic waste into a viable fuel source and further tapping into hydroelectric power (such as can be seen in structures such as the Boulder Dam and the Aswan High Dam in Egypt).
The Benefits of Renewable Energy
Not only can these previously mentioned sectors provide a truly staggering amount of power, but they are also able to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and other toxic effects upon the environment. So, it is clear to appreciate why renewable energy sources are so very important in a world somewhat defined by limitations. Saving the environment is a critical task to seriously approach should we wish our children and grandchildren to live in a healthy world. However, it should be noted here that the benefits of renewable energy go far beyond their positive environmental consequences alone.
There is also a very real concern regarding dependence. This can be broken down into two primary forms. First, countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States are heavily reliant upon regions of the world including the Middle East. This can present a problem in times of geopolitical strife or conflict. Should any one region (or even nation) have unprecedented control over a limited amount of fossil fuels, countries that require this energy may be forced to pay exorbitant amounts of money. This translates down to the individual taxpayer. However, renewable energy knows no specific regions (solar power is an example here). As it can be generated by in-house methods, the reliance on other parts of the world is all but eliminated. Finally, the tariffs associated with renewable energy are normally much lower in comparison to fossil fuels. As supplies become more abundant, these rates are likely to drop even further.
Solar power is likely to be the form of renewable energy that individuals are the most familiar with. Having been developed as early as the 1950s, this is the very same source that enables satellites high in the heavens to replenish their batteries and continue to function. Without solar power, everything from wireless Internet to GPS communications would break down within hours. So, what are the basic principles of solar energy?Solar power can also be found under a rather scientific term known as “photovoltaics”. This signifies that electricity is generated directly from light. All technicalities aside, the basic idea behind solar energy is to capture tiny “pieces” of light known as photons and then convert these into a voltage that can be stored and transmitted. This is frequently accomplished through the use of solar cells. As research has steadily advanced, the capacity of these cells is now quite impressive. So, they have finally been able to be incorporated into equipment such as solar-powered cars and even entire “farms” devoted to capturing the endless supply of sunlight high in the sky above.
The solar panel can be thought of as the “powerhouse” of a solar energy platform. In a very real way, these panels are what collect and store the power from the sun. These panels can be mounted on the roof of a car or in the garden of a home. In fact, it is likely that you have already seen a small version of this device in the typical pocket calculator.A consumer-sized panel can generate (roughly) between 100 and 320 watts of power. However, it is important to keep in mind that each module within a panel has limitations in regards to how much electricity it can generate over a period. It is, therefore, common to see many modules present alongside one another. This is otherwise known as a solar array.
A recent advancement is known as a smart solar module. This array has computerised electronics embedded within its design. These systems are then able to track power production and physically make any necessary adjustments to maximise the total output of the unit. Many feel that this approach will become quite common as the year progress. Either way, solar panels are the literal backbone of photovoltaic energy production.
Solar lights are another novel innovation that can save a residence or business a substantial amount of money. They work on a fairly simple principle. These lights are placed outdoors in areas that absorb an appreciable amount of sun on a daily basis. Normally, these fixtures will display a series of small solar modules mounted on their upper surface. These can collect the rays from the sun. An internal battery then stores this energy for future use. During the evening, this power can then be used to light up areas within the home. Some modern versions can even provide extra power to streetlights on a motorway.Many home and garden centres will offer these lights to the consumer. Not only are they able to cut down on the power consumption of a home, but there is no need for them to be connected to mains electricity. So, each is its very own individual unit. Common examples are small fixtures to light a footpath or overhead units above a back deck.
To truly appreciate the way that solar panels and solar lights work, it is a good idea to take a look at the tiniest components of such units. These are known as solar cells. The best way to envision a solar cell is to imagine it as one tiny portion of a solar panel. An analogy may be the individual threads of a carpet joining to comprise a strong weave.
The purpose of a solar cell (as mentioned previously) is to collect the rays of the sun and convert these into electrical potential (power). It is interesting to note that some cells can absorb solar energy as well as light emitted from artificial sources. Additionally, solar cells can be used to detect infrared radiation. The most familiar application here is the motion sensor.
Most modern cells are comprised of crystalline silicon broken down into wafers that are as thin as 160 micrometres. This is thinner than a strand of human hair. There are several different types of this silicon and each will have its attributes. Monocrystalline silicon is much more efficient but it tends to be quite expensive. Polycrystalline variants are less efficient but prove to be cost-effective alternatives to residential settings. Although silicon is still the most prevalent material, a great deal of research is taking place to find even more substances that can generate greater amounts of power.
Solar Water Heater
A solar water heater is one of the most effective ways to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a home or office. As opposed to employing a boiler (and, therefore, fossil fuels) to heat water, the renewable power of the sun is harnessed. Although designs may vary depending upon the manufacturer, there are several common components within the typical solar water heater.The first portion of the unit is known as a collector. This is normally mounted on a roof or a similar area that receives a great deal of sunlight. A collector may consist of an insulated box and a dark-coloured “absorber” made of sheet metal or a similar substance. A heating fluid is then pumped through this collector. The overall purpose of this collector can be easily understood. By focusing the solar rays within a small environment, water will be heated up to time. It can then be distributed to various areas of the home.
Once this water is heated to an agreeable temperature, it is then sent to a hot water storage tank. One of the issues that some homes will encounter is that the storage tank will need to be significantly larger than that associated with a traditional boiler. This is intended to account for bad weather or days when there is little sunlight available. Also, many solar water heaters will have a backup power system if the overall temperature of the reservoir falls below a certain temperature (normally around 55ºC). Should this occur, a standard energy source will make up for the lack of solar power. Normally, this energy is derived from electrical or natural gas sources.
A final consideration to take into account regarding a solar water heater is that some areas of the world will not be able to employ this technology. This has much to do with the angle of the sun (latitude) as well as how many pleasant days there is each year. While this system may be perfectly suited for areas within the Mediterranean or South America, Northern England or Finland are not likely to enjoy the benefits that are provided. This may very well change if solar panels and their individual cells continue to become more efficient regarding energy production.
These are some of the main benefits and systems that are employed in the world of renewable energy. It should be stressed that this form of technology is only a few decades old regarding its mainstream use. As companies are receiving more subsidies for research and development than ever before, the funds now exist to experience some real progress within this field. Therefore, we should expect some truly stunning advancements to be made into the foreseeable future.
The main driving force behind this paradigm shift has just as much to do with economics as it is associated with environmental concerns. The United Kingdom is one of many countries that are now providing green incentives to encourage homeowners to adopt more sustainable forms of energy. Although it can be argued that these renewable approaches are very much still in their infancy, great strides have already taken place. It is not inconceivable to imagine the day when fossil fuels no longer represent the majority of our energy consumption. With the help of solar power and other sources, we may yet be able to save the world as we know it.