An Introduction to Renewable Energy
If we are going to reverse the effect of climate change then we need to begin using renewable energy sources to heat our homes, light our offices, power our machines, and drive our cars. A renewable energy is one which is replenished naturally and constantly such as sunlight, wind, tidal power, biomass, and thermal energy. There are some good reasons for moving towards more sustainable and green energy sources including:
- Counteracting the effects of climate change and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal and oil.
- Decreasing reliance on other countries for energy needs, in other words creating energy security.
- Finding cheaper and cleaner ways of providing electricity and heating our homes.
History of Renewable Energy
We have always been trying to find new ways to use our environment to produce power. Wood burning was one of the first biomass renewable energy projects and has been around since man discovered fire. Wind has been used to power ships and drive windmills for grinding corn since the Egyptian times and the first experiments in solar power began way back in the late 19th Century.
Many consider that the use of coal and then oil took attention away from further developing renewable energy until we began to realise the effect on the environment and the problems of sustaining an economy based on the use of fossil fuels. Gas, coal and oil will run out at some point and they won’t be replenished for several million years.
For the last 20-30 years, research and development into finding more sustainable ways for providing our energy needs has been growing rapidly. World energy consumption just four years ago was 80% dependent on fossil fuels, a situation that cannot be maintained indefinitely. From the development of solar panels and wind power, to electric powered cars, the challenge to lower our carbon footprint and find cleaner energy sources has been accepted and is now driving forward at pace.
Mainstream Renewable Energy Sources
If we are going to replace our dependence on fossil fuels then we will need to draw energy from a number of diverse sources including the sun, wind, the sea, rivers, and natural environment.
Drive across the UK landscape 30 years ago and you might have come across a wind turbine or two here and there. Nowadays, we are used to seeing large wind farms both on land and at sea, those huge white propellers turning languidly in the breeze. At the beginning of 2014, there were some 5,276 wind turbines in the UK with a total capacity of 10 gigawatts, roughly equally distributed between land based farms and off shore ones.
Of all the renewable technologies, wind turbines are the ones that garner the most controversy. Because of their size they are often seen as a blot on the landscape and there are many who see investment in this technology as unwise because it supposedly only covers a small proportion of the UKs energy needs.
The truth is that investment in wind power is set to increase despite recent cuts in government subsidies. Find out more about wind turbines.
The conversion of solar energy to power has been in use for a long time, since the days we discovered greenhouses and how a magnifying glass can burn paper. Nowadays, our development of solar technologies such as photovoltaic cells, solar panels and solar thermal collectors means that this renewable energy is at the forefront of our fight to find better and more sustainable ways to provide our electricity and heating needs.
Solar panels can be used on our roofs and in huge farms, to produce electricity that can be fed into the grid. It’s one of the true renewable energies where domestic and commercial concerns have an equal stake. Find out more about solar panels here.
Solar thermal is the technology now being used to heat water and is utilised by many business. While it is widely found throughout continental Europe, in the UK it has been underused to date but is one of the most effective and cheapest ways of providing heating for our buildings. Find out more about solar water thermal heating.
Biomass is plant material that can be either burned as fuel or converted to biofuels, to drive machinery, even cars.
The biomass material most used for fuel is wood, which can be found in low carbon boilers that produce heating and hot water for homes. These systems are increasingly replacing coal, oil and gas heating systems for both businesses and domestic houses. Find out more about biomass boilers here.
Biofuels can be made from a variety of different organisms producing solids, liquids and gases that can be mass produced to replace fossil fuels such as petrol. Still in its early days, biofuel development could hold the key to powering our cars and other machines, though there is some doubt as to whether they address the concerns of global warming.
One of the burgeoning renewable industries of the last 20 years is the use of hydropower. We have long since harnessed the rushing water of lakes up on high land with power stations such as Dinorwig in North Wales. Now we are beginning to develop smaller systems that can make a real difference to our energy production. Find out more about hydroelectricity and micro-hydro systems.
More recent innovations are attempts to harness the power of our coastline with wave energy machines such as the Oceanus 2 project in the South East of England.
The heat held in the earth is a potent source of energy, if it can be efficiently harnessed. Hot springs have been used by different civilisations for centuries but actually developing the technology to produce electricity on a national scale has proved difficult.
In the UK, it has been explored as a possible energy alternative although it has been restricted so far to shallow geothermal sites that produce a limited amount of power for the national grid. While there are geothermal hotspots in Cornwall, East Yorkshire and the Lake District, the technology and finances have not yet been provided to yield this possibly useful power source.
Renewable energy lies at the heart of our future. The developments are beginning to come thick and fast and advocates hope that we soon reach the tipping point where our dependence on fossil fuels is outweighed by our own, natural energy production, allowing us to be sustainable and, more importantly, self-sufficient.
You can check out all the latest news and technological developments on our renewable energies blog.