Every year on April 22, people around the world celebrate Earth Day with events that promote environmental health and sustainability. And since it was first observed in 1970, Earth Day has grown from a once-a-year holiday into an international movement that strives to ensure a healthy environment for our children and generations beyond.
Moving Toward Renewable Energy (Green Energy) Sources
One of the most effective ways of improving and maintaining the health of our planet is decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels and increasing our use of renewable energy (green energy) sources that, unlike fossil fuels, are inexhaustible. The most compelling reasons for moving toward renewable energy sources, says John Duffy, a professor and graduate coordinator of the Solar Engineering Program at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, are twofold:
Renewable energy (green energy) sources are generally cleaner than burning fossil fuels, thus reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that cause the serious global warming.
Supplies of fossil fuels are running out. No one can say with certainty when the world’s oil production will peak, that is, when production will no longer meet or exceed demand, but many forecasters believe it will absolutely happen within the next few decades. Increasing our reliance on renewable energy (green energy) can be the key to avoiding devastating economic and social upheaval when that peaking occurs.
But what Are Renewable Energy Sources?
Of the numerous energy sources that are considered renewable, some of the most widely used at this time include the following:
Solar: Solar energy, or solar power, which is provided by the sun, can be passive, such as maximizing south-facing windows to heat rooms, or photovoltaic (pv), using special equipment to collect the sun’s energy and transform it into electricity. Photovoltaic (pv) energy is still relatively expensive, says Duffy, but it can be cost effective in remote areas off the main electric grid. Photovoltaic energy has been gaining popularity throughout the world in recent decades, with strong demand in Japan and much of Europe. Among the most efficient uses for photovoltaic solar power, says Duffy, is heating water. “In most places in the United States where people heat their water with electricity,” Duffy notes, “they could actually save money over a reasonable number of years with solar systems.”
Wind: Harnessing the power of wind to produce electricity is perhaps the fastest growing renewable energy source in the world. Wind power is clean. Wind energy is been used for centuries in many parts of the world, and in areas where high winds are prevalent, says Duffy, wind power can actually cost less than electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.
Geothermal: Geothermal energy comes from heat deep in the earth’s crust which rises toward the surface producing hot water and steam. In areas where good geothermal resources exist, including many parts of the western United States, the heated groundwater can be used directly to heat homes and other buildings, or it can be used in power plants to produce electricity.
Biomass: Biomass, or bioenergy, refers to solar energy that has been stored in organic materials such as plant matter and animal waste. Biomass (bioenergy) is considered renewable because it develops more quickly than fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form. Electricity, heat, steam, and some fuels can be produced from biomass sources.
The Future of Renewable Energy (green energy)
A great deal of effort is being devoted worldwide to developing new and/or improved sources of renewable energy. For instance:
Cheaper Photovoltaic (PV) Cells: The late Sukant K. Tripathy, a chemistry professor and colleague of Duffy’s at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, helped found a company whose goal is to produce inexpensive photovoltaic cells using plastic rather than silicone. Produced in rolls, Duffy explains, the photovoltaic cells would be easy to install and could be used in a variety of forms. “You could even make clothes out of the things,” he says, “so you would produce electricity from your cap or your shirt.”
Fuel Cells: Fuel cells generate electricity using a combination of oxygen (air) and fuel (most commonly hydrogen). This technology is very clean, producing only water and heat (in addition to electricity) as byproducts. At this point, fuel cells technology is relatively expensive, but a great deal of research is underway to make fuel cells technology more efficient and affordable. Fuel cells are promising as an environmentally clean method of powering vehicles, and they can also be adapted to power cell phones and other small electronics.
With all this talk about renewable energy (green energy), it’s easy to overlook the impact each of us can have simply by using energy more efficiently. While the word “conservation” often invokes images of the 1970s when we were told to turn down the heat and put on a sweater (still not a bad idea!), energy efficiency is an idea that deserves more attention.
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Incandescent lights, for example, produce more heat than light, making them extremely inefficient (and expensive!) light sources. A comparison by the Consumer Energy Center, using data from the U.S. Department of Energy, shows that using a $0.75 incandescent bulb for four hours a day over a three-year period will cost the consumer approximately $39.54, including electric bills and about six replacement bulbs. The same lighting from an $11.00 compact fluorescent bulb will cost $19.06 over the same time period, and you won’t have to change it for over six years!
Simple Lifestyle Changes: Using human energy, for example, walking and bicycling rather than driving, is healthy for people and our planet. Rather than driving to the gym and spending thirty minutes on the Stairmaster twice a week, why not shun the elevator for the stairs at work? And other simple changes such as turning off lights when you leave a room, keeping doors closed during cold weather, and making sure windows are sealed effectively can go a long way toward reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
A Healthy Future for Our Kids
It’s never too early to introduce children to simple conservation habits and renewable energy (green energy) use. If our kids get familiar with renewable energy, says Duffy, they’ll be more likely to use it as adults. Besides, scientists and engineers must continue to develop increasingly effective sources of renewable energy (green energy), and most of the world’s future energy innovators are the children of today.