Renewable resources can be used as an alternative to fossil fuels for electricity generation.
The term “renewable resources” can be thrown around and used incorrectly to describe many types of energy systems, but the most basic definition is that it’s energy that is created using natural resources that are completely inexhaustible.
In this blog, we’ll explore examples of renewable resources, as well as non-renewable resources. We’ll also look into the potential downsides to renewable energy use, and how the US is faring in terms of increased renewable energy production.
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What are renewable resources?
There are many types of renewable resources. For example, solar panels are renewable because they are powered by the sun, whose energy will never be exhausted in our lifetimes.
On the other hand, oil is nonrenewable because it takes millions of years for oil to form from decaying animal and plant matter. Once we dig it all up, we will not have more oil for millions of years.
Renewable energy comes in many forms, and its use is expanding year after year as the world continues to realize its benefits in combating global warming. Not only that, the cost of renewable resources continues to decrease – making it more feasible now than ever before.
For example, since 2010, the cost of solar has reduced by 80% while wind has decreased by 40% – making both options cheaper to run than coal.
Top five examples of renewable resources
Solar and large-scale wind farms are probably the most well-known renewable resources, but there are a few other forms that are a big part of the US energy mix.
Examples of renewable energy resources include:
- Solar energy
- Wind energy
- Geothermal energy
What makes renewable energy a great option is it costs less to build and maintain than fossil fuel infrastructure and it is less polluting to the environment.
Renewable energy will be important in shifting to a zero-carbon world and will be imperative for future job development. In fact, a recent study by the University of California-Berkeley suggests that we can reach a 90% renewable energy grid for the entire United States by 2035, generating half a million jobs a year and will meet the entire grid’s energy needs.
Even though most options are impractical for homes, most renewable energy sources can be utilized by utility and other large-scale companies.
Breaking down each renewable resource
While there are several renewable resources that can generate electricity, not all of them will work in every situation. For instance, it is more practical for you to power your home with solar panels than a wind turbine – but a wind farm is a great way to power an entire neighborhood.
It’s important to note that each renewable energy source comes with their own unique challenges. For example, mining for certain metals or minerals to build renewable energy sources can be harmful to the environment.
But with each energy source, there are ways to improve their production, which we discuss below.
Going solar is the most practical renewable energy option for homeowners. You can connect photovoltaic solar panels to your roof and adjust the size of your system depending on the amount of energy your home needs.
Solar power falls into the ”renewable” category because panels can generate energy for many years by simply absorbing sunlight. Once solar panels are manufactured and installed, all they do is sit there and create energy.
After the manufacturing of renewable resources like solar panels, they produce pollution-free energy for their lifetimes.
One challenge with solar panels is that at the end of their lifecycle, which is typically 25-30 years, they need to be recycled. However, there is currently no effective way to recycle solar panels.
Wind energy is a bit tricky – you need a large enough plot of land, substantial wind in your area, and the ability to pay for the high cost of installation. It can be practical if you live on a farm and generate enough wind power that can then be sold to utility companies.
The good news is that within the US, both offshore and onshore windmills are becoming more widespread, with plans to build offshore wind farms on the east coast.
Wind farms offer a great way to utilize clean energy but they need to be very well-thought-out. The main environmental disadvantage is the fact that they can harm animal migration patterns, especially in the water.
Wind farms will emit a low electrical current that can confuse fish and other animals that swim by the turbines. But, once introduced to the environment, animals should be able to adapt.
Geothermal energy is perhaps the most untapped renewable resource. Geothermal power works by using geothermal heat pumps to use the heat from the earth’s core to generate electricity. Geothermal energy can most easily be used in areas with very active tectonic plates and volcano activity, such as Iceland or the west coast of the US.
That is because in these areas, there is a lot of movement underground and the earth’s heat is making its way to the surface. You can see examples of this from geysers shooting steam into the air at the earth’s surface – which is the heat building up from the earth’s core. That heat is utilized to generate geothermal energy.
One downside of geothermal is the cost – it is not yet able to compete with cheaper sources of energy such as solar or wind. It is very expensive to create geothermal plants and to dig deep enough to get to the hottest part of the earth.
The main environmental concern from geothermal plants, aside from potential negatives from mining the materials to build the plant, is the potential release of toxic gasses into the atmosphere from deep below the earth’s crust. These gases can potentially cause acid rain, however they are emitted at much lower quantities than gas and coal plants.
You can think of hydropower in a simple way by imagining old water wheels that were used to power flour mills. Now, they are much larger and more sophisticated hydroelectric power generators.
Think of the Hoover Dam in Nevada: hydropower works by harnessing the water’s energy as it rushes through the plant, powering turbines to create energy.
Building hydropower plants has been known to displace local human populations, hinder fish population migration patterns, and exacerbate drought by keeping more water upstream so downstream populations get less.
But when done in an environmentally-friendly, properly managed way, hydropower is a great source of energy. Unless there is a drought, water will always flow and is completely renewable.
Bioenergy is a blanket term for energy sources that are derived from plant material. For example, corn can be used to create ethanol, a type of biofuel, which is then used for car or airplane fuel.
Another application of bioenergy is wood pellets, also referred to as biomass energy or energy made from organic material. Wood pellets are derived from trees which are then burned in power plants. Because the fuel is made from plants, it is technically renewable – since the plants can be replanted and grown year after year.
Bioenergy has the potential to be unsustainable if trees are cut down too quickly before they can regenerate. Biomass is based on the assumption that the plants that are grown to be turned into energy will also remove the carbon that they emit into the atmosphere when being burned.
In order to make sure this process is sustainable, more trees need to be planted than are cut down to make sure that CO2 is removed at a faster rate that it is being emitted.
What are non-renewable resources?
What makes these resources non-renewable is the fact that once they are used up, new reserves will not be created for millions of years.
They are usually referred to as ‘fossil fuels’ because they are in fact made from animal and plant fossils which have been decaying for millions of years.
The most common non-renewable resources are:
- Natural gas
- Nuclear power
Often claimed as a cleaner-burning fuel, natural gas still emits carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is an extremely harmful byproduct because it traps earth warming heat in the atmosphere. It is also getting more challenging to dig up, pushing it further away from being a cheap, “clean” resource.
Oil powers many things ranging from airplanes to heating homes. While oil and coal helped propel the industrial revolution, it might also send us to a whole new world of stress if climate change remains unchecked.
The world’s favorite, heavily-polluting energy source, coal, is used globally because it was historically reliably cheap and easy to dig up. Fortunately, renewable energy is starting to become cheaper than coal.
Many times, nuclear power is claimed to be a renewable resource. But technically, it is just a zero-carbon source of energy. While it is true that the nuclear reaction that occurs to create energy can exist for years before a plant becomes too old, it produces massive amounts of radioactive waste along the way.
Additionally, nuclear power needs a water source that is constantly cooling down the reactors, which then creates radioactive waste water. Radioactive wastewater contaminates water sources which can lead to unsafe drinking water or fish that cannot be eaten because they have too much radiation in them.
High levels of radiation can lead to cancer in humans.
Why should we use renewable resources?
One of the main differences between renewable versus non-renewable energy is that fossil fuels like gas, oil, and coal are the main drivers of climate change.
When fossil fuels are burned to use as energy sources, they expel a number of pollutants into the atmosphere ranging from particulate matter to carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.
CO2 does occur naturally in the atmosphere and in fact, it is what keeps the earth at a hospitable temperature. But, when there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere, too much heat from the sun is trapped in the atmosphere and sets off cascading effects on the climate.
For example, when there is more heat in the atmosphere, the arctic’s air warms and ice caps begin to melt, thereby affecting weather patterns around the globe.
There are many changes society as a whole needs to make to avert the worst effects of climate change, but one of the first steps is switching to completely renewable resources. With renewable energy technologies like solar panels, we can get our energy from the sun and never have to expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Renewable energy use is increasing
Slowly but surely, the US is starting to adopt more renewable energy sources, partly due to the decreasing cost.
Currently, all renewable energy sources account for only 11% of the US energy consumption, but this figure is projected to grow to 38% by 2050, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar is projected to be the largest renewable source in 2050.
The future of renewable resources
Even though the world hasn’t quite figured out the best way to make renewable energy perfect, it is the best option we have for reducing the carbon footprint of humanity. Transitioning to renewable energy is imperative to reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and for reducing air pollution.
The great news is that the cost for renewable energy is decreasing and more utility companies and homeowners are choosing renewable energy options. For utility companies, there are many ways to incorporate renewable resources like solar farms, wind farms, geothermal plants, hydropower, and bioenergy.
But if you are a homeowner and want to be in charge of your own renewable energy generation, rooftop panels can provide you that option. Rooftop solar is the most effective way to save you money and allow you to live a greener lifestyle.