Which Renewable Energy Technology Holds the Most Promise
June 08, 2017
Currently, there is no form of renewable energy that is practical enough to replace current methods of generating electricity, such as coal and nuclear fission. There is more to consider than the cost and efficiency of a renewable technology. Scalability, infrastructure, and reliability are some other factors.
What are the pros and cons of renewable energy technologies? What renewable technology has the best chance of being the number one renewable energy source for providing electricity in the future?
Solar energy has an unlimited power source in the sun. Unfortunately, commercial solar technology today is making use of only about 20% of sunlight that hits a solar cell, in the best of conditions. There are more efficient solar cells, but they may use materials or fabrication methods that are too expensive to produce in large quantities.
Solar cells produce electricity only when light from the sun strikes them, so there is a need to produce enough power from solar panels for daytime activities, and ideally, store energy for use when the solar cells are not generating electricity.
Solar arrays are stiff, heavy and get dang hot. On a summer day in Arizona, the solar panel temperature on a roof might reach 160F (70˚C). Larger solar arrays take up a lot of real estate for the amount of electricity they provide.
As the name implies, hydropower generates electricity from the movement of water. In a standard hydroelectric system, a dam is built on a reservoir. When water is allowed to flow through the dam, electricity is generated by turbines. In some instances, water is pumped back up to the reservoir using solar or wind power when it is available.
The newcomer in water power is wave energy. It harnesses the motion of waves and electricity is sent through high-power cables to the shore.
Hydropower has few downsides, but it can only be used near a large water supply. Also, severe drought or water shortages can lower output.
Geothermal energy taps the heat from the earth to produce electricity from steam. Unlike wind and solar, this energy source is fairly constant. Geothermal plants are typically located near tectonic plate boundaries and are costly to build.
Biopower energy is electricity produced from living things like plants. A campfire converts biomass into heat. In biopower plants, burning biomass may be used to generate steam, which turns a turbine, that generates electricity. Growing biomass takes up land and resources, and so does storing it. Burning biomass can put pollutants in the air.
Wind power is popular and works best in areas of consistent winds, including offshore. There are issues concerning wildlife and the noise they make.
Which energy technology will be used most in the future to supply electricity?
Hydropower and geothermal are out, because they cannot be used everywhere.
Biopower never made sense to me. Using living things for fuel? Even as I eat this turkey sandwich, that seems wrong somehow. However, advances in biotechnology could solve the major problems with biopower technology, by mass producing gene-edited or synthetic life in the lab.
Wind farms are good for now, but are not the answer for the future. Winds change. Technological advances in this industry are possible, but not leaps, because of how simple the technology is.
Advances in chemistry and nanotechnology are improving solar cell efficiency. Ways to store solar energy are also improving. Solar panels are becoming more flexible and blending in better with the environment.
Unlike any of the other renwables mentioned above, solar can be scaled for homes and communities. In the future, a “solar paint” may become available that could coat any surface and convert the sun’s rays to power devices like a phone. For every device that could charge itself through solar power, the overall demand for electricity would go down.
Solar power has a good chance of becoming the energy of choice in the future, because the technology is improving rapidly and the sun is our most reliable source of renewable energy.
Windtech at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Ivanpah By Sbharris (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Biomass Power station via Wikimedia Commons
Dam By Le Grand Portage Derivative work: Rehman (File:Three_Gorges_Dam,_Yangtze_River,_China.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons