What is renewable energy?

Topics Discussed

Renewable energy (or clean energy) is energy that is formed / derived from renewable resources such as wind, sunlight, heat and water.

As technologies and innovations advance, harnessing renewable energy is becoming easier and also more economical than ever before. Harnessing renewables simply means capturing and utilizing renewable resources such as those highlighted above (wind, sunlight, heat and water).

The five major renewable energy resources are:

  • Solar energy
  • Geothermal energy
  • Bioenergy (biomass is the source of bioenergy)
  • Wind energy
  • Hydropower

(We expand on these in more detail further down)

Renewable energy helps to sustainably power:

  • Transport (e.g. Tesla)
  • Generate electricity and energy in rural areas
  • Cools and warms both air and water 

The adoption of renewable energy also plays / will play a role in the fight against climate change, since non-renewables (or dirty energy) such as fossil fuels (i.e. gas, coal and oil) are finite resources that are becoming increasingly depleted and pollute the environment. 

Nonrenewable energy resources are typically more abundant in specific parts of the world (often poorer nations), where workers are exploited by large corporations that set up oil rigs and mines in an effort to extract these resources before exporting them to first world countries.

As a result of the environmental damages that arise from fossil fuels, renewable energy is a hot topic when it comes to climate change solutions (since renewable sources do not emit greenhouse gasses or carbon dioxide).

Fossil fuel activities are deep rooted within the industrial sector, so transitioning from conventional, historically embedded extraction processes requires both a cultural and economic change in mindset.    

As greenhouse gases reach an all time high, sustainable development practices within large corporations are slowly taking a higher priority as a result of increased pressure from environmental campaigners and activists. This leads to the creation of more jobs within large organisations that once ignored environmental concerns.   

What are the five renewable resources?

The five major renewable energy resources are:

Solar Energy

Solar energy comes from the sun and is harnessed using various technologies (such as solar panels). Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity using either photovoltaics or concentrated solar power.

Photovoltaics convert light into an electric current using the photovoltaic effect, while concentrated solar power systems use large mirrors to direct a large area of sunlight into a small ray.

In the US, the typical solar panel tends to cost between $0.70 per watt to $2.00 per watt.

solar energy

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is a form of heat / energy found within the earth and can also be harnessed in order to generate power. Essentially, geothermal energy is powered by heat within Earth. 

Geothermal energy comes in various different forms. In Iceland, geothermal power accounts for approximately 90 percent of home heating nationally. Unfortunately, geothermal energy comes with considerable costs with regard to the construction.

Geothermal energy

Bioenergy (biomass is the source of bioenergy)

Biomass fuels consist of organic matter / decayed organisms that can be burned in order to generate power. These non-living organisms / organic matter contain stored energy that arises via photosynthesis.

This energy has the capacity to be transferred through the food chain and converted through processes such as combustion, which releases carbon dioxide stored within the plants and organisms.

Biomass fuels are considered to be “carbon-neutral,” meaning they don’t put any extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 


Wind Energy

Wind energy is formed when wind turbines harness the wind’s power, in turn, converting it to electricity. Wind power produces no greenhouse gas emissions, and uses very little land space, making it a very clean alternative to conventional fossil fuels.

The average wind turbine costs between $3,000 to $8,000 per kilowatt of capacity. A wind turbine necessary to power a large home will normally come with an installation cost of around $70,000.

renewable energy wind

Hydropower (Hydroelectricity)

As hydropower turbines rotate, they allow water to pass through them and in turn, generate ‘clean’ electricity. As outlined above, renewable energy resources have little to no negative environmental impacts (in comparison to the burning of fossil fuels, for example). 

In the past, renewable energy resources were very costly and therefore not realistic in terms of an economically feasible alternative to fossil fuels. Despite this, in recent times the landscape for renewables is changing and they are becoming more affordable and accessible than ever.


How effective is renewable energy?

From the five renewable sources discussed above, biomass has the largest global contribution and level of adoption (at around 50%). Hydroelectricity has also been widely adopted (around 26%) as well as wind energy (around 18%).

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