Modern civilization has relied on non-sustainable energy sources that pollute the earth, yet the continued use of these sources can pose a serious long-term threat to the planet and its people. Fortunately, the increased interest in developing and using renewable and sustainable energy sources may encourage people to transform these ideas into standard practice.
To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Ohio University’s online Master of Engineering Management program.
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Types of Sustainable Energy Sources
Energy is an important aspect of human life, and many day-to-day tasks require some type of energy. Using sustainable energy sources can help minimize damage to the planet.
Energy Usage in the U.S.
About 97.33 quadrillion Btu of energy was used in 2021, not all of which was a new energy. In 2020, an all-time high of 11.6 quadrillions Btu of energy used was renewable. This translates to 12% of the country’s total energy consumption.
Examples of Sustainable Energy Sources
Municipal solid waste can be used to create energy. This broad category includes garbage, biogenic products, plastics, synthetic materials, glass, and metals. In 2020, 65 U.S. power plants collectively burned roughly 25 million tons of waste, producing 13.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.
A popular form of sustainable energy is solar power, which many companies and homes have adopted. This form uses sunlight captured by mirrors or photovoltaic (PV) panels and converted into energy. It accounted for roughly 3% of all renewable energy sources in 2020, and it’s projected to account for about 20% by 2050.
Geothermal power, another sustainable energy form, uses heat drawn from the earth’s subsurface via water and/or steam. While it represented less than 1% of U.S. energy capacity in 2020, it’s expected to move more than 8% by 2050.
Moving water, also known as hydropower, can be used to generate electricity. This form of sustainable energy produced 31.5% of all renewable energy and 6.3% of all electricity generated in the U.S. in 2021.
Another sustainable energy form is wood, which can be used to create heat. In the U.S., 8.8% of households used wood as an energy source in 2020. Additionally, wood and wood waste represented 4.2% of industrial energy consumption in 2021.
Biofuel is another example of sustainable energy, and it can come from either animal or plant sources. This example is linked with bioethanol, which is a byproduct of the fermentation of natural vegetation such as corn or sugar cane stalks. Overall, biofuel accounted for 17% of renewable energy consumption in 2020.
Finally, wind power accounted for more than 10% of in-state electricity creation in 16 states. It provided 30% of in-state electricity in Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It also provided a whopping 57% of Iowa’s in-state electricity.
Renewable Energy Challenges
While the types of renewable energy provide hope for the future, several hurdles must be addressed to achieve renewable energy’s potential. One of these hurdles is the increased complexity of power networks. Some fear that networks may become more vulnerable, and questions about renewable energy’s reliability persist. Another concern focuses on the reduction of control. Some types of renewable energy rely on nature to generate power. As such, the availability of power may vary.
Some cite the potential threat of disruptive events as a challenge. These include natural disasters, which may impact power generation. They can also include socioeconomic events that may impact supply, demand, and pricing.
Renewable energy’s cost is another factor to consider. Renewable energy plants utilizing solar and wind energy are much more expensive than fossil fuel plants. Plus, some potential financial backers may find investments in this space to be too risky.
Finally, the current lack of infrastructure associated with renewable energy raises some concerns. The present infrastructure wasn’t built with renewable energy in mind. Plus, the right size of a renewable system is still up for debate.
Exciting Changes in the Field of Renewable Energy
The desire to increase the use of renewable energy is real, and innovations are poised to produce great results around the world. The following examples show renewable energy innovations in action.
This California pilot project, slated to launch in fall 2022, entails the installation of panel canopies over specific sections of the state’s canal network. It aims to generate more solar energy, reduce water evaporation, and potentially meet the water needs of 2 million California residents annually.
Bidirectional Electric Vehicles
Bidirectional elective vehicles are vehicles capable of both providing electricity to a power source and drawing energy from a power source. These vehicles can post several positive potential uses. For instance, they may be able to generate backup power to buildings. They may be able to offset traditional energy usage during peak hours. They could also be potentially used as mobile energy units. Finally, they could be used to generate power in the event of an unexpected power outage.
Like real trees, artificial trees created via 3D printing technology have “trunks,” “stems,” and “leaves.” In their case, the “trees” are wood-based biocomposites. The “stems” and “leaves” are organic solar cells built to harvest energy.
Anaerobic Digestion System
Anaerobic digestion systems are airtight vessels that break down solid waste like cow manure and then convert waste into biogas, which can be converted to energy. This process can reduce the release of methane on dairy and livestock farms. It can also supply energy for its home property and surrounding communities.
Algae is used in a host of projects designed to promote renewable energy and reduce fossil fuels. It can be used as an alternative fuel source, can provide energy for buildings, and can be used to make biodegradable water bottles.
Hope for the Future
While renewable energy sources have their hurdles, they may soon be accessible to everyone. These examples are just the early steps toward that goal, and thankfully, eco-consciousness is a growing trend.
Agency of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Conservation, Anaerobic Digesters
American Society of Civil Engineers, “Solar Panels Over California Canals Test Possible Joint-Sitting Benefits”
Digital Journal, “3D Printed Solar Energy Trees Market 2022-2027 Explosive Growth Opportunity, Demand and Developments by Regions, Global Size, Share and Revenue Analysis”
Interesting Engineering, “9 Algae-Powered Innovations for Sustainable Future Living”
International Renewable Energy Agency, Geothermal Energy
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Bidirectional Charging and Electric Vehicles for Mobile Storage
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “DOE Report Highlighting Record Growth, Declining Costs of Wind Power”
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, How Does Solar Work?
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Hydropower Basics
Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, “Now Available: IEA 2020 U.S. Geothermal Report”
Regen Power, “What Are the Problems Faced by Renewable Energy?”
SAP, “Top Five Renewable Energy Challenges for the Utilities Industry”
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Biomass Explained
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Biomass Explained: Waste-to-Energy (Municipal Solid Waste)”
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Biomass Explained: Wood and Wood Waste
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Solar Generation Was 3% of U.S. Electricity in 2020, but We Project It Will Be 20% by 2050
U.S. Energy Information Administration, The United States Consumed a Record Amount of Renewable Energy in 2020
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Units and Calculations Explained