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Renewable energy

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a buncha tree-huggers
Save the rainforests!
Watch that carbon footprint!

Renewable energy sources are energy sources which are replenished faster than they are consumed on a human timescale. In other words, while "renewable energy" may not be infinite, they are practically unlimited. Arguably, this is a misnomer and the name "ambient energy" is more appropriate.

Solar energy[edit]

Solar energy is the energy of the Sun shining on the Earth, originating from entropic fusion reactions at the heart of the star. It can be tapped in many different ways, directly and indirectly.

Direct methods usually refer to either solar panels or passive heat absorption.

Indirect methods would include hydroelectric power, wind power and energy crops. With hydroelectric systems, the sun provides the energy to make the water evaporate, so it can begin its travel anew by raining down on a high ground. With wind power, solar radiation is the ultimate energy source that drives the Earth's weather and climate, including the winds harnessed by turbines. Plants also utilize solar energy in order to perform many energy costly chemical reactions, which later in the food chain are broken down by life for energy.

Direct solar[edit]

Solar power rises above the goo burning mediocracy.

There are two main ways of directly getting useful energy from sunlight: either directly converting it to electricity with photovoltaic cells, or using it to heat stuff in various ways.

For now, both kinds of methods are limited by the vagaries of a planet's surface, including cloud cover (curse you, water vapour!), varying amounts of sunlight (curse you, axial tilt!) and the day-night cycle (curse you, planetary rotation!). Space-based solar collection systems that don't suffer from these limitations have been proposed, but these are unlikely to be built in the foreseeable future.[1]

Photovoltaic cells, a.k.a. "solar panels", convert solar radiation into electricity through the use of the photovoltaic effect. Although the Earth's surface receives daily about 4.2 kilowatt-hours per square meter, most solar panels are not perfectly efficient (and they can never be for thermodynamics reasons) and in reality most of them struggle to get over 20% efficiency (8%-15% being more common, even for commercial uses).

The PS10 Solar Tower in Spain, rated at 11MW.

Heat collection cells take many forms. The one encountered most often is used for heating water for domestic use,[2] which might look like Solar Panels, but in reality at no points is a conversion to electricity taking place. Other forms of heat collection are greenhouse structures, as well as passive heating architectural schemes making use of either controlled glazed surfaces or a material's native thermal capacity. Since such systems only try to convert into heat (so any "heat losses" are actually aiding them), for their specific applications they are actually far more efficient than solar panels with conversion rates of over 60%. (The reason for this being that they don't work equally well in the entire spectrum).

Concentrations towers are essentially a specialized heat capturing system where a lot of mirrors aim thermal energy into a central point, essentially utilizing the same mechanism Archimedes did when he (allegedly) burned a Roman fleet. In a solar tower's focus point there is usually some kind of heat absorbing liquid, which is heated and used to turn turbines, similar to the way conventional power plants generate electricity. The advantages of that approach is that, while solar panels are expensive objects, each and everyone one requiring electrical installations and maintenance, mirrors are ... just dumb mirrors which you could clean with a hose. In addition, because the important energy conversion takes place en masse at the central focus points, such facilities only have to improve on that one, whereas photovoltaic ones which would have to do so over their entire area. Heat storage strategies can also allow such a plant to maintain generation during brief interruptions (ie, clouds) or even for a significant part of the night.

Experimental installations like this are already in place in the Southwestern desert in the United States, which are in reasonably close proximity to large cities in California and Nevada. Were the US to switch into a centralized solar generation from sunlit states, it would require the overhauling of the current, decades old energy distribution systems. A first step towards that would be a nationwide direct current backbone.

Project Desertec[3] is a similar scheme involving huge solar arrays in the Sahara desert which would then transmit low-loss DC power to Europe.

Advantages of direct solar[edit]

  • If the technology works well, it can be scaled up to huge production levels quite well.
  • Relatively little maintenance is required.
  • Daily variations in power output are mostly predictable.
  • It is the technology with the most appeal to the Greens.
  • Works really well for powering communications satellites.
  • Also works pretty well for low-powered devices where a grid connection is impractical.
  • Does not require any additional energy for a "black start", i.e., restarting an electric grid from nothing.
  • Direct use of heat for low temperature purposes such as hot water is very cost effective in the right climate
  • Heating or cooling is the biggest single domestic energy use - in recent years many people have migrated to areas with higher demands for cooling
  • Speaking of cooling, solar panels on roofs block much of the sun from directly hitting the house, slightly reducing the amount of electricity needed for the AC in the first place.

Disadvantages of direct solar[edit]

  • Photovoltaic cells degrade over time,[note 1] making "break even" calculations not so obvious.
  • Photovoltaic cells require the use of toxic chemicals for their manufacture. - Depending on the type of cell and the employed process this can be greatly diminished if not eliminated[note 2]
  • Solar cells also require a lot of rare earth metals, and we might not have enough. Given human history, we humans might resort to small scale wars over precious mineral rights, couched in various BS justifications for why we have the right to kick people off their land. Recycling might solve this, yet we currently don't recycle all of our old electronics. [4]
  • Solar power plants fail mysteriously for many hours every day. Recent research suggests that an astronomical phenomenon called "night" might be the culprit. Although, coincidentally demand does also tend to be at its lowest during these periods.[5]
  • Unfortunately, the absolute greatest demand for electricity doesn't occur around noon, but in the mid to late afternoon, whereas solar energy peaks at noon and may only be producing a minimal amount of energy when it's needed most. This means that any solar-heavy grid will need to be paired with a large amount of storage capacity.
  • Winter months produce much less solar power (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), but often have higher electric consumption. At the same time, hydroelectric power 'refills' the slowest during the winter. Other power plants would need to come online.
  • Clouds also reduce solar power by a significant amount. However PV is better in a cloudy sky than light focusing or mirror derived solar energy.
  • Many highly populated parts of the world don't get consistent high levels of sunlight. This is a problem especially in countries where peak power use is during the winter (which it usually is). But this could be solved by using HVDC lines to transport power over long distances efficiently[citation needed].
  • Low power density (a lot of land is needed per unit of power), but higher than wind[6] or biofuels. Though to be fair, the amount of land needed for 100% solar electricity in the US (assuming 100% efficient storage and transmission) is not even a third of that currently used for corn ethanol.
  • Solar collectors (whether PV or thermal) require cleaning if built in a dusty environment (such as say, the middle of a desert where there is the most sunlight) which can often mean high water requirements[citation needed] (not a good thing in the middle of a desert).
  • Space-based solar which could get around most of the problems of solar requires infrastructure we just don't have and is unproven (so we can't depend on it). It also isn't technically direct solar since it converts sunlight into microwaves so maybe it shouldn't be mentioned here, but that's not going to stop us. Also, we probably shouldn't mention that any satellite "accidentally" aimed at anything other than a solar collector is an orbital death beam. (Or maybe we should mention that; if ending our dependency on fossil fuels is a side-effect of another arms race, it might be for the best)
  • Although solar energy plants do not emit CO2 when operated, they require a lot more to set up — This is partially due to chemical reasons, Silicon is refined from SiO2, commonly known as Quartz, The other partner in the reaction are carbon anodes, which "burn" up, creating CO2. On the other hand, Silicon can be recycled quite well nowadays and the amount of obsolete electronics filling the trash every year is a huge almost entirely untapped source for fresh Silicon.
  • Without subsidies, solar energy plants have historically been unprofitable - but this is changing and "grid parity" (i.e. electricity from said source costs as much as electricity from the national grid) is either within reach or has been reached in the 2010s, depending on the country.
  • Third-party owned (TPO) residential systems are common in some parts of the United States, and there is no evidence that they add value to the house or save people money in the long run. This is in contrast to homeowner-owned residential systems which cost a lot upfront but do add value to the house. TPO sales tactics can be high-pressure and rely on fear, uncertainty and doubt.[7]

Third-party ownership and decades-long contracts can create real headaches.

Hydroelectric energy[edit]

Hydroelectric power, or water power in general, involves taking advantage of water that has been raised due to evaporation by the sun, and deposited on high ground. As it then flows back towards the ocean, its potential energy can be tapped by turbines or water wheels, which are usually built into dams to increase the drop.

Many hydroelectric schemes are also designed to store energy, as water is pumped into the dam when energy is cheap at night and then allowed to run out when demand is higher during the day. Although not particularly efficient, it is perhaps the only commonly used method of "storing" significant amounts of electrical energy. Sometimes an artificial upper reservoir is constructed - the facility generates no net power and is dedicated to energy storage.

Advantages of water power[edit]

  • On average, it's by far the cheapest source of energy. And "by far", we are talking less than a third the cost of fossil fuels.[8]
  • It is relatively clean, once the equipment has been built and installed
  • The technology is relatively simple and very robust, meaning it doesn't require anywhere close to the maintenance and knowledge base required for, say, a nuclear plant.
  • If you need a flood control dam it is very cheap and low impact to add electricity generators to it (at least compared with leaving the dam without turbines)
  • Creation of artificial lakes upstream of the dams, to be used for recreation, wildlife preserves, or potable water supplies
  • Can slow erosion, such as the case of Niagara Falls, where the falls are "turned off" when the tourists aren't watching and diverted to the hydro plant
  • Supplies power on demand (actually about the most responsive power source on any grid)
  • Doesn't need significant electricity or power to start, making it useful for black starts.[note 3]
  • By installing pumps that return water upstream, the dam can act like a gigantic battery - in fact this is the cheapest most reliable and most efficient large scale energy storage in existence. This is incidentally one of the major uses for artificial lakes in the Alpine countries and Scandinavia (Europe has an interconnected high voltage grid, allowing electricity to be moved from Denmark to Italy without catastrophic transmission losses)
  • The only renewable proven to be able to take significant market share away from fossil fuels[note 4][note 5]
  • Old mine shafts can be used as reservoirs for pump based water power (primarily used for energy storage)

Disadvantages of water power[edit]

  • Flooding of landscapes, causing a disruption of ecosystems.
  • Displacement of residents and burial underwater of important cultural landmarks.
  • Limited by geography. In most developed countries, all the good spots are already taken.
  • The flooded vegetation and soil decomposes anaerobically to methane, a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. which causes further global warming. Of course cutting down trees before flooding and similar measures can somewhat reduce that, but it is rarely done.[9]
  • The failure of a dam can be disastrous. Large dam failures rank among the most deadly industrial accidents in history. Dams are also targets for military or terrorist activity.
  • Hydroelectric dams pose barriers to migrating fish. This can be remedied to some extent by constructing fish ladders.
  • As any Geo-scientist worth their salt will tell you: Artificial lakes tend to silt up. Depending on the amount of sediment the river brings from upstream, this can be an alarmingly rapid process (as is the case with Lake Nasser on the Nile) or hardly perceptible on human timescales. Eventually the river "wants to" fill up all artificial lakes to the level of the dam.
  • Large mostly stagnant bodies of water can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other bugs. Mosquitoes are vector for some of the deadliest diseases known to humanity, including Malaria, Dengue (for which neither cure nor vaccine exists),Yellow fever or West Nile. Also Zika now that it spread to important countries the media started paying attention to that.
  • The sheer weight of the water in a reservoir may have an effect on earthquakes. Though this field needs more study, although the dams do cause the Earth to rotate slower. Barely.[10]
  • As mentioned earlier, hydroelectric power refills slower in the winter months, as there's less precipitation and what's there is usually in the form of snow/ice and won't fill up the reservoir until it melts. At the same time, the winter months often have higher demand for electricity. It's not too much of a problem if managed properly, but the turbines can't run at max capacity indefinitely and so another power source is needed. Wind, which produces more electricity in winter but needs storage, pairs well with hydro, but the best hydro locations aren't always near great wind locations.

Wind energy[edit]

This is one of the more developed forms of renewable energy and major projects are underway worldwide.

Although only 3% of the world's power comes from the wind, some European countries produce a lot more. The heaviest user is Denmark at 39% in 2014[11], followed by Spain's 11.5% in 2009 (and 40% on a good day)[12]. In general, annual wind power growth in Europe is a surprising 32%.[13] However, it should be noted that the wind-heavy countries have among the highest electricity prices in the EU.[14] In recent years, China has also gotten into the game and (as with other things like high speed rail or photovoltaics) come from behind to overtake the rest of the world and sweep up the floor with them. In 2014 the total installed wind capacity of China was 114,763 Megawatts, almost double that of runner up USA at 65,879 MW and nearly triple that of third placed Germany at 39,165 MW. [15] In 2014 alone, China added 23351 new Megawatts of wind energy capacity, which not only equals slightly over 45% of the worldwide added capacity of that year but is also more than the total capacity of all countries except Germany the US and China itself.

Advantages of wind power[edit]

  • Once the infrastructure is in place, it is very clean.
  • The technology is well-established.
  • Land between the wind turbines can be used for farming or pastures.
  • Can realistically be built on water, reducing land usage and, with it, a number of the below-listed disadvantages.
  • ...which is especially useful as wind is much higher over the water (no hills to block it) and the majority of people live near the coasts.
  • Has shown to produce more energy in the winter, when consumption is higher in most temperate countries.
  • On the most basic level only abundant materials[note 6] and "low tech"[note 7] are needed - this is especially advantageous for developing countries, plus prevents any complicated geopolitics and conflicts over scarce resources such as rare earths or uranium or oil, etc.

Disadvantages of wind power[edit]

  • Output that is difficult to accurately predict,[note 8] due to the power in the wind varying as the cube of the wind speed; many turbines are required over a large area to compensate for this (even with many turbines over a large area, the total power will sometimes drop near zero) [16]
  • Less intuitively, wind turbines must be shut down and their blades feathered if there is too much wind, since this can damage their gearboxes or in extreme cases cause them to catch fire.[note 9]
  • Due to the relatively unpredictable output, other sources of energy are needed to back up wind power. In the obvious case, you need extra power to come online when the wind is not high enough to meet demand; but in the less obvious case, when more electric power is available than is demanded, you need extra power to go offline. Coal and nuclear plants are not flexible enough for this, so in practice wind power displaces hydroelectric and natural gas. Furthermore, dams generally are expected to provide or withhold water for many conflicting needs, such as flood control, irrigation, and salmon migration as well as baseload power production, and balancing wind production is another conflicting need. [17] This also makes wind power unsuitable for baseload power. In theory, this could be mitigated with better energy storage systems, but on a scale capable of powering a large region only pumped-storage would be cost effective, which by their nature are limited to hilly or mountainous areas that generally aren't ideal for large scale wind farms.
  • Depending on where the wind farm is built and site management practices, land use change might release more CO2 than the wind farm will save, even ignoring the carbon cost of construction (peat bogs are an especially bad location) [18]
  • Low power density: 2 W/m2, meaning large amounts of land are required [19] This can be mitigated somewhat with VAWT (vertical axis wind turbine) in addition to HAWT (horizontal axis wind turbine), though these take up more space and are less efficient due to being in the slower, low to the ground winds. At least they are easier to repair, since you don't need a crane to access the gearbox. Of course, if you are filling your fields with VAWTs, this makes it a bit difficult to use the land for grazing or crops, so VAWTs may be limited to wastelands.
  • Land between the wind turbines is less desirable for human settlement due to risk of turbine blades breaking away, ice throw, and noise - however it is rather desirable for farmers owning the land and prevents them from selling it for development leading to yet more urban sprawl and squeezing out even more farmers, so in many ways this isn't a bug it's a feature.
  • Wind turbine blades have been known to be a cause of avian and chiropteran mortality, though to what extent is still unknown. [20] Chances are, however, it's still less than from coal or what would happen if significant Climate Change occurred... Furthermore any significantly tall structure will on occasion kill birds that fly against the windows. Most reports in the media of bird fatalities from wind turbines come from the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California, which happens to be located in the middle of a flight path and uses turbine designs which are now long obsolete for practical reasons as well as being deadlier to birds than more modern designs. Essentially the latter is the wind power equivalent of Chernobyl. Let's also note that those anti-wind advocates who appear so concerned with the wellbeing of birds are oddly silent on the issue of the domestic housecat - cats kill billions of birds a year compared to the hundreds of thousands (at most) estimated by wind turbines. Meanwhile, air pollution - which fossil fuels are a large contributor to - contributes to one in six premature human deaths [21]
  • Wind turbines are generally designed to last about 20 years, but afterwards, well, they aren't easily scrapped. The metal within the generator is easy enough to recycle as we've been recycling metals since the Bronze Age, but the composites and special materials used for the blades are not.[22] This means that those blades will find their way into a landfill, and they aren't exactly biodegradable. This is potentially solved with future technology, but given that much of the current recyclable materials are, well, not recycled, the blades will likely pile up.

Fake disadvantages of wind power[edit]

See how the wind turbines destroy this beautiful landscape of an open pit coal mine? Right there in the right hand background! Incredible how ugly this stuff is!
Most "anti wind power" groups, however, tend to focus on the following, which aren't particular good reasons against wind power, but they're easy to understand.
Turbines are killing birds by the billions!
  • Visual impact; wind turbines have to be built in highly exposed locations, while conventional power plants can be placed anywhere with decent road access, including being integrated into existing industrial developments. This one comes closest to being a legitimate concern since it is very rare even the most perfunctory efforts are made to made the wind turbines look like they actually belong where they are, they are generally painted high-gloss white and look like they just escaped from an airport. However beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and in some areas wind turbines have become part of the character and charm of the landscape, just as windmills have in centuries past.[note 10]
  • Wind Turbine Syndrome.
  • Wind turbines rising up to crush humanity

Plant-based energy (biofuels)[edit]

Plant-based energy consists of allowing plants to fix carbon in sugars and cellulose via sunlight, and then to either produce liquid fuels (such as alcohol) from them or burn them directly.

Advantages of plant energy[edit]

  • It's carbon neutral in the long run
  • It can produce convenient, high energy density liquid fuel, which is very useful in cars and planes
  • Can use waste products that would otherwise have to be thrown out
  • As an available alternative, it provides a price cap at which gasoline prices will struggle to rise above. In the US, this is a little over $4/gallon.[23].

Disadvantages of plant energy[edit]

  • It competes with food production and has led to significant price increases and food shortages.[24] To counter this there are attempts to produce biofuel from crops on marginal soil, or from the ocean, where it would not interfere with farming.[25][26] But these are likely to be much more expensive than using wood or grains.
  • Some systems, such as making ethanol from corn, are very inefficient and might even have an energy return below 1% and may release more CO2 than just burning petroleum directly. To meet the energy demands for the U.S, an area 5 times the size of the land area of this planet would be needed. Currently, the US dedicates 66,000 square kilometers for just corn ethanol alone, twice that needed to power the US with just solar, yet it only provides 4% of transportation fuel.[27] However, the fact that Iowa, a state that grows substantial amounts of corn has the first caucus in the presidential nomination process has of course nothing to do with that [citation NOT needed]
  • Often, plant matter is harvested without proper concern for replenishment - which is quite ironic, considering the word "Nachhaltigkeit" (German for sustainability) was first used in a 18th century treatise on forest management, i.e. renewable plant based biofuels in modern speak.
  • In some cases tropical rain forest is being cut down to grow biofuels [28]
  • Where wood is burnt directly for heat it can present a fire risk[citation NOT needed]
  • Traditional stoves pose significant risks through smoke, carbon monoxide and other pollutants. While more efficient stoves are rather cheap[note 11], they are often inaccessible to the poorest of the poor who mostly depend on biomass for heating and cooking[note 12]
  • Relatively low power density, compared to most fossil fuels
  • Heavy fertilizer use to grow crops may increase nitrogen-associated pollution (algal blooms, NOx emissions etc.)[29] Nitrous oxides are even more climatically relevant per molecule than methane.
  • Speaking of fertilizers, the fertilizers themselves are a less-spoken-of part of the problem of global warming. Synthetic fertilizers use the Bosch-Haber process to create ammonia from methane, which has the net effect of taking carbon out of the ground and pumped into plant biomass, before being broken down one way or another into carbon dioxide. This would mean that anything relying on such fertilizers are most definitely not carbon neutral.

Fake disadvantages[edit]

  • The anti-GMO crowd likes to fear-monger about "genetically modified" corn being used for biofuels
  • While mono-cultures (vast expanses with only one crop on them) do pose valid problems and concerns, they are not necessarily associated with biofuels. In fact, biofuels can also be extracted from biologically diverse forests or even lawns[note 13].

Waste-based energy[edit]

Human civilisation is constantly producing waste of one type or another, providing a renewable resource for many things including energy. Much like plant-based energy, waste-based energy relies on producing a combustible material. With waste the composition of said material may be adjusted via sorting mechanisms to optimise the energy density of the fuel. Prominent examples of this are biogas from bacterial degradation of waste and Energy-from-waste incineration. This is part of the energy recovery option in the waste hierarchy and thus is most sustainably benefited from where the waste cannot be prevented or recycled.


Biogas, a fuel consisting of mostly methane, is typically produced during anaerobic digestion (microbial conversion in the absence of oxygen) of waste that is high in organic content in waste processing facilities or less controlled anaerobic degradation of such waste in landfills. While landfills produce biogas we can use, they are also a source for releasing the methane into the environment under degradation of organic waste, which is dangerously combustible and constitutes a severe greenhouse gas. Generally the more controlled facilities are preferred for management of organic waste.

Advantages of biogas[edit]

  • Convenient, high energy density fuel. Very useful in transportation as internal combustion engines can easily be adopted for gas as well as fluid fuels
  • A way to recycle some types of waste and thus get more value out of our products
  • Burns relatively cleanly, and with a very small carbon footprint
  • Waste is a pretty reliable resource
  • Sludge from wastewater can also be anaerobically digested
  • The digestate product of anaerobic digestion is useful as fertilizer in soil

Disadvantages of biogas[edit]

  • Requires a certain amount of organic content in waste (at least on the level of municipal solid waste) and sometimes it is not feasible to produce
  • In the case of solid organic waste, composting is usually cheaper and deals much more efficiently with lignocellulosic material (like wood)
  • In the case of solid organic waste, it is difficult to separate plastic contamination out which reduces the quality of the digestate product

EfW incineration[edit]

Energy-from-waste incineration is the most common method of direct energy recovery from waste and involves directly burning the waste. It is used, or should be used, to recover some value from different kinds of waste where other resource recovery methods have already had their share. In the past this method used to produce by-products irresponsibly and puff them into the surrounding area, like dust or heavy metals; these also included extremely hazardous substances like dioxins and furans. With current engineering standards and properly managed by-products, however, this is no longer a significant problem.

Advantages of EfW incineration[edit]

  • Incineration close to where waste is generated/collected
  • No long-term liabilities
  • EfW now has a track record in many countries
  • Produces biologically sterile ash with a tenth of the volume and a third of the weight of original waste
  • Emissions are controlled
  • A way to reclaim value from some types of waste
  • Bottom ash can be reused as aggregate in construction
  • BPEO (Best Practicable Environmental Option) for some hazardous wastes
  • Waste is a pretty reliable resource

Disadvantages of EfW incineration[edit]

  • Air pollution close to source of waste (similar to fossil fuels)
  • High costs and long pay back periods
  • Needs long-term waste disposal contracts
  • Needs high calorific value wastes
  • Needs constant emissions monitoring against dioxins and furans
  • Production of ash residues requiring disposal
  • Building new plants has high political costs due to NIMBY concerns

Fake disadvantages of EfW incineration[edit]

Groups that are anti-incineration tend to be of the "act first, think later" variety, like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, and some of their arguments reflect that:

  • Generates carbon dioxide. While technically true, it's displacing other energy sources that also produce carbon dioxide, and more importantly, biological waste in landfills break down into methane, a gas which is far, far worse than carbon dioxide. As far as the carbon cycle goes, converting plants into various products which are eventually burnt for energy is carbon neutral.
  • Resources are being lost by incinerating waste. This argument is ignorant of the fact that EfW incineration is so low on the common waste priority pyramid that only the waste from which nothing more can be derived using other methods is supposed to go through it. This also ignores the fact that resources are being recovered by converting waste to energy.
  • Incineration is incompatible with recycling. Again, it is more complementary to recycling than incompatible.
  • It unsustainably produces toxic substances that we have to live with. As mentioned above, times have moved on and nowadays problematic by-products are prevented, minimised or controlled by modern engineering standards.

Geothermal energy[edit]

Geothermal technologies tap the temperature difference between the surface of the earth and shallow or deep underground regions. Alternatively they may make use of high-temperature hot springs in geologically active areas. The primary source of the temperature difference is the decay of radioactive elements, so in some sense it is a form of nuclear power.

A ground source heat pump is often confused with geothermal energy but is not actually geothermal but a way of making heat pumps more efficient than air source heat pumps since most of the heat is actually from the sun or from the heat pump have been operated in the other direction in the other season (in summer pump heat from the house into the ground, then in winter pump heat from the ground into the house).

There are various types of heat pumps, according to the different loops of pipes used; for instance, closed-loop systems gather energy directly from the earth. Several configurations exist, such as horizontal or vertical heat exchangers. The drilling direction can be radial or directional, and they can be installed around a pond or a lake. On the other hand, open-loop systems require more sophisticated resources to exploit, such as aquifers or groundwater [30].

Also, it is possible to tap the much higher temperatures hundreds or thousands of meters below the earth's surface via boreholes.

Advantages of geothermal energy[edit]

  • Very high energy densities may be naturally available
  • In practical terms the environmental impact is low
  • Minimal land usage
  • Some volcanic areas are already densely populated due to rich volcanic soils, thus this form of energy is often available close to its users (e.g. Japan, Indonesia, Hawaii)
  • Inexpensive compared to fossil fuels if conditions are right[31]

Disadvantages of geothermal energy[edit]

  • Drilling can cause man-made earthquakes [32]
  • Very few good known resources, with only Iceland currently using geothermal for a significant amount of power (and even then hydro dominates there)[33] There may be more resources out there, but lava pools even relatively close to the surface are difficult to detect.
  • If energy extraction is too fast, it is no longer renewable
  • Deep geothermal is effectively fracking for power and is likely to be subject to the same objections if ever adopted on any large scale.
  • The use of geothermal energy may require living close to volcanic and seismically active areas near hot spots and plate boundaries, though many people already do that and have been for centuries as volcanic soil is very rich in nutrients.
  • Smells bad, due to underground sulfides, and can release toxic chemicals.[31]

Tidal and wave energy[edit]

This relatively new technology is designed to obtain energy from tidal movements or from waves. Although the concept seems simple few, if any, commercial installations are in place.

If efficient systems could be built they could provide significant predictable power (at least from tides).

There are essentially two ways to "trap" tidal energy - to build generation plants that are run by large amounts of water flowing in and out of large estuaries, and to build open ocean devices that somehow tap the energy by letting the tides (and perhaps waves, too) force a floating object up and down relative to an anchored one. The Aguçadoura Wave FarmWikipedia is an example of the latter technology.

Note that, while tides are driven by the moon's gravity (and to a lesser extent by the sun's gravity), waves are driven primarily by the wind. This means wave power is a kind of wind power, and is thus ultimately a form of solar power.

Advantages of tidal and wave energy[edit]

  • Whatever we build will provide energy until the moon "runs down"
  • Power generation systems can be built into, or merged with, flood control systems that protect large cities located on major estuaries, such as London and the Thames; this generates the energy close to a large need for it

Disadvantages of tidal and wave energy[edit]

  • They would need to be shown not to interfere with fish stocks or fisheries
  • Tidal barrages could have environmental impacts including loss of tidal habitats and possibly buildup of harmful contaminants due to less flushing action[34]
  • The local energy output will wax and wane from maximum to virtually zero four times a day, and this time slowly changes from day to day. This can, however, be mitigated by dammed mill pond type systems. In certain bodies of water like the North Sea, this can be mitigated simply through an integrated grid, to bring electricity generated at a high rate to where it is currently being generated at a low rate (high water in Rotterdam, Netherlands is hours away from high water in Sylt, Germany for example).


Piezoelectric generators[edit]

Piezoelectric materials generate voltage when deformed (the opposite is also true - when voltage is applied, they deform). This can allow them to act as potential "free" and renewable power sources in certain applications. For example there are proposals for piezoelectric floors in dance clubs[35], or piezoelectric sections in roads to power nearby street lights regardless of the grid's status. Usually the amounts of electricity generated that way / cost ratio are pretty underwhelming. However things are better when it comes to small scale applications. For example, piezoelectric fibers woven in someone's clothing could allow them some day to trickle charge their gadgets via their daily activity.

Thermoelectric generators[edit]

Thermoelectric generators use materials which generate voltage from heat differences using the Seebeck effectWikipedia (the opposite is also true - applying a voltage will generate a heat differential, known as the Peltier effect). Because of their low efficiencies, they are rarely encountered in anything but small scale uses, such as temperature sensors and Soviet kerosene-lamp-powered radios.[36] A notable exception are radioisotope thermoelectric generators, the likes of which have been used in deep space exploration probes, making them independent from the fading sunlight in the far reaches of the Solar System. As the name suggests, in RTGs the heat is provided by the decay of radioactive materials,[37] which automatically makes them a non-renewable energy source. Some forms of radioisotope generators were also once used as batteries for pacemakers, as it is essential that a pacemaker battery be replaced as seldom as possible, however real and imagined concerns about radiation as well as the advancements in chemical batteries have rendered this application very rare.

Earth batteries[edit]

Earth batteries[note 14] create voltage by placing two rods of dissimilar metal into the soil. Functionally, they are no different than sticking two electrodes in a potato, and like any other galvanic battery, they are not eternal, although due to the changing soil conditions they might end up "recharging" themselves. The voltages generated this way are usually too small for any practical use. A notable exception was their use as an energy source for signal amplifiers in early telegraph installations.[38] Larger installations might also tap into Earth's natural telluric currents.[39]

Energy storage/transmission[edit]

While not electricity generation itself, an extremely closely related topic is that of energy storage and transmission. The largest issue with using solar, tidal or wind power as the backbone of an energy grid is that 1) they are not on-demand energy and 2) they are extremely limited in location. How would you be able to store solar power in order to provide electricity when the sun isn't shining, or wind power from when the wind blew too hard to the times it isn't?

Note that these issues are not unique to renewable energy, just more pertinent as wind, solar and tidal power produce what they produce when they produce, regardless of what we need.

Pumped Energy[edit]

By far the most common form of energy storage, this involves pumping water up a hill, and then using the water as hydropower when needed.

Advantages of Pumped Energy[edit]

  • Once built, requires little maintenance
  • Most efficient form of large-scale energy storage
  • Is very low tech, does not require exotic materials or manufacturing processes
  • Can be built in places such as abandoned mine shafts, reducing the need for additional construction costs

Disadvantages of Pumped Energy[edit]

  • Limited by geography to areas with hills or mountains. Not so much a problem for, say Switzerland, a mountainous country, but is simply unavailable for the Midwestern United States, which is flat.
  • As with all batteries, being the most efficient doesn't mean completely efficient, and the generators do not recover all of the energy. About 1/3 of the energy used in pumping is lost.[40]

Rechargeable batteries[edit]

A more conventional battery, usually lead-acid or lithium-ion.

Advantages of rechargeable batteries[edit]

  • While not as energy dense as gasoline, dense enough to be used in cars, enabling renewable electric generation to displace oil as well as coal power
  • Old car batteries that have degraded too much to be useful for the cars themselves may still be useful enough for a municipality, as part of the "reuse" part of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" memetic.
  • Constantly becoming cheaper

Disadvantages of rechargeable batteries[edit]

  • While falling in price, still extremely expensive, and the main reason electric cars are more expensive than gasoline cars
  • Much less energy dense than gasoline, resulting in electric cars being extremely heavy, which in turn requires the car to use more power, which means the car needs a heavier battery...
  • Require a lot of toxic chemicals and energy to create as compared to a regular car, not to mention disposal of the batteries. May be an improvement over gasoline cars, but still an issue.
  • Lithium-ion batteries, the most common design used today, degrade far too quickly for large-scale power storage. As mentioned above, old car batteries may be used for this purpose, but even so they still degrade and even if every single car was electric the yearly "harvest" of replaced car batteries may be insufficient storage for a country relying entirely on solar and wind alone. A new generation of batteries are needed but they are not yet available at the time of writing.

Flywheel storage[edit]

Actually a pretty old tech. Spin a disk, and the energy is stored as rotational energy. The energy is used to generate mechanical or electrical power on demand. It's found on a lot of old early industrial era machinery to "even out" any erratic power inputs. However, the old stuff only stores energy for a short while, as the wheel will slow down due to friction and air resistance and so forth. Heavy-duty electric storage involves a more high-tech solution; magnets to suspend the flywheel, and encased in vacuum sealed tube.

Advantages of flywheels[edit]

  • Capable of being used in vehicles, if we were desperate
  • Already used in some race cars, storing the energy from braking and used to accelerate faster than an internal combustion engine alone could
  • Doesn't rapidly degrade
  • Capable of converting its stored energy into electricity or mechanical power extremely rapidly, with some systems capable of power outputs in the gigawatt range, for those situations where you need that kind of power rapidly. E.g., experimental fusion reactors, particle accelerators, roller coasters, aircraft carriers, railguns, lasers...

Disadvantages of flywheels[edit]

  • The simple ones lose energy rather quickly for anything other than very short term storage
  • The more complex ones are much more expensive to produce and maintain
  • A flywheel can store a LOT of rotational energy, and should the wheel crack all that energy turns the flywheel into a rapidly expanding disk of shrapnel. For this reason, a lot of flywheels are buried under dirt or sand, just in case.


The further electricity has to travel from its origin, the larger the transmission losses will be. This has been reduced in recent years by the adoption of "High Voltage Direct Current" (HVDC), which effectively creates electrical "regions" fairly independent of international borders, with electricity being constantly transported between countries. With greater voltage comes greater responsibility lower current, which results in greater capacity and lower transmission losses. While years ago HVDC required prohibitively expensive equipment, the manufacturing costs have come down as technology moves forward. When a spike in demand (or generation) occurs somewhere, power plants relatively far away from the site can provide the electricity for a lower cost than turning on another power plant would.

There's been recent investment into (unimaginatively named) "Ultra High Voltage Direct Current" (UHVDC). Such an improvement to a grid enables electricity to be "shipped" across entire continents with only minimal losses. As usual, the biggest investment in such an improvement to has been occurring in China, with the creation of a three THOUSAND kilometer long transmission line with the capacity of 12 gigawatts[41] For perspective, that's around 25 times the amount of electricity that New York City alone requires, from as far away as Dallas.

The US has seen some recent development too into UHVDC, namely in Oklahoma[42]; being in the windiest part of the only country on Earth to have a tornado season, Oklahoma is capable of producing far more electricity from wind than it could possibly use, so why not export it and make a small fortune? Other regions in the Midwest are likely to follow suit. Improvements to the grid would enable the bulk of the US to be much more closely interconnected, which solves one of the biggest legitimate issues with renewables; how do you produce electricity when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing? The wind is always blowing somewhere, and the sun still shines on other parts of the world while your part is still dark. A large scale UHVDC grid would enable wind and solar (as well as some of the more minor forms of renewables) to be combined with various hydro projects in more mountainous regions (and maybe nuclear for some extra heavy lifting), so it's not impossible to have a low-carbon electric grid.

Persuading people to support renewable energy[edit]

Many conservatives in the United States are resistant to suggestions that climate change is real. Giving renewable energy a positive spin can work.

If [discussing renewable energy with conservatives] you deliver the message of energy freedom, energy choice, competition, national security, innovation, all of a sudden, you will have a receptive audience and they will listen to you. If you lead off with climate change they’re not going to pay a bit of attention to anything else you say. They’ve been brainwashed for decades into believing, oh, we’re not damaging the environment…[43]

Many forms of renewable energy are getting steadily cheaper and are getting steadily better at competing with fossil fuel. Optimists hope consumption of coal and oil could stop rising after 2020.[44] Compared with fossil fuels and nuclear energy, renewable energy consumes much less freshwater yet creates substantially more jobs.[45]

It is a rapidly growing and profitable market.[46][47]


  1. This is partially factored in for certain types, where the label gives a lower output than the one you get in the first few months as it rapidly degrades from this high output and then stay largely stable for a long time
  2. Silicon after all is not a dangerous material
  3. I.e. when a power grid needs to be started from nothing. Power plants based on boiling water to create electricity, such as coal, gas or nuclear, require some electricity or other energy to run the pumps or prepare the fuel in order to begin, and may have a (relatively inefficient) diesel generator for black starts.
  4. Though some countries are making inroads with either geothermal (Iceland) or cane derived biofuels (mostly low income Caribbean nations and Brazil)
  5. Well, not quite. The first commercial power plant in the US was hydroelectric, meaning it was Fossil that cut into Hydro's turf, rather than the reverse. And if we want to get technical, mechanical power such as watermills predates the use of fossil fuels for power by several millenia.
  6. e.g. steel or wood for the mast and concrete for the foundation
  7. though more advanced wind turbines use neodymium magnets and other advanced technology to "milk" a further half percent of efficiency or so
  8. Weather forecasts are only accurate up to seven days.
  9. Modern wind turbines are therefore optimized for as wide a range of wind speeds as possible
  10. To cite a specific example, a severe hindrance to implementation of a wind farm in Colebrook, ConnecticutWikipedia has been the impact it would have on Rock HallWikipedia, a building which Addison MiznerWikipedia designed and built. Even though Colebrook is one of the most empty pieces of godforsaken nothingness anyone could imagine, because Rock Hall is on the NRHP a condition of wind farming in the area is that it can't disrupt either the visual or acoustic experience of (the maybe 5 annual, on a good year) visitors.
  11. One B. Franklin of C-Note fame invented a more efficient stoveWikipedia, for instance
  12. Where are you Bill Gates and Jimmy Carter?
  13. the most common and least productive irrigated crop in the US is grass; using even a fraction of it for biofuel would pose obvious upsides and few downsides
  14. They are really cells, it takes more than one to make a battery


  1. New Scientist Space energy
  4. [1]
  6. land needed for solar power
  7. What Happened When I Bought a House With Solar Panels by Esmé E. Deprez (February 14, 2019) Bloomberg.
  8. Average power plant expenses
  10. Three Gorges Dam's effects on Earth's rotation
  12. gales provide 40% of Spain's energy
  16. The Capacity Factor: Uptime & downtime
  17. [2], OregonLive
  18. See this report, section 7.6.14. for relevant charts.
  19. Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, I.4: Wind, p. 32
  20. [3]
  21. [4]
  22. wind energy has a waste problem, NPR, 2019/09/10
  23. Biodiesel
  24. Biofuels and Grain Prices: Impacts and Policy Responses, Mark W. Rosegrant
  25. Marginal soil can make for good biofuel crops,, Oct 23, 2015
  26. Scientists Hope To Farm The Biofuel Of The Future In The Pacific Ocean, NPR, Aug 22, 2017
  27. [5]
  30. GreenMatch: Types of Ground Source Heat Pumps
  31. 31.0 31.1 Geothermal Energy, National Geographic
  32. Popsci: Does Geothermal Power Cause Earthquakes?
  33. "Data Repository | Energy Data". Retrieved 22 Dec 2015.  - in 2014, hydroelectric generation was 71.03% and geothermal generation was 28.91% of total generation.
  34. Environmental impacts of tidal power schemes, J Wolf, IA Walkington, J Holt, R Burrows, Natural Environment Research Council, 2009
  37. See the Wikipedia article on Radioisotope thermoelectric generator.
  38. See the Wikipedia article on Earth battery.
  39. See the Wikipedia article on Telluric current.
  40. Science direct
  41. Abb wins contract for first 1100 Kv UHVDC
  42. Huge transmission line in Oklahoma to be built
  43. Tea Party Co-Founder: Want to Win Over the GOP on Renewable Energy? Never Mention “Climate Change”
  44. Electric cars and cheap solar 'could halt fossil fuel growth by 2020' The Guardian
  45. Renewable Energy Saves Water and Creates Jobs. Scientific American. August 7, 2018.
  46. Offshore Wind Is Likely The Next Big U.S. Renewable Sector. Forbes. July 30, 2018.
  47. US Corporate Renewable Energy Procurement Hits Record High. Clean Technica. August 10, 2018.