What’s the Best Renewable Energy Source?

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Renewable Energy Showing Solar Panels, Turbines, and Infrastructure

The term “renewable energy” describes a dizzying array of energy sources, which have little to do with each other except that they are naturally replenished. Each energy source comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. Your living situation, geographic location, and the laws of your area will all help determine which renewable energy source is right.

What Are Renewable Energy Sources?

The Department of Energy describes it as the following, “Renewable energy is energy from sources that are naturally replenishing but flow-limited; renewable resources are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time.”

Think of renewable energy like a sink. You can turn the faucet and water will start coming out, but there’s only so much water that can flow at a time. Even though your supply of water may be (effectively) limitless, your faucet has a maximum capacity at any given time.

Like a sink, renewable energy sources are constantly being refreshed. While the sun may expand into a red giant and consume the earth, before shedding some material and ending up as a white dwarf star, it’s extremely likely that we won’t be around to see that. So, when it comes to the human race, the sun is everlasting — and so is solar energy.

Similar to the sun, the earth’s core may eventually cool, leading to a loss of geothermal energy, but not for another 91 billion years. For reference, the sun won’t enter the red giant phase for another five billion years, so we’re set on that front. Water may eventually evaporate from the surface of the earth, but if it does, we will likely have much bigger problems to worry about. Therefore, solar, geothermal, and hydropower are all essentially endless from our perspective.

Add wind and hydropower to this list and we’ve got ourselves a free, carbon-neutral stew. These forms of energy, along with biomass, are the biggest forms of renewable energy within the United States. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses, which we will cover to show which is the best form of renewable energy.

What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Renewable Energy Sources?

There are pros and cons to every form of renewable energy. Some work better in some situations but are unavailable in others. This is particularly true for geothermal and hydropower, as these tend to be very geographically based. Others, however, like solar, are not regionally locked and are available to all Americans. Let’s examine each one individually to determine which is the best. 

Is Geothermal Power the Best?

Geothermal power has been known to humanity since prehistoric times. It is why hot springs exist. The Romans used natural geothermal energy to heat their homes. Some countries are able to put it to better use than others. Iceland, for example, uses almost entirely indigenous renewable energy sources. In particular, 66 percent of Iceland’s energy use can be categorized as geothermal. Geothermal is incredibly useful because of its natural radiance and relative ease of capture.

Why Geothermal Power Is Not the Best

Unfortunately, geothermal energy comes with a big downside. For a country like Iceland, which has innumerable hot springs and active volcanoes, geothermal is the obvious choice. They would be foolish not to use it as the majority of their energy use. However, for places without volcanoes or other passages that allow geothermal energy to rise to the surface, geothermal energy would be prohibitively expensive to implement and utilize. 

Currently, only seven states in the US use geothermal to produce electricity — and California produces more than twice as much as the other six states combined. Because geothermal has such little use in the US, which will likely not increase any time soon, we must conclude that geothermal energy is not the best renewable source.

Is Hydropower the Best?

Hydropower uses the flow of water to make the electricity flow. The water in a river passes over a turbine (usually housed in a dam, but which can also be freestanding), which then spins and generates electricity. In this way, the natural movement of water is used to generate electricity, with little else needing to be done. The construction of dams can aid hydropower, but it isn’t necessarily a requirement.

Why Hydropower Is Not the Best

The main downside to hydropower is obvious: there’s a lot of dry places in America. In states such as Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, water is at a premium and there are few rivers that can be utilized for hydroelectric purposes. New Mexico, for example, uses so little hydroelectric energy that it doesn’t even register on its energy portfolio

Additionally, the construction of dams has been known to interfere with local aquatic ecosystems. Large dams can hurt local wildlife, drain wetlands and swamps (which are major carbon sinks), and even wastewater. Dams can even cause tension between countries. Egypt and Ethiopia have long been at odds with each other over an Ethiopian dam on the Nile. 

While hydroelectric production is not limited to dams — as turbines can be placed in the ocean, at the mouth of bays, etc. — dams are the main way in which hydropower is produced. Because of this fact, problems with using dams to produce electricity affect hydropower as a whole. Therefore, hydropower cannot be the best renewable source of energy.

Is Wind Power the Best?

Wind power is the utilization of large turbines, spun by wind, to generate electricity. It is similar in concept to hydropower, though with water being replaced by air. Wind power is one of the most commonly used renewable energy sources, second only to hydroelectric power in the United States. Wind’s share of the energy market has been continually increasing over the past decade.

Wind power is an attractive choice for many reasons. It is one of the most environmentally friendly methods of generating electricity in the world. The cost to produce wind turbines has dropped dramatically in recent years, leading to decreases in the overall cost of wind power. Wind power has been explored for use over water, as the winds over the ocean are steadier and stronger than winds on land.

Why Wind Power Is Not the Best

There have been a few critiques of wind power over the years. The biggest concern with wind power is the threat to animal habitats. Wind power, if not installed properly, can lead to the breakup of animal habitats. The sound produced by the turbines can harm organisms present in the near vicinity and can produce long-term negative effects on animals that live near them.

Additionally, wind turbines have a low power density. This means that the amount of energy produced when compared to the amount of space that wind farms take-up is lower than other sources. In fact, it is not only lower than fossil fuels but also solar and hydroelectric. To produce large amounts of electricity, much larger amounts of land need to be dedicated to using as wind farms. This is in contrast to solar, for example, which can be utilized in existing infrastructure.

What Are the Strengths and Weaknesses of Solar?

Solar has exploded in the last decade, becoming one of the fastest-growing forms of renewable energy worldwide. This is particularly true in America as well, where the prices of solar have dropped tremendously, coinciding with its growth in popularity. Solar has a few drawbacks, but the advantages far outweigh them.

Is Solar Power the Best?

Unlike the other forms of renewable energy listed previously — geothermal, hydroelectric and wind-solar can be installed in residential areas. This is because these other forms of renewable energy require dedicated infrastructure. Hydropower often requires dams, while wind farms need large tracts of land to build turbines on. 

In contrast, solar utilizes existing infrastructure. One of the most common forms of solar is the rooftop, where solar panels are installed on the roofs of buildings. Ground-mounted solar can also be installed in backyards (or front yards, should you so desire) and other open areas. This is partially why residential solar is considered to be a socially responsible investment.

In addition, solar panels take up relatively little space compared to the other forms, while simultaneously producing more energy. Solar PV has an energy density that is several orders of magnitude higher than wind. A solar installation producing 10 MW will be much smaller than a wind farm producing 10 MW. 

The Downsides of Solar Power

There are some problems with solar energy. Firstly, the solar panel manufacturing process can produce some toxic chemicals as a byproduct. Disposing of these chemicals can be environmentally hazardous. Alongside that, disposing of the solar panels themselves can be similarly hazardous for the environment. While recycling programs for PV panels exist, they have yet to reach widespread implementation in the US. 

Additionally, while solar’s price has dropped significantly, it can still present a financial barrier to entry. Most people who purchase solar are middle class or above, and Go Solar Group requires a minimum 650 credit rating in order to finance solar. 

There are options for renters or those who don’t meet the 650 credit requirement, such as community solar. This is where you switch your utility to a share in a community solar farm and receive clean energy. While you don’t get the savings of residential solar, you do support renewable energy by doing so. 

However, this particular downside is not as important for the average person who wants to know which form of renewable energy is best. While you may not be able to install residential solar right now, neither can you install wind turbines on your home’s roof or build a hydroelectric dam in your bathtub.

Why Solar Power Is the Best Form of Renewable Energy

As we can see, solar energy has many upsides, with the downsides being relatively modest. While some states are better suited for solar than others, you can install solar anywhere in America and still get savings from it.

Solar is better for the environment than fossil fuels or hydropower. This is going to get even better as solar panel recycling begins to take off in the US. Community solar is beginning to flourish throughout America, leading to more Americans having the opportunity to get clean, renewable energy for their homes. 

Finally, solar bestows energy independence. With residential solar panels, your home can be freed from the whims of the energy market and your utility company. Instead, the sun itself provides you with your power, and you no longer have to worry about fluctuations in the prices of fossil fuels. With the costs of natural gas and petroleum steadily rising, there is no better time to go clean.

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