Renewable energy is just now taking off in the United States as more people begin to see the value in windmills and solar panels.
Gas lines stretched for two miles, while people waited with the smallest hint of hope of getting even a drop of gasoline, only to find out two hours later that the gas station has run out of gas. This was the situation in 1978 and this would be minor compared to what could happen in the near future. As gasoline and other fossil fuels run out, alternative energy production must increase or supply will continue to decrease, while demand will increase and prices will rise.
“There is going to have to be a greater mix of energy sources. Many of the choices will not be easy and we could see shortages for many reasons. We need to be more realistic in our choices and also appreciate our place in the world,” Dr. Jim Hower, Petrologist at the University of Kentucky CAER said.
The energy that the world uses each and every day has to come from somewhere. This creates a risk. In order for people to experience the joys of energy, someone had to risk their life getting the source of the energy. Coal miners are constant sufferers of the problem If a miner doesn’t die in a mine collapse, they will most likely have black lung which may lead to lung cancer and possibly death. By switching to alternative energy, these risks are gone.
“What is needed at the state and federal levels is consistency in implementing an energy policy, which seems to vary wildly form one presidential administration to the next. I do like what I'm hearing out of the Obama administration, but proof will be the funding and implementation of these programs for the long term,” Associate Director of University of Kentucky Donald Challman said.
“The reason that solar is touted as being the solution is that we have a good source, and there is lots of energy coming from it. The practical amount of available energy from solar is over 500TW [terawatts], so plenty to harvest. We just have to start doing it.” Garry Rumbles of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said.
The average price of a solar panel over 30 years is $.38 per kilowatt. Although this is more expensive than coal which is $.01 per kilowatt, with improvements in technology and as more people switch to solar power, prices will begin to fall. Some no longer pay anything for electricity because they use their own solar panels to power their house and car. Some people can even use their solar panels to sell electricity back to their cities. This benefits both the city and person selling the electricity. The city gets cheaper energy, and the person selling gets money to help pay off their solar panels.
Solar panels are able to harness the power of the sun using the properties of chemistry. In each solar cell there are molecules, usually silicon and another molecule. This will cause there to be free-floating electrons floating around the new molecules when silicon and the other molecule bond. When light hits the solar cell, it causes the free-floating electron to break off. If there are wires connected to the cell, the electron can travel down the line.
“There are places in, for example, Africa where there are no power lines or grid system. So it is easy to see that in this circumstance, the answer is for a house to have its own solar panel…When the sun goes down, you have no power, so there needs to be a storage system. Batteries are a simple choice, but they sure make things expensive. In the developing world, this issue needs to be thought of at the same time as securing the energy in the first place,” Rumbles said.
Solar panels can be placed anywhere. This makes the solar panel an efficient form of renewable energy. Individual people can have solar panels installed on their roof and the electricity to power their home. A company can put a solar panel on their roof. Any building can have a solar panel on it.
"Back home, the same problem exists. If it is dark, and the wind is not blowing where do we get our electricity from? I think the answer is to have the city provide a base load, but each home have solar panels to add to the mix. If the city uses gas or coal, then I like to think of the coal and gas as the storage medium. By not using it when the sun shines, or the wind is not blowing, makes it available when they are not active. So here I am quite odd, as I recognize that we need to blend renewables with our existing structure, and not transition immediately to 100% renewables. Perhaps energy companies could install solar panels and wind farms as a form of paying their carbon tax,” Rumbles said.
On farms in Iowa and windy places near the ocean windmills have been built that will be used to power local towns near by. Although it is still more expensive to use this energy than coal energy, prices have begun falling and will continue to fall as more people make the switch to renewable energies. As prices continue to fall, more people will be able to enjoy the benefits of renewable energy.
“For either wind or solar to replace coal, however, would require investments in infrastructure and technology that have yet been included in calculations,” Hower said.
Windmills and coal plants use the same basic concept to create electricity. In a coal plant, the coal is heated up which causes steam to rise and turn a turbine, which causes a generator to spin, making electricity. The only difference in windmills is that wind replaces the heating of the coal. The wind causes the turbine to turn, which is connected to a generator that makes electricity. The electricity can pass through the wire and travel to people's homes.
The average price of a windmill is 6.6 cents per kilowatt. While this is still more expensive than coal, as more people buy windmills and demand increases, the price will fall.
In 2007, coal energy accounted for 22% of the nation’s energy, petroleum was 39.8%, natural gas was 23.6, and nuclear accounted for 8.4% while renewable energy accounted for 7% of the nation’s energy. Renewable energy has seen a dramatic increase in recent years. The percent of total renewable energy in the U.S. has increased 17% from 2007 to 2008.
“I see significantly greater attention to energy efficiency and conservation—we waste far too much energy—technologies to capture and store solar energy, such as improved photovoltaic cells, batteries, and electocapicitors. A move to smart grids in which all of your electrical appliances, heating and air conditioning will be controlled by the local electric utility and managed in a way to improve efficiency and time of use pricing,” Challman said.
“The USA has a problem. It has a lifestyle built upon the availability of cheap energy. Both fuels and electricity oil the paths of our lives, and it is hard to go backwards. So any energy policy is constrained by this issue. I think the current administration has better ideas than the last one, but only time will tell if they can make it work. But they need to. Not only for the USA energy needs, but to help the rest of the world adopt the same policy. There is no point in reducing CO2 production in the USA, if China and India take up the slack and burn more coal. It would be hard to tell them not to, if the new energy source, probably solar, was too expensive for them to implement. So the USA energy policy needs to think about the impact of its policy beyond our shores,” Rumbles said.