Renewable energy sources are energy sources that are continually replenished. These include energy from water, wind, the sun, geothermal sources, and biomass sources such as energy crops. In contrast, fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are non-renewable. Once a deposit of these fuels is depleted it cannot be replenished â€“ a replacement deposit must be found instead. Both renewable and non-renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity, power vehicles, and provide heating, cooling, and light.
Renewable sources of energy vary widely in their cost-effectiveness and in their availability across the United States. Although water, wind, and other renewables may appear free, their cost comes in collecting, harnessing, and transporting the energy so that it can do useful work. For example, to utilize energy from water, a dam must be built along with electric generators and transmission lines.
Renewables themselves are non-polluting, while the structures built to harness them can have positive or negative environmental impacts. For example, dams may affect fish migration but may also create wildlife habitat.
Solar technologies use the sun’s energy to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity, and even cooling, for homes, businesses, and industry. Despite sunlight’s significant potential for supplying energy, solar power provides less than 1% of U.S. energy needs. This percentage is expected to increase with the development of new and more efficient solar technologies.
Different types of solar collectors are used to meet different energy needs. Passive solar building designs capture the sun’s heat to provide space heating and light. Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly to electricity. Concentrating solar power systems focus sunlight with mirrors to create a high-intensity heat source, which then produces steam or mechanical power to run a generator that creates electricity. Flat-plate collectors absorb the sun’s heat directly into water or other fluids to provide hot water or space heating. And solar process heating and cooling systems use specialized solar collectors and chemical processes to meet large-scale hot water and heating and cooling needs.
Solar technologies produce few negative environmental impacts during collector operation. However, there are environmental concerns associated with the production of collectors and storage devices. In addition, cost is a great drawback to solar power. Although sunlight is free, solar cells and the equipment needed to convert their direct-current output to alternating current for use in a house is expensive. Electricity generated by solar cells is still more than twice as expensive as electricity from fossil fuels. Part of the problem with cost is that solar cells can
The parabolic troughs that make up this concentrating solar power system generate power from the sun on a large scale in California.only operate during daylight hours. In contrast, a coal or natural gas plant can run around the clock, which means the cost for building the plant can be spread over many more hours of use.
Around the United States, available sunlight varies considerably as a result of differences in cloud cover and latitude, and also varies with the seasons. In the summer, longer daylight hours and a higher sun angle provide more solar power, compared to the winter when the sun is up for fewer hours and at a lower position in the sky. These variations must be taken into consideration when planning solar collection facilities.