Can we use up all of our sunlight?
No, we have a limitless supply of sunlight. That makes it a renewable resource. Products derived from fossil fuels, like the gasoline we use to drive our cars, are not renewable resources. We will eventually run out of fossil fuels.
Renewable Resources and Alternative Energy Sources
A resource is renewable if it is remade by natural processes at the same rate that humans use it up. Sunlight and wind are renewable resources because they will not be used up (Figure below). The rising and falling of ocean tides is another example of a resource in unlimited supply. A sustainable resource is a resource that is used in a way that meets the needs of the present without keeping future generations from meeting their needs. People can sustainably harvest wood, cork, and bamboo. Farmers can also grow crops sustainably by not planting the same crop in their soil year after year. Planting the same crop each year can remove nutrients from the soil. This means that wood, cork, bamboo, and crops can be sustainable resources.
Wind power, a renewable resource, shown here in a modern wind energy farm.
Alternative Energy Sources
A nonrenewable resource is one that cannot be replaced as easily as it is consumed. Fossil fuels are an example of nonrenewable resources. They take millions of years to form naturally, and so they cannot be replaced as fast as they are consumed. To take the place of fossil fuel use, alternative energy resources are being developed. These alternative energy sources often utilize renewable resources. The following are examples of sustainable alternative energy resources:
Solar power, which uses solar cells to turn sunlight into electricity (Figure below). The electricity can be used to power anything that uses normal coal-generated electricity.
An example of solar power, using solar cells to convert sunlight into electricity.
Wind power, which uses windmills to transform wind energy into electricity. It is used for less than 1% of the world’s energy needs. But wind energy is growing fast. Every year, 30% more wind energy is used to create electricity.
Hydropower (Figure below), which uses the energy of moving water to turn turbines (similar to windmills) or water wheels, that create electricity. This form of energy produces no waste or pollution. It is a renewable resource.
Geothermal power, which uses the natural flow of heat from the earth’s core to produce steam. This steam is used to turn turbines which create electricity.
Biomass is the mass of biological organisms. It is usually used to describe the amount of organic matter in a trophic level of an ecosystem. Biomass production involves using organic matter ("biomass") from plants to create electricity. Using corn to make ethanol fuel is an example of biomass generated energy. Biomass is generally renewable.
- Tides in the ocean can also turn a turbine to create electricity. This energy can then be stored until needed (Figure below).
Dam of the tidal power plant in the Rance River, Bretagne, France
biomass: The total mass of organisms at a trophic level.
biomass production: The use of organic matter (biomass) from plants to create electricity.
geothermal power: Electricity derived from the natural flow of heat from the earth’s core.
hydropower: Electricity derived from the energy of moving water.
nonrenewable resource: Natural resource that is used up faster than it can be made by nature.
renewable resource: Natural resource that can be replaced as quickly as it is used.
sustainable resource: A resources that is used in a way that meets the needs of the present without keeping future generations from meeting their needs.
solar power: Electricity derived from the sun.
wind power: Electricity derived from the wind.
Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.
- How much of the energy needs of the European Union in 2005 was supplied from renewable resources?
- What energy producing techniques can be used to produce electricity? What techniques can be used to produce heat?
- Why is biomass based energy known as the "Sleeping Giant"? What energy could it replace that some of the other techniques (such as tidal power) would have difficulty replacing?
- What is Biogas? How is it produced? What resources is it targeted to replace?
- What does sustainable mean?
- What are some ways that renewable resources can be used to generate energy?