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What You Need to Know About Alternative Energy Sources

When you boil it down there are only two types of energy: brown and green. Brown energy refers to electricity generated through the burning of traditional fossil fuels, such as coal or oil. This type of energy is associated with pollution because it emits a number of greenhouse gasses attributed to climate change. Green energy is the exact opposite. It’s made of alternative energy sources that are infinite and pollution-free, such as wind, hydroelectric or solar power.

Types of alternative energy sources

When it comes to alternative energy sources, you’re likely talking about the following renewable energy generation processes.

  •  Wind energy.  Wind energy is one of the most abundant alternative energy sources in the United States, at times generating more than 6 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.  Today, wind energy is typically generated through a wind turbine. These structures, which can stand more than 400 feet tall, resemble large pinwheels. As wind blows, the turbine blades spin, producing kinetic energy. That energy can then be converted into usable electricity for your home.
  • Solar energy.  The sun is so powerful that just one hour of sunlight could power the planet for an entire year. In order to harness its energy, solar panels, or photovoltaic cells, use semiconductors to capture the powerful rays. The semiconductor, typically silicon, absorbs sunlight and knocks its electrons loose, creating solar energy that can be harnessed and transported to the power grid.
  •  Geothermal energy. There are geological hot spots, such as volcanoes or hot springs, all over the world that are teeming with energy opportunity. These areas radiate extreme temperatures that, if harnessed, can be converted into renewable energy. To capture this energy, geothermal power plants are set up around hot spots where they drill into the Earth’s core. The steam or scalding water that comes up in the process pushes a turbine to create electricity.
  •  Hydroelectric power. Water is another free resource that makes a great alternative energy source. And it’s one of the nation’s oldest renewable energy resources. In the 1920s, hydroelectric power supplied as much as 40 percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Though the resource supplies significantly less today, it’s still a valuable energy source. Hydroelectric power plants typically include a dam that helps control water levels and movement. To generate energy, the plant forces water through a turbine, causing it to spin. The movement is then captured by an attached generator that transforms the waters energy into electricity.
  •  Biomass. Instead of letting plant waste decompose on its own, the energy stored in the plants can be converted into renewable energy. Because plants store energy from the sun, they are full of usable energy that just needs to be harnessed. The process of creating energy involves burning plant material to create heat and then converting the heat into renewable electricity. Common biomass materials include forest residue, corn stalks or husks, sawdust and switch grass.
  •  Biogas. Biogas energy is generated by converting animal manure into electricity.  As bacteria works to decompose the manure, special machinery is used to depress oxygen and convert the animal waste into methane gas. The methane can be used to heat water or create electricity for your home, while any leftover manure becomes fertilizer. But there’s little-to-no biogas available on the grid today. Most biogas plants reside on large farms, where farmers use the energy source to power their own operations.

Buy renewable energy from green energy companies

Although installing your own set of solar panels is a great way to get green energy to your home, it can be an expensive option. Fortunately, there’s a more cost-effective solution to power your home off of alternative energy sources.  If you live in a deregulated area you have the opportunity to purchase a renewable energy supply. There are a number of green energy companies that offer electricity that’s generated from alternative energy sources. Some even offer 100 percent renewable energy plans so you can completely offset your electricity consumption.

If you don’t live in a deregulated state, you may still have opportunities to contribute to renewable energy generation. Some utilities will allow you to pay a small fee on top of your normal electricity costs to add power from alternative energy sources to the grid.

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Is Solar Energy Renewable?

Solar energy systems use sunlight to provide thermal and electrical power for residential, commercial and industrial locations. The amount of energy generated through solar energy systems directly depends on the amount of sunlight that’s gathered on a daily basis. With that being said, is solar energy truly a renewable resource?

The design behind solar energy systems

Individuals have the ability to harness solar energy through two forms: passive solar energy systems and active solar energy systems. Passive solar energy systems are designed without the use of any electronic devices. A structure harnesses solar energy through design elements such as window location, shading, proper insulation and thermal mass (e.g. brick, tile, concrete). According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “passive solar design takes advantage of a building’s site, climate, and materials to minimize energy use.” South-facing windows can catch natural sunlight throughout most of the day. That’s why most residential passive designs implement windows in commonly used rooms such as a kitchen or family room.  However, passive solar energy systems often consist of non-renewable building materials and can require additional time for planning and construction.

Active solar energy systems are made up of external mechanical and/or electrical equipment that converts sunlight into usable energy. They are manufactured and require three main parts: panels, pumps and storage tanks. Similar to that of passive solar energy systems, active systems are partially made up of non-renewable materials such as silicon and aluminum.

Whether you’re talking about passive or active solar energy systems, it’s completely valid to refer to solar energy as renewable. The sun is a free, clean and consistent power source that has been producing energy for billions of years, meaning that solar energy is renewable. However, it’s hard to ignore that this source of renewable energy relies – to some extent – on non-renewable inputs.

If we were to deplete the non-renewable resources that are essential to produce passive and active solar energy systems, could we find an alternative way to harness and utilize solar energy?

Looking toward the future of solar energy

When it comes down to it, solar energy is one of the most popular forms of alternative energy; this can be linked to energy reliability, lower utility bills and a more environmentally aware society. According to Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS), residential and commercial passive solar has the ability to reduce energy use – mainly in heating and cooling – up to 90%.  In June 2019, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) recorded that residential active solar grew by 76% over the first quarter of 2018. In addition, the United States installed enough active solar energy systems to power 14.3 million American homes in the first quarter of 2019. As the demand for passive and active solar energy systems increases, you may want to find out if a solar energy system is the right choice for your home or business. But for now, we can confirm that solar energy is renewable.

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Learn About Hydroelectric Power

Although solar and wind energy are the most prominent forms of renewable energy generation, hydroelectric power, which uses moving water to generate energy, is one of the oldest. You can date hydroelectric power back at least 2,000 years when the Greeks used the force of water to turn wheels for grinding wheat into flour. Later, in the 1700s, hydroelectric power was popular for pumping and milling and in the early 1900s the process was used to create electricity. By the 1920s, hydroelectric power supplied nearly 40 percent of the electricity in the United States.

While hydroelectric power was once a popular choice for electricity generation, its use has slowly declined over the decades. Now hydroelectric power only makes up about 9 percent of electricity generation in the United States. This has occurred, in part, because of the nation’s growing population and increased energy demand. Many also believe hydroelectric dams pose an environmental threat, hindering the development of more hydroelectric projects.

How is hydroelectric power generated?

Like all forms of renewable energy, hydroelectric power transforms the energy from a natural resource into electricity. In this case, the force of water is harnessed to generate clean power. Hydroelectric plants, which are often situated on dams, push water through a series of turbines. As the water forces its way through, the turbines spin and create kinetic energy. Then an attached generator is able to capture the energy and convert it into the electricity.

The environmental impact of hydroelectric power

There are a lot of great perks to using hydroelectric power. It’s a consistent electricity source, it uses an abundant natural resource and because no fuels are burned it has negligible air emissions. And although some might worry about pollution in the water source, the generation process is completely clean. Once water has pushed through the turbines, it returns to the body of water below the dam. But still, there are a couple of environmental issues that stand as a barrier to hydroelectric power today.

·         Wildlife impacts. A major concern for environmentalists is that hydroelectric power plants are usually situated on dams. While dams are used for a number of other purposes, such as flood control, recreation and agricultural irrigation, they can change the habitats of natural wildlife. In addition to altering ecosystems of plant and aquatic life, hydroelectric turbines can injure or kill fish without proper precautions such as in-take screens to keep aquatic life out.

·         Land use.Often times, hydroelectric plants are massive and consume a large amount of land. Not only does this land use disrupt ecosystems, it can cause erosion at river beds and block scenic views.

Considering these environmental factors, installing hydropower has been a strenuous ordeal for decades. With government rules and regulations, it could take years to get approval to build a new hydroelectric plant. However, a couple of bills were passed last August that should help revive hydroelectric power and potentially add 60 gigawatts of renewable energy to the grid.

The Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Bill will streamline small hydroelectric projects and allow power companies to add generation to the nation’s 80,000 untapped dams. And the Small Conduit Hydropower Development Bill will add renewable capacity at government property and irrigation canals. Though there’s no plan to allow companies to build new dams and hydroelectric plants elsewhere, these two bills could bring a rise in renewable generation in the coming years.

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Does Solar Power Save Energy?

Harnessing energy from the sun to power everyday lives is an exciting prospect that is already true for many homes and businesses. However, understanding how it works isn’t as widespread, and the benefits of solar energy can be misconstrued. Renewable energy and green technology are areas where many people have questions, but one main question is, “Does solar power save energy?”

Per the first law of thermodynamics, energy is transformable, but it is not something we can create or destroy. In other words, the only way to save energy is to not use energy. While solar power is a source of energy that is renewable, it is not a method of energy conservation. Instead, it is a method of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Solar power can reduce pollution

The largest solar thermal power plant in the world, Invanpah, is located in California’s Mojave Desert. The solar power plant can produce enough energy to power 140,000 homes in California each year. While this plant does not use the same technology as solar panels, Invanpah uses solar energy to run a steam-powered turbine. Now think of a coal-fired power plant. Fossil fuels heat water that makes a turbine spin. This process is continuous, which means that burning of coal is continuous. With solar power, there is virtually no pollution.

How solar power may save you money

Instead of saving energy, solar power might be able to save you a nice chunk of change. If you install solar panels at your home and remain connected to the electrical grid, you can be your own power plant and contribute to the grid. When the sun shines all day and there are no clouds in sight, the solar panels could harness more energy than you will use. Any excess energy is exported from your home to the electric grid, reducing the need for electricity produced by your utility and cutting down on pollution from your local power plant. If you produce energy for the grid, you may receive a credit from your utility. Instead of spending money, you’ll be making it.

The cost of installing solar power can be reduced through tax credits from local, state and federal governments. Each state has different tax credits, rebates and other ways to save, so be sure to check and see what savings you may encounter through installation of solar panels.

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Make an Informed Decision: Tips to Consider When Signing a Solar Lease or PPA

Solar leases and power purchase agreements (PPA) can be a cheaper, less-hassle way to get solar panels on your roof. Many companies handle all of the paper work, national grid connection and other hurdles surrounding installing a home solar power system. But before you sign a solar power agreement, there are a lot of things to consider. Most solar leases or power purchase agreements (PPA) involve a 15-20 year term, which is quite the commitment. If you’re looking into signing a solar lease or PPA, it’s best to make an informed decision and know you’re with a company you can trust so you can protect yourself from unexpected costs or worse. Make the best decision for your home by considering these five tips before signing a solar power lease or PPA.

  1. Thoroughly read the contract. A 15-20 year commitment is a long time. While there are many given benefits to installing a solar power system on your rooftop, you need to be sure that the benefits detailed are fair and protect you from any potential mishaps. Read your contract several times and be sure it’s not missing anything you expected. If your solar representative is promising you things that aren’t listed in your contract, remember that verbal agreements don’t always hold up after you sign the dotted line.
  2. Find out about tax credits, rebates and refunds. If you were to go about it alone and install a home solar power system without a third-party company, you would be entitled to various tax credits, rebates and incentives, depending on what state you live in. On top of that, if you produce more energy than you use, you’ll receive a credit from the utility for the unused power you added to the grid. These incentives vary from state to state so be sure you do some research. Inquire with your solar power company about whether or not you will remain entitled to these benefits if you sign a solar lease or PPA with it.
  3. Be sure you’re receiving professional service. If you’re signing up with a solar company, it’s best to be positive that its credentials are in order. You wouldn’t want an unlicensed worker installing or maintaining your panels. Solar power systems are complex. Not to mention, if not properly installed, they can damage your roof. Before signing up, look up license numbers to ensure you’re getting the service you’re entitled to.
  4. Understand exactly how much you’ll be paying. Part of the allure of going solar is the potential savings but it’s best to know for sure how much you’ll be saving. A legitimate solar lease or power purchase agreement should detail your exact pricing terms. For a lease, this should include what your flat monthly payment will be each month of your contract. A PPA should include your rate per kWh for your entire contract. Also be sure that any extra charges are listed so you’re not caught off-guard in the future.
  5. Make sure the system is covered. Typically, in a solar lease or power purchase agreement contract, the solar company owns the system and should therefore be responsible for maintaining it and making sure it’s running properly. Triple-check that your contract details the terms of maintenance and repairs. Some companies also cover any potential damage to your roof during installation, removal and the time in between.
  6. Know your options if you have to move. Considering how long a solar contract is, it would be best to know what happens if you have to move. You never know what’s going to happen – you could be relocated or just fall out of love with your home. Most companies offer a contract that is transferable to the next homeowner. Relocating your solar power system may also be an option.