What is Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy is any sustainable energy source that comes from the natural environment. The most common forms of renewable energy are solar, wind, water or hydro, biomass and geothermal. Renewable energy sources are maintained or replaced by nature after use. Other energy resources, such as coal, oil and natural gas, cannot be replenished by nature within the human time scale; it took many millions of years to form our limited supply of fossil fuel deposits.
Sunlight, wind, water and biomass are the sources for most of Canada’s renewable energy. Sunlight can be converted to electricity using photovoltaic (solar electric) panels. The sun’s heat energy can also be channelled using solar thermal (heating) panels to heat water or air for residential, commercial and industrial use.
Wind and flowing water can be used to spin turbines to generate electricity.
Waste wood and straw can be burned for heating, while grains, such as corn and wheat, can be fermented into ethanol and used as a fuel for automobiles.
Reasons for Renewables
The depletion of the earth’s finite resources is not sustainable, either environmentally or economically. Human activities are contributing to global warming. We can neither predict nor control the effects, such as changing weather patterns. We are playing with fire.
The rapidly increasing industrialisation in developing countries does not have to repeat the energy use patterns of the industrial revolution. Technology offers practical alternatives. Further improvements in technology, combined with the economies of scale, make renewable energy both practical and cost competitive in many applications already and in most applications in the near future.
Economically, the advances that have been made in renewable energy technologies in the last two decades, including higher efficiencies, improved quality and increased reliability, have made applications of renewable energy more attractive. On a small scale, renewable energy is not competitive when compared to bulk power generation, but it does have practical applications in innovative niche markets, such as consumer products, remote/off-grid and telecommunication applications. The cost of renewable energy technologies will drop once the benefits of renewable energy, including its sustainable nature and the minimal pollution it creates, are recognized by a larger percentage of the population.
Renewables Are Not New
The use of renewable energy is as old as the harnessing of fire and the discovery of the comforts of the south-facing cave. (Please forgive our northern hemisphere bias.) Until the mid-1800s, most of our energy came from burning wood and peat. During the industrial era in Europe and North America the availability of fast flowing streams to generate power determined the location of many large plants and mills .
It wasn’t until the latter stages of the Industrial Revolution, the mid-1850s, and following the widespread incorporation of the steam-engine into factories, that fossil fuel use, mainly coal and oil, became commonplace. Then factors such as the sources of raw materials, markets or major shipping ports became as important as proximity to energy sources in the location of factories.
Renewable Energy in Remote Areas
One of the greatest benefits of renewable energy is its potential to provide affordable and clean sources of energy to remote populations in Canada and to billions of people in developing countries.
Renewables and Global Warming
The earth’s atmosphere acts like glass in a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to pass through, yet trapping the resulting heat. Gases such as carbon dioxide are a particularly effective heat shield. When burned, coal, oil and natural gas release their carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, helping to raise the earth’s average temperature. Renewable energy initiatives help to reduce the human contribution to the greenhouse gas effect.
Renewing Sustainable Development
In 1987, a United Nations commission chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the then Norwegian Prime Minister, was formed to determine how to reconcile economic development with environmental protection. The term ‘sustainable development’ was first used in the commissions’ report, Our Common Future. The report recognized that renewable energy sources are essential for sustainable development because they provide us with constant sources of energy with fewer effects on the environment. It also identified that globally, there is the need for more efficient use of energy and that the industrialised world, especially, had to improve its conservation efforts to lessen the environmental impact of economic development.