Renewable Energy Evaluation

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With each passing day, the issue of global warming grows more and more out of control. Even if we completely cut our emissions of greenhouse gases, the snowball is already rolling and the gases currently filling our atmosphere will still have long term effects on global temperature increases -- but the battle is not yet lost. Solving this problem that threatens the nature of creatures around the globe is still within our grasp, nations just need to act swiftly and boldly.

One imperative contributor to greenhouse gas emissions around the world is the burning of fossil fuels. Energy production is vital to our society as technology has become deeply rooted in our way of life. The current annual global energy demand is approximately 570 quadrillion British Thermal Units (1 BTU = 1055.056 joules) and is expected to reach 681 by 2040 (ExxonMobil). The United States constitutes for 100 quadrillion of this total, predicted 119 in 2040 following the 0.9% annual increase trend (Dunn). We desperately need a shift -- a versatile source of renewable energy that can be effectively implemented around the globe to replace the use of fossil fuels.

One possible source of widespread renewable energy is geothermal power which is, fundamentally, energy produced through the continuous heat transfer from Earth’s core to the crust (U.S. Energy Information Administration). Geothermal energy in the U.S. currently stands at .218 quadrillion Btu annually, accounting for 2% of total renewable energy production (Jamison). This is a 32.9% increase from 2000, showing a gradual increase in productive efforts followed by a plateau in recent years, according to a report by the Energy Information Administration. The Earth conducts approximately 44.2 terawatts, making it an extremely plentiful and stable source of energy (New Jersey Institute of Technology). Although many methods of production have been developed to harness this energy, on average a geothermal power plant produces one gigawatt for every 404 square meters of space. This is the most energy production per square meter of any other form of renewable energy, but it is expensive and difficult to build since successful plans require specific environmental conditions (also explaining why geothermal contributes only a small portion to national energy production). Although geothermal energy can be drawn from almost anywhere, the most efficient locations are near volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers, which are not very common in the U.S., making geothermal energy difficult to produce in large quantities (Energy Information Administration). Like most renewable energy sources, investment in geothermal production has a high initial cost but low maintenance expenses thereafter. Large-scale plants cost around $2500 per kW while smaller plants range from $3000 to $5000, maintenance only $0.01-$0.03 per kWh (U.S. Department of Energy). Although this does not appear to be very much in the long run, there are many damage costs attached to the construction of large geothermal plants, especially near developed land, because of its difficult installation process deep underground (Russo). This suggests that successful plants must either be small enough to avoid interfering with surrounding developments or far enough away from civilization to not have an impact at all, neither of which is convenient nor cost-effective. On the flip side, some practical advantages are that water can be recycled back into the heat reservoirs to conserve resources and personal geothermal heat pumps are easily integrated into communities with nearly no visual impact or energy loss (U.S. Department of Energy). Furthermore, if installed away from developed land, geothermal power plants use less land per gigawatt on average than coal, hydroelectric, or solar (U.S. Department of Energy). If the United States pursued geothermal energy independently, to meet half the U.S. energy demands we would need to produce approximately 1600 gigawatts of energy, covering only 600,000 m2 but costing several trillions of dollars in initial investment. Clearly, this is an unrealistic course of action, but it emphasizes some of geothermal energy’s key traits: although overall condense, subtle, and clean, it is generally very expensive and difficult to produce on a large scale. As a result, it holds much potential in residential areas as a private source of energy, especially for heating and cooling systems, but may not be viable as a national investment.

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Another possible form of renewable energy is hydroelectric, which is energy produced from moving water that rotates a turbine as it passes. According to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, hydropower in the U.S. currently generates about 80 gigawatts, or approximately 2.675 quadrillion Btu, accounting for 26% of total renewable energy production. These numbers have actually decreased in recent years as new methods of harvesting power are in development, but hydropower remains a stable, and safe, option of renewable energy. There are two primary forms of hydroelectric generators -- tidal and wave -- the former residing on coastal areas and the latter functioning along narrow channels of water (Energy Information Administration). According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a large plant generates 30 - 100 megawatts; small, less than 10 megawatts; and micro, less than 100 kilowatts. Per unit, hydropower has more energy potential than any other form of renewable energy; however, finding locations with environmental conditions suitable for effective energy production is extremely difficult. The natural flow process relies heavily on the water cycle which is driven by Sun, so it varies with changes in the weather while remaining relatively consistent with each season. Furthermore, rivers and streams flowing down from mountains are constantly shifting and breaking into smaller channels, so all areas are only energy efficient for a short amount of time. As a result, half of U.S. hydroelectric generation is concentrated in states along the western coast, such as Washington, California, and Oregon, where water patterns are most consistent (Sivaram). Hydroelectric turbines posses low operation fees but high initial investment costs. In general, power plants construction ranges from $1000 to $8000 per kilowatt with a 2% to 5% initial investment annual maintenance cost (Energy Information Administration). The range of cost is so large because it relies heavily on the specific characteristics of the surrounding landscape -- more difficult terrain means more difficult construction and expensive materials. As a result, it is difficult to establish standards and regulations necessary for large-scale implementation since each environment arises its own financial obstacles and accommodations. This leads to one of hydroelectric energy’s largest setbacks: environmental disruption. According to the Energy Information Administration, even the best existing turbines reportedly kill 5% - 8% of fish passing through it. Electric dams also manipulate water levels, negatively affecting the navigation and seasonal patterns of wildlife (Energy Information Administration). Although each form of clean energy impacts the natural environment to some degree, building hydroelectric dams across the nation in pursuit of combating global warming would be significantly counterproductive considering the negative ripple effect doing so would have on ecosystems across the nation. Shifting away from the environmental impact, a study found that between over 50,000 suitable, non-powered dams scattered throughout the United States, there is a resource potential of about 85 gigawatts. (U.S. Department of Energy). This is very large when compared to the current contribution of hydropower but still small in the context of annual energy consumption. Although variably expensive and harmful to wildlife, hydroelectric power is a reliable, plentiful source of energy yet to be truly harnessed in the U.S. and, thus, should be regarded as a valuable alternative to fossil fuels as cheaper, safer technology becomes available. This being said, even if we maximize all our available hydropower opportunities, it will still not be enough to fulfill even a fourth of our nation’s annual energy demand based on the current production figures, and, therefore, cannot act as the United States’ primary source of power.

The third plausible source of renewable energy is solar power. Solar in the U.S. currently generates about .950 quadrillion Btu, accounting for 4% of total renewable energy production (New Jersey Institute of Technology). Solar energy production has grown over 1500% since 2000 as materials have become significantly cheaper (Jamison). This is the fastest growth of any of the forms of energy and has come with various technological advancements, mainly a significant reduction in cost; however, this slope has declined significantly the past few years (Jamison). This suggests that we are approaching the bottom of the scientific barrel of improvement based on our current understanding of solar energy. After all, the standard silicon solar panel invented 60 years ago still dominates the solar market today, operating at 5 - 15% efficiency (Sivaram). Since the intensity of sunlight reaching the Earth varies depending on location, time of day, season, and weather conditions, energy production is extremely intermittent. This is a very large limitation considering that energy is constantly being consumed all around the U.S. The current cost of solar panels has begun to plateau at $0.50 per watt, or $500 per kilowatt. This base price is cheaper than that of any other renewable energy source, but, similar to wind power, solar power plants require large amounts of storage in order to secure a consistent supply of energy (Sivaram). Since solar panels can only absorb sunlight during the day and are greatly affected by day to day weather conditions, this addition is fundamentally important. Average energy storage is $0.10 per kilowatt-hour, but this cost adds up very quickly when powering millions of homes and buildings during the night (Energy Information Administration). With solar panels and storage facilities come a large requirement for space; “The amount of sunlight reaching a square foot of the earth's surface is relatively small, so a large surface area is necessary to collect a useful amount of energy,” (Energy Information Administration). One primary accommodation for this is solar panel installation on rooftops and other established structures that receive sunlight without taking up extra space. This is then opposed by the idea that doing so ranks convenience over optimal solar positioning, decreasing the collective efficiency of the farm (Sivaram). The International Energy Agency estimates that solar will soon be the cheapest source of electricity in some countries, making it a prime alternative source of energy internationally; however, considering the extensive land and storage cost that solar power requires for large-scale implementation, it may not be the optimal choice for the United States.

The final form of clean energy is wind power, which, similar to hydroelectric, is produced from moving air particles that rotate a turbine as they pass. According to Jamison, wind energy accounts for 18% of total renewable energy production in the U.S., currently standing at 2.530 quadrillion Btu annually which is a 900% increase from 2000. This reflects the various technological advancements made in recent years to increase wind turbine efficiency and suggests a bright future for wind energy. Despite various internal improvements, like more sophisticated control systems, blade pitch variability, and increased material durability, the standard three blade design developed in the 1970s remains effective today (Sivaram). Most utility level turbines produce between one and two megawatts, the largest units generating up to 10 megawatts -- “enough to power nearly 9,000 homes,” (McKenna). Considering the small land area and durability of a single turbine, this level of power is extremely impressive compared to the energy efficiencies of other forms of clean energy. This being said, wind is intermittent, making it a generally unreliable source of energy especially in the case of an emergency. Energy production is most plentiful around coastal areas where average wind speeds approach ten meters per second; however, effective wind farms have been built in midwestern states with speeds between four and seven meters per second (Russo). This suggests that wind turbines can be utilized in various different environments and, thus, have a large energy potential across the U.S. On average, wind turbines cost .79 million dollars per megawatt to build, or $790 per kilowatt (U.S. Department of Energy). This value is significantly less than that for other forms of renewable energy; however, offshore wind prices are two times more expensive than onshore, so this average could increase in upcoming years as attention shifts to the energy potential of the coasts (New Jersey Institute of Technology). In a case of large-scale implementation, investment in storage facilities would need to be made alongside wind farms to secure a consistent power output. Although energy storage is necessary to some degree for all types of clean energy, it is more prevalent for wind energy due to its relative intermittency. Another disadvantage is the environmental impact of wind turbines on wildlife; wind farms collectively killed 573,000 birds in 2015, a statistic that is predicted to reach 1.4 million by 2030 (New Jersey Institute of Technology). However, many wind activists claim “ecological studies indicate that carefully planned wind farms should not significantly harm birds or marine mammals,” (Russo). Although it is near impossible to completely remove all negative environmental impact, design enhancements are rapidly being made to reduce the footprint of turbines, making the issue of bird fatalities a simple matter of time. Also, turbines can be built on land used for grazing and growing crops to save space and now possess advanced AI monitoring that automatically adjusts to weather conditions, boosting performance, preventing operational breakdowns, and prolonging functionality (Spectra). This level of technological sophistication is not utilized by any other type of renewable energy, making wind energy a very advanced, and fitting, energy alternative for our modern society. According to Russo, “offshore territory of the United States has the capacity to generate an estimated 4,200 gigawatts of electricity, enough to supply four times the nation’s current needs.” If pursued independently, based on the current cost and production figures, wind energy could power the entire U.S. with a several billion dollar investment. Again, this is an exaggerated case scenario, but the calculation does not account for the various future advancements aimed at making wind energy cheaper than ever and is significantly less than the predicted nationwide investments of other clean energy sources (reaching well into the trillions). Although wind turbines negatively impact wildlife and require a storage system to supply consistent energy, they are comparatively more cost efficient and technologically advanced than alternative units, making them an extremely/paramountly viable replacement for fossil fuels.

Although all forms of renewable energy hold some potential in the future as we make the transition from fossil fuels, given the United States’ economic resources and level of development, pursuing wind power as our primary source of energy is the most logical decision moving forward. Wind turbines are more cost and land efficient than any other form of renewable energy, and, with advanced AI systems, are designed to last several hundred years with almost no maintenance. It is also the only form, other than solar, with the potential of supplying the majority of the United States’ power. Although large-scale wind power requires advanced energy storage systems, this cost is very small compared to that required of solar since wind speeds are more stable on average than exposure to sunlight. Furthermore, based on current production trends, technological advancements in other renewable energy fields have begun to plateau while turbine placement and computer systems are advancing faster than ever. Geothermal home heating systems and solar panel roofing may each be economically viable choices for independent consumers, but when evaluating production efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and general practicality, wind energy is the most logical investment in nationwide power for the United States.

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Renewable Energy Evaluation. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/renewable-energy-evaluation/
“Renewable Energy Evaluation.” Edubirdie, 25 Nov. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/renewable-energy-evaluation/
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Renewable Energy Evaluation [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Nov 25 [cited 2024 May 19]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/renewable-energy-evaluation/
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