Lesson Objectives

  • Describe different renewable resources, and understand why they are renewable.
  • Discuss how the Sun is the source of most of Earth’s energy.
  • Describe how energy is carried from one place to another as heat and by moving objects.
  • Explain how conduction, convection, and radiation transfer energy as heat when renewable energy sources are used.
  • Discuss why some renewable energy sources cost less than others and why some cause less pollution than others.
  • Explain how renewable energy resources are turned into useful forms of energy.
  • Describe how the use of different renewable energy resources affects the environment.


Fossil fuels have the advantage of being cheap and easily transported. But fossil fuels cause environmental damage and they will eventually run out. Green Energy sources, by definition, will not run out and most do not cause much pollution. But renewable energy sources do have a downside too. Both the advantages and disadvantages of solar, water, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy will be described in this lesson.

Solar Power

The Sun is Earth’s main source of energy, making the development of solar power a natural choice for an alternative energy source.

Solar Energy

Energy from the Sun comes when the lightest element, hydrogen, fuses to create the second lightest element, helium. Nuclear fusion releases tremendous amounts of solar energy. The energy travels to the Earth, mostly as visible light. The light carries the energy through the empty space between the Sun and the Earth as radiation.

Solar Power Use

Solar energy has been used for power on a small scale for hundreds of years and, of course, plants have used it for billions of year. Unlike energy use from fossil fuels, which almost always come from a central power plant or refinery, solar power can be harnessed locally (Figure below). A set of solar panels on a home’s rooftop can be used to heat water for a swimming pool, or can provide electricity to that house.
Solar array panels on International Space Station.
Solar array panels on International Space Station.

Solar panels supply power to the International Space Station.
Society’s use of solar power on a larger scale is just starting to increase. Scientists and engineers have very active, ongoing research into new ways to get energy from the Sun more efficiently. Because of its tremendous amount of incoming sunlight, solar power is being developed in the United States in the desert southwest in southeastern California, Nevada, and Arizona.
Solar power plants turn sunlight into electricity using a large group of mirrors to focus sunlight on one place, called a receiver (Figure below). A liquid, such as oil or water, flows through this receiver, and is heated to a high temperature by the focused sunlight. The heated liquid transfers its heat by conduction to a nearby object that is at a lower temperature. The energy conducted by the heated liquid is used to make electricity.
external image images?id=309231
This solar power plant uses mirrors to focus sunlight on the tower in the center. The sunlight heats a liquid inside the tower to a very high temperature, producing energy to make electricity.
A video of how solar energy can be concentrated so that it can be used for power: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/multimedia/video_csp.html

Consequences of Solar Power Use

Solar energy has many benefits. It is extremely abundant, widespread, and will never run out. But there are problems with the widespread use of solar power.
  • Sunlight must be present. Solar power is not useful in locations that are often cloudy or anywhere at night. However, storage technology is being developed.
  • The technology needed for solar power is still expensive. An increase in interested customers will provide incentive for companies to research and develop new technologies and to figure out how to mass produce existing technologies (Figure below).
  • Solar panels require a lot of space. Fortunately, solar panels can be placed on any rooftop to supply at least some of the power required for a home or business.
external image images?id=309235
This experimental car is one example of the many uses that engineers have found for solar energy.

Water Power

Water covers 70% of the planet’s surface and water power (hydroelectric power), is the most widely used form of renewable energy in the world. Hydroelectric power from streams provides almost one fifth of the world’s electricity.

Hydroelectric Power

Remember that kinetic energy is the energy of an object waiting to fall. Water held behind a dam has a lot of potential energy. In a hydroelectric plant, a dam across a river bed holds a stream to create a reservoir. Instead of flowing down its normal channel, the water is allowed to flow into a large turbine. As the water moves, it has kinetic energy, which makes the turbine spin. The turbine is connected to a generator, which makes electricity (Figure below).
A cross-section of a hydroelectric plant.
A cross-section of a hydroelectric plant.

A cross-section of a hydroelectric plant.
Most of the streams in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world that are suitable for hydroelectric power have already been dammed (Figure below). In California, about 14.5% of the total electricity comes from hydropower. The state's nearly 400 hydropower plants are mostly located in the eastern mountain ranges where large streams descend down a steep grade.
Hydroelectric dams like this one use the power of moving water to create electricity.
Hydroelectric dams like this one use the power of moving water to create electricity.

Hydroelectric dams like this one use the power of moving water to create electricity.

Consequences of Water Power Use

The major benefit of hydropower is that it generates power without releasing any pollution. Hydropower is also a renewable resource since the stream will keep on flowing. However, there are a limited number of suitable dam sites. Hydropower also has environmental problems. When a large dam disrupts a river’s flow, it changes the ecosystem upstream. As the land is flooded by rising water, plants and animals are displaced or killed. Many beautiful landscapes, villages, and archeological sites have been drowned by water in a reservoir (Figure below).
Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona created Lake Powell.
Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona created Lake Powell.

Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona created Lake Powell. The dam was controversial because it flooded Glen Canyon, a beautiful desert canyon. Rainbow Bridge, which remains above water, is located in this image.
The dam and turbines also change the downstream environment for fish and other living things. Dams slow the release of silt, so that downstream deltas retreat and seaside cities become dangerously exposed to storms and rising sea levels.

Ocean Water Power

The energy of waves and tides can be used to produce water power. Tidal power stations may need to close off a narrow bay or estuary. Wave power applications have to be able to withstand coastal storms and the corrosion of seawater. Because of the many problems with them, tide and wave power plants are not very common.

Wind Power

Wind power is the fastest growing renewable energy source in the world. Windmills are now being seen in many locations, individually or, more commonly, in large fields.
Wind powering America follows the development of wind power in the United States over the past several years: http://www.windpoweringamerica.gov/wind_installed_capacity.asp

Wind Energy

Energy from the Sun also creates wind, which can be used as wind power. The Sun heats different locations on Earth different amounts. Air that becomes warm rises and then sucks cooler air into that spot. The movement of air from one spot to another along the ground creates wind. Since wind is moving, it has kinetic energy.

Wind Power Use

Wind is the source of energy for wind power. Wind has been used for power for centuries. For example, windmills were used to grind grain and pump water. Sailing ships traveled by wind power long before ships were powered by fossil fuels. Wind can be used to generate electricity, as the moving air spins a turbine to create electricity (Figure below).
external image images?id=309229
Wind turbines like the ones shown above turn wind into electricity without creating pollution.
This animation shows how wind power works: http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/electricity/index.cfm/mytopic=10501

Consequences of Wind Power

Wind power has many advantages. It does not burn so it does not release pollution or carbon dioxide. Also, wind is plentiful in many places. Of course, wind does not blow all of the time, but power is needed all of the time. Just as with solar power, engineers are working on technologies so that wind power can be stored.
Windmills are expensive and wear out quickly. A lot of windmills are needed to power a region and so nearby residents may complain about the loss of a nice view if a wind farm is built. Coastlines typically receive a lot of wind and beaches are also locations that people like to visit, so wind farms may cause unhappiness in local residents and tourists (Figure below).
Cape Wind off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Cape Wind off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Cape Wind off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts receives a great deal of wind (red color) but is also popular with tourists for its beauty.
California was an early adopter of wind power. Windmills are found in mountain passes, which cooler Pacific Ocean air is sucked through on its way to warmer inland valleys. Large fields of windmills can be seen at Altamont pass in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, San Gorgonio Pass east of Los Angeles, and Tehachapi Pass at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

Geothermal Power

Geothermal energy comes from heat deep below the surface of the Earth. Nothing must be done to the geothermal energy. It is a resource that can be used without processing.

Geothermal Energy

The heat that is used for geothermal power may come to the surface naturally as hot springs or geysers, as at The Geysers in northern California. Where water does not naturally come to the surface, engineers may pump cool water into the ground to be heated by the hot rock and then pump it back to the surface for use. The hot water or steam from a geothermal well spins a turbine to make electricity. Geothermal energy is clean and safe. The energy source is renewable since hot rock is found everywhere in the Earth, although in many parts of the world the hot rock is not close enough to the surface for building geothermal power plants. In some areas, geothermal power is common (Figure below).
A geothermal energy plant in Iceland.
A geothermal energy plant in Iceland.

A geothermal energy plant in Iceland. Iceland gets about one fourth of its electricity from geothermal sources.
California leads all of the United States in producing geothermal energy. The largest geothermal power plant in the state is in the Geysers Geothermal Resource Area in Napa and Sonoma Counties. The source of heat is thought to be a large magma chamber lying beneath the area.


Biomass is the material that comes from plants and animals that were recently living. Biomass can be burned directly, such as setting fire to wood. For as long as humans have had fire, people have used biomass for heating and cooking. People can also process biomass to make fuel, called biofuel. Biofuel can be created from crops, such as corn or algae, to be processed and burned in a car, for example (Figure below). The advantage to biofuels is that they burn more cleanly than fossil fuels and so create less pollution and less carbon dioxide. Critics say that the amount of energy, fertilizer, and land needed to produce the crops that are used to make biofuels makes them barely better than fossil fuels.
Ethanol information sign in California.
Ethanol information sign in California.

Biofuels, such as ethanol, are added to gasoline to cut down the amount of fossil fuels that are used.

Lesson Summary

  • Solar energy, water power, wind power, geothermal energy, and biomass energy are renewable energy sources.
  • Solar energy can be used either by passively storing and holding the Sun's heat, converting it to electricity, or concentrating it.
  • There are many ways to use the energy of moving water including hydroelectric dams, and tidal and wave plants.
  • Wind power uses the energy of moving air to turn turbines.
  • Geothermal energy uses heat from deep within the earth to heat homes or produce steam that turns turbines.
  • Biomass energy uses renewable materials such as wood or grains to produce energy.

Review Questions

  1. If you turn on the burner on a gas stove under a pan of cold water, energy moves from the burner to the pan of water. What is this type of energy transfer called? How does this energy move?
  2. What are two technological methods of harnessing solar power?
  3. If you burn wood in a fireplace, which type of energy resource are you using?
  4. Which form of energy is an important factor in making electricity from water power?
  5. When the air moves as wind, it carries heat from warmer areas to cooler areas. What is this movement of heat called?
  6. Most of the energy that travels from the Sun to the Earth arrives in the form of visible light. What is this movement of energy called?
  7. Explain how mirrors can be useful in some solar energy plants.
  8. Explain how wind power uses kinetic energy.

Further Reading / Supplemental Links


radiation The movement of energy through empty space. convection The movement of heat in an air current from a warmer space to a cooler space. conduction The process in which energy moves through matter as heat, moving from an area of higher temperature to an area of lower temperature.

Points to Consider

  • What areas do you think would be best for using solar energy?
  • What causes the high temperatures deep inside the Earth that make geothermal energy possible?
  • Do you think your town or city could use wind or water power?

searching for more Marketer Michael Taggart resources