Inexhaustible energy: The genuine green and clean energy
We are lucky to live in a predominantly market economy, where the supply of available goods and services is determined by the marketplace in the form of demand from consumers. This means that the wise, or unwise, use of our natural resources to produce goods and services is reliant upon wise or unwise consumer choices. Educated consumers are necessary for the market economy to function well and efficiently because by their individual choices consumers collectively drive the market’s behavior.
This creates a great challenge and responsibility for us consumers to be economically “wise” as well as educated about our purchases of goods and services. Essentially, we vote with our dollars in the marketplace by rewarding winners and neglecting losers with our hard-earned money. The businesses producing those goods and services that we buy will “win” by prospering, and we will probably see more goods and services like those. Those we don’t buy may be driven out. It is within the millions of consumer-driven transactions that the direction our economy will take is determined.
And so, this is what we should expect for goods and services related to energy technology as well. Those that are chosen by the consumer in the marketplace should succeed. It has been my goal in the past several articles to inform readers about energy technology so they can understand the technology in their lives and are also better-equipped to make consumer choices among the energy technologies available to them.
I have previously explained the six different forms energy can take and I have also discussed the three broad categories of energy sources: exhaustible, renewable, and inexhaustible. Remember that exhaustible energy sources are those that come from minerals like fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and uranium. These are resources that we must mine from the earth and create heat from by burning or using in a nuclear reaction. Both fossil fuels and uranium create hazardous by-products when used. In contrast, renewable energy derives from naturally-occurring processes that are constantly replenished, like growing plants and animals, making them a sustainable and nearly inexhaustible source of energy while simultaneously reducing the total amount of pollution output into our environment. Typically, however, renewable energy sources require added energy to convert more energy. So, there may be limited gains from renewable sources. The last category, inexhaustible energy, is a form of energy that may be considered to be the kind that will never “go away”. It is just as its name describes – inexhaustible.
Inexhaustible energy is directly linked, or closely related, to the light from the sun, or heat from the earth, or to the rotating gravitational force from the moon on the Earth’s oceans. When you sit in the warm rays of the sun you experience that inexhaustible energy, or if you have bathed in a natural hot water spring you have experienced it as well, or if you have watched the ocean while its tide comes in or out, you have also experienced inexhaustible energy. In fact, a beautiful, miraculous, and powerful characteristic of inexhaustible energy is its simplicity. The unwavering power of the Sun, Earth, and Moon can be transformed directly into useful energy.
Solar-electric panels are one type of energy technology that takes advantage of this direct transfer. As the sun shines onto this type of solar panel, electricity is output that can be used in all the ways we are used to using it, or it can be stored in batteries for use later. Currently, there are incentives from our government to encourage consumers to purchase solar-electric panels for their homes and businesses. We can barely escape the advertisements for installing solar panels on our homes. Perhaps the most eye-opening, and important, realization for consumers to understand related to the simplicity of solar-electric power is to compare how it produces electricity to the exhaustible energy process which uses fossil fuels. To create electricity from coal, oil, or natural gas, it must first be mined from the Earth and transported to a power station. Keep in mind energy must be used to transport the fuel, and in the case of coal more energy must be used to pulverize it into a fine powder. After this, it is burned to create thermal heat, which then is used to boil water to create steam. The steam is then piped into a turbine (like a giant fan blade) which is attached to a generator which finally transforms the energy into electricity. This is a very complex process which creates air pollution and wastes energy at each step in the process, although overall can achieve relatively impressive efficiency and manageable pollution.
In comparison, a solar-electric panel takes sunlight and directly creates electricity in a single step. Very simple indeed! Additionally, the panels produce the electricity at the same location that it is used which eliminates the inefficiencies inherent with transporting electricity over large distances. Solar panels are easy to install and don’t require a high degree of technical know-how to operate and maintain.
But of course, as with all technology there are downsides to it as well which all electrical generation systems suffer from. Panels need to have an unobstructed “view” of the sun, and they work best only with a particular angle and direction. If the electricity produced is not used immediately at the location of the panels, it must be stored for later use or distributed to another location. This requires batteries for storage, or a large electrical distribution system to maintain. And on days when the sun does not shine, a secondary system must be in place, or a storage system to tap into, or there will be no electricity.
There is much more to consider to get the big picture of inexhaustible energy, so stay tuned for more about this important topic.
Kurt Wolter has studied and taught technology, including production, transportation, energy, and communication, for over 30 years. He enjoys trying to understand technology and its past, present, and future while also attempting journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]