InTrans / May 29, 2015

Going Green: Who is powering our ‘green’ future?

Go! Magazine

Green tubesposted on May 29, 2015

In the last article, “Going green: ‘Green’ alternatives to the ‘gas guzzler,’ we explored how electric and fuel cell vehicles have the potential to reduce up to one-fifth of United States greenhouse gas emissions. However, for electric and fuel cell vehicles to truly be “green” alternatives, we must focus more on renewable electricity and “green” hydrogen production. In this article, we will explore the “who,” or really “what” companies are investing in renewable energy generation.

The “what if this…”

But really, what if this happened? Imagine being told that gasoline and diesel will completely run out in 30 years, which means, for transportation, only electric and fuel cell vehicles will be available. Crazy? Actually, this could really happen. The news source, The Guardian predicts that, at the current rate, the world will run out of gasoline and diesel by 2088. However, before the world runs out of these non-renewables, it is more likely that the harmful effects of climate change from fossil fuel dependency will prompt a change towards using more renewable energy sources. This means we need to invest in clean electricity now!

Did you know that as of today, 95 percent of hydrogen1 and over 60 percent of electricity is created from fossil fuels? Wait a minute! We know there’s clean electricity, but what about green hydrogen? Think about water—H2O—which is made up of two hydrogen atoms plus one oxygen atom. Hydrogen is typically made through a process called “electrolysis,” which splits hydrogen and oxygen using high-powered electricity (typically provided by fossil fuels). In 2014, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland have found a way to use less power to drive electricity, allowing for solar and wind sources to perform electrolysis.

There you have it! Since hydrogen is produced through inputs of electricity, let’s take a look at some of the largest renewable energy projects creating “green” electricity.

Who is investing in green electricity production?

Wind: Wind makes up almost 27 percent of the United States’ renewable energy generation. Together, wind farms located across the United States have the equivalent energy capacity to power 18 million homes per year! The largest on-shore wind farm is the Alta Wind Energy Center, which is located in the Mojave Desert and owned by Terra-Gen Power. This farm spans 3,200 acres and currently has 600 turbines, which provides enough energy for 257,000 California homes!

Solar: Solar technology has been slow to advance, only making up 0.8 percent of the total amount of renewable energy produced in the United States. The largest solar electric generating system is called “Ivanpah.” This system, built in 2013, is also located in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah’s solar technology is created and owned by BrightSource Limitless, which focuses on solar thermal technology to create high-value electricity and steam for power. The system itself consists of several mirrors that reflect the sun’s light into a tower, which then boils water to create steam that turns a turbine. This is similar to other methods of creating electricity, except that the original source is the sun!

Biomass: Biomass, by definition, includes all plants and animals or organic matter that can be used as a fuel. Most biomass used today is harnessed through combustion (whether converted into fuel or just burned directly). Biomass makes up 11 percent of the total renewable energy produced in the United States.

Today’s source of biomass consists of three “generations.” The first generation, which is the largest, includes corn ethanol and other food crops converted to fuel. The largest first generation plant was built by ADM in Decatur, Illinois, and produces 1.75 billion gallons of ethanol each year, which is equivalent (in energy) to 1.15 billion gallons of gasoline.

The largest second generation plant (i.e., cellulosic energy from non-food/waste items like wheat straw, rice straw, etc.) is owned by Beta Renewables and Novozymes in Northern Italy and produces almost 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol each year, which is the equivalent (in energy) to 13.2 million gallons of gasoline.

Did you know that one of the largest algae power plants (third generation) is in Winchester, Kentucky? There algae is initially grown in a lab, but then, as it continues to grow through the fermentation2 process, is transferred to an eight-story tall facility. Algae production is not yet commercially used as a fuel, but offers great potential as a clean energy source.

Hydroelectric: Hydropower provides one-fifth of the world’s energy and 58 percent of the United States’ renewable energy. It is a vital source of renewable energy worldwide and can be harnessed in quite a few ways, including the most popular…hydroelectric dams!

Did you know that the largest hydroelectric dam in the world is the Three Gorges Dam in the Hubei province of China? But did you know that this dam produced enough energy to power 16.2 billion US homes in 2014? Although the dam accounts for 10 percent of China’s electricity needs, it has created challenges related to flooding, landslides from rising water, and wildlife habitat destruction. Further, nearly 1.9 million people in China were dislocated as a result of the Three Gorges Dam construction.

Geothermal: Geothermal energy makes up just 3.2 percent of the renewable energy in the United States. Geothermal energy is captured by drilling into the land where there is high seismic activity between plates (See “Exploring the oceans” for more on plate tectonics). Water is then pumped deep into the Earth in “hotspots” where there is magma (i.e., melted rock). The byproduct is steam, which then rises to the surface and turns the turbine at a geothermal power plant.The Geysers Geothermal Complex in San Francisco, California, is the largest geothermal installation in the world. With more than 22 power plants and an energy capacity great enough to produce energy to power 147,600 US homes.

So now what?

Renewable energy has the potential to create clean, renewable energy for the whole world. The creation of a renewable energy profile must involve a diverse number of energy sources and new technologies to harness renewables with the overall goal of replacing fossil fuels that will, in turn, reduce dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. More research is needed, especially when it comes to solar energy, which only makes up about 0.8 percent of all harnessed renewable energy. Did you know that solar energy has the ability to provide the world with 35,000 times the amount of energy it currently needs? Now go, bask in the sun, and be a part of the next “green” generation!

Did you know?

  1. Hydrogen is an element which makes up the stars and gas planets. But did you also know that hydrogen can be used as a fuel? Hydrogen is much cleaner than other fuels, because it burns by reacting with oxygen in the air with the only byproduct being water.
  2. Fermentation is the reason that we can have wine, beer, cheese, yogurt, and other food items. But did you also know that fermentation can aid in producing ethanol for fuel? Fermentation works by using yeast, a fungus, to break down sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide. In the case of corn ethanol, the yeast breaks down the sugars in corn to create ethanol—a biofuel.

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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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