Types of renewable energy

Australia, like much of the world, relies heavily on coal, oil and natural gas for energy. However, it’s come to light in recent decades that fossil fuels are not a sustainable solution. Not only is there evidence that carbon emissions generated by fossil fuels are warming the earth’s climate through a greenhouse effect, but some experts predict our planet could run out of accessible fossil fuels within a generation.

Renewable energy sources provide an alternative to fossil fuels and take a number of forms, including solar power, hydro power, wind energy and more. We take a closer look at these popular alternative energy solutions as well as a few you might not have yet heard of.

What is solar power?

Solar power is the most readily available source of sustainable energy in Australia. We also hold the title for having the highest penetration of rooftop PV solar, with well over a million solar homes.

Solar power works by capturing the suns photons to knock electrons free from atoms, generating a DC current. This electricity is fed in to an inverter and converted to usable AC electricity.

Thanks to larger solar systems, as well as recent storage innovations such as the Tesla Powerwall, solar power is becoming increasingly viable as an alternative to grid-connected energy. A report published by Solar Citizens in June 2016, reports that solar systems are saving Australians around one billion dollars every year.

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What is hydro power?

Hydroelectricity is one of the most mature forms of renewable energy, and has been used in Australia and across the world for decades. Electricity is generated using the force of flowing water, which pushes large propellers attached to a rotating shaft, connected to an electricity generator.

Australia has 120 hydroelectric power stations nationwide, the largest of which is run by Snowy Hydro – the company behind Red Energy and Lumo Energy. According to the National Electricity Market, Hydropower is responsible for 8% of Australia’s electricity production.

What is wind energy?

Wind turbines have an icon of green energy – after all, it’s energy out of thin air (literally). Wind turbines operate on a similar principle to hydro power; wind spins large blades, which through a connective shaft to power an internal electricity generator.

The downside to wind power is that it’s generally quite expensive to install and maintain. Wind farms also require very particular conditions – if it’s not windy, the turbines are useless, too windy, and the turbines could quickly wear out.

Wind energy is Australia’s 3rd most used prevalent renewable energy source in Australia, yet lags massively behind the above mentioned alternatives. Other countries such as China, Germany and the United States have invested heavily in this technology with huge ‘wind farms’ comprised of hundreds of wind turbines.

What is wave energy?

Now it’s time for the green energy sources you’re probably less aware of. Wave power, sometimes referred to as tidal energy, is a relatively recent innovation which uses the motion of the ocean surface to generate electricity. Carnegie Wave Energy based in Western Australia is a world leader in wave power technology.

Carnegie claims that wave energy’s advantage over other forms of renewable energy is that it is more reliable than solar and wind energy, as it is less affected by weather. Additionally, Carnegie says since 60% of the world’s population live near a tidal body of water, the technology is easily accessible with a minimal risk of interruption to supply.

What is geothermal energy?

If you were to dig an extremely deep whole, you would notice the dirt becomes quite warm. This is thanks to geothermal energy. Geothermal is used for a range of applications, notable of which are heat pumps. Geothermal heat pumps draw heat from the deep in the earth and move it inside to keep your warm in winter.

While geothermal energy can be used to generate electricity, it is nearly never used for this purpose, as the earth temperatures required to do this necessitate digging a hole well beyond anything that’s practical to do so. It is more plausible in volcanically active locations, however it currently remains more of a ‘proof of concept’ in Australia.

What is biomass energy?

Biofuel is hydrocarbon fuel that is synthesized through organic matter – most commonly grains and plants. This is as opposed to traditional fuels that burn fossil fuels.

A common form of biofuel that you will see at your local fuel station is ethanol – synthesized from corn, wheat and other starches. Unfortunately, most car engines and generators are not designed to run on pure biofuels, so ethanol is blended with petroleum fuels to create E10, which means it is only 10% ethanol.

What is nuclear power?

Believe it or not nuclear power is regarded by many as green energy. This is because while it is not renewable, nuclear power has no greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy is popular in many parts of the world, however Australia has taken a hardline approach against its use due to the potentially harmful effects of the radioactive products and materials.

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