Alternative energy, which looks into energy sources that do not depend on fossil fuels such as solar panels and wind turbines, is a fertile area of research. The world’s supply of fossil fuels is being steadily depleted, which does not forecast well for humankind’s industries that are still largely dependent on coal and petroleum. Coupled with their role in bringing about global warming, it is only logical that scientists should look into alternative, renewable energy sources.
It was in 2001 that an intergovernmental panel came to an alarming consensus. Our civilization was much more likely than not facing severe global warming, they announced, admitting that the complexity of the Earth’s climate system made complete certainty impossible. The burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that actually serves to keep the Earth’s temperature at habitable levels, but as the concentrations of greenhouse gases increase, temperatures also rise above normal thresholds.
The effects of global warming can be severe. The rise in sea level due to the melting of glaciers, if it continues, can submerge coastal regions. Extreme weather conditions have also been attributed to global warming. This critical climate change may also result in the extinction of certain species, as well as the spread of diseases such as dengue and malaria. Global warming can lead to the disruption of civilization on a major, worldwide scale. Global warming is real, and steps need to be taken if humanity wants to avoid or at least lessen its repercussions.
The Sun is one of the main alternative energy sources that scientists and engineers have been studying and trying to harness. Sunlight is free and (relatively) inexhaustible, after all. The earliest work on solar energy was done in 1860 by Auguste Mouchout, who had concerns about his country France’s dependence on coal. He came up with a solar powered steam engine, and refined its designs continuously until 1881, when his device was deemed technically a success, but practically a failure.
Research on the collection of solar energy was continued by different people in different countries over the years, as they realized that the world’s supplies of fossil fuels would eventually be completely depleted. Many designs were tested, from conical reflectors to parabolic troughs to systems of many adjustable flat mirrors. Solar technology has now come a long way from Mouchout’s first designs. Current solar panels use photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight directly into electricity using semiconductor materials such as silicon.
Solar collection is one of the most promising sources of renewable, environmentally-friendly energy. As developments continue to be made, its costs are becoming more and more competitive with conventional fossil fuel energy. At present, solar panels are being used to provide energy to remote areas that are not reached by power stations, as well as to a few forward-thinking homes.
Wind energy is another renewable energy source that is much cleaner than using fossil fuels. Wind power was first harnessed by windmills, which use the wind to turn machinery to do mechanical work, such as crushing grain or pumping water. Windmills can still be found in rural areas all over the world. Nowadays, wind turbines or wind generators can be used to convert wind power directly to electricity.
Wind turbines can be placed on land, near shores, off shores, or even suspended in the air. These different placements would have their own design considerations. Wind turbines are still most commonly placed on land, as it is the most convenient. However, winds near shores carry more energy due to higher air density near the ocean. Offshore installations have their own advantages of being far from inhabited regions, allowing them to be larger and noisier without much adverse effect. Aerial wind turbines are still in the development stages, but they aim to take advantage of the much higher wind speeds at high altitudes.
Wind power can be viable even in urban settings. Smaller installations are possible: for instance, a wind turbine can be used to run a 12V battery, and other 12V appliances. Wind power is another promising energy source that can be used in conjunction with solar energy to provide clean, renewable energy solutions to help relieve global warming and the fossil fuel problem.