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Briefing: Types of Green Energy

Are you using one of these types of clean energy today?

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Green energy is a brave new world of non-polluting, sustainable sources of power -- but how realistic is clean energy? Given the challenges we face in developing enough energy to meet the world's 21st-century needs, it's doubtful that clean energy will overtake fossil fuels or nuclear power anytime soon. Take a look at these different types of green energy -- all of which are available now. Are you using any one of them today?

Solar Energy

Solar energy
PDP

When people think of clean energy, they usually think first of solar energy -- and for good reason. It's the ultimate in renewable power, it's almost totally non-polluting, it's available almost everywhere, and it's free. In a sense, most energy sources -- wind, hydropower, even fossil fuels -- originate with power from the sun.

The three main technologies associated with solar energy are photovoltaic cells (PV cells), the large panels on rooftops that convert sunlight directly into electrical energy; solar heat collectors like solar water heaters that use sunlight to heat water or a water-alcohol mixture; and solar concentrators that use mirrors or lenses to focus sunlight on a liquid container, heating the liquid enough to drive an electricity-generating steam turbine. Of course, people have been using passive solar -- like the warmth from a sunny window -- to heat their homes since the dawn of civilization.

Geothermal Energy

geothermal clean energy
NREL

Deep beneath the surface of the Earth is an enormous furnace of hot molten rock called magma. The heat within 30,000 feet of the surface contains roughly 50,000 times more energy than all the oil and natural gas reserves in the world. As underground water comes into contact with this heat, it boils up to the surface and is tapped as a constant source of green energy for powering electric steam turbines.

Another kind of geothermal energy is used in geothermal heat pumps, which take advantage of the fact that the ground immediately beneath the Earth's surface is at a near constant temperature of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In geothermal heat pumps (sometimes called heat exchange pumps or ground-source heat pumps), air or liquid is pumped through pipes that are buried underground, then re-circulated into the building. In summer, the pipes absorb heat from the building and move it into the ground, thus cooling the building. In winter, the pipes move warmer air or liquid from underground to the building's heating system, so the system has less work to do -- it's easier to warm air that's 55 degrees than air that's 25 degrees -- thus saving energy..

Biofuels and Biomass Energy

biomass energy
USDA
Biomass energy is any type of energy that uses a biological organism as its source -- usually a plant, though not always. Fuels that can be considered "biomass" include a wide variety of items, and researchers are discovering new biomass energy sources all the time. Animal manure, landfill waste, wood pellets, vegetable oil, algae, crops like corn, sugar, switchgrass and other plant material -- even paper and other plant-based household trash -- can be used as a biomass fuel source.

Wind Energy

wind energy
Wikimedia

Wind has been a source of clean energy since the first sailor propped a sheet of canvas onto his boat to move it along faster, and it's been used from the windmills of Holland (used to grind grains into flour) to the old iron wind-powered pumps -- erroneously called windmills -- that pumped groundwater for pioneers on America's Great Plains. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wind energy is world's the fastest-growing source of electricity. In 2008, more than 27,000 megawatts of new electrical capacity were installed worldwide, marking a 36 percent increase over 2007 and representing $51.5 billion in new wind farm investments.

Modern wind turbines today dot the landscape across the world, though they're more popular in Europe than in North America. Spain, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, now meets about 13 percent of its electricity demand from wind power -- in Denmark, that figure is even higher, at 20 percent.

Hydropower

hydropower
Getty Images
Check back soon for more information on wave energy, tidal energy and other forms of hydropower as a source of green energy.
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