When it comes to electricity, we can talk about it in terms of non-renewable energy and renewable energy. Today, we’ll explore the different types of renewable energy and learn why renewables are so beneficial.
What is renewable energy?
Let’s start at the beginning. To define renewable energy and discuss types of renewable energy sources, it is helpful to know a little bit about non-renewable energy sources.
Examples of non-renewable sources of energy include coal, oil and natural gas — collectively known as fossil fuels. These fossil fuels have been powering economies for over 150 years. However, non-renewable energy sources come with two major downsides:
- We do not have an unlimited supply of these sources. Fossil fuels formed millions of years ago from carbon-rich plant and animal remains as they decomposed and were pressed and heated underground. Unfortunately, it will take millions of years to form more fossil fuels once the current supply is gone.
- Fossil fuels are bad for the Earth’s atmosphere. When fossil fuels are burned to create electricity, they emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels are responsible for over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions. Too much can cause changes in climate, acid rain, smog and a host of other issues that affect humans, animals and the planet.
Renewable energy sources offer solutions to both of these problems.
- Renewable energy sources won’t run out. Renewable energy is derived from natural sources that replenish themselves.
- Renewable energy is usually much better for the environment. Electricity from renewable sources produces fewer emissions, which means cleaner air for us all.
There are many types of renewable energy sources. The sun (solar power) and the wind (wind energy) are two energy sources that we hear about often. But these are not the only renewable sources we can create electricity from.
What are the types of renewable energy?
There are seven types of renewable energy we’ll discuss here. Five of them — wind energy, solar power, hydropower, biomass energy and geothermal energy — are fairly well-known. Two others — ocean energy and hydrogen energy — are still under development.
About 22% of electricity generated in the U.S. in 2022 came from renewable sources. Let’s take a closer look at all renewable energy sources.
Solar power is one of the most well-known types of clean energy. The sun is a strong and ever-present energy source.
Solar panels catch sunlight and turn it into usable energy. Specifically, photovoltaic (PV) cells in the panels absorb energy from sunlight. The energy creates electrical charges that move in response to the cells’ internal electric fields, causing electricity to flow.
Rooftop solar panels on homes are becoming more and more common, with 8% of U.S. homeowners having already installed them. Lower material costs and government rebates and tax credits have helped make rooftop solar more affordable in recent years.
Producing your own electricity means you don’t have to rely on electricity providers as much. And in many cases, if your home’s solar panels produce excess electricity, it can be sold back to the grid. Both of these factors can help significantly reduce the cost of electricity to the household.
Wind power is another well-known type of renewable energy. The same breeze that flutters flags and cools your skin on a spring day can also be turned into electricity. Using tall structures with large, spinning blades — wind turbines — wind is used to generate energy. As you drive through the countryside, you might see a single turbine at work or an entire wind farm!
Wind power made up about 10.2% of utility-scale electricity generation in 2022 in the U.S. (and over 47% of all the renewable energy generated). As a clean energy source, wind doesn’t pollute the air like fossil fuels. Investing in wind technology has opened up many new avenues of job opportunities, from engineering to installation and maintenance.
We’ve discussed the sun and the wind as types of renewable energy sources, so it only makes sense to jump into energy from another common element: water.
Like wind, capturing the energy of flowing water involves moving it through a type of turbine. As the water turns the turbine blades, it creates electricity.
In 2022, hydropower made up about 6.3% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation.
From large-scale projects like the Hoover Dam to smaller-scale projects, running water is a renewable resource with great potential.
Biomass is organic material from plants and animals. Types of biomass sources that can generate energy include wood, crop waste, manure and more. In a nutshell (which is also organic material!), generating biomass energy is like recycling nature’s leftovers.
There are a few ways to produce energy from biomass. One way is to burn it. Another way is to harness the methane gas that occurs when organic materials decompose in landfills and other areas.
In 2022, biomass was the source of about 1.3% of all U.S. utility-scale electricity generation.
Deep inside the earth, intense heat is trapped. This geothermal heat can be harnessed to create electricity. Using the steam from hot water reservoirs underground to turn turbines, geothermal power plants can produce clean energy.
Since this renewable resource and the equipment to generate it are underground, geothermal energy production leaves a small footprint on land.
However, the current cost to build geothermal infrastructure is an inhibitor to its growth. In 2022, geothermal made up less than 1% of the total U.S. utility scale generation of electricity.
Energy from the ocean is one of the types of renewable energy that is less commonly known. The ocean can produce two types of energy — thermal and mechanical.
Thermal ocean energy uses the temperature difference of warmer surface water and deeper, colder water to generate energy in a conventional heat exchange.
Mechanical ocean energy uses the motion of the tides (created by the earth’s rotation and the moon’s gravity) or waves to generate energy.
As you can imagine, cities located near coastlines would benefit from ocean energy.
Interestingly, waves are more predictable than wind or sunshine, making it easier to estimate how much ocean energy can be produced. It is estimated that U.S. ocean energy resources, if fully utilized, could provide the equivalent of over half of the electricity the country produced in 2019.
However, producing wind energy can disrupt sea life, habitats, and ecosystems. That means more research is needed before we can count on wave energy to power our communities.
When hydrogen is separated from the other elements in the molecule it occurs in, it can be used for clean-burning fuel or electricity.
However, it requires a lot of energy to create hydrogen fuel — typically from fossil fuels. While hydrogen fuel does not produce carbon emissions, the process to make hydrogen does. Thus, it is not currently one of the types of renewable energywe can rely on.
What are the benefits of renewable energy?
As we’ve touched on, renewable energy is an environmentally responsible alternative to fossil fuels. Using the renewable sources listed above to power our lives has many benefits, including:
A brighter future
Carbon dioxide and other emissions ware away the planet’s atmosphere, leading to climate disruptions and unhealthy conditions for humans, animals, and plants. Reducing the amount of these emissions is one way to help preserve the planet for future generations.
Abundant energy sources
In theory, we will never run out of things like the sunlight and wind. That makes them more reliable than fossil fuels, which are finite and getting harder to find.
As the renewable energy industry grows, so do the job opportunities. Building, installing and maintaining solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy systems boosts the economy and helps communities grow.
By producing clean energy independently using the renewable resources available, we can reduce the impact of energy price changes from other countries.
Renewable energy plays an important role in our planet’s future. With the sun, wind, water, and Earth itself providing us with abundant and clean energy, we can protect our environment, create jobs and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
As a consumer in Texas, you have the power to choose your electricity provider, some of which offer plans sourced from renewables. To see what types of renewable energy you can use in your home, check out Everything Energy.
Enter your ZIP code, then select “Renewable Option” from the Filters menu. From there, you can make apples-to-apples plan comparisons to find plans that match your lifestyle and preferences.