renewable energy development from the 1970s to present. Historical changes in energy misuses (i.e. pollution) and consumption (oil reserves) have resulted in increased concern regarding the search and use for alternate and/or renewable energy worldwide. The world faces a critical shortage of non-renewable energy sources in the next decades, and something must be done now to combat the rising disappearance of these energy sources that will eventually cripple transportation around the globe if not checked. Renewable energy sources offer hope for the future, but must be supported today to create a future less dependent on high-priced, non-renewable resources.
Renewable energy sources are certainly not a new idea. Solar, wind, hydrogen, geothermal and other renewable energy technologies have been around for decades, even centuries, and many of them have been perfected to be much more reliable and practical than their earlier forms. Renewable energy replaces or supplements non-renewable energy sources such as oil, coal, and natural gas, and makes sense for a number of ecological and economical reasons. Non-renewable fuels will begin to cost more as they are depleted, just as the price of oil has risen in 2004, as oil reserves get lower, the price will go even higher. This will be the case for other fuels as well. America and the world are too dependent on non-renewable fuels, and more reliance on renewable fuels will have to come to continue our energy rich lifestyle.
Wind power is one of the renewable energy sources that have gone through considerable change since it was first introduced. Windmills were known in Persia over 1,000 years ago, and today, large fields of windmills are used to generate electricity. In fact, several of these fields (wind farms) exist throughout California. As with most technologies, wind generation has become cheaper as scientists and researchers understand the problems associated with generation better. In 1981, the cost to generate a kilowatt of electricity by wind was $2,600. By 1998, the cost dropped to $800 per kilowatt, and this makes it quite competitive with coal-generated energy. In addition, “The wind-power market, valued at roughly $2 billion in 1998, has seen annual growth rates of more than 20% during the 1990s, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy source” (Flavin & Dunn, 1999, p. 167). Wind farms are used around the world, and they are viable because new windmills (turbines) can be added as needed, and they are extremely portable. However, they do not generate power when the wind is not blowing, and that can be a major drawback to their continued development. One expert notes, “Recognizing that the energy of the wind is proportional to the cube of the wind velocity, a critical criterion in wind project site selection is determination of the long-term wind characteristics of candidate sites” (Rogers, 2000, p. 121). Therefore, the change in wind generated renewable energy has been substantial in the past three to four decades, and it should continue to grow as a viable alternative to non-renewable energy sources.
Solar energy is one of the most well-known and accepted forms of renewable energy. Once bulky and cumbersome, solar collectors have been whittled down to tiny photovoltaic (PV) cells used in everything from calculators to the space shuttle. These cells have made accumulating the power of the sun cheaper and more effective. Because of this, the cost of solar energy has dropped dramatically. In 1975, it cost about $80 to produce a watt of electricity by solar energy and in 1998 that cost had dropped to $4 per watt. In addition, “Recent improvements in cell efficiency and materials are making these modules viable for building-based generation, where they can serve as shingles, tiles or window glass” (Flavin & Dunn, 1999, p. 167). Shipments of these cells have increased around the world, and it is the second fasted growing form of renewable energy behind wind power. Archimedes recorded raising temperatures by using the sun to heat up mirrors (Borowitz, 1999, p. 109), so solar energy has been known and utilized for thousands of years, too.
Besides these two types of energy, there are many other forms of renewable energy that are growing more slowly. Hydroelectric power is a viable source of energy where there is abundant water to fuel it, but it has developed slowly. Biomass, which uses forest and agricultural residues, is used around the world, and the use geothermal energy is growing slowly. All of these forms of energy need to be fully explored to gain more usage and recognition.
Another viable renewable energy source is the fuel cell, which has been around since 1829, longer than the internal combustion engine (Flavin & Dunn, 1999, p. 167). Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to provide water vapor and electricity. They can be extremely efficient, and have been used in the space program since the 1960s. However, they still have not come into commercial use, mainly because of the difficulty of using the hydrogen, which is highly volatile and expensive. However, “Researchers are now testing various catalysts that, when put in water and illuminated by sunlight, may someday produce inexpensive hydrogen” (Flavin & Dunn, 1999, p. 167). Many people believe that fuel cells will be a dominant form of energy as the 21st century continues.
Historically, it has always taken a while for new energy innovations to catch on with industry and the public. For example, when oil first hit the market, it was used to replace whale oil in lamps, so it occupied a tiny fraction of the market it enjoys today (Flavin & Dunn, 1999, p. 167). This same small entry into the market can be expected with many renewable fuels. The niche they may find today could very well occupy a major portion of the fuel market tomorrow. Renewable fuels received considerable attention during the Carter administration in the late 1970s, and less attention from the following administrations. Another researcher writes, “During the Carter administration DOE [Department of Energy] supported and encouraged research on solar and other renewable energy sources and demonstrated concern for long-range energy policy” (Shakespeare, 1994, p. 126). When President Reagan took office, he viewed the DOE with skepticism, and attempted to dismantle it entirely. It held on, but essentially all research and development was discontinued, including that looking into renewable energy sources. In effect, renewable energy has suffered many historical setbacks, and the changes that have come in the last decades may have grown much more if research and development had continued at the government level. The biggest change in public opinion comes from the growing knowledge that the Earth’s climate is changing as a result of global warming, and global warming is a direct result of fossil-fuel emissions from cars, buildings, coal and oil burning plants, and homes heated with fossil fuels. However, much of the public does not like many forms of renewable energy, because they take up valuable open space (such as wind farms and solar collectors), they reduce the picturesque value of certain areas, and they can even smell bad, as is the case for some geothermal production facilities (Pasqualetti, 2000, p. 381). Thus, for renewable energy to catch on even more, the public must be fully educated about the benefits, weighing the benefits and the costs, and deciding what benefits are ultimately more important to the world and the ecological balance.
In conclusion, most renewable energy sources have been developed and implemented more often in the last four decades than ever before. However, to replace or at least reduce the dependence on non-renewable resources, renewable energy needs to grow in popularity, effectiveness, and overall acceptance. Non-renewable fuels are causing changes in the world’s climate, and world is warming as a result of the depletion of the ozone layer due to the reside from burning fossil fuels (carbon monoxide, for the most part). Renewable energy is not only practical; it may soon be a real necessity to protect the Earth from further harm due to global warming and climate change.
Borowitz, S. (1999). Farewell fossil fuels: reviewing America’s energy policy. New York: Plenum.
Flavin, C., & Dunn, S. (1999). A new energy paradigm for the 21st century. Journal of international affairs, 53(1), 167.
Fleagle, R.G. (1994). Global environmental change: Interactions of science, policy, and politics in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Pasqualetti, M.J. (2000). Morality, space and the power of wind-energy landscapes. The geographical review, 90(3), 381.
Rogers, W.M. (2000). Third millennium capitalism: Convergence of economic, energy, and environmental forces. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
Shakespeare, W. (1994). 6 The policy landscape: The government sector. In Global environmental change: Interactions of science, policy, and politics in the United States (pp. 111-142). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.