Renewable electricity sources use naturally occurring sources of energy to create electricity for homes, businesses and industry.
The most common form of renewable electricity is wind power, which supplies 3 percent of the United States’ electricity. As the Earth rotates, half of the planet is exposed to the sun, which warms the atmosphere during the day and cools it at night. As the atmosphere warms and cools, masses of air move around the planet. Wind turbines harness this energy by capturing the power of the wind with large blades build around a central cylinder containing magnets. As the blades and magnets spin, they create electricity.
Solar energy is another common form of renewable electricity. Solar cells use different types of silicon to capture photons from incoming sunlight and convert them to electricity. Solar power is used at multiple scales: from large facilities that produce power at a commercial scale to rooftop solar panels that power individual homes to portable solar cells that backpackers use to keep their devices charged on hikes. Other forms of solar energy use heat from the sun to warm liquid, which is then used to generate steam that runs a turbine, which generates electricity. “Passive” solar energy design takes advantage of the sun’s heat to naturally warm buildings.
Geothermal energy uses the stored energy beneath the Earth’s surface to generate heat and electricity. Under the Earth’s crust sit a layer of liquid hot magma. Areas where that magma sits close to the surface can be most easily tapped for geothermal energy. In some areas, liquid water comes into regular contact with the magma, creating steam. That steam can be harnessed to run turbines that generate electricity. Other geothermal plants pump water into the magma to generate steam for the turbines.
Other geothermal systems take advantage of the fact that ground temperatures just below the surface are relatively stable. They use underground pipes to keep buildings’ temperatures relatively steady.
Hydropower uses energy from falling water to generate electricity. Although hydro power is clean, it is not always considered renewable because the number of places where water falls rapidly enough to generate electricity is limited. Areas with high concentrations of hydropower are typically mountainous.
Nuclear power does not generate many of the emissions associated with coal-fired electricity or natural gas, but is also not considered renewable because it relies on limited supplies of uranium for fuel.
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