The energy transition is well underway. To effectively participate, it is important to understand what kinds of renewable energy are available and their pros and cons. All around us are sources of energy that replenish themselves faster than they can be used. These naturally occurring energy sources are known as renewable energy. Simply put, as the name implies, renewable energy is...well...renewable! In this guide, we will dive into solar, wind, hydroelectric power, and more to give you an overview of the most common renewable energy options. Let’s get started.

solar farm

How Does Solar Energy Work

As a community solar provider, it’s no surprise that this was the first one on our list. Solar energy uses the sun’s light to power communities—converting this abundant resource into electricity. When sunlight hits the surface of a photovoltaic (PV) or solar panel, it energizes the electrons inside. As these electrons move within the cell, they create an electrical current. This is how the sunlight gets converted to electricity! PV systems are often installed on rooftops or fields, typically in areas that receive a lot of direct sunlight to maximize their ability to produce clean energy. The energy they produce can be used to power homes, businesses, and more, just from the light of the sun! It’s pretty cool that such an abundant resource that we see every day can be used to power communities. Let’s dive into some of the benefits of solar energy, as well as some of solar's potential drawbacks.

What Are the Benefits of Solar Energy

One of the pros of solar energy is that it is a virtually endless resource. As long as there are functional PV systems installed to convert the sunlight, solar will continue to be a viable source of energy. Furthermore, because there is an endless supply of sunlight, solar is a viable replacement for the fossil fuels that currently dominate our energy infrastructure. In addition, further transitioning to solar would have far more positive environmental outcomes compared to fossil fuels, yet another benefit of this renewable energy option. There are also financial incentives for solar installation and development, at both residential and commercial scales, facilitating solar adoption and making this a more accessible clean energy option.

What Are the Downsides of Solar Energy

One of the cons of solar energy is that residential solar can come at a steep upfront cost. Over time, it can lead to significant electricity cost savings, however, the upfront investment is not a viable option for many. Furthermore, there are a number of conditions tied to direct sunlight access that may impact one’s ability to install solar on their roof or property. It is important to consider that these conditions are less of a barrier for large-scale solar farms and apply primarily to residential solar installation. Subscribing to one of these larger solar farms through a community solar program is a great solution for those who do not have the right type of roof for solar, rent their homes, or do not wish to undergo costly installation.

wind farm

How Does Wind Energy Work

Wind energy relies on the natural power of the wind for electricity generation and is a great clean energy solution along coastlines or other high-wind areas. When the wind blows, the blades on wind turbines spin, and this spinning drives a generator that produces electricity. Like solar, wind energy uses an abundant natural resource and is praised for having a smaller environmental footprint, making it a key part of the clean energy transition! Let’s explore some of the benefits of wind energy and any potential drawbacks.

What Are the Advantages of Wind Energy

Wind is a very abundant natural resource that can be used as an emission-free energy source. No greenhouse gases are emitted in wind energy production. It is also cost-effective and getting more so. The cost to operate wind turbines once they are installed is low, thereby offering long-term savings on energy. Much like large-scale solar farms, the development of wind farms can also facilitate economic growth through the jobs created for the construction, operations, and maintenance of these farms. Not to mention, wind farms can coexist with agricultural land, and can therefore provide an additional income source for landowners. On a national level, wind farms typically tend to be at peak performance during the spring and see their lowest performance in the summer. Winter wind farm performance is typically around the yearly median.

What Are the Disadvantages of Wind Energy

Much like solar, one of the primary downsides of wind is that the initial installation comes at a steep upfront cost. Although maintenance costs are quite low, this initial investment can be a deterrent. Additionally, how much wind power a wind turbine produces depends on how much wind there is, making it an inconsistent source of power generation and establishing a need for energy storage systems as backup.

Additionally, energy production at wind farms is dependent on how much wind there is, making it an inconsistent source of power generation and establishing a need for energy storage systems as backup. Additionally, wind turbines have a notable visual and auditory impact on landscapes and the communities that surround them, which can often lead to opposition. Intentional siting of wind turbines can alleviate some of these concerns and the power of wind turbines in alleviating carbon emissions should not be overlooked!

Hydroelectric Dam

How Does Hydroelectric Power Work

Hydroelectric power relies on the flow of water to generate electricity. Bodies of water are redirected to flow through turbines in a dam, spinning them and activating a generator. This generator converts the energy from the spinning turbines into electricity. This process is like that of wind turbines! Hydroelectricity is often revered as a sustainable source of clean energy that is stable and reliable. Let’s explore the pros and cons in greater depth.

What Are the Benefits of Hydroelectric Energy

Hydroelectric power stands out for its reliability as compared to other clean energy options. Unlike solar and wind, the flow of water through dams can be easily controlled to ensure that energy production needs are consistently being met. This makes hydroelectricity an excellent addition to the grid. By providing clean energy at a stable rate, it bolsters grid reliability, thereby facilitating the inclusion of other clean energy sources such as wind and solar. And, of course, the emissions associated with hydroelectric power generation pale in comparison to those associated with fossil fuels, making it a cleaner choice!

What Are the Drawbacks of Hydroelectric Energy

One of the main cons of hydroelectric power is that its construction can greatly disrupt wildlife and natural habitats. These changes can have a trickle-down effect on a range of native species and adversely affect biodiversity. In addition, hydroelectric dams involve extensive construction, which comes at a steep cost and involves a more complex logistics and planning process than wind or solar. However, as hydroelectric technology continues to develop, efforts are being made to mitigate the risk to local ecosystems and native species.

geothermal power plant

How Does Geothermal Energy Work

Geothermal energy leverages the Earth’s natural heat as a source of clean sustainable power. Geothermal energy is accessed by digging wells to access hot water and steam underground. This steam is used to propelturbines which are connected to generators, creating energy! Heat from the Earth’s core is abundant, making geothermal energy a very reliable source of energy.

Pros of Geothermal Energy

As with most renewable energy sources, one of the greatest benefits of geothermal energy is that it has a small environmental footprint. It is a lower-emission energy alternative to fossil fuels that has the power to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the primary factors that sets geothermal energy apart from solar and wind is its efficiency, which is not weather-dependent. This makes it a more reliable year-round option.

Cons of Geothermal Energy

The exploration and drilling associated with developing geothermal plants often require a significant upfront investment of resources, creating a barrier to entry for projects. Furthermore, while geothermal energy is not tied to the seasons, it is limited to geographic areas with significant accessible underground heat, which can be restrictive. Another significant drawback of geothermal energy is that the drilling required can release greenhouse gases that are trapped beneath the Earth’s surface. Although there are few emissions associated with the actual production of geothermal energy, the release of greenhouse gases during drilling is a significant drawback.

All in all, there are a range of different types of renewable energy. Each form of sustainable power comes with its own unique set of challenges as well as the tremendous potential to contribute to a sustainable future for all. Every day renewable energy technology continues to develop, creating scalable and accessible renewable energy options.