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One of the Most Important Things We Don’t Understand

Long ago, the energy we used to do things like heat and cook came from locally sourced firewood. It was easy to gauge how much we needed and how much we had left. It was hard work to chop and haul that energy source, so folks probably didn’t keep putting wood on the fire when they didn’t need the heat. Now that obtaining energy in the form of electricity is as easy as flipping a switch, we don’t have much reason to think about where it comes from and how it’s made.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

According to the World Bank, all but about 1 billion of us have access to electricity. This doesn’t mean there are a billion people without a source of energy – it’s just not in the form of electricity. Those without access, and some with limited access, still rely solely on solid fuels like coal and wood for heating and cooking.

That leaves about 6 billion people, most of whom probably rely on electricity virtually every minute of every day. I recently asked a random assortment of ten people to explain how electricity is generated. The result? All but two of them hadn’t the faintest idea how burning coal, nuclear reactions or spinning wind turbines leads to the electricity that powers our lives. One of the reasons that electricity remains such a mystery is that we don’t need to think about it.

How Much Do We Use?

Six billion people use a lot of electricity. Together, we required the production of over 22,000 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity in 2011. Tera-what? The metric prefix ‘tera’ indicates a trillion of something. For perspective, it would take just 1 TWh of electricity to light 10 billion 100W light bulbs for an hour.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

With a population of a bit over 300 million, Americans comprise 4.45% of the world’s population (US Census Bureau data), yet we consumed 21.5% of the electricity generated worldwide. In 2011, more than half of our electricity came from coal (42%) and natural gas (25%) combustion combined. Especially in the US, the contribution of natural gas is on the rise, bucking the predicted price increase and remaining competitive with coal.

Compared to the world breakdown of fuels, we’re not that far off, except that hydropower comprises a greater proportion of global electricity production (15.8%) than it does in the US (just a few percent).

I’m a Little Teapot, Short and Stout

More than 80% of the world’s electricity is generated through thermal generating systems. Fuels like coal, natural gas, oil and even biomass (like wood and animal waste) are burned in large furnaces. The resulting heat is used to boil water.

The steam travels through boiler pipes where the pressure and speed turns the blades of a turbine. That mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy inside the generator because of the relative rotation between magnets and an electrical conductor.  The resultant electricity is run through transformers before beginning its journey along the electrical grid.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

Nuclear power is a mystery to many people, but in simplest terms, nuclear electricity generation is just another way to boil water. When radioactive materials like

Uranium-235 are bombarded with neutrons they split apart in a process called fission. This process releases a tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat. After that, it is the same as burning fossil fuels: the heat boils water, the water turns to steam and steam turns a turbine which is attached to a generator. Voila, electricity! Interestingly, December 10th marked the end of a 20 year program called “Megatons to Megawatts” whereby the United States purchased the uranium from 20,000 retired Russian warheads and processed it for use in power plants. Since 1993, 10% of our electricity supply has come from this material. That’s more than all alternative energy sources combined. Even though we’ve received our last shipment, the uranium from those warheads will be providing Americans with electricity even after 2020.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

It is worth noting that a technology called solar thermal electric generation has begun to have an impact on US markets in the past few years. Clustered in the US Southwest, these facilities use various methods to focus the sun’s energy to boil water which generates electricity as described above. Though this technology still occupies a very small share of the market, a recent report by the US Energy Information Administration reports that several new large installations are about to double the electricity generating capacity of this method.

Mother Nature Turns the Turbine

Humans have been using the sun, water and wind as energy sources since the beginning of time, yet they comprise what we call alternative energy. To generate electricity, wind and water turn the turbine directly, skipping the energy-losing step of boiling water, and the rest of the process is the same.

The immense natural power of water can be used to turn a turbine through a variety of methods including channeling through dams, submerging the turbine in an area with predictable tides, using the pressure created by ocean waves, and even small turbines submerged in minimally disturbed rivers and waterfalls. Hydropower is not without problems but continues to comprise a large portion of the renewable energy sector.

Wind power continues to be a rapidly growing source of renewable energy throughout the world. Detailed wind maps are constructed to find locations with adequate non turbulent wind without too many powerful bursts. Installations can be found on mountain ridges, plains, coastlines, and in coastal ocean waters. Wind power is not without controversy. Just last month amidst great controversy, the Federal Register published a decision designed to promote the development of wind power but may lead to an increase in the deaths of golden and bald eagles.

How is Electricity Generated? {The Dirt on Green}

Geothermal electricity generation is another example of using nature to turn that turbine. The United States led the world in geothermal electricity generation last year, providing us with four times as much electricity as solar based methods. These plants use the steam that is produced from heat that occurs naturally a few miles beneath the Earth’s surface in some places.

Photovoltaic cells, what most of us think of as solar power, are unique in that there is no steam or turbine. The special materials used in photovoltaic cells are called semiconductors. When sunlight strikes certain semiconductor materials (e.g., silicon) photons are absorbed and electrons are released. We can then channel these electrons into an electrical current. Materials that do not exhibit this photovoltaic effect just absorb the photons and heat up when struck by sunlight. Technological advancements in semiconductor materials that can be applied in thin layers and still efficiently turn photons into electricity are progressing so rapidly that the IEA predicts photovoltaics will grow more than 11.5% a year through 2040.

The Most Efficient Solution

The energy mix that powers your home with electricity depends on where you live and your utility company. For instance, power companies serving California, Oregon and Washington generate more of their electricity using hydropower than any other single source. In contrast, the primary source for the south atlantic states is coal. As consumers we don’t have much control over our electricity sources, but Amory Lovins, physicist and energy expert, called energy efficiency the world’s biggest untapped energy resource. By using less energy to perform the same task, we are not sacrificing comfort or convenience, simply using less electricity. The justification begins with the money you can save and has far reaching implications. Switching to energy efficient products is easy and EnergyEarth is here to help.

Dawn Richards of EnergyEarth

© 2014 Energy Earth LLC. All Rights Reserved

Sources:

http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/KeyWorld2013.pdf

http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=13791

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/business/international/last-shipment-of-nuclear-fuel-from-russian-bombs-heads-to-us.html?_r=0

http://phys.org/news/2013-12-solar-power-sector-small.html#jCp

http://energycommerce.house.gov/press-release/subcommittee-examines-role-diverse-electricity-generation-portfolio

http://keshefoundation.org/image/keshe_generator/Electricity_Production_400.jpg

How do solar lights work? They convert sunlight to energy, store it in a battery and release it at night.

More specifically, outdoor solar lights use standard solar cells in a very straightforward application: solar cell produces varying voltage and current depending on the size of the cell and the amount of light striking the surface. The solar cells are wired directly to the battery through a diode (which prevents the battery’s current from flowing back through the solar cell at night). During the day, the battery charges, reaching maximum charge except on heavily overcast or shorter winter days, and at night the solar cells stop producing power and the photo resistor turns on the LED. Simple as that!

Take Advantage of Free Power with Solar Devices! {The Dirt on Green}

Gama Sonic Solar Spot Light

Why go solar? It’s free light when and where you need it!

Power outages: Storms like Hurricane Sandy can unexpectedly leave you without power. One great way to shed some light is to bring your outdoor lights inside when the power is out!

Security lights may be even more critical during extended periods of power failure. Even if you have evacuated because your power is out, your solar security lights will still illuminate your home and help to keep it safe.

Hands-off: Long lasting solar lights use LED bulbs that last up to 50,000 hours or longer, meaning you won’t need to worry about replacing the bulb. Since it’s not using electricity that you’re paying for, you don’t need to worry about turning off the lights either.

No wires: More options for placement and much easier to install.

Take Advantage of Free Power with Solar Devices! {The Dirt on Green}

Heath/Zenith Solar Security Light

What type is best for you?

–          Ambient — Solar powered lights placed around gardens provide the type of illumination that tastefully emphasizes the presence of flowerbeds and garden paths.

–          Spotlighting —Solar spotlights directs the eye’s attention to a highlight in the garden or the front door. Numerous focal points can create a well-lit and attractive backdrop for parties and entertaining.

–          Functional lighting — Steps, walkways and driveways need to be illuminated for safety after dark. Choose light fixtures that cast their glow downward so that the majority of the light falls on the walkway.

Can these lights last all night?

Yes! The solar lights we offer can illuminate your yard from sunset to sunrise, if needed. Lights have continuous illumination power 2-10 hours and have varying on/off switching methods. Choose lighting with photo sensors or motion sensors for highest level of efficiency!

Take Advantage of Free Power with Solar Devices! {The Dirt on Green}

Brinkmann Sierra Solar Light

5 Tips for Smart and Easy Installation

  1. Decide on the area of your home or yard that receives plenty of sunlight.
  2. Decide on the style of fixture you want to use.
  3. If you need solar lights for a shaded or indoor area, some lights operate on a small system allowing you to install a solar panel on your roof or other sunny area.
  4. For ground lighting, position lights in a line or circle by placing them closer together instead of further apart to create a more effective lighting system.
  5. All of the solar lighting options we offer are easy to install. Simply push them into the ground or attach them to your patio or wall and you’re done!

—The EnergyEarth Team

© 2013 Energy Earth LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sources:

http://home.howstuffworks.com/solar-light.htm

http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/yago141.html

http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/summer-loving-energy-efficient-outdoor-lighting

http://voices.yahoo.com/basic-solar-landscape-lightingsecrets-professionals-11979997.html

http://www.wikihow.com/Landscape-With-Solar-Lighting  

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