We talk a lot about green energy here at AMLI. We’ve even incorporated green energy and sustainable solutions into our communities and mission statements!
But what exactly does it mean when we talk about solar-powered electric vehicles, or when we compare hydrogen fuel cells versus lithium batteries? There’s a lot of science in sustainable energy, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.
Here’s a bit of information on some of the most common green energy systems out there, as well as the sustainable batteries and storage technologies used to accompany them.
How different kinds of renewable energy works
From the first sail-powered boat to the first Babylonian wind-powered irrigation system to the first wind pump, kite, ventilation system and more, wind power has defined much of humanity’s journey to harnessing the natural world for energy of one sort or another.
The first recorded instance of wind being used to generate electricity was in 1887, when a Scottish professor powered his entire home with electricity generated by a makeshift wind turbine. The public availability of coal-powered electricity reduced interest in the wind-turbine, though, and it was only in the early 20th century that windmills became really popular for electricity generation, thanks to a scientist in Denmark.
For much of the 20th-century United States, windmills were mainly used to power farms that weren’t connected to the grid. It was only toward the turn of the century that scientists saw a need for a more climate-friendly energy system, and wind turbines became a much more widely-accepted source of power.
Today, wind power accounts for around 5.3% of the electricity generated in the world, with large wind farms located in China, the U.S and in India. Denmark — who liked wind power before it was cool — generates over 41% of its electricity with wind power!
Now that’s information that will certainly blow you away!
Humans have been harnessing the sun’s power for millennia. The sun has been used for navigation on the open ocean, for measuring the passage of time, for understanding seasons and farming practices and for curing meats to eat. You can use a piece of glass to turn sunlight into fire and to signal for help. And now, thousands of years after the earliest humans roamed the planet, we can use the sun to create energy.
Solar energy as we know it today started in the 1870s when scientists realized that the sun’s rays could generate electricity when exposed to the element selenium. That concept of turning light into an electric charge was built upon and, almost a hundred years later in 1973, the very first solar-powered building was unveiled in Delaware. Solar-powered planes came soon after, and the efficiency of solar cells improved drastically over the years.
Today, solar cells on a solar panel can convert upwards of 34% of the light they receive into electricity — and it’s likely to keep improving, too!
Building a solar powered car
Speaking of utilizing solar power for electricity, there are hundreds of projects being worked on today to bring solar technology into our daily lives. Like, for example, this team of engineering students who converted a plain ol’ 2001 VW GTI into a solar-electric vehicle, complete with solar panels and lithium batteries to run this gasoline-free vehicle.
Check out their story here!
You’ve undoubtedly come across hundreds of lithium batteries in your life. In fact, if you’re reading this on your phone then you’re doing so because of a lithium battery powering it!
Lithium is one of the oldest elements in the universe, dating back around 13.8 billion years ago to the Big Bang itself, where it was one of the first three elements to ever exist (after hydrogen and helium). Yet this ancient element was only discovered by scientists back in 1817 by chemists who were studying a different kind of ore, and it wasn’t until the 1940s that the crystalline metals were being used for everything from grease to soaps to mood stabilizers for mental health clinics.
The element lithium does not naturally occur in its metal state — rather, it occurs in a crystalline state with other minerals like salt and petalite ore. It has to be extracted from the ground and separated from its surrounding minerals before it can be turned into the heat-resistant metal we use for batteries, glass and ceramics.
The reason lithium batteries play a major role in the sustainable energy field is that these energy-efficient metals are able to store energy from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro power — all of which are notoriously difficult to regulate. Lithium batteries store the power made at any given moment and can distribute it as needed, rather than having to make power on the spot.
Of course, there are still drawbacks to any source of energy, even the quote-unquote good ones. Lithium makes up just 0.002% of the planet’s crust and occurs only in very certain places around the globe — mostly in salt flats and brine pools in South America and Australia. The lithium crystals bonded to the other minerals have to be pumped to the surface and left to dry in a long and elaborate process, all of which uses a massive amount of water and can destroy the ecology or a region entirely.
Here’s all you need to know about lithium, including how it’s mined and how it’s become such a vital part of the sustainable energy field of study!
Hydrogen fuel cells are important pieces of the sustainable energy puzzle, as they are vital to controlling the output of energy generated by natural sources like wind, solar and water.
Natural energy is generated by natural occurrences which, by definition, we can’t control. We can’t control how and when the wind will blow toward the wind farm and how much electricity it will generate, and we can’t necessarily guarantee that any energy will be generated when we need it to. We can predict these things, sure, but we can’t control them.
Hydrogen fuel cells work just like a battery pack for your phone. You can charge the battery beforehand and use it when you need to, giving you the ability to charge your phone and use energy even when you’re nowhere near an outlet.
Hydrogen fuel cells use a clean and efficient method to store energy for when you need it. If these batteries are “charged” with cleanly-generated electricity from solar, wind or water power, then these batteries can allow sustainable energy to be used long after the sun has set or the winds have died down. Of course, you can also charge these batteries with coal-generated electricity, but that ends up defeating its purpose.
So, there you have it! If you’ve ever wondered how these common fuel sources work or what kind of sustainable energy systems are out there, this ought to help simplify these complex topics.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/seagul