The Different Types of Renewable Energy: Why We Need Them All

Ever since the industrial revolution, human beings have been dependent on non-renewable energy sources like coal and oil to power our world’s major industries. Today, however, as more people are becoming aware of the fact that these energy sources are limited in supply and harmful to the environment, there has been an increase in the production of renewable energy options like solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal power generation. So, what exactly are these different types of renewable energy? Here’s a basic explanation of each kind’s unique features and purpose.


If you’re looking for renewable energy, chances are you think solar is where it’s at. While there are other forms, such as wind and hydroelectric, most people associate solar with clean energy. The premise behind solar power is simple: Sunlight that hits your home gets absorbed by an array of photovoltaic cells (in technical terms), which create an electric current that runs appliances or powers your home. However, although it seems to be a seamless solution, there are problems with converting sunlight into electricity; Solar panels aren’t 100% efficient, so they lose some electricity when converting from sunlight to electrical current.


When you think about wind energy, most people imagine gigantic turbines spinning in a consistent breeze. While these large-scale facilities are important to our renewable energy infrastructure, there is also potential for harnessing wind power on a smaller scale. Thanks to rising fossil fuel prices and concern over our environmental impact, more people are looking into micro-wind systems that generate renewable electricity on individual properties. These units can help individuals take control of their energy use—and perhaps eventually provide additional income through sales of excess power back to local utilities. It’s a good idea to get started with small wind systems because they don’t require much in terms of maintenance or installation costs.


This means using heat from below ground. Most commonly, geothermal systems tap into steam that rises naturally through hot rocks in regions known as geothermal reservoirs. Here’s a good video on how geothermal works. Geothermal electricity is a relatively new source of renewable energy, and we expect it to become even more important over time. Geothermal has an extremely small footprint when used to generate electricity—no fossil fuels needed—and it can run 24/7 without pollution or carbon emissions. There are a number of established projects across North America, and they’re looking at ways to make them even cheaper over time. It’s our largest domestic source of renewable energy—so far!


When most people think about renewable energy, they think about wind turbines and solar panels. But they often forget to consider another option: hydropower. To get a sense of just how much-untapped potential there is in our rivers, lakes, and oceans, all you have to do is look at our existing dams—and that number is enormous. In fact, nearly 20 percent of America’s total electricity capacity comes from hydropower facilities. While dams are not without their issues (some people find them aesthetically unpleasing), many benefits come with them.


The oldest form of renewable energy is biomass or burning plant matter for heat. Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is a sustainable resource because when trees, crops and other organic matter are burned for energy, they can be replenished to produce more fuel. For example, landfills in Sweden use a method called thermal oxidation that breaks waste into its most basic components to release heat. This produces electricity that gets sold back to power grids. The process also cuts down on greenhouse gases and gives leftovers like wood chips another chance at life as furniture or building materials. Other notable forms of biomass include landfill gas produced by bacteria breaking down garbage in anaerobic environments and ethanol made from agricultural waste like corn stalks or wheat straw.

Wave and Tidal Power

These are two forms of renewable energy which have seen a lot of development in recent years. Wave power has great potential to supply the electricity in coastal areas, while tidal power is most suited to areas where high and low tides can be harnessed to drive generators. In both cases, power is generated as part of a slow and continuous process—wave generators are essentially long lines that are submerged at sea, where movement creates hydraulic pressure for turbines, while tidal lagoons use dam walls to create large differences in water level. While there are still technological problems to overcome before these two methods can be used for widespread commercial electricity generation, they’re both advancing quickly.

Fuel Cells

These have been around for decades and have been used to power NASA space missions. But fuel cells are only just beginning to catch on in homes and businesses. They use hydrogen or natural gas and emit only heat and water as waste products, making them more environmentally friendly than fossil-fuel-burning power plants. New designs are being developed that allow for more efficient energy storage, meaning they can be easily transported, like in a car or a boat. In fact, Toyota has developed a fuel cell concept car called Mirai (which means future in Japanese). And even Germany is testing these cars as taxis; you could one day drive home from work without producing any emissions at all!

Hybrid Renewable Energy Systems

If you’re looking for something more than just a solar panel and a storage battery, but you don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on a system, you might be able to find exactly what you need in hybrid renewable energy systems. The best ones combine wind, solar, and/or water power sources with backup generators or batteries that can be charged by utility companies. These systems are especially helpful for remote locations where there isn’t access to local utilities. Although they tend to be on the expensive side—the average cost is around $20K—they provide clean power as long as your environment provides it! (Learn about how you can finance one here.)

Why We Need Renewable Energy

Globally, we’re consuming energy at an unsustainable rate. Without a long-term alternative, fossil fuels will eventually run out. While that may not happen for generations, it’s important to start thinking about our options now. Thankfully, renewable energy is not only better for the environment but it can also be more affordable than you might think. In fact, some types of renewable energy are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many areas.

Final Thoughts

There are a lot of renewable energy sources on earth, but it can be hard to get to know them all. There’s a good reason for that—there are so many different types! Some renewable energies have been around since before we discovered fire, while others were invented in more recent times. Some come from nature, and some require more human ingenuity. But they all contribute to a healthier world.

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