The Leading Sources of Clean Energy: Wind, Solar, Hydropower & Biomass

Although nonrenewable energy sources such as gas, oil and coal still account for the majority of global energy production, the renewable energy sector has been making great progress. We still have further to go, however, to realize a sustainable and affordable energy sector that’s sufficient to meet our power needs. The world population is expanding, the number of cars and gadgets we own is increasing, and there are still several weak points when it comes to energy security — namely, our reliance on dirty fossil fuels, an aging infrastructure and volatile fuel costs.

The good news is that renewable energy technologies are proving to be viable solutions for the future of energy. These clean energy solutions range from a portable solar gadget charger to a home rooftop solar installation to a huge grid-scale wind farm. These are not only economically feasible choices, but they’re also rapidly becoming cheaper than conventional energy sources.

Although there are a number of different renewable energy technologies in the works, a handful of mature ones dominate the sector and are likely to be the major players for years to come. The most visible of the leaders are solar and wind energy, but hydroelectric energy has been a renewable resource for a long time, too. And although biomass is a relative newcomer, at least as far as awareness goes, it’s also a viable solution for a variety of applications.

Wind energy

Harnessing the energy of the wind has evolved from the windmills of yesteryear, and now this clean energy source is a serious contender in the electricity sector. Although there are smaller wind turbines suited to powering some rural homes or businesses, most of the action is in large-scale installations. The wind energy industry has capitalized on advancements in turbine and generator technologies as well as innovations in materials and design, bringing up wind energy production to a massive scale.

The rate of wind energy adoption in the U.S. put wind clearly in the lead for new electricity sources brought online last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In some windy regions, wind energy is actually free for some residents.

One of the benefits of wind energy — other than its ability to generate clean electricity economically — is that after the initial capital investment, the financial inputs are minimal, and wind turbines are essentially fuel-free for the rest of their lifespan, which can be decades.

This longevity and economic viability make wind energy a great asset to a nation’s energy security. Although there can be variances in output due to local weather conditions, the rapidly emerging sector of battery energy storage coupled with the integration of other intermittent renewable energy sources can help to smooth the grid’s supply of electricity.

Solar energy

No longer is solar energy a fringe energy source, useful only in sunny regions or for charging portable electronics. Thanks to the huge drop in solar component costs over the last few decades and several innovations in materials and production, solar is rapidly becoming an accessible and affordable option for home power.

The cost of solar modules has fallen some 75 percent just since the end of 2009, the International Renewable Energy Agency reports. Solar energy has hit grid parity in a number of markets, including many of the top cities in the U.S. where solar electricity beats out grid prices. And because of new solar financing options such as solar leasing, more home and business owners can find a solar solution that works for them. For those who can’t have solar on their own roof but still want the benefits of clean electricity from the sun, community solar programs are an accessible and affordable option.

Hydropower

Hydropower, which generates electricity from the flow of water, accounts for about 7 percent of all U.S. electricity generation, according to the National Hydropower Association. Although it can be affected by drought conditions, it’s a boon to utilities due to its ability to deliver a clean base load of electricity to the grid and smooth out intermittent inputs from other renewable energy sources. A recent assessment from the Department of Energy found that the nation could nearly double its hydropower capacity with additional projects on some of America’s three million streams and rivers.

Biomass

Biomass energy, which can take the form of solid fuels (woody materials and crop residues) or liquid biofuels, is another less visible form of renewable energy production. But biomass can also help with increasing the diversity of our energy mix while repurposing waste materials into feedstock for clean power. According to the Biomass Power Association, biomass energy accounts for about 15 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity in the country.

None of these renewable energy sources is a magic fix for energy costs, energy security or the environment all on their own. But when considered as a whole, they can be an important part of the journey to cleaner energy and a more resilient grid.

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Derek Markham writes about a variety of clean tech and green living topics. He currently lives in southwestern New Mexico, and his interests include rainwater harvesting, permaculture, and gardening.

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