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17 Jun

Blogs in Motion: A Future Matter (Wind Energy)

Welcome to the third entry in our alternative energy series, A Future Matter

This time, we’re taking a look at one of the oldest methods of generating power: wind. Ever since we first propelled boats with simple cloth sails, harnessing the power of wind has been in humanity’s reach since as early as 5000 B.C. Many different cultures across different time periods have used variants of windmill technology for use in a variety of important tasks, such as food production or pumping water. The technology improved over time and now, we can use wind power as a potential substitute for conventional fossil fuels. Before we discuss the positive and negatives about wind power, let’s take a quick look at how it works.

How is wind power generated? The process requires devices known as “wind turbines”, mechanical constructs primarily composed of a series of propeller-like blades and an internal generator housed inside the support tower. The turbine blades spin whenever a sufficient amount of wind blows, which causes the connecting rotors inside the tower to spin as well, generating kinetic energy. The generator within the turbine’s support tower transforms this kinetic energy into useable, electrical power to be stored and/or transferred for use.

The base and entrance of an average, operational wind turbine

Now that we have a basic understanding of how wind turbines generate power, our question becomes: What are the benefits of supporting global energy production with wind power?

Wind power is one of the more environmentally friendly methods of providing wide-spread energy. Wind is caused by a combination of the Sun’s heating of our atmosphere and the Earth’s rotation, making it accessible across the globe for as long as the Sun is in the sky. This makes wind a resource that is completely free and renewable, enabling a wide reach for multiple levels of use. Additionally, no pollution or greenhouse emissions are generated during wind energy harvesting, unlike traditional fossil fuels. As we’ve seen, environmental energy is a critical factor to consider when looking at our collective energy needs.

The community potential for wind power is also quite impressive. Although the structures themselves are large and somewhat imposing, they don’t actually require a great deal of horizontal space to operate in. Installing wind turbines can also help supplement energy needs when mainline power outages occur, keeping critical community installations functioning.  It’s also worth noting that the reported operational costs of residential wind power have been decreasing significantly since the 1980’s and they’re continuing to drop as new technology  is developed and integrated into existing wind turbine designs. This allows existing farms and agricultural communities to easily incorporate wind power into large-scale use.

A wind turbine at work in Caledonia, Ontario

As we’ve seen before, no method of generating power is perfect, so we must ask ourselves: What are the drawbacks on increasing our dependence on wind power?

Wind energy shares some similar drawbacks with another environmental  energy source: solar power. Being dependent on an environmental resource makes wind a sporadic source of power, as electrical energy can only be harvested when the wind is actually blowing and making the turbines turn. Although this environmental variability can be monitored and compensated for, it’s still a factor to consider when using an environmentally-based energy source. Additionally, manufacturing and transporting the materials and parts for wind turbine construction rely on conventional means, which can still contribute to greenhouse emissions.

There have also been varying reports of wind turbines being somewhat disruptive to nearby communities. Some people have reported that the sound of wind turbines is loud and disruptive, comparing it to the sound of a small jet engine. Others have complained that the turbines are “eyesores” in areas that would otherwise be very picturesque or remote. Finally, wind turbines have been criticized for being potentially hazardous to local wildlife, such as birds or bats. However, modern wind turbines spin at lower speeds and use smoother support towers then previous models, greatly reducing this risk.

What are your thoughts on the use of wind energy? Should we increase or decrease our dependence on it? How could wind energy be further used to support our existing energy demands? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of hydroelectric power, the alternative energy source that first inspired this series. We hope you find these articles informative and we’ll have more to come soon!

 

26 Apr

Blogs in Motion: A Future Matter (Solar Energy)

Welcome back to our alternative energy series, A Future Matter.

Today, we’re taking a look at the use of solar power as an alternative energy source and its viability as a long-term power source. Although solar energy is a concept that has only become publicly and commercially prominent over the last few decades, it’s one that has already been around for hundreds of years. The first solar collector was created back in 1767 by Horace-Benedict de Saussure, a simple insulated box covered with layered glass. In 1839, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the “photovoltaic effect”, the scientific principle that makes the collection of solar energy possible. Solar energy is hardly a new idea, so let’s take a look at how it works.

How is solar energy harvested? The process begins with solar cells, panels of various sizes composed of multiple forms of silicon. These solar panels are created in such a way that one part of the cell has an excess of electrons within and another part has missing electrons. When these cells are bombarded by ambient sunlight, the photons from the sunlight collide with and excite the electrons within the cell. These electrons then flow into the part of the solar cell that lacks electrons already, creating an electrical current which travels to an inverter. The inverter receives the current and converts it to commercially useable electricity.

Example of a typical solar panel array

Now that we have an idea on how solar energy is made, let’s ask ourselves: What are the benefits of supporting global energy production with solar power?

One of the strongest arguments that can be made for solar power is its source. The electrical energy generated by solar panels comes from our Sun, the heart of our Solar System. Using the Sun for power generation makes it abundant, readily available  and completely renewable for years to come, as it is estimated that the Sun will be around for at least another two billion years. Sustainability is a key factor in energy production and unlike traditional fossil fuels, solar is a method that can claim to be “infinitely renewable”.

Solar-generated electricity also has little to no impact on the environment. Solar cells have no moving parts and generate no harmful emissions, making them one of the more environmentally friendly options for power. It’s also very community friendly, as solar harvesting is both quiet and very low-maintenance compared to some alternatives, such as wind or nuclear. Solar panels can even be installed on people’s homes, or recreational vehicles, providing a simple, clean way to generate energy separate from big power grids. While the initial installation costs can be high, incorporating solar energy on a personal level can be a solid investment, providing free long-term power to the user.

Finally, solar power is very effective at providing energy to more remote locations where other sources may not be readily available. The cost and effort of extending existing electrical grids to remote locations can be quite high, making self-sustaining solar to be an excellent alternative. Additionally, satellites orbiting the planet right now already rely on solar panels as there’s no other easy way to generate the electrical energy they need to function in space.

A large solar farm in Haldimand County, Ontario

Solar production isn’t perfect however, so the question becomes: What are the drawbacks on increasing our dependence on solar power?

A big drawback for solar power is its dependence on ideal environmental conditions. Although sunlight is certainly abundant, solar panels need constant exposure to it in order to do their jobs, something that’s not possible at night and is greatly reduced when cloudy weather obscures the light. Pollution in the air can also interfere with solar harvesting, potentially harming collection in large, urban areas. Given our growing energy needs, it’s important to consider when dealing with a power source that isn’t producing power 100% of the time.

It’s also worth noting that although the act of collecting solar energy is less harmful to the environment than traditional fossil fuels, it’s not free from harmful elements. Solar cells are still manufactured and transported via conventional methods which can still indirectly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, rare elements are used in the construction of certain thin-film solar cells, such as cadmium, mercury or gallium. In this respect, these cells are as dependent on limited materials as other power generation methods.

Finally, the startup cost for solar power can be fairly high, especially on a personal level. While the long-term pay off for harvesting solar energy can be good, be prepared to spend potentially thousands of dollars on acquiring and installing multiple solar-panels as well as batteries for energy storage (to ensure lasting energy during the night). While this may be more feasible on a professional level, or a recreational vehicle, installing solar panels on your home is still a costly venture.

In conclusion, the use of solar energy is another divisive issue. Solar energy is abundant, readily available for both personal and professional setups and arguably, the least harmful on the environment. However, it is also highly dependent on ideal locations and conditions as well as being costly to install. There are many pros and cons when discussing solar energy and it’s an important discussion to have.

What are your thoughts on the use of solar energy? Should we be increasing or decreasing our dependence on it? What are the potential applications of solar power going forward? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels.

For our next article, we’ll be taking a look at the benefits and drawbacks of wind power and its applications. We hope you find these articles informative and we have more to come!

20 Mar

Blogs in Motion: A Future Matter (Nuclear Energy)

Welcome to the next entry in our alternative energy segment, A Future Matter

We’ll start our investigation into alternative energy sources with a look at nuclear energy and its potential as a long-term solution to our dependence on fossil fuels. Nuclear power has already had a profound impact on humanity’s growing energy needs. As of 2014, there are nearly 450 reactors worldwide operating in 30 different countries, accounting for 17% of the world’s collective electrical production. However, since the 1970s, a debate began regarding the future of nuclear power going forward into the 21st century. Before we get into that, let’s see how nuclear power works.

Nuclear energy generation involves the controlled splitting of uranium atoms inside a reactor to produce heat energy, a process known as “fission”.  This process begins with solid pellets composed of uranium (U-238) as well as a trace amount of U-235. These pellets are arranged in linear fuel rods and submerged in water inside the reactor to help control heat and the nuclear reaction. The fuel rods are then bombarded with neutrons, causing the uranium atoms within to heat and split. The fission process occurring with the reactor produces heat energy in the form of super-heated steam and that steam is then used to drive turbine generators, producing high amounts of electrical energy. As a matter of fact, aside from the fission process, nuclear power plants produce their electricity via turbine generations in a similar manner to coal and gas-powered stations.

Nuclear power plant in Ontario

The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station in Ontario, Canada

However, no system is perfect and so our first question is: What are the drawbacks of increasing our dependence on nuclear power?

The first thought on most people’s minds when it comes to nuclear power is: human error. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima.  These names are locked in the public’s mind. We’ve seen the disastrous effects of nuclear plant malfunctions due to poor training or lack of proper containment protocols. Accidents can happen and there will always be a risk vs. reward argument when it comes to nuclear power.  In order for us to truly rely on nuclear power and avoid critical contaminations, we need trained, proficient experts to handle nuclear and radioactive materials in an environmentally responsible way. Human error will always be a factor, but the risk can be minimized with the right people and the right training.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that like fossil fuels, uranium is also a finite resource. Although the amount of energy generated from fission reactions is far greater than fossil fuels, it is still dependent on a limited resource that is somewhat scarce on Earth and is therefore not infinitely renewable. Finally, the issue of radioactive waste is one that we still need to solve. During fission, a split uranium atom can absorb incoming neutrons which can lead to the creation of plutonium, a potentially dangerous element with a half-life of up to 24,000 years. Nuclear plants today have qualified professionals and thorough measures in place to handle radioactive waste with proper care and in ways that are not harmful to people or the environment, but as we know, human error is always a consideration. Properly disposing and handling of radioactive waste is an issue that will have to be monitored closely in the future.

With the risks presented, our question now becomes: What are the benefits of supporting global energy production with nuclear power?

Despite some common misconceptions, the creation of nuclear energy is actually not very impactful on the environment in and of itself. The production of nuclear power emits little to no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides, in stark contrast to traditional power plants. Nuclear power plants can also produce power at a more stable rate without interference from a lack of sunshine or wind. In fact, a nuclear reactor’s only environmental consideration is access to a natural source of cooling water to aid with the heat buildup. As an alternative energy source, nuclear power is a far more consistent provider of power, making it ideal to operate along with environmentally-driven power sources.

Nuclear energy is also in a good position for large-scale deployment. Although initial construction efforts for new power plants can be high, the maintenance costs are substantially lower than fossil fuel plants, as a much larger amount of power is generated by the splitting of uranium-based atoms as opposed to carbon atoms. In fact, any given weight of uranium will produce as much as a million times more power than an equal amount of any carbon-based reaction! This is a critical consideration given the increasing needs of dependable energy in a more technologically-focused society.

Ultimately, the use of nuclear power is a highly divisive issue with strong points on both sides of the argument. The benefits of using nuclear as a long-term power substitute are both numerous and worthwhile, however it’s impossible to ignore the potential implications for a power source as large in scale as nuclear energy. Regardless, it’s important to keep the discussion going as the use or non-use of this alternative energy source is a critical topic that we all need to consider.

What are your thoughts on the use or non-use of nuclear energy? Should nuclear power become a primary provider to global energy, or should we focus more other alternatives? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of solar energy. We hope you find these articles informative and we have much more to come!

26 Feb

Blogs in Motion: Alternative Energy, A Future Matter

Welcome back to the Trailer Blocks Blog!

As the Robert Bourassa performance trip came to an end, we began to reflect on all we had seen and experienced. Our minds quickly turned to our tour of Hydro-Quebec’s Radisson facilities, and the impressive technology and dedicated people that were required to harness hydroelectric energy. We discussed alternative energy at length as time went on and we eventually decided that it’s a topic worth writing about here. Over the next few entries of Blogs in Motion, we’ll be taking a look at the various forms of alternative energy, how’s it produced and how it can influence humanity’s future.

Dependence on traditional fossil fuels and the need for alternative energy development have been topics of global concern for many years. Our relationship with fossil fuels is one of duality, of impressive progress and genuine concern. Fossil fuels are presently the world’s primary source of power and it’s been this way for a long time. Refined oil, coal and natural gas are critical to modern industry, transportation and global electrical generation. These methods of energy production have allowed humanity to industrialize and expand at an unprecedented rate. However, these fuels are finite and their production has already had detrimental effects on the environment. Progress with limited resources will only go so far and cleaner alternatives are needed.

It’s been said that by 2050, at least one-third of humanity’s energy production must come from renewable sources. Renewable energy sources are a critical issue that future generations will depend on us solving. Fortunately, it appears to be a problem that’s well within our ability to solve. Transitioning to sustainable, clean energy will not occur overnight, as fossil fuels are firmly integrated in nearly every aspect of modern industry. But with enough discussion and dedication, it can be done.

We’ll take a look at some of these methods during this multi-part feature. In our first entry, we’ll be taking a look at nuclear power, how it’s generated and how it’s being used right now. We’re excited to share our observations on this subject with you and we’ll have more for you in the days to come.




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