Energy Education that Matters

What Is Renewable Energy?

Unlike fossil fuels, which are exhaustible, renewable energy sources regenerate and can be sustained indefinitely. Renewable energy comes from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, moving water, plant material, and geothermal heat. Renewable energy is naturally replenished within your life time or within a few generations. Currently, renewable energies make up 8% of the energy used in the United States. Most renewable energy is used for making electricity.

The other type of energy is non-renewable energy. It is any kind of energy that is derived from fossil fuels, such as oil, or is used only once and then not replenished naturally within a few human lifetimes.


Pie chart showing: Total=98 quadrillion BTU; Petroleum 37%; Natural Gas 25%; Coal 21%; Nuclear Electic power 9%; Renewable Energy 8%. Total Renewable Energy=8 quadrillion BTU; Hydropower 31%; Biofuels 23%;  Wood 25%; Biomass waste 6%; Wind 11%;Geothermal 3%; Solar 1%. Note: Sum of biomass components do not equal 53 % due to independent rounding. Source: EIA, Monthly Energy Review , Table 10.1 (June 2011), preliminary 2010 data.


The five renewable sources used most often are:
What Role Does Renewable Energy Play in the United States?

The use of renewable energy is not new. More than 150 years ago, wood, which is one form of biomass, supplied up to 90% of our energy needs. As the use of coal, petroleum, and natural gas expanded, the United States became less reliant on wood as an energy source. Today, we are looking again at renewable sources to find new ways to use them to help meet our energy needs.


In 2011, consumption of renewable sources in the United States totaled about 9 quadrillion Btu — 1 quadrillion is the number 1 followed by 15 zeros — or about 9% of all energy used nationally. About 13% of U.S. electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2011.


Over half of renewable energy goes to producing electricity. The next largest use of renewable energy is biomass (wood and waste) for the production of heat and steam for industrial purposes and for space heating, mostly in homes. Biomass also includes biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, used for transportation.

Renewable energy plays an important role in the supply of energy. When renewable energy sources are used, the demand for fossil fuels is reduced. Unlike fossil fuels, non-biomass renewable sources of energy (hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar) do not directly emit greenhouse gases.


Why Don’t We Use More Renewable Energy?

In the past, renewable energy has generally been more expensive to produce and use than fossil fuels. Renewable resources are often located in remote areas, and it is expensive to build power lines to the cities where the electricity they produce is needed. The use of renewable sources is also limited by the fact that they are not always available — cloudy days reduce solar power; calm days reduce wind power; and droughts reduce the water available for hydropower.


The production and use of renewable fuels has grown more quickly in recent years as a result of higher prices for oil and natural gas, and a number of state and federal government incentives, including the Energy Policy Acts of 2002 and 2005.  The use of renewable fuels is expected to continue to grow over the next 30 years, although EIA projects that we will still rely on non-renewable fuels to meet most of our energy needs.


How Do We Measure Renewable Energy?

Each of the energy sources we use is measured, purchased, and sold in a different form. Many units of measurement are used to measure the energy we use.  Learn more about converting energy units in the Units and Calculators section.

Teachers, students, and families are encouraged to learn more about energy science and the principles of resource sustainability that apply to our daily lives. For more information on sustainability, visit National Grid.


Brief History of Energy

For most of mankind’s history, wood has been the mainstay of life—for shelter, for transportation, and as a source of energy to burn for heat and light. Mankind also took advantage of the sun, wind, rivers, lakes and hot springs. Around 3,500 B.C. Egyptians made the earliest known sailboats, harnessing the power of the wind to travel. By 500 B.C. the Greeks were building what we presently call passive solar homes, and in 85 B.C. the Romans were bathing in water from geothermal hot springs. Around the same time, the Greeks made use of running water by developing waterwheels to grind grain mechanically.

Wood remained the most used energy resource until the late 1600s when coal became popular. In 1698, Thomas Savery invented the steam engine. When attached to a water pump, the engine created steam from the water that boiled to create another form of energy.

The industrial revolution improved the steam engine by providing power for machinery to process raw materials and manufacture products in the early 1700s. In the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin and others developed advancements in electricity and by the 1800s wet-cell battery were developed. In 1870 Belgian Zenobe Gramme perfected the first practical electricity generator, and by 1879 Thomas Edison developed the first light and power operations. In 1882, the nation’s first hydroelectric power plant was built in Appleton, Wisconsin, and in 1896, the United States’ earliest large-scale hydropower plant was completed in Niagara Falls, New York.

In the 1900s more changes came with inexpensive power and improved metals which made mass production possible. The Model T was the first car produced in 1908 by Henry Ford.

Nuclear technology was developed in the late 1930s and 1940s. The world’s first nuclear-powered electricity plant opened in 1954 in the former Soviet Union (Russia) and shortly after, the rest of the world was provided with electricity from dozens of nuclear power plants.

The twentieth century saw the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy technologies.
  • 1950s—the first solar photovoltaic cells were developed for NASA
  • 1960s—the first American geothermal power plant began operations
  • 1980s—three out of every four power plants in the United States burned fossil fuels

In the United States today, approximately 70% of the energy we use comes from fossil fuels. We do, however, have alternatives to the overuse of fossil fuels through substituting renewable energies for power production and we can conserve energy or become more efficient with the energy we consume.


Where does the energy you use come from?

Natural gas is a form of energy that many of us often use in our homes, schools, and businesses for heating and cooking. Natural gas is found deep underground and is delivered to buildings through underground pipes. It is a non-renewable fossil fuel.

Electricity is often named as a source of energy. It is not a source of energy, however, but is instead an energy carrier or a secondary source of energy. Whenever you use anything that runs on electricity, a power plant is generating that electricity from a primary source of energy. Often the source of our electricity comes from the combustion of a fossil fuel such as coal, oil, or natural gas or from nuclear energy.

Since fossil fuels and nuclear energy are nonrenewable resources, this means that once we use them up, they are gone forever. We can make these resources last longer by conserving energy and not wasting it, and by using energy from renewable resources that will not run out. You or someone you know is probably already using electricity made from solar panels, wind turbines, or a hydroelectric power plant!

Think about it: Did you use hot water or electric lights today? Did you talk on a cell phone or text someone? How was your food cooked? Energy helped make all these things possible.

No matter where your energy comes from, using it sustainably helps keep our environment healthy.

This is because all energy production and use affects the environment. The less pollution we add to our environment, the better the health of the Earth will be. Adding renewable energy to our state’s Energy Portfolio will help to meet energy sustainability goals.


What does "sustainable" mean, and why does it matter?

If you look up the definition of "sustainable," you might find this: "able to be sustained." Unless you know what sustain means, that doesn't help much, does it?

"Sustain" means to continue something or keep it going, so "sustainable" means something that has the ability to continue. A Sustainable Energy World is a world where energy is used in ways that allow the earth to function as a safe and healthy home for humans, plants, and animals.

When you use energy sustainably, you help control pollution, reduce CO2 emissions, and preserve our energy resources.

You also help conserve other types of resources. It takes a tremendous amount of natural resources (like water, land, wood, and other building materials) to build a power plant. Saving energy delays the need for new power plants.

Using energy sustainably now will ensure we can continue to use it in the future without running out or damaging the environment beyond repair. This is one of the most important things we can do to keep our planet healthy and preserve the earth’s resources for ourselves and for future generations.


What is unsustainable behovior and how do I avoid it?

  • Burning fossil fuels for energy to power our homes and run our vehicles releases pollutants into the air and adds CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. Because fossil fuels are found deep underground, mining and transporting them can cause air and water pollution and disrupt local ecosystems.
    • Use renewable electricity generation when possible. Ask your utility company to help you. They may offer you an easy solution.
    • Carpool, use public transportation, reduce air travel, and use your own body power to be mobile.
  • Nuclear power fuel is derived from the fission of Uranium atoms. Nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts, often producing free neutrons and photons (in the form of gamma rays), and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. Harvesting the uranium is much like strip mining for coal; the topsoil is stripped away, causing loss of habitats and increasing runoff of plant sustaining nutrients. Using nuclear power to generate electricity produces no CO2 emissions, however, the uranium that is used to create nuclear energy becomes radioactive after it is used, and must be stored safely so it does not harm living things. Finding safe storage sites can be difficult.
  • Renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind power, solar power, and hydropower can be used to make electricity and are generally better for the environment, but they all pose some challenges. For example, growing crops for electricity production (biomass) may reduce crops used as food for humans or livestock. Dams for hydropower can affect water quality, river flows, and fish migration. Wind turbines can harm flying birds or bats. It is important to do studies and take data in order to determine whether a renewable energy system is even a good choice in the first place. Without data to back up a renewable energy system installation, one can be more harmful than helpful.

Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere as a result of the energy used for your everyday activities. The food you eat, what you buy, and what you throw away all affect your carbon footprint. That’s because it takes energy to manufacture, package, and transport everything that you eat or use.

  • Buying bulk food products helps eliminate excess packaging.
  • Buying products made from recyclables produces less CO2 than if you used all new raw materials. This also applies to clothing. Give a thrift/resale or a consignment shop a try!


Why change your carbon footprint?

Many scientists believe that the CO2 in our atmosphere is increasing as a result of human activities. This includes the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Extra CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat, causing the earth’s climate and weather to vary beyond the average mean temperature of the last few decades.

Because all of the earth’s natural processes are tied to temperature, some scientists are concerned that the climate change may harm its ecosystems. Reducing your carbon footprint can help reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere and keep the earth healthy.


Ideas to reduce your carbon footprint:

Even our simplest everyday activities use the earth’s energy resources and affect the environment.
Think about it: it takes energy to make, move, and do almost everything, so even small changes in the food you eat, the way you travel, and what you buy and throw away can have a big impact on the amount of energy used to support your choices.

Use energy wisely at home and at school. Check out the Carbon Calculator for Students.

Use electricity from renewable energy sources that produce less CO2. You could use wind power, for instance, or research other renewable energy resources.

Make daily choices that protect the environment such as reusing water bottles and food containers instead of disposable varieties.

You can help your family make sustainable choices that lower your energy use, reduce your carbon footprint, and lessen your impact on the environment. You might be surprised to learn how easy it can be!

What is STEM?


STEM—short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—is considered crucial subject matter for today’s students and critical to their future success in the global economy.


Why does Science Matter? Science is critical to understanding the world around us. Most Americans feel that they received a good education and that their children will as well. Unfortunately, not many are aware that international tests show that American students are simply not performing well in science when compared to students in other countries. Many students (and their parents!) believe that science is irrelevant to their lives.

Innovation leads to new products and processes that sustain our economy, and this innovation depends on a solid knowledge base in science, math, and engineering. All jobs of the future will require a basic understanding of math and science. The most recent ten year employment projections by the U.S. Labor Department show that of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected for 2014, 15 of them require significant mathematics or science preparation to successfully compete for a job.


This is why Science Matters. Quality learning experiences in the sciences—starting at an early age—are critical to science literacy and our future workforce. This is what STEM does for students.



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