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The science of new and old energy, part 3: renewables

Photovoltaic panels are ideal for renewable solar energy production
The most highly developed solar energy technologies consist primarily of solar collectors and photovoltaic systems used to convert light to DC power

This is the third part of a three-part series discussing energy in North America. Click here to read the remaining articles in this series:

Renewable energy sources are largely derived from solar energy either directly or indirectly. The most promising, thus far, include solar photovoltaic systems, wind power and hydroelectricity; however, new technologies such as hydrogen and fuel cells show tremendous promise as well.

The North American Energy Infrastructure Act brought about an integrated power grid that enables the U.S. and Canada to share energy resources. Many of the projects underway take advantage of renewable energy technologies.

The Soule River Hydroelectric Project, located in Alaska, will provide hydroelectric power to British Columbia and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Montana-Alberta Tie Limited will generate power from wind farms.

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The most highly developed solar energy technologies consist primarily of solar collectors and photovoltaic systems used to convert light to DC power. Photovoltaic systems include small, thin panels of semiconductors called solar or PV cells.

A chemical reaction takes place in the solar cells upon exposure to sunlight that generates electrons to produce current. The solar cells are installed on large panels, some of which are designed to track the sunlight throughout the day.

Other components of the PV system include one or more batteries, a charge regulator and a inverter that converts DC current to AC current. Solar PV has become a rapidly growing industry as the cost effectiveness has improved: It offers a clean, inexhaustible source of energy.

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Although at present the technology is insufficient to meet the demand for energy, many utilities, organizations and residences use solar PV systems to supplement present energy sources and help reduce costs.

As of 2013, there were 46,000 operating wind turbines in the United States. Wind energy provides 4.1 percent of the energy produced in the nation. Wind turbines are equipped with blades that are rotated as the wind blows.

A shaft that connects from the blades to a generator revolves as the blades turn to produce electricity. The primary objection to the technology stems from the fact that they require a large space to generate a significant amount of power.

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Canada is the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world: Its 450 hydroelectric stations produce 62 percent of its energy.

In addition, there are presently 1,756 hydroelectric power facilities in the United States.  

  • Hydroelectric power facilities are typically constructed on large rivers that have a significant drop in elevation.
  • The dam retains large volumes of water in a reservoir.
  • Gravity forces water through an intake near the bottom of the dam wall.
  • A turbine propeller is turned by the force of the water.
  • A shaft connects the propeller to a generator which converts the mechanical energy to electrical power.

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The various methodologies employed in energy production in North American necessitate the assimilation of a wide range of resources: At present, the vast majority of energy sources rely on a generator to convert various forms of energy into electricity.

A generator produces electricity by moving wire or a disc, usually made of copper, between magnetic poles. The power distribution system requires large numbers of power cables, transformers and circuit breakers; therefore, it too demands a substantial amount of resources.

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Each of these systems requires maintenance and periodic replacement of parts that must be calculated into the economic viability.

The North American energy infrastructure encompasses an immense range of materials and technologies and will continue to expand in the coming years.


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