Renewables are a modest share of our electricity mix because they are too expensive for most consumers. But they are growing in popularity as costs come down and incentives are offered to help the U.S. accelerate its transition to cleaner energy sources that are domestically produced. Here are the main renewables you should know:
The sun’s heat and light provide an abundant source of energy that can be harnessed in many ways. There are a variety of technologies that have been developed to take advantage of solar energy. The two main ones are: solar roof panels (photovoltaics) that generate power and solar thermal systems used to make heat.
The federal government and Commonwealth are working to expand the use of solar power in many ways. There are many incentives currently available to individuals and businesses seeking to use solar energy.
Click here to learn more about Virginia’s solar power resources.
Wind power is America’s second-fastest growing source of power generation. Turbines, often taller than the length of a football field harness the wind to make electricity using the same principles as aircraft wings.
Virginia does not currently have any utility-scale wind farms in operation. Virginia is working with universities, environmental groups, and other non-profit organizations to explore Virginia’s options for developing its wind resource potential in an environmentally responsible manner.
In Virginia, there is high wind energy potential off the coast. Turbines would likely be constructed in the Atlantic or in the Chesapeake Bay.
Click here to learn more about Virginia’s wind power research and development activities.
Geothermal energy is defined as heat from the Earth. It is a clean, renewable resource that provides energy because of the heat emanating from the interior of the Earth and is essentially limitless.
Geothermal energy can be used for electricity production, for direct use purposes, and for home heating efficiency (through geothermal heat pumps).
Hydropower, or hydroelectric power, is an emissions-free, renewable and reliable energy source created from the kinetic energy of falling water. The energy is then converted into electricity with a turbine. As a source of energy, hydropower excels at preserving the stability and reliability of the electrical grid due to its unique operating characteristics.
Other types of renewable energy and alternate sources used to create electricity include:
- Biomass. Biomass is organic, non-fossil matter, which is available on a renewable or recurring basis. It can be derived from the timber industry, agriculture (including crop and animal waste), and household waste. In Virginia, this resource is often harnessed through the incineration of municipal solid waste or the recovery of biogas from landfills. Biomass can be used to generate electricity with the same technology used by fossil fuel burning power plants. The use of renewable biomass creates additional value in farm, forestry and other industries, reducing waste streams.
- Municipal Solid Waste. Municipal solid waste (MSW) is composed of residential and commercial refuse. It makes up the largest source of waste in industrialized countries. Disposal of MSW is a great concern in many areas where landfill space is becoming scarce. Despite some environmental concerns, incineration of MSW for energy recovery is often seen as an attractive alternative to disposal in a landfill.
- Combined Heat and Power. Also known as cogeneration, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is electricity generated with the steam from industrial plants. CHP can greatly increase a facility’s operational efficiency and decrease energy costs. At the same time, CHP reduces the emission of greenhouse gases, improves air quality and can help meet Virginia’s energy reduction goals. Learn more about Combined Heat and Power Units in Virginia and find incentives for the installation of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable power sources in your home and business.
Besides the tax credits and rebates available, an additional incentive for renewable power is that some consumers will create more electricity than they need. Virginia allows consumers to sell excess power back to the utility, a process called “net energy metering.”
There are also several renewable transportation fuels that are already used in cars today or may be in the future. They are not used to create electricity but are common renewables you may have heard about.
- Landfill Gas. Recovering energy from landfill gas can reduce pollutant emissions in communities around Virginia and improve air quality. The natural degradation of organic matter in a landfill creates gas. This gas is about 50% methane and 50% CO2 and is burned or ‘flared’ so it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. An alternative to flaring is to use the methane as a fuel source for the production of electricity. The gas can be converted into electricity through the use of a microturbine or fuel cell. It may also be burned for heating purposes. There are a number of projects currently using landfill gas from more than a dozen landfills throughout Virginia. Supplemental fuel and electricity generating efforts are the two most common landfill gas projects in the state. As demands for energy and fuel grow, landfill gas may become a more widely used resource in Virginia.
- Ethanol. Ethanol is fuel that is commonly made from corn but can be made from a variety of crops such as sugarcane, plants, prairie grasses, algae and other bio-based sources. The gasoline you buy contains 10% ethanol. Some vehicles on roads today can run on regular gasoline or a mix of 85% ethanol known as E85. However, most “flex fuel” vehicles run only on gasoline because E85 isn’t widely available.
- Biodiesel. Biodiesel is a clean burning alternative to diesel fuel that is produced from animal fats, vegetable oils, and even algae. It is renewable, domestically produced, and readily available in Virginia. Biodiesel can be used unblended (100% biodiesel, otherwise known as B100), or blended with petroleum diesel as B5 (5% blend of biodiesel with diesel), B10 (10% biodiesel), B20 (20% biodiesel), etc. To find a biodiesel fueling station near you, click here.
- Solar Energy Industries Association
- Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory
- American Wind Energy Association