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Akshay Urja Diwas: Why renewable energy is important

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By Nithin Sridhar

In 2004, the government decided to observe 20th August as “Akshay Urja Diwas” or “Renewable Energy Day” in order to increase awareness about renewable energy. It was subsequently celebrated in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Today, on 20th August 2015, let us revisit the basics of renewable energy and dwell on its importance.

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What is renewable energy?

In the high-school, most of us would have studied that energy and energy sources can be broadly classified into renewable and non-renewable energy. The energy which is derived from sources and get exhausted over time is called as “non-renewable energy”. Example: power generated using coal as fuel.

On the other hand, the energy generated from sources that remains non-exhaustible and hence does not deplete with usage is called as “renewable energy”. Example: power generated using sun light. The sun does not deplete with usage, but the coal does. Renewable basically means “renewed” or “replenished”.

What are the sources and extent of the usage of renewable energy?

Sunlight, wind, and water-falls are the major sources of renewable energy. Other sources include tides, waves, and geo-thermal heat.

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According to Renewables 2014 report, in 2012 the contribution of renewable energy to global final energy consumption was around 19%. The division of renewable energy consumption was: Traditional biomass (9%), non-biomass heat energy (4.2%), Hydropower (3.8%) and power generated from wind, solar, geothermal etc. (2%).

In India, the total installed capacity of grid interactive renewable power as on 30.03.2014 was 31,692.18 MW. Out of that, Small Hydro Power contributed 3803.7 MW, Solar Power: 2631.96 MW, Wind Power: 21136.40 MW, Biomass Power: 4013.55 and power generated from waste contributed 106.58 MW.

Why renewable energy is so important?

The most important advantage of using renewable sources of energy is that they are renewable. Hence they can be used always without the fear of depletion. Further, increased dependence on renewables, would mean decreased dependence on exhaustible sources like coal and oil. This in-turn will not only result in preservation of natural-resources but also will decrease political and economic conflicts and wars that are fought over owning the exhaustible sources.

Another important advantage in using the renewable sources is the reduction of air and water pollution and optimal usage of naturally available resources with minimal side effects. The coal-based or gas-based thermal power plants are one of the major sources of pollution. By decreasing the dependency on coal, gas, etc. these pollutions can be restrained. This will in-turn help in reducing the release of greenhouse gases and hence help fight global warming and climate change.

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Use of renewable sources of energy will also prevent any damage to life and property through nuclear disasters as happened in Fukushima Nuclear Power plant in Japan. If the cost of producing electricity from renewable sources drops further, then they may become more widespread and in-turn help in stabilizing energy prices.
At an operational level, production and maintenance in a renewable energy plant are much easier than in, say, thermal or nuclear power plants. The risks associated with an on-site job is also lesser. Also, the renewable energy systems are more resilient and reliable energy systems.

Therefore, in spite of having some constraints in using renewable energy sources (for example, they are not available in the same degree throughout the year), attempts must be made to increase the installed capacity of renewable energy systems and slowly the energy reliance should be shifted from exhaustible and polluting sources like coal to non-exhaustible and non-polluting sources like sunlight.

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Clean Water And Clean Power Through Algae

It’s an entire cycle where you’re dealing with not only a water pollution problem.

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biodiesel from microalgae
A biochemist shows different types of microalgae for the study and manufacture of a biofuel in high displacement diesel engines for reducing emissions of gases and particulate matter in Santiago, Chile. VOA

“Nature sometimes isn’t pretty,” said University of Maryland environmental scientist Peter May, grabbing a clump of slimy green-brown gunk.

That gunk lines the bottom of what’s called an algal turf scrubber at the Port of Baltimore. The meter-wide, shallow channel runs the length of a football field alongside one of the port’s giant parking lots.

“Actually, it’s always pretty,” May corrected himself. Even the gunk. Because that gunk is removing pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. Plus, May’s colleagues are turning it into clean, renewable electricity.

The Chesapeake needs the help.

Algal feast

Like many waterways around the world, the bay is polluted with excess nutrients from farm fertilizer runoff, city wastewater and other sources. Algae feast on those nutrients, triggering massive growth that chokes out other aquatic life. Last summer, algal growth left an average of 4.6 cubic kilometers of the bay without oxygen.

A third of the pollution reaching the bay literally falls out of the sky.

Fossil fuels burned in power plants, cars and elsewhere create nitrogen oxide air pollution, which ultimately ends up in the bay, either attached to airborne particles or dissolved in rainwater.

Forests would soak up that pollution. But like many urban areas, the Port of Baltimore has a pavement problem. There’s not a tree to be found at the entire 230-hectare Dundalk Marine Terminal, where the algae scrubber is located.

So regulators require the port to remove as much pollution from the bay as its parking lots allow in. That’s where the algal turf scrubber comes in.

Algae
Algae is seen near the City of Toledo water intake crib, Aug. 3, 2014, in Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio. VOA

Putting algae to work

The scrubber is like “a controlled algal bloom on land,” May said, “which puts the algae to work pulling nutrients out of the water.”

The city of Durham, N.C., is planning to build another scrubber to clean up a local reservoir. A pilot study found it would cost about half as much as typical pollution control measures, such as constructed wetlands, and much less than retrofitting existing systems. Others are up and running in Florida.

The algal turf scrubber creates one big challenge, May said.

“What do we do with that algae? You have to have an end use or else you’re going to pile that algae up very quickly,” he said.

It’s high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s been turned into animal feed. It can be fermented into biofuels. Some of May’s colleagues have used it to launch a fertilizer business.

But here at the Port of Baltimore, they’re turning it into electricity.

Baltimore, Algae
Containers are unloaded from a ship at the Port of Baltimore, Oct. 24, 2016. The port uses an algae scrubber to remove pollution from the Chesapeake Bay. VOA

Digesting for power

May works with University of Maryland colleague Stephanie Lansing, an expert in a process called anaerobic digestion. It’s not much different from our own digestion.

“You have bacteria in your gut that break down food. We’re doing that same process in an anaerobic digester,” Lansing said. “We’re breaking down the material, and we’re producing energy in the process.”

In this case, the microbes digesting the algae produce methane biogas. The biogas runs a fuel cell.

“The fuel cell is actually a very efficient way to use the energy,” she said. This small, pilot system produces a modest amount of electricity.

Also Read: India’s Floating Solar Panel a Gateway To Clean Energy For Asia

“You can use it to charge batteries. You can use it for lights. You can use it for fans,” she added.

The Port of Baltimore plans to build a larger system that will cover about a third of a hectare, which could produce a few hundred kilowatts — still modest, but not bad, when you start with just polluted water and algae.

“It’s an entire cycle where you’re dealing with not only a water pollution problem, but an air pollution issue,” Lansing said. (VOA)