What Is Renewable Energy and Why Should We Use It?

Renewable energy is the way of the future. Understanding the history of renewable and fossil fuels helps us make wise choices about using renewable energy sources.

| April 2016

  • Fossil fuels dominate the energy industry, especially in developed countries, but their glory days are coming to an end. Discover effective, affordable renewable energy alternatives to consider.
    Photo courtesy Dan Chiras
  • Dan Chiras provides information on a variety of renewable energy sources that could meet our needs—socially, economically and environmentally—by analyzing their abundance, net energy yields and overall cost.
    Illustration courtesy New Society Publishers
  • "The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy: Achieving Energy Independence Through Solar, Wind, Biomass and Hydropower" by Dan Chiras, completely revised and updated edition.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

Well-illustrated, and highly accessible, The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy by Dan Chiras (New Society Publishers 2011) is an essential resource for anyone wanting to enter the renewable energy field, whether their goal is a lower monthly utility bill or complete energy independence.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Homeowner’s Guide to Renewable Energy.

What Is Renewable Energy?

Contrary to what many people think, renewable energy is not a source of energy we’ve just discovered. Humans have relied on renewable energy since the very first human-like creatures roamed the planet over three million years ago. Throughout most of human history, the energy human beings needed to survive and prosper has come from food molecules — primarily seeds, berries and roots. The energy in these foods provided the means by which we built early civilizations. Our early ancestors also burned wood to warm their caves and cook their food. But just what is renewable energy?

Plants, of course, are renewable resources, capable of regenerating themselves from seeds, roots or tubers. But plants are here by the grace of three other renewable environmental resources: soil, water and air.

Although our predecessors, and virtually all other life forms on the planet, received the energy they needed to survive from plant matter, the source of the energy extracted from our botanical companions is not the soil or water or even the air. The source is the sun — a massive hydrogen fusion reactor 93 million miles from planet Earth.

Plants capture the sun’s energy during photosynthesis. In this complex set of chemical reactions, plants synthesize a wide variety of food molecules from three basic “ingredients”: carbon dioxide from the air, water from the soil and solar energy from the sun. Solar energy that drives photosynthetic reactions is captured and stored in the chemical bonds of organic food molecules. When food molecules are consumed by us, or any other animal for that matter, stored solar energy is released. Solar energy contained in food molecules and liberated by the cells of our bodies is, in turn, used to transport molecules across cell membranes and to manufacture protein and DNA to power our muscles and heat our bodies.

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