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Renewable energy is derived from naturally regenerating energy resources such as the sun, wind, water, biomass, and heat from the Earth’s interior. The key characteristic of renewable energy resources is that they are replenished naturally or through sustainable management practices such that it is not depleted at current levels of consumption. Thus, the world cannot run out of renewable energy.
Renewable resources can be used to produce electricity, provide heating and cooling for buildings, for industrial process heat, or to provide mechanical power for grinding or water-pumping. Some technologies can be used for cogeneration of heat and power.
In addition, renewable energy resources can be used to produce liquid bio-fuels such as ethanol or bio-diesel, both of which can be utilized as mobile or stationary fuels. Water electrolysis technologies are being used to generate hydrogen from renewable power, for use as a mobile (i.e., transportation) or stationary fuel through fuel cells or direct combustion.
For additional information on specific renewable energy technologies consult the Renewable Energy Information and Awareness Program (Natural Resources Canada). You may also be interested in learning about Federal actions to promote renewable energy in Canada.
How Does Renewable Energy Contribute to Cleaner Air?
Not only does renewable energy have little or no greenhouse gas emissions, but also other air pollutant emissions which cause smog, acid-rain or hazardous air pollution are zero for most forms of renewable energy. When low-emitting forms of renewable energy are used to replace fossil-fuel energy, reductions in air pollution occur and cleaner air is the result.
Those forms of renewable energy based on combustion of biomass do cause some air pollution that contributes to smog, but not to acid-rain. However, geothermal energy from geological sources can release sulphur dioxide which will contribute to acid rain. As for fossil fuels, pollution control technologies can be used to reduce these emissions.
What Are Other Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy still has other effects on the environment, such as the disturbance of land and eco-systems in hydro reservoirs or because of variable streamflow downstream of dams; the water effluent from processing of biomass or renewable fuels; ambient air pollution coming from wood smoke when heating with wood; waste ash from biomass combustion; and the impacts on land from intensive agricultural operations for bioenergy. Furthermore, in the full life cycle of renewable energy, the construction of renewable energy production facilities often involves the use of fossil-fuels, which themselves have significant impacts. Given that all forms of energy production have some level of environmental impact, ultimately a compromise must be reached between energy development needs and environmental stewardship. The concept of sustainable development can be a valuable tool in guiding new project development and mitigating any potential impacts on the environment.
What is the Current Status of Renewable Energy in Canada?
Renewable energy provides some 1900 petajoules of Canada’s primary energy supply, or about 16.5%. While this means that Canada is a world leader in renewable energy compared to the OECD average of 6.1% and the U.S.’s 5.2%, most of our energy still comes from fossil fuels.
These figures don’t include the energy from the sun received passively through windows, for example, which can provide considerable heating in Canada’s cold winters. Note also that wood-heating is the fourth largest source of home heating, after natural gas, oil and electricity.
Conventional hydro power provides about two-thirds of Canada’s renewable energy and about 60% of Canada’s electricity. Note that electricity itself represents only about 20% of Canada’s energy usage, with transportation, industrial energy use (e.g. metal smelting or car manufacturing) and non-electric forms of heating and cooling making up the rest.
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