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Renewable energy through the ages



The wind, the sun, steam, waves and organic materials were the first forms of energy that humans ever knew. The power of nature has accompanied mankind through the centuries but was cast aside as an energy source when fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – started to prosper. Yet today, renewable energy is essential for the Earth and the future survival of our species.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014.

Before coal became widely available and convenient in the 19th century, the majority of energy came from cleaner sources: firewood for heating, wind to drive ships and water and wind to power mills.

It is often said that we have to ‘move on’ and make room for progress. Oil and gas-powered ships and machines might have replaced those fuelled by the wind or water, but looking at the enormous technological leaps forward – turning a simple windmill into a wind turbine, for example – it is impossible not to be grateful for what nature gives to us for free.

Do we already have the answer to our energy needs and are pretending not to see it? This potted history of renewable energy suggests we may do.


Biological material from living organisms is probably the most ancient source of energy, dating back to 400,000 BC. Despite being clean and accessible, biomass energy has changed significantly over the years, as our energy needs changed.

Humans went from burning wood and straw in stoves to growing crops and forests and using them for fuel, which many argue is unsustainable. However, some other forms of biomass, such as getting power from organic waste from food or crops through anaerobic digestion are rapidly becoming popular among energy firms and are seen also as an effective way to send less waste to landfill. 


Used in ancient Egypt and later by the Romans, water has historically been used to power watermills. Such activity was said to have boosted local economies, with major economic centres developed around water sources throughout history.

Humanity quickly understood that water could be used in many forms, whether this was streams, tides or waves. The world’s first hydroelectric facility appeared in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1881 and shortly after, hydro energy became economically viable in the US and the first dams were built.

Today, hydropower, including wave and tidal energy, accounts for about 16% of global electricity consumption. 


The power of the wind is what has allowed humans to cover long distances and discover previously unexplored land on ships. Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria is said to have been the first to build a wheel powered by the wind to run a machine, back in the 1st century AD.

In the Middle Ages, windmills appeared all over Europe and Asia, proving to be more effective than watermills at times, as they could stay functioning throughout the winter, whilst watermills would stop if the water froze over.

The construction of the first windmill to generate electricity dates back to 1887, when Glasgow professor James Blyth installed a small turbine in the garden of his holiday cottage, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the technology started to become economically viable.

Development in Denmark and the US allowed the concept to grow and improve, and in 1941, the first megawatt-size wind turbine was built in Vermont. In the 70s, when the oil crisis hit, wind power started to become seen as central to a new energy system – one not based exclusively on fossil fuels. In 2010, wind energy accounted for 2.5% of worldwide electricity usage and this figure is expected to rise to 8% by 2018, according to the World Wind Energy Association.


The first solar or photovoltaic (PV) cell was invented by Charles Fritts in the 1880s. Two decades earlier in 1860, French inventor Augustine Mouchot had already seen the enormous energy potential of the sun, testing  a solar-powered steam generation system to power industrial machinery.

Solar technology suffered a period of cooling-off as fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, thrived in the 20th century and its use on private properties was rare.However, the oil embargo and energy crisis in the 70s gave a boost to research and new development.

PV installations have grown around 50% per year since 2000, also thanks to the falling cost of the technology. Solar farms and solar rooftops are now being supported in most places around the world, promoted for their relative competitiveness and the crucial role they play in providing energy security and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. 


Geothermal energy is generated from the heat that lies beneath the Earth’s surface. Its use to warm places or baths dates back to the Palaeolithic era, but it wasn’t until 1892 that the first geothermal heating district opened in Boise, Idaho.

Within a few years, the facility was able to power 200 homes and 40 local businesses. In 1904, the first geothermal power generator was tested in Larderello, Italy, and was successfully used to light four bulbs. The US later passed the Geothermal Steam Act in 1970, to encourage the production of geothermal power on a large scale and is currently in fact the world’s largest producer.

This form of energy has been proved clean, cost-effective and profitable in many countries – particularly volcanic ones such as New Zealand, Iceland and the Philippines.

Despite being limited to certain areas where extraction of geothermal power is viable, the share of electricity coming from this source has increased notably since the late-1990s, especially in developing countries, according to the International Geothermal Association.

Photo: Joseph Hart via Free Images

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Further reading:

Renewable energy accounted for 15% of UK electricity in 2013

Anaerobic digestion deserves its time in the spotlight

Poll: UK voters think renewable energy is best way to secure energy supply

Foreign investment in UK renewable energy projects on the rise

The Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014

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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?



sustainable wood burning ideas

Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?

Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.

Is Biofuel Green?

One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.

Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?

Homegrown Technology

Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.

Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.

Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.

Benefits Of Biomass

The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.

Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.

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