Friday, September 4, 2015

Drought Conditions Prevent Ability to Store Sustainable Energy

For companies like Southern California Edison, the drought is taking its toll on their sources of sustainable energy. When water stored in artificial lakes high in the mountains is released, it flows down to turn hydroelectric turbines and convert the water's kinetic energy into electrical energy for use by consumers. This system only works when the water is available for use. Because of the drought, water levels have dropped so far that the hydroelectric system has been put on hold for the time being. According to Ivan Penn, in his L.A. Times article, the hydroelectric power is not the only source of power being lost due to depleted water reserves.

Renewable resources are those that are considered to be constant in nature, that will always be available on Earth. Sunlight, wind, and water are some examples of such resources. You may ask, “Why is water considered 'renewable' if a drought can reduce the amount available?" This is due to the fact that, while a drought reduces the availability of water in specific parts of the world, the amount of water available throughout the entire world remains relatively constant. 

As more and more research comes out showing the negative effects that coal and fossil fuels have on the environment, as well as the rapidly diminishing supplies of such resources, both government agencies and private corporations search for a more sustainable alternative. Wind and solar energy seem to provide the greatest return on investment, to the extent that many homeowners have installed their own solar panels to harness the Sun's natural power for themselves. Unfortunately, power companies have yet to find a way to store excess energy. Just as blackouts and power reductions can be caused by too little power being produced, too much power can overload the power grid and damage everything connected to it.

Edison has a system that, in non-drought times, would be quite effective in storing excess energy for later use. when the water has flowed down the mountain and through th3e turbines, it ends up in another manmade lake. When their solar panels and wind turbines collect more energy than can be used by consumers, the excess energy is used rather than given away at negative prices. The energy is used to power pumps that bring the water back up the mountain and stored back in the starting lake. In this way, "energy" can be stored, though not in the classical sense.  Since energy can only be converted, not created or destroyed, the excess energy is converted from electrical to mechanical (pumps) to potential (water on top of the mountain). Then, when the energy is needed again, the water is released from the lake and the potential energy becomes kinetic, then electrical once again. 

At nighttime, stored energy is needed to make up for the fact that no solar energy is being collected. While Edison's energy storage system, of course, has loss associated with it, since all processes lose some energy as heat, it is better than the alternative in which excess energy is given away to competing companies in order to prevent overloading of the power grid. However, drought conditions have everyone at a loss. How else can the energy be stored in an economical, efficient, and environmentally-friendly manner?  

As Penn points out, it's not as if we can control Sun or wind on command. Renewable energy sources are great and have become more utilitarian and widely used in recent years, but it seems that the most effective use of researchers' time would be to find a better way to store the energy.  If renewable, sustainable energy can be stored and easily accessed, then there would be little reason to use fossil fuels and other degradative materials as energy sources. As such, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power are arguably the best and cheapest energy sources, but they can only live up to their true potential if scientists find an effective way to store the excess. 

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