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Professor Quester Answers
Questions on Renewable Power

Dear Dr. Q:
While reading The Magic School Bus and the Electric Field Trip, some third graders in my class observed a side note in a margin. Examples are given of "Cleaner Ways To Make Electricity" (solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, tidal, etc.). Listed beside this is a "Bad News" fact...Copied here..."Right now we can't get all the power we need from these sources." We want to know WHY. Does it have to do with the Law of Conservation of Energy and inefficiency? What would we do if the fossil fuel supply ran out tomorrow?
  (Ms. Robinson and her third grade class, Andrew Jackson Elementary School, Old Hickory, TN)

The Professor Answers:
I love the Magic School Bus, don't you? Let's see, about renewable energy. It's really not a question of can't, it's more a question of won't. There are several reasons why these renewable resources are not being used to their full potential. The main reason is money, money, money. Solar, wind, geothermal and tidal cost more than fossil fuels. It's not the fuel that costs more since that's almost free. It's the cost to build the equipment such as the wind turbines or solar panels that cost more.

Natural gas, coal and oil are cheap and in most cases, the power plants that generate the electricity are already paid for. Most utilities don't want to invest in the extra costs because the ratepayers (that's us) don't want to pay more for their electricity or for the products they get that are made by factories that buy the electricity from the utilities. The more manufacturers pay for their electricity, the more their products like computers, or clothes or food costs. How much do you think your parents are willing to pay for their electricity?

Hydroelectric power (dams) provide a lot of electricity for the U.S. however you can't dam all the rivers because that causes environmental problems. Also renewable resources such as wind and geothermal are limited to certain regions of the U.S. They're not found everywhere and yes, even though wind does blow everywhere but it's not at the constant speed you need to make it worthwhile to build wind turbines.

Another reason renewables are not being used as much is because for the last 100 years or so, we've always used fossil's what people feel comfortable with and know about.

People are beginning to realize that it's important to consider environmental issues when generating electricity. Many states get some of the electricity from renewables. California, for instance, gets 12 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (geothermal, solar, wind and biomass) and if you add in hydroelectric it's over 70 percent. There's also more rules that make factories and power plants reduce the pollutants that would be put into the air.

What if we ran out of fossil fuel tomorrow? A disaster... Transportation would stop, there would be little electricity. You can imagine what a nightmare it would be. Of course, people lived and worked before there was electricity and oil to power cars and trucks. We could survive but it would be a HUGE mess in the meantime. It would, of course, force nations of the world to develop alternative sources so there would be more solar and wind. On the other hand, there would be more nuclear power plant too! I think another important issue to discuss is the air and water problems we have with the pollutants caused by burning the fossil fuels to make electricity and run our cars.

I hope this helps. We have more on renewable vs. non-renewable energy in Chapter 17 of The Energy Story.

If YOU have a question about energy, send your question by e-mail to "Professor Quester."
Ask your parents or teacher first before sending an e-mail. Please tell us your grade level, the name of your school and your city. We will usually respond within four or five days.

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Page updated: May 17, 2002
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