Skip to main content
Geosciences LibreTexts

12.12: Earth's Energy

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Much of Earth’s energy comes from the Sun. Nearly all life on Earth depends on solar energy since plants use sunlight to make food through the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis was the process that fed plants and animals, which in turn, over the course of millions of years, became fossil fuels. The Sun heats some areas of Earth more than other areas, which causes wind. The Sun’s energy also drives the water cycle, which moves water over the surface of the Earth. Some of these types of energy can be harnessed for use by people.

    The other main source of energy is Earth’s internal heat. This heat has two origins: the breakdown of chemical elements by radioactivity, and the heat that is left over from when the planet came together. These two sources will be described in more detail in later chapters.


    Everything requires energy. Even when you are sitting as still as you possibly can, your body is using energy to breathe, circulate blood, digest food, and perform many other functions. Producing light or heat requires energy. Making something requires energy. Plants and animals all require energy to function. To repeat, everything requires energy!

    The Need for Energy

    Energy is the ability to do work or produce change. Every living thing needs energy to perform its daily functions and even more energy to grow. Plants get energy from the “food” they make by photosynthesis, and animals get energy directly or indirectly from that food. People also use energy for many things, such as cooking food, keeping ice cream cold in the freezer, heating a house, constructing a skyscraper, or lighting their homes. Because billions of people all around the world use energy, there is a huge need for energy resources (figure 1). Energy conservation is something everyone can do now to help reduce the strain on energy resources.

    Figure 1.png
    Figure 1. Electrical transmission towers like the one shown in this picture help deliver the electricity people use for energy every day.

    The law of conservation of energy says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. This means that even though energy changes form, the total amount of energy always stays the same. How does energy get converted from one type to another when you kick a soccer ball? When your body breaks down the food you eat, it stores the energy from the food as chemical energy. Chemical energy is stored within chemical bonds. But some of this stored energy has to be released to make your leg muscles move. The chemical energy is converted to another form of energy called kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is the energy of anything in motion. Your muscles move your leg, your foot kicks the ball, and the ball gains kinetic energy from the kick. So you can think of the action of kicking the ball as a story of energy changing forms.

    To learn the quadratic equations related to getting a rapidly moving car to overcome its kinetic energy and come to a stop, watch this video:

    Potential energy is energy that is stored. Potential energy has the potential to do work or the potential to be converted into other forms of energy. If a ball is sitting on the very edge at the top of the hill, it is not moving, but it has a lot of potential energy.

    Animations showing the conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy can be seen at the following sites:

    • Energy Transformation for Downhill Skiing
    • Energy Transformation on a Roller Coaster
    • Energy Transformation for a Dart

    Energy, Fuel, and Heat

    If you read a book beneath a lit lamp, that lamp has energy from electricity. The energy to make the electricity comes from fuel. Fuel has energy that it releases. A fuel is any material that can release energy in a chemical change.

    What are some examples of fuel, and what are they used for?

    1. Food is fuel for your body.
    2. Sunlight is the energy plants need to make food by photosynthesis.
    3. Gasoline is fuel for cars.
    4. Hydrogen is fuel for the Sun.

    For a fuel to be useful, its energy must be released in a way that can be controlled. Controlling the release of energy makes it possible for the energy to be used to do work. When fuel is used for its energy, it is usually burned, and most of the energy is released as heat (figure 2). The heat may then be used to do work. Think of a person striking a match to set some small twigs on fire. After the twigs burn for a while, they get hot enough to make some larger sticks burn. The fire keeps getting hotter, and soon it is hot enough to burn whole logs. Pretty soon the fire is roaring, and a pot of water placed on the fire starts to boil. Some of the liquid water evaporates.

    Figure 2.png
    Figure 2. A controlled fire.

    What is the source of energy for boiling and evaporating the water? Although some chemical energy from the match was put into starting the fire, the heat to boil and evaporate the water comes from the energy that was stored in the wood. The wood is the fuel for the fire.

    Types of Energy Resources

    Energy resources are either renewable or non-renewable. Non-renewable resources are used faster than they can be replaced,so the supply available to society is limited (see example in figure 3). Renewable resources will not run out because they are replaced as quickly as they are used. Can you think of some renewable and non-renewable energy sources?

    Figure 3.png
    Figure 3. Anthracite coal is a non-renewable energy resource.

    Non-Renewable Resources

    Fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—are the most common example of non-renewable energy resources. Fossil fuels are formed from fossils, the partially decomposed remains of once living plants and animals. These fossils took millions of years to form. When fossil fuels are burned for energy, they release pollutants into the atmosphere. Fossil fuels also release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which are causing global temperatures to rise. The environmental effects of fossil fuel use are discussed in the “Climate” and “Human Actions and the Atmosphere” chapters.

    Renewable Resources

    Renewable energy resources include solar, water, wind, biomass, and geothermal. These resources are either virtually limitless like the Sun, which will continue to shine for billions of years, or will be replaced faster than we can use them. Amounts of falling water or wind will change over the course of time, but they are quite abundant. Biomass energy, like wood for fire, can be replaced quickly.

    The use of renewable resources may also cause problems. Some are expensive, while some, such as trees, have other uses. Some cause environmental problems. As the technology improves and more people use renewable energy, the prices may come down. At the same time, as we use up fossil fuels, coal, oil, and natural gas, these non-renewable resources will become more expensive. At some point, even if renewable energy costs are high, non-renewable energy will be even more expensive. Ultimately, we will have to use renewable sources.

    Important Things to Consider about Energy Resources

    With both renewable and non-renewable resources, there are at least two important things to consider. One is that we have to have a practical way to turn the resource into a useful form of energy. The other is that we have to consider what happens when we turn the resource into energy.

    For example, if we get much less energy from burning a fuel than we put into making it, then that fuel is probably not a practical energy resource. On the other hand, if another fuel gives us large amounts of energy but creates large amounts of pollution, that fuel also may not be the best choice for an energy resource.

    Today we rely on electricity more than ever, but the resources that currently supply our power are finite. The race is on to harness more renewable resources, but getting all that clean energy from production sites to homes and businesses is proving to be a major challenge.


    Millions of years ago, plants used energy from the Sun to form sugars, carbohydrates, and other energy-rich carbon compounds that were later transformed into coal, oil, or natural gas. The solar energy stored in these fuels is a rich source of energy. Although fossil fuels provide very high quality energy, they are non-renewable.

    In large part, non-renewable energy sources are responsible for the world’s lights seen in this animation.

    Formation of Fossil Fuels

    Can you name some fossils? How about dinosaur bones or dinosaur footprints? Animal skeletons, teeth, shells, coprolites (otherwise known as feces), or any other remains or trace from a living creature that becomes a rock is a fossil.

    Figure 4.png
    Figure 4. This wetland may look something like an ancient coal-forming swamp.

    The same processes that formed these fossils also created some of our most important energy resources, fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and natural gas are fossil fuels. Fossil fuels come from living matter starting about 500 million years ago. As plants and animals died, their remains settled on the ground on land and in swamps, lakes, and seas (figure 4).

    Over time, layer upon layer of these remains accumulated. Eventually, the layers were buried so deeply that they were crushed by an enormous mass of earth. The weight of this earth pressing down on these plant and animal remains created intense heat and pressure. After millions of years of heat and pressure, the material in these layers turned into chemicals called hydrocarbons (figure 5). Here is an animated view of a hydrocarbon.

    Figure 5.png
    Figure 5. Hydrocarbons are made of carbon and hydrogen atoms. This molecule with one carbon and four hydrogen atoms is methane.

    Hydrocarbons can be solid, liquid, or gaseous. The solid form is what we know as coal. The liquid form is petroleum, or crude oil. Natural gas is the gaseous form.


    Coal, a solid fossil fuel formed from the partially decomposed remains of ancient forests, is burned primarily to produce electricity. Coal use is undergoing enormous growth as the availability of oil and natural gas decreases and cost increases. This increase in coal use is happening particularly in developing nations, such as China, where coal is cheap and plentiful.

    Coal Formation

    Coal forms from dead plants that settled at the bottom of ancient swamps. Lush coal swamps were common in the tropics during the Carboniferous period, which took place more than 300 million years ago (figure 6). The climate was warmer then.

    Figure 6.png
    Figure 6. The location of the continents during the Carboniferous period. Notice that quite a lot of land area is in the region of the tropics.

    Mud and other dead plants buried the organic material in the swamp, and burial kept oxygen away. When plants are buried without oxygen, the organic material can be preserved or fossilized. Sand and clay settling on top of the decaying plants squeezed out the water and other substances. Millions of years later, what remains is a carbon-containing rock that we know as coal.

    Figure 7.png
    Figure 7. Bituminous coal is a sedimentary rock.

    Coal is black or brownish-black. The most common form of coal is bituminous, a sedimentary rock that contains impurities such as sulfur (figure 7). Anthracite coal, seen in figure 3, has been metamorphosed and is nearly all carbon. For this reason, anthracite coal burns more cleanly than bituminous coal.

    Coal Use

    Around the world, coal is the largest source of energy for electricity. The United States is rich in coal (figure 8). California once had a number of small coal mines, but the state no longer produces coal. To turn coal into electricity, the rock is crushed into powder, which is then burned in a furnace that has a boiler. Like other fuels, coal releases its energy as heat when it burns. Heat from the burning coal boils the water in the boiler to make steam. The steam spins turbines, which turn generators to create electricity. In this way, the energy stored in the coal is converted to useful energy like electricity.

    Figure 8.png
    Figure 8. United States coal-producing regions in 1996. Orange is highest grade anthracite; red is low volatile bituminous; gray and gray-green is medium to high-volatile bituminous; green is subbituminous; and yellow is the lowest grade lignite

    Coal that has been located but is not being used is part of our reserves. Reserves are important because if the price of the resource goes up or the cost of extracting it goes down, they may be useful.

    Consequences of Coal Use

    For coal to be used as an energy source, it must first be mined. Coal mining occurs at the surface or underground by methods that are described in the “Earth’s Minerals” chapter (figure 9). Mining, especially underground mining, can be dangerous. In April 2010, twenty-nine miners were killed at a West Virginia coal mine when gas that had accumulated in the mine tunnels exploded and started a fire.

    Figure 9.png
    Figure 9. The coal used in power plants must be mined. One method to mine coal is by mountaintop removal.

    Some possible types of environmental damage from mining are discussed in the “Earth’s Minerals” chapter. Coal mining exposes minerals and rocks from underground to air and water at the surface. Many of these minerals contain the element sulfur, which mixes with air and water to make sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical. If the sulfuric acid gets into streams, it can kill fish, plants, and animals that live in or near the water.


    Oil is a liquid fossil fuel that is extremely useful because it can be transported easily and can be used in cars and other vehicles. Oil is currently the single largest source of energy in the world.

    Oil Formation

    Oil from the ground is called crude oil, which is a mixture of many different hydrocarbons. Crude oil is a thick dark brown or black liquid hydrocarbon. Oil also forms from buried dead organisms, but these are tiny organisms that live on the sea surface and then sink to the seafloor when they die. The dead organisms are kept away from oxygen by layers of other dead creatures and sediments. As the layers pile up, heat and pressure increase. Over millions of years, the dead organisms turn into liquid oil.

    Oil Production

    In order to be collected, the oil must be located between a porous rock layer and an impermeable layer (figure 10). Trapped above the porous rock layer and beneath the impermeable layer, the oil will remain between these layers until it is extracted from the rock.

    Figure 10.png
    Figure 10. Oil (red) is found in the porous rock layer (yellow) and trapped by the impermeable layer (brown). The folded structure has allowed the oil to pool so a well can be drilled into the reservoir.

    • Here is an animation of an oil deposit forming.
    • The oil pocket is then drilled into from the surface. Here is an animation of an oil deposit being drilled.
    • Sideways drilling allows a deposit that lies beneath land that cannot be drilled to be mined for oil.

    To separate the different types of hydrocarbons in crude oil for different uses, the crude oil must be refined in refineries like the one shown in figure 11. Refining is possible because each hydrocarbon in crude oil boils at a different temperature. When the oil is boiled in the refinery, separate equipment collects the different compounds.

    Figure 11.png
    Figure 11. Refineries like this one separate crude oil into many useful fuels and other chemicals.

    Oil Use

    Most of the compounds that come out of the refining process are fuels, such as gasoline, diesel, and heating oil. Because these fuels are rich sources of energy and can be easily transported, oil provides about 90% of the energy used for transportation around the world. The rest of the compounds from crude oil are used for waxes, plastics, fertilizers, and other products.

    Gasoline is in a convenient form for use in cars and other transportation vehicles. In a car engine, the burned gasoline mostly turns into carbon dioxide and water vapor. The fuel releases most of its energy as heat, which causes the gases to expand. This creates enough force to move the pistons inside the engine and to power the car.

    Consequences of Oil Use

    The United States does produce oil, but the amount produced is only about one-quarter as much as the nation uses. The United States has only about 1.5% of the world’s proven oil reserves, and so most of the oil used by Americans must be imported from other nations.

    The main oil-producing regions in the United States are the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, Alaska, and California. Most offshore drilling occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, but there are offshore platforms in California as well (Figure 12). Here is an animation of the location of petroleum basins in the contiguous United States.

    Figure 12.png
    Figure 12. Offshore well locations in the Gulf of Mexico. Note that some wells are located in very deep water.

    As in every type of mining, mining for oil has environmental consequences. Oil rigs are unsightly (figure 13), and spills are too common (figure 14).

    Figure 13.png
    Figure 13. Drill rigs at the San Ardo Oil Field in Monterey, California.

    Figure 14.png
    Figure 14. A deadly explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 led to a massive oil spill. When this picture was taken in July 2010, oil was still spewing into the Gulf. The long-term consequences of the spill are being studied and are as yet unknown.

    Natural Gas

    Natural gas, often known simply as gas, is composed mostly of the hydrocarbon methane (refer to figure 5 for the structure).

    Natural Gas Formation

    Natural gas forms under the same conditions that create oil. Organic material buried in the sediments harden to become a shale formation that is the source of the gas. Although natural gas forms at higher temperatures than crude oil, the two are often found together. The formation of a minable oil and gas deposit is seen in this animation.

    The largest natural gas reserves in the United States are in the Appalachian Basin, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico region (Figure 15). California also has natural gas, found mostly in the Central Valley. In the northern Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento Delta, a sediment-filled trough formed along a location where crust was pushed together (an ancient convergent margin). Here is an animation of global natural gas reserves.

    Figure 15.png
    Figure 15. Gas production in the Lower 48 United States.

    Natural Gas Use

    Like crude oil, natural gas must be processed before it can be used as a fuel. Some of the chemicals in unprocessed natural gas are poisonous to humans. Other chemicals, such as water, make the gas less useful as a fuel. Processing natural gas removes almost everything except the methane. Once the gas is processed, it is ready to be delivered and used. Natural gas is delivered to homes for uses such as cooking and heating. Like coal and oil, natural gas is also burned to generate heat for powering turbines. The spinning turbines turn generators, and the generators create electricity.

    Consequences of Natural Gas Use

    Natural gas burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels, meaning that it causes less air pollution. Natural gas also produces less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels do for the same amount of energy, so its global warming effects are less (figure 16). See the pollution created by a car burning gasoline and a car burning natural gas in this animation.

    Figure 16.png
    Figure 16. A natural gas drill rig.

    Unfortunately, drilling for natural gas can be environmentally destructive. One technique used is hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, which increases the rate of recovery of natural gas. Fluids are pumped through a borehole to create fractures in the reservoir rock that contains the natural gas. Material is added to the fluid to prevent the fractures from closing. The damage comes primarily from chemicals in the fracturing fluids. Chemicals that have been found in the fluids may be carcinogens (cancer-causing), radioactive materials, or endocrine disruptors, which interrupt hormones in the bodies of humans and animals. The fluids may get into groundwater or may runoff into streams and other surface waters.

    Fossil Fuel Reserves

    Fossil fuels provide about 85% of the world’s energy at this time. Worldwide fossil fuel usage has increased many times over in the past half century (coal: 2.6x, oil: 8x, natural gas: 14x) because of population increases, because of increases in the number of cars, televisions, and other fuel-consuming uses in the developed world, and because of lifestyle improvements in the developing world. Past and predicted use of different types of energy in the United States can be seen in this animation.

    Figure 17.png
    Figure 17. Worldwide oil reserves.

    The amount of fossil fuels that remain untapped is unknown but can likely be measured in decades for oil and natural gas and in a few centuries for coal (figure 17). Alternative sources of fossil fuels, such as oil shales and tar sands, are increasingly being exploited (figure 18).

    Figure 18.png
    Figure 18. A satellite image of an oil-sands mine in Canada.

    The environmental consequences of mining these fuels, and of fossil fuel use in general, along with the fact that these fuels do not have a limitless supply, are prompting the development of alternative energy sources.

    Nuclear Energy

    When the nucleus of an atom is split, it releases a huge amount of energy called nuclear energy. For nuclear energy to be used as a power source, scientists and engineers have learned to split nuclei and to control the release of energy (Figure 19).

    Figure 19.png
    Figure 19. When struck by a tiny particle, Uranium-235 breaks apart and releases energy.

    Nuclear Energy Use

    Nuclear power plants, such as the one seen in figure 20, use uranium, which is mined, processed, and then concentrated into fuel rods. When the uranium atoms in the fuel rods are hit by other extremely tiny particles, they split apart. The number of tiny particles allowed to hit the fuel rods needs to be controlled or they would cause a dangerous explosion. The energy from a nuclear power plant heats water, which creates steam and causes a turbine to spin. The spinning turbine turns a generator, which in turn produces electricity.

    Figure 20.png
    Figure 20. Nuclear power plants like this one provide France with almost 80% of its electricity.

    Many countries around the world use nuclear energy as a source of electricity. In the United States, a little less than 20% of electricity comes from nuclear energy.

    Consequences of Nuclear Power

    Nuclear power is clean. It does not pollute the air or release carbon dioxide. However, the use of nuclear energy does create other environmental problems. Uranium must be mined (figure 21). The process of splitting atoms creates radioactive waste, which remains dangerous for thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. As yet, there is no long-term solution for storing this waste.

    Figure 21.png
    Figure 21. Uranium mine in Kakadu National Park, Australia.

    The development of nuclear power plants has been on hold for three decades. Accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, Ukraine verified people’s worst fears about the dangers of harnessing nuclear power (figure 22).

    Figure 22.png
    Figure 22. Damaged building near the site of the Chernobyl disaster.

    Recently, nuclear power appeared to be making a comeback as society looked for alternatives to fossil fuels. But the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan may have resulted in a new fear of nuclear power. The cause of the disaster was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which compromised the plant. Although a total meltdown was averted, the plant experienced multiple partial meltdowns, core breaches, radiation releases, and cooling failures. The plant is scheduled for a complete cold shutdown before the end of 2011.

    KQED: Nuclear Energy Use. Nuclear power is a controversial subject in California and most other places. Nuclear power has no pollutants including carbon emissions, but power plants are not always safe and the long-term disposal of wastes is a problem that has not yet been solved. The future of nuclear power is murky.


    Fossil fuels have the advantage of being cheap and transportable, but they cause environmental damage and will eventually run out. Renewable energy sources, by definition, will not run out, and most do not cause much pollution. But renewable energy sources do have a downside, too. Both the advantages and disadvantages of solar, water, wind, biomass, and geothermal energy will be described in this lesson.

    Solar Power

    The Sun is Earth’s main source of energy, making the development of solar power a natural choice for an alternative energy source.

    Solar Energy

    Energy from the Sun comes from the lightest element, hydrogen, fusing together to create the second lightest element, helium. Nuclear fusion releases tremendous amounts of solar energy. The energy travels to the Earth, mostly as visible light. The light carries the energy through the empty space between the Sun and the Earth as radiation.

    Solar Power Use

    Solar energy has been used for power on a small scale for hundreds of years, and plants have used it for billions of year. Unlike energy from fossil fuels, which almost always come from a central power plant or refinery, solar power can be harnessed locally (figure 23). A set of solar panels on a home’s rooftop can be used to heat water for a swimming pool or can provide electricity to the house.

    Figure 23.png
    Figure 23. Solar panels supply power to the International Space Station.

    Society’s use of solar power on a larger scale is just starting to increase. Scientists and engineers have very active, ongoing research into new ways to harness energy from the Sun more efficiently. Because of the tremendous amount of incoming sunlight, solar power is being developed in the United States in southeastern California, Nevada, and Arizona.

    Solar power plants turn sunlight into electricity using a large group of mirrors to focus sunlight on one place, called a receiver (figure 24). A liquid, such as oil or water, flows through this receiver and is heated to a high temperature by the focused sunlight. The heated liquid transfers its heat to a nearby object that is at a lower temperature through a process called conduction. The energy conducted by the heated liquid is used to make electricity.

    Figure 24.png
    Figure 24. This solar power plant uses mirrors to focus sunlight on the tower in the center. The sunlight heats a liquid inside the tower to a very high temperature, producing energy to make electricity.

    Here’s a video of how solar energy can be concentrated so that it can be used for power.

    Consequences of Solar Power Use

    Solar energy has many benefits. It is extremely abundant, widespread, and will never run out. But there are problems with the widespread use of solar power.

    Figure 25.png
    Figure 25. This experimental car is one example of the many uses that engineers have found for solar energy.

    • Sunlight must be present. Solar power is not useful in locations that are often cloudy or at night. However, storage technology is being developed.
    • The technology needed for solar power is still expensive. An increase in interested customers will provide incentive for companies to research and develop new technologies and to figure out how to mass-produce existing technologies (figure 25).
    • Solar panels require a lot of space. Fortunately, solar panels can be placed on any rooftop to supply at least some of the power required for a home or business.

    Water Power

    Water covers 70% of the planet’s surface, and water power (hydroelectric power) is the most widely used form of renewable energy in the world. Hydroelectric power from streams provides almost one fifth of the world’s electricity.

    Hydroelectric Power

    Remember that potential energy is the energy of an object waiting to fall. Water held behind a dam has a lot of potential energy. In a hydroelectric plant, a dam across a riverbed holds a stream to create a reservoir. Instead of flowing down its normal channel, the water is allowed to flow into a large turbine. As the water moves, it has kinetic energy, which makes the turbine spin. The turbine is connected to a generator, which makes electricity (figure 26).

    Figure 26.png
    Figure 26. A cross-section of a hydroelectric plant.

    Most of the streams in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world that are suitable for hydroelectric power have already been dammed (figure 27). In California, about 14.5% of the total electricity comes from hydropower. The state’s nearly 400 hydropower plants are mostly located in the eastern mountain ranges where large streams descend down a steep grade.

    Figure 27.png
    Figure 27. Hydroelectric dams like this one use the power of moving water to create electricity.

    Consequences of Water Power Use

    The major benefit of hydropower is that it generates power without releasing any pollution. Hydropower is also a renewable resource since the stream will keep on flowing. However, there are a limited number of suitable dam sites. Hydropower also has environmental problems. When a large dam disrupts a river’s flow, it changes the ecosystem upstream. As the land is flooded by rising water, plants and animals are displaced or killed. Many beautiful landscapes, villages, and archeological sites have been drowned by the water in a reservoir (figure 28).

    Figure 28.png
    Figure 28. Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona created Lake Powell. The dam was controversial because it flooded Glen Canyon, a beautiful desert canyon.

    The dam and turbines also change the downstream environment for fish and other living things. Dams slow the release of silt so that downstream deltas retreat and seaside cities become dangerously exposed to storms and rising sea levels.

    Ocean Water Power

    The energy of waves and tides can be used to produce water power. Tidal power stations may need to close off a narrow bay or estuary. Wave power applications have to be able to withstand coastal storms and the corrosion of seawater. Because of the many problems with them, tide and wave power plants are not very common.

    KQED: Harnessing Power from the Sea. Although not yet widely used, many believe tidal power has more potential than wind or solar power for meeting alternative energy needs. Quest radio looks at plans for harnessing power from the sea by San Francisco and along the northern California coast.

    Wind Power

    Wind power is the fastest growing renewable energy source in the world. Windmills are now seen in many locations, either individually or, more commonly, in large fields. Wind Powering America follows the development of wind power in the United States over the past several years.

    Wind Energy

    Energy from the sun also creates wind, which can be used as wind power. The sun heats different locations on Earth by different amounts. Air that becomes warm rises and then sucks cooler air into that spot. The movement of air from one spot to another along the ground creates wind. Since wind is moving, it has kinetic energy.

    Wind Power Use

    Wind is the source of energy for wind power. Wind has been used for power for centuries. For example, windmills were used to grind grain and pump water. Sailing ships traveled by wind power long before ships were powered by fossil fuels. Wind can be used to generate electricity, as the moving air spins a turbine to create electricity (figure 29). This animation shows how wind power works.

    Figure 29.png
    Figure 29. Wind turbines like the ones shown here turn wind into electricity without creating pollution.

    Consequences of Wind Power

    Wind power has many advantages. It does not burn, so it does not release pollution or carbon dioxide. Also, wind is plentiful in many places. Wind, however, does not blow all of the time, even though power is needed all of the time. Just as with solar power, engineers are working on technologies that can store wind power for later use.

    Windmills are expensive and wear out quickly. A lot of windmills are needed to power a region, so nearby residents may complain about the loss of a nice view if a wind farm is built. Coastlines typically receive a lot of wind, but wind farms built near beaches may cause unhappiness for local residents and tourists.

    The Cape Wind Project off of Cape Cod has been approved but is generating much controversy. Opponents are in favor of green power but not at that location. Proponents say that clean energy is needed and the project would supply 75% of the electricity needed for Cape Cod and nearby islands (figure 30).

    Figure 30.png
    Figure 30. Cape Wind off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts receives a great deal of wind (red color) but is also popular with tourists for its beauty.

    California was an early adopter of wind power. Windmills are found in mountain passes where the cooler Pacific Ocean air is sucked through on its way to warmer inland valleys. Large fields of windmills can be seen at Altamont pass in the eastern San Francisco Bay Area, San Gorgonio Pass east of Los Angeles, and Tehachapi Pass at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

    Geothermal Power

    Geothermal energy comes from heat deep below the surface of the Earth. Nothing must be done to the geothermal energy. It is a resource that can be used without processing.

    Geothermal Energy

    The heat that is used for geothermal power may come to the surface naturally as hot springs or geysers, like The Geysers in northern California. Where water does not naturally come to the surface, engineers may pump cool water into the ground. The water is heated by the hot rock and then pumped back to the surface for use. The hot water or steam from a geothermal well spins a turbine to make electricity.

    Geothermal energy is clean and safe. The energy source is renewable since hot rock is found everywhere in the Earth, although in many parts of the world the hot rock is not close enough to the surface for building geothermal power plants. In some areas, geothermal power is common (figure 31).

    Figure 31.png
    Figure 31. A geothermal energy plant in Iceland. Iceland gets about one fourth of its electricity from geothermal sources.

    In the United States, California is a leader in producing geothermal energy. The largest geothermal power plant in the state is in the Geysers Geothermal Resource Area in Napa and Sonoma Counties, north of San Francisco. The source of heat is thought to be a large magma chamber lying beneath the area.

    KQED: Geothermal Heats Up. Where Earth’s internal heat gets close to the surface, geothermal power is a clean source of energy. In California, The Geysers supplies energy for many nearby homes and businesses.


    Biomass is the material that comes from plants and animals that were recently living. Biomass can be burned directly, such as setting fire to wood. For as long as humans have had fire, people have used biomass for heating and cooking. People can also process biomass to make fuel, called biofuel. Biofuel can be created from crops, such as corn or algae, and processed for use in a car (figure 32). The advantage to biofuels is that they burn more cleanly than fossil fuels. As a result, they create less pollution and less carbon dioxide. Critics say, however, that the amount of energy, fertilizer, and land needed to produce the crops used make biofuels only a slightly better alternative than fossil fuels.

    Figure 32.png
    Figure 32. Biofuels, such as ethanol, are added to gasoline to cut down the amount of fossil fuels that are used.

    • KQED: How Green is Biomass Energy? Organic material, like almond shells, can be made into electricity. Biomass power is a great use of wastes and is more reliable than other renewable energy sources, but harvesting biomass energy uses energy and biomass plants produce pollutants including greenhouse gases.
    • KQED: From Waste to Watts: Biofuel Bonanza. Cow manure can have a second life as a source of methane gas, which can be converted to electricity. Not only that food scraps can also be converted into green energy.
    • KQED: Biofuels: Beyond Ethanol. To generate biomass energy, break down the cell walls of plants to release the sugars and then ferment those sugars to create fuel. Corn is a very inefficient source; scientists are looking for much better sources of biomass energy.
    • Algae Power. Many people think that the best source of biomass energy for the future is algae. Compared to corn, algae is not a food crop, it can grow in many places, its much easier to convert to a usable fuel and its carbon neutral.
    • Power Up with Leftovers. Food that is tossed out produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But that methane from leftovers can be harnessed and used as fuel. Sounds like a win-win situation.


    • According to the law of conservation of energy, energy is neither created nor destroyed.
    • Renewable resources can be replaced at the rate they are being used.
    • Non-renewable resources are available in limited amounts or are being used faster than they can be replaced.
    • Fossil fuels are non-renewable sources of energy that produce environmental damage.
    • Coal, oil, and natural gas are fossil fuels formed from the remains of living organisms.
    • Coal is the largest source of energy for producing electricity.
    • Oil and natural gas are important energy sources for vehicles and electricity generation.
    • Nuclear energy is produced by splitting atoms. It also produces radioactive wastes that are very dangerous for many years.
    • Solar energy, water power, wind power, geothermal energy, and biomass energy are renewable energy sources.
    • Solar energy can be used either by passively storing and holding the Sun’s heat, converting it to electricity, or concentrating it.
    • There are many ways to use the energy of moving water, including hydroelectric dams and tidal and wave plants.
    • Wind power uses the energy of moving air to turn turbines.
    • Geothermal energy uses heat from deep within the earth to heat homes or produce steam that turns turbines.
    • Biomass energy uses renewable materials such as wood or grains to produce energy.


    • What skill does this content help you develop?
    • What are the key topics covered in this content?
    • How can the content in this section help you demonstrate mastery of a specific skill?
    • What questions do you have about this content?

    Contributors and Attributions

    12.12: Earth's Energy is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?