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Is there a way to get energy for free?


The Closest Thing to Free Energy: Renewable Energy
Wind-powered turbine sails in the U.K. Scout Moor Wind Farm started supplying power to the national grid June 30, 2008. The controversial project will dominate the local skyline, but will also be able to power 30,000 homes.
Wind-powered turbine sails in the U.K. Scout Moor Wind Farm started supplying power to the national grid June 30, 2008. The controversial project will dominate the local skyline, but will also be able to power 30,000 homes.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The question of whether we can get energy for free still depends on how we define free. On the last page, we learned that we could neither contain energy indefinitely in a closed-loop system, nor increase the amount, creating new energy.

So we find ourselves looking into the increasingly familiar world of renewable energy, which could be considered free, or at least the next best thing. Directly produced renewable energy could be garnered straight from solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower sources. By tapping into these readily available, naturally occurring forms of energy, we could fuel our planet in a way that's less invasive and harmful than nonrenewable sources, such as coal and oil. In the long run, it may even be cheaper than biofuel. However, it's still unclear how the planet reacts when we alter energy circulation -- say by diverting sunlight into a solar cell or by tapping into the heat of the Earth's fiery core for geothermal energy.

But is there an inherent cost of renewable energy left in the equation that wrecks the free aspect? Developing efficient technologies to convert these natural forms of energy into practical use has posed multiple ongoing challenges for many years now. But as oil prices have risen, the cost of developing and initiating renewable fuel solutions is being seen as more worthwhile by researchers and developers. Wind farms, wave energy converters, solar panels and hydroelectric dams are all among the renewable energies making gains around the world.

While the primary development of a new energy technology can be pricey, it gradually can recover that debt as it catches on. Once a technology is marketable, a consumer, business or government can make the initial investment and, eventually, the system will pay itself off. Different parts of the world often invest in different renewable options -- Nevada, for example, is a better target environment for solar panels than, say, Alaska. You may, of course, stil­l have to pay for a little maintenance work every now and again.

If you want to make a consumer investment in renewable energy, you might look into covering your roof with solar panels or installing a geothermal system in your yard. Geothermal energy can replace conventional heating and air conditioning setups by harnessing the Earth's steady temperature to heat or cool fluid that courses through pipes buried around the yard. Geothermal systems can be pricey to install, but the long-term savings may make them worthwhile.

­To learn more about harnessing the energy flowing around our natural environment, explore the links on the next page.


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