Is there a way to get energy for free?

Los Angeles drivers saw $5 gallons of gas looming on the horizon in June of 2008. They also saw the opening of the first new hydrogen fuel pump at a local Shell station.
David McNew/Getty Images

Conserving energy is all the rage right now as people look for ways to cut their power use -- and their power bills. At the same time, developers are looking into ways to optimize the use of renewable or alternative forms of energy. Still others want to build machines capable of creating energy out of nothing. Or at least be able to extract more energy than the amount of power it takes to run said machines in the first place.

Is it possible? First, we need to clear up what's meant by getting energy free. To some people, free energy refers to inventions like perpetual motion machines or other net-gain energy systems. If you hear reference to something along those lines, keep moving. No one's come close to figuring it out yet.


­That's because the laws of thermodynamics aren't the type of laws you can argue in court. In general, these laws are unbending when it comes to the idea of finding a means to create perpetual motion or even a system that dishes out more energy than it needs to run. Specifically, energy can't be created and it can't be destroyed; it can only be transferred or converted.

Building on this, an isolated energy system can only go downhill, experiencing energy loss through entropy. Entropy is simply an ever-increasing state of disorder, like being stuck on a one-way street as your car is slowly running out of gas. Total energy levels fall as some heat is lost in the process of converting it into work. In other words, something may be able to run by itself for a while, but nothing can run by itself forever.

So do we need to give up on the idea of getting energy for free? A­re there other ways to wipe out our utility bills? Read on to find out.


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.
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.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Biello, David. "Wild Green Yonder." Scientific American. 1/14/2008. (­7/14/2008)
  • Bloomfield, Louis. "How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life." The University of Virginia. 2001. (7/11/2008)
  • Collins, Graham. "Selling the Free Lunch." Scientific American. 10/2002. (7/11/2008)
  • "Free Energy." MythBusters. (7/10/2008)
  • "Geothermal Benefits." Manitoba Energy Development Initiative. (7/16/2008)
  • Hindustan Times. "Power thieves face tech onslaught." 7/13/08 (7/16/08)
  • Holdren, John. "The Quest for Affordable Energy." 11/2003. (7/14/2008)
  • "Hysteresis." The Free Online Dictionary. (7/16/2008)
  • Lindemann, Peter. "No Useful Output." PES Wiki. 2/6/2008. (7/16/2008) Inc#Nothing_more_than_a_hysteresis_brake
  • "Perpetual Motion." Encyclopaedia Britannica. (7/11/2008)
  • Proefrock, Philip. "Solar Produces 1000x More Energy Per Acre than Soy BioDiesel." 3/18/2008. (7/14/2008)
  • "Renewable Energy." The Free Dictionary. 2004. (7/11/2008)
  • "Renewable Energy Basics." National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (7/11/2008)
  • Simanek, Donald. "Perpetual Futility." Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. 2007. (7/11/2008)
  • Simanek, Donald. "The Museum of Workable Devices." Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. 2007. (7/11/2008)
  • Upson, Sandra. "How Free Is Solar Energy?" IEEE Spectrum. 2/2008. (7/14/2008)
  • Zyga, Lisa. "Inventor Doesn't Dare Say "Perpetual Motion Machine." 2/7/2008. (7/11/2008)