Harnessing the elements for clean energy

April 19, 2016


Jordan Smith
Zenith News

While controlling the weather remains the domain of science fiction, harnessing the elements is the basis of renewable energy.

Windmills used to be restricted to remote areas, but advances in technology have made wind power a competitive sector, at least in windy locales, such as the plains, as well as parts of India, Egypt, Argentina, and Chile.

Wind also produces waves, and it’s possible to generate electricity with ocean waves driving turbines. But this isn’t quite as economically viable as the windmill. Plus, not everyone finds a horizon dominated by windmills appealing and they may pose a hazard to birds. However, compared to fossil fuels, wind is a very clean method.

On sunny areas of the planet, solar-energy converters supply hot water, and many new buildings are designed to use sunlight for heat and illumination. Skylights reduce the need for artificial lighting. Even space satellites and handheld calculators can be equipped with solar panels.

Though the price of solar panels has dropped, they cannot yet compete effectively with conventional forms of energy (gas, coal, oil, etc.). Yet small solar panels are useful in remote areas where it’s not feasible to run power line. Even the White House briefly sported solar panels.

Hydropower presents some problems, though none as troublesome as nuclear waste. Dams, like the one in Thomson, a few miles east of Cloquet, are often necessary, but they’re prone to flood, which can wreak havoc on the local ecosystem, even displacing entire communities. Flooded areas can also cause silt buildup, depriving downstream areas of fertile sediment.

But compared to the negative effects of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, the drawbacks of wind, solar, and hydro are relatively minor. Downstream from the Thomson Dam is Forbay Lake, a manmade reservoir that flows through Jay Cooke State Park. The Munger State Trail goes over this reservoir, and then alongside it for a while.

The reservoir drains through an underground pipeline, powering turbines that generate energy before rejoining the St. Louis River. The massive flooding in 2012 halted this operation. The water flowing over the dam was subsequently directed almost entirely down the St. Louis River, and Forbay Lake was emptied. Only recently has the hydro plant come back into operation, and Forbay Lake is back. (Warning: Do not swim in Forbay Lake. The current is strong and it empties into an underground pipeline.)

Further downstream is another hydro dam in Fond du Lac that was ravaged by the flood. A trail spur leading to the Superior Hiking Trail closed after the flood (I learned this the hard way) and has since been rerouted.

Fun Fact: Ants harness solar energy, too! The southern side of ant hills (in the Northern Hemisphere) have the largest slope, maximizing sun exposure. You can do the same thing. Keeping the south side of your home free of shade may make the house ridiculously hot in July, but the benefits in January can reduce your heating bill.

But it’s not January. Rather, April is upon us, and the forecast this month calls for two degrees above average temps around Duluth. Look for highs in the upper 40s immediately giving way into the 50s as May begins.

Our snowy spring thus far changes to rain in late April and early May, interspersed with sunny or partly cloudy spring days. We can finally look forward to blooming flowers as temps continue to get nicer.

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