Renewable energy living lab energy priorities – activity – teachengineering gas efficient cars 2012


Students analyze real-world data for five types of renewable energy, as found on the online Renewable Energy Living Lab. They identify the best and worst locations for production of each form of renewable energy, and then make recommendations for which type that state should pursue.

Engineers are continually designing and inventing new technologies to harness energy. All of these technologies must be adapted, however, for local conditions. For example, in Iceland, an island with many active volcanoes, about two-thirds of the country’s primary energy comes from geothermal sources. However, in New York, attempting to harness geothermal energy may not make as much sense. Part of an engineer’s job is determining what sources of energy are feasible for a given area.

Scientists and engineers around the world gather data through observation and experimentation and use it to describe and understand how the world works. The Renewable Energy Living Lab gives students a chance to evaluate U.S. renewable energy sources. Using the real-world data in the living lab enables students and teachers to practice analyzing data to solve problems or answer questions, in much the same way that scientists and engineers do every day.

What is renewable energy? (Listen to student ideas.) Renewable energy is generated by resources that will never dwindle because of use or overuse. Are all renewable energy resources equally feasible solutions to generate electrical energy across the US? (Listen to student ideas.) This is the question that we will investigate today.

Today, we will investigate five key forms of renewable energy: wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and biomass. What makes an area suitable for a particular type of renewable energy? Well, it varies, depending upon the type of renewable energy. Let’s take Iceland for example. You may be aware that this island country is home to many active volcanoes. In fact, approximately two thirds of the country’s primary energy comes from geothermal sources. On the other hand, geothermal energy might not make as much sense in other locations, say in New York. As another example, harnessing solar energy makes sense in the state of Colorado, which receives more than 300 days of sunlight every year, but is not as feasible in much of the Pacific Northwest where skies are more often overcast. Part of an engineer’s job is to determine what sources of energy are feasible for a given area.

biomass: Biological (organic) material from living or dead organisms (especially plants) used as an energy source. Biomass used for electricity generation varies widely by region. Examples: Forest and wild plant growth (trees, branches, stumps), industrial wastes (such as from lumber and paper mills), urban waste (park trimmings, yard clippings, municipal solid waste, animal matter, sewage, food scraps), agricultural residues and fuel crops (corn, sugarcane, bamboo, hemp, wheat, straw, rice husks, grasses, algae, seaweed, animal fats, vegetable oils), etc.

renewable energy: Energy obtained from natural resources that are continually replenished, for example, regardless of how much of the Sun’s heat energy is "used" today, more is received by the Earth tomorrow. Examples: Sunlight (solar energy), water (hydropower), geothermal, biomass.

• Provide students with the background and story for the activity and the challenge: Engineers are often called upon by decision- and policy-makers to provide information as the basis for community decisions about how to allocate resources. For this activity, you are acting as environmental engineers hired by the people on the state utilities commission to investigate which form of renewable energy they should focus their efforts on as they recruit new companies using a federal renewable energy grant. You have been tasked with analyzing potential energy data using the living lab data and then making a recommendation as to what form of energy the state should focus its recruitment efforts on. To solve this problem, we’ll use real data hosted on a website called "a living lab."

• As an introduction to renewable energy, review the descriptive paragraphs about each energy source the page. Visit each "How It Works" link to explore the engineering. A brief description of wind energy, as found on the Renewable Energy Living Lab introduction page. Note the "How It Works" hot link.

Discussion & Worksheet: After students have completed the activity, have them share the results of their investigations, as documented on their worksheets, and discuss the differences as a class. Ask students to think of additional data that would be helpful in order to make better-informed decisions. Review their worksheet answers to gauge their comprehension.

This activity is designed around the Renewable Energy Living Lab, a resource of current and real-world scientific data, in this case a culmination of available renewable energy data from across the U.S. The data is available in a database with a graphical interface using a scaling map for viewing of regions as large as the continental U.S. and as small as a town. It is rare that students have access to query such as extensive body of scientific data to support their own inquiry-based questions. Additional background information is provided in the living lab interface including source information used to compile the data.

This curriculum was created with the support of National Science Foundation grant no. DUE 0532684. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.