What Is Energy?
Quite simply, energy is the ability to do work. And fuel is needed to create that energy. Where does the fuel come from? Let's look at a few sources.
The fuel a car uses is gasoline.
Gasoline is what's called a nonrenewable source. That means, there's only so much to go around. It's already in the earth as oil, and when it's used up, there is no more. Just because there's a lot of it doesn't mean it will never run out! Coal, oil, natural gas, even the uranium needed to make nuclear power are nonrenewable sources.
The fuel a sailboat uses is wind.
Wind is an example of a renewable source. Sunshine (solar), compost (biomass), waterfalls (hydroelectric), and the heat from inside the earth (geothermal) are other sources of energy that are everlasting, they can't get used up. For example, as long as the sun shines, it will warm up whatever is placed in its path. That warmth can be turned into energy that can power everything from a calculator to a car.
Gas, oil, and coal are called fossil fuels because they were created out of fossils millions of years ago. Fossil fuels aren't just nonrenewable; they are dirty. They need to be burned to produce energy and that burning causes air pollution. And yet coal is the primary source of energy for electricity in the U.S. Between that and cars, it's no wonder our cities have such dirty air.
Clean, renewable sources are a better option, but even they aren't trouble free. To capture wind power, you need windmills, and some people don't like the look of "windmill farms" covering the hillsides. Hydroelectric power needs a dam, or some other means of harnessing the water's natural flow. The huge dams in the American West have nearly killed the Colorado River.
What Can We Do?
Some people think the question is which is better (or worse) windfarms or air pollution? Killing a river or fighting the Middle East for oil? But there is another way to look at the problem.
How can we use less energy so we don't need as much fuel?
In the US, all the family cars together use enough gasoline in one year to fill a 40 mile deep pool the size of a football field! In the home, most of the energy goes to heating and cooling. In the summer, heat comes in the house, in the winter, cold. Not very convenient, but that's the way it goes! Still there are some small, simple things every family can do to reduce its energy usage.
- Block that pass! Cold, winter air will sneak in wherever it finds a crack. Shrink-wrap the windows, put a rolled up towel under the door, keep the chimney flue shut when there's no fire.
- Wrap it up! Insulate the water heater and the pipes in the basement. No need to heat up the furnace room, it's already like an oven in there!
- Keep your cool! If you have windows on different sides of the room, open 'em up for a cross breeze. If you're using a window A/C, close off the room with doors or curtains to keep the cold air in. Better yet, a ceiling fan over your bed is quiet, cool and uses less energy than A/C.
- Pedal power rules! When you ride your bike instead of asking for a lift, you are providing the energy. Besides, it's fun!
- Button up! If you're cold, put on a sweater instead of nudging up the thermostat.
- No peeking! When you're not home, keep the shades down on a hot sunny day and keep the heat outside where it belongs. Keep them down on a cold cloudy day as well. It's another layer of insulation.
- Stop the music! Take quick showers. You can do your singing somewhere else. Heating all that hot water is a real energy drain.
- Lights out! Last one out turns off the lights! Who were you leaving them on for, the cat? He can see well enough in the dark!
- Turn off the TV! The TV isn't a nightlight! When you go to sleep, say goodnight to your chatterbox friend!
- It's an open and shut case! Don't keep the fridge door open too long. Get it and get out! That little light bulb has to rest, you know!