Primary and secondary sources of energy

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Primary and secondary sources of energy
Wind farms convert wind power into electricity. (Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images)

The world around us offers a wealth of resources that can be used to produce the energy that we have come to rely upon to power things in our everyday lives such as electric lights, refrigerators and cars. Primary energy sources are those from natural sources and can be classified as either renewable or non-renewable. Secondary sources of energy, such as electricity, are created by transforming energy from primary sources into a new form.

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Non-renewable primary sources

Although non-renewable energy sources are the most commonly used sources of energy, the Earth only has a limited supply of them. Examples of non-renewable sources of energy include coal, oil and natural gas. According to the World Coal Association, coal alone accounted for 40 per cent of the world’s electricity production in 2011. Primary energy sources such as coal and oil were created by organic plant and animal matter decomposing millions of years ago. As our demand for energy grows, fossil fuel resources are disappearing and as they are created over such a long period of time, their stocks cannot be easily replaced if our current supplies run out.

Renewable primary sources

Some primary sources of energy are renewable, meaning that they are readily available at all times. Examples of renewable energy sources include wind energy, harnessed as the wind turns giant blades on a wind turbine to generate electricity. Solar energy uses the Sun’s to produce energy while tidal and hydroelectric energy harness the kinetic energy in the movement of water as it passes through turbines. Building dams can help to increase the amount of energy that turbines produce. These primary energy sources are converted into useable secondary sources of energy.

Using secondary sources of energy

While energy can be collected from a wide range of renewable and non-renewable sources, it needs to be converted into a secondary source that is easy to use and distribute, such as electricity. In order to create a secondary source of energy from a primary source, there must be a conversion process. For example, coal is used to generate electricity in power plants where it is burned in order to heat water. The water then turns to steam which creates electricity as it passes through turbines. The electricity can then be distributed easily to homes and workplaces where it can power a wide range of goods.

Efficiency and the environment

Different primary sources of energy are converted to secondary sources with varying levels of efficiency. The efficiency of a conversion process depends on how much energy is lost through forms such as heat, for example, during the process. Some of the more efficient conversion processes include water turbines and power plants that use gas. Less efficient methods include solar panels and coal-powered power plants. Renewable energy sources tend to be cleaner as they are converted into secondary sources as coal power plants produce a great deal of carbon dioxide and crude oil comes with the risk of oil spills with devastating consequences.

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