Hands-on Activity: Renewable Energy Living Lab: Exploring Regional and Local Resources

Contributed by: Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines

Four photos: A concentrating solar power plant (a tall tower surrounded by angled solar panels). A tractor in a field cuts down tall crops. An artist's drawing of a tidal turbine shows a pole-shaped partly above and partly above water, with two turbines spinning underwater. A cow in a green field containing three-bladed wind turbines.
Renewable energy resources are tied to the availability of solar radiation, water and wind movement, biomass supplies, and geothermal activity, so it is helpful to investigate their locational feasibility by viewing data through a map interface.
copyright
Copyright © (left to right) Warren Gretz, NREL; NREL, US Dept. of Energy via Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Center for Transportation Analysis; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, US Dept. of Energy; US Fish & Wildlife Services http://www.nrel.gov/data/pix/Jpegs/02156.jpg http://cta.ornl.gov/bedb/index.shtml http://mhk.pnnl.gov/wiki/index.php/MHK_(tidal) http://www.fws.gov/midwest/EastLansing/news/index.html

Summary

Students become familiar with the online Renewable Energy Living Lab interface and access its real-world solar energy data to evaluate the potential for solar generation in various U.S. locations. They become familiar with where the most common sources of renewable energy are distributed across the U.S. Through this activity, students and teachers gain familiarity with the living lab's GIS graphic interface and query functions, and are exposed to the available data in renewable energy databases, learning how to query to find specific information for specific purposes. The activity is intended as a "training" activity prior to conducting activities such as The Bright Idea activity, which includes a definitive and extensive end product (a feasibility plan) for students to create.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

The opportunity to practice analyzing NREL/US DOE data (as provided through the Renewable Energy Living Lab) to solve problems and answer questions is much the same as what scientists and engineers do every day. The availability of natural resources used for electricity generation varies widely by region, which greatly impacts their cost-effectiveness and feasibility for use in any given area. Although water, wind, and other renewables may seem free, the cost comes in collecting and transporting the energy to the places where energy is needed, as well as other infrastructure requirements. For example, to utilize energy from water, a dam must be built or tidal turbines installed, together with electric generators and transmission lines.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Name four renewable energy types.
  • Use the Renewable Energy Living Lab to collect data on various energy forms.
  • Analyze available potential solar energy data to evaluate solar energy resources in different U.S. locations.
  • Explain the factors contributing to renewable energy feasibility.

More Curriculum Like This

Renewable Energy Living Lab: Smart Solar

Students use real-world data to evaluate whether solar power is a viable energy alternative for several cities in different parts of the U.S. Working in small groups, they examine maps and make calculations using NREL/US DOE data from the online Renewable Energy Living Lab.

Off the Grid

Students learn and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. They also learn about our nation's electric power grid and what it means for a residential home to be "off the grid."

High School Lesson
Renewable Energy Living Lab: Energy Experts

Students use real-world data to evaluate various renewable energy sources and the feasibility of implementing these sources. Working in small groups, students use data from the Renewable Energy Living Lab to describe and understand the way the world works.

Renewable Energy Living Lab: The Bright Idea

Students use real-world data to evaluate the feasibility of solar energy and other renewable energy sources in different U.S. locations. Working in small groups, students act as engineers evaluating the suitability of installing solar panels at four company locations.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Changes caused by the use of technology can range from gradual to rapid and from subtle to obvious. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • When new technologies are developed to reduce the use of resources, considerations of trade-offs are important. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The alignment of technological processes with natural processes maximizes performance and reduces negative impacts on the environment. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Humans devise technologies to reduce the negative consequences of other technologies. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Decisions regarding the implementation of technologies involve the weighing of trade-offs between predicted positive and negative effects on the environment. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Energy can be grouped into major forms: thermal, radiant, electrical, mechanical, chemical, nuclear, and others. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The decision whether to develop a technology is influenced by societal opinions and demands, in addition to corporate cultures. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Energy exists in many forms such as mechanical, chemical, electrical, radiant, thermal, and nuclear, that can be quantified and experimentally determined (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • When energy changes form, it is neither created not destroyed; however, because some is necessarily lost as heat, the amount of energy available to do work decreases (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Matter tends to be cycled within an ecosystem, while energy is transformed and eventually exits an ecosystem (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The size and persistence of populations depend on their interactions with each other and on the abiotic factors in an ecosystem (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • There are costs, benefits, and consequences of exploration, development, and consumption of renewable and nonrenewable resources (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • computer with internet access (or printed or projected renewable energy potential maps as found on the Renewable Energy Living Lab website)
  • journal or writing paper, for documenting worksheet data, answers, results and conclusions
  • Exploring Regional and Local Resources Worksheet, one per student

Introduction/Motivation

(Ask students the following questions to facilitate a class discussion.)

  • Why do we need to generate energy? (Listen to student ideas. Example answers: We need energy to power our industries, to move from place to place, to grow and cook our food, to warm or cool our homes, to communicate over distances.)
  • From where do we get our power/electricity currently? (Example answers: Petroleum/oil, coal, solar, wind, hydropower, biomass. Both renewable and non-renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity, power vehicles, and provide heating, cooling and light.)
  • What might be some factors that contribute to the feasibility of an energy source? Social? Political? Economic? Environmental? (Example answers: Its cost [to obtain, harness, process, refine, distribute], its regional availability and supply, its environmental impact [access, pollution, renewability], its social acceptance and desirability, its supporting distribution network or infrastructure, its connection [or not] to the existing electrical grid, the strength of competing energy industries [such as political opposition for purposes of protecting established energy sources], its impact on a country's balance of trade and desire for "energy independence," its level of technological sophistication [efficiency, maintenance, dependability], etc.)

Let's consider different sources of energy.

  • What does "renewable" mean? (Example answer: Renewable sources are those that will never dwindle or be used up because of use or overuse. Renewable energy comes from natural resources such as wind, plant material, water, geothermal and sunlight, and is naturally replenished.)
  • How is "renewable" the same and how is it different from "green energy"? (Points to make: "Green energy" commonly means that no pollution or environmental hazards are created during the energy generation process. All energy sources require energy to generate and have some impact, so the definition of "green" is debatable. For example, solar energy can be collected passively, but energy and materials are required to produce the panels, and that production may generate waste products.)
  • To consider whether a renewable energy source is feasible, what questions would you ask? (Listen to student suggestions. Example questions: How does it work? How much power potential exists? How much does it cost? What is its environmental impact? Are our relationships with other countries affected by the energy source? Is the resource available in the area where we need it? Other questions?)

We will learn more about renewable energy potential sources using the Renewable Energy Living Lab website in the next few class periods. We will look at data acquired and presented by the Department of Energy National Laboratories.

Vocabulary/Definitions

database: An organized storage location for large amounts of numerical data.

GIS: Acronym for geographic Information System, which is a database that connects specific data to specific spatial locations in order to help visualize and display information.

non-renewable energy: Energy obtained from sources that are not continually replenished, for example oil or gas pumped up from a deep underground well can be "used up," and not replaced by natural processes within the human lifespan (takes millions of years to produce). Examples: Combustion of petroleum, natural gas, coal.

query: A software tool that enables searching of electronic databases for specific data or data that meets certain parameters.

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 (the latter is sometimes considered non-renewable, depending on specifics).

Procedure

Background

This activity is intended to teach students how to interact with the Renewable Energy Living Lab GIS database, perform queries, etc. The student worksheet serves as a guide for the activity. It includes detailed instructions and supporting screenshots. The worksheet questions serve as prompts to help students explore all the database tools.

Great potential exists for differentiated learning in this activity simply by encouraging students to explore their own open-ended questions about renewable energy source types, locations, potential and details.

Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Hand out the worksheets as a guide for the activity.
  2. Navigate students to http://www.teachengineering.org/livinglabs/index.php> click to enter the Renewable Energy Living Lab.
  3. Direct students to complete the worksheet, following its detailed instructions and tips, and answering its questions in their journals or on separate pieces of paper. Encourage them to ask lots of questions while exploring all aspects of the living lab.
  4. Conclude by leading a class discussion so students can share, compare and discuss their results and findings. Alternatively, make verbal or written assignments from certain worksheet questions, as described in the Assessment section.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

In advance of the activity, it is recommended that the teacher complete the student worksheet so as to become familiar with the living lab database features and tools. Run through items in the FAQs tab (bottom right of the map) to gain more familiarity.

If this is the first experience for students using this type of graphic interface (and for visual learners), it may help to use a computer projector to show the class how to use some of the query tools before students work on their own.

It is easy for inexperienced students to get "lost" in the depths of the graphic interface, so we recommend frequent checks on student progress and guidance tips, as necessary, to help them navigate the system and stay on task.

Investigating Questions

Pre- or post-activity brainstorming sessions are a good way to generate a range of additional questions that students could investigate using the living lab database. For example, ask students: What other questions about solar energy do you have?" How might data in the living lab help us answer your questions?

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Opening Discussion: Ask students questions to gauge their understanding of society's need for and use of energy and renewable energy, as provided in the Introduction/Motivation section. This also prepared them to see the value in exploring data to better understand a topic.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Observation & Data Checks: Check for understanding through questioning and monitoring of student work while they use the database tools and make queries. As students navigate the website and work through their worksheets, walk around and notice their data and answers. Look to see that students are gaining the ability to navigate the living lab.

Post-Activity Assessment

Class Discussion: As a class, have students share, compare and discuss their results and findings.

Concluding Presentations: Have groups share with the class their results and findings in the form of brief presentations, posters or through other visual media. Example verbal or written assignments:

From the "Elaborate" section of the worksheet: Compare and contrast the two solar energy maps, photovoltaics vs. concentrated solar power (CSP), as described in the worksheet "Elaborate" section:

  • If photovoltaics and CSP are both solar power, why are they so different? (Example answer: They differ in the ways that they capture and use solar energy to produce electricity. Photovoltaics convert sunlight directly to electricity using the semiconductor materials in solar panels. Concentrated solar power plants first concentrate the sun's energy with reflective devices and then capture it in a heat-transfer fluid that is used to create steam that drives conventional turbine generators to produce electricity. Unlike photovoltaics, CSP technologies can provide electrical power both day and night because storing the sun's heat in fluid form means it can continually generate electricity even during cloudy weather or at night. Looking at the maps, the potential for photovoltaics is widespread across the country and the potential for CSP is extremely high in regions some areas where photovoltaics is high, mainly in the southwest region. In areas where the potential for photovoltaics drops, such as in the northeast, the potential for CSP is extremely low. The difference in the maps reflects how CSP technologies require much space and infrastructure in addition to a lot of sunlight and intensity.
  • What regions of the country are good for both technologies? (Example answer: Areas with high solar potential.)
  • Is CSP a good option in your state/town? Why or why not? (Answers will vary. Areas in which CSP is a good option are regions with high energy potential from CSP, including the southwest and most of the western half of the country. Looking at the map with the CSP filter, areas that show a potential for 5.0 kWh/m2/day or greater represent areas in which CSP would be a good option. Areas in which CSP is not a good option are regions with less than 5.0 kWh/m2/day of potential solar power, which is roughly the eastern half of the country.

From the "Evaluate" section of the worksheet, a broader question:

  • If you were hired as an engineer to develop a renewable energy resource plan for your local community, on what type(s) of renewable energy would you focus your efforts? Include specific data from the Renewable Energy Living Lab to support your choice(s). (Answers will vary, depending on your location. Example answer: The northeast region of Colorado offers many options for renewable energy. I believe it would be best to focus on solar and wind power, as evidenced by the data provided in the Renewable Energy Living Lab, specifically the concentrated solar power, solar photovoltaic, and wind power onshore data layers. Each of these data layers demonstrates that the northeast region of Colorado has high potential for these types of renewable energy. In addition, the living lab data shows good potential for geothermal energy and hydropower.)

Activity Extensions

Have students research local uses of renewable energy, and share their findings with the class.

Have students identify and investigate companies and/or industries that use and promote renewable energy and share their findings with the class.

As an extension, conduct the Renewable Energy Living Lab: The Bright Idea activity, which builds on the content and skills learned in this activity by challenging students with calculations, research and analysis, culminating in the preparation of feasibility reports.

Activity Scaling

Additional Multimedia Support

Teacher resources: http://www.teachengineering.org/livinglabs/renewable_energy/educators.php

Other Related Information

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.

Contributors

Mike Mooney; Minal Parekh; Scott Schankweiler; Jessica Noffsinger; Karen Johnson; Jonathan Knudtsen

Copyright

© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2012 Colorado School of Mines

Supporting Program

Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines

Acknowledgements

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.

Last modified: May 25, 2017

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