Renewable Energy Sustainability Science | Solar Energy Activities for Kids

Executing the Olympic Games is an energy-intensive process – by athletes, coaches, organizers, and the infrastructure itself. The International Olympic Committee is committed to sustainability.

For the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, the committee pledged to use electricity generated only from renewable energy sources, specifically solar and biomass. Read on to discover the benefits of generating electricity from renewable resources and try out four alternative energy activities for kids!

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Beginning in 2030 and beyond, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will require that all Olympic hosts be carbon-positive. This year’s games in Tokyo are a huge step in that direction. The Olympic Committee pledged that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will be carbon-neutral.

The Difference Between Carbon-Neutral and Carbon-Positive

Carbon-neutral and carbon-positive describe the net input or output of carbon gases from a particular event or process. Carbon-neutral means the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from the Earth’s surface is equal to the amount of carbon captured from the atmosphere by the Earth’s surface. We often refer to this as a net-zero carbon strategy.

Carbon-positive means that the amount of carbon captured by the Earth’s surface exceeds the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by an event or process. Because we have excess carbon in our atmosphere and oceans, a regenerative carbon-positive strategy benefits the environment. 

Due to the current reliance on many carbon-based fossil fuels, each Olympic host committee must undertake significant steps to achieve a carbon-neutral or carbon-positive outcome for such a large event. This ambitious environmental goal starts with shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. 

What are Fossil Fuels?

Fossil fuels are energy sources that derive from coal, oil, and natural gas. Under intense heat and pressure from within the Earth, plant and animal materials break down into these carbon-based energy sources. Fossil fuels, which are also referred to as non-renewable resources, reside deep under the Earth’s surface. We retrieve fossil fuels by digging into the Earth to extract them, a process called mining. Once extracted, various types of energy companies and organizations transport, purify and burn fossil fuels to produce energy.

Environmental concerns about fossil fuels center around four aspects. Extraction, transportation, and purification of fossil fuels and their derivatives harm our ecosystems in a variety of ways. Also, burning fossil fuels for energy releases greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

Environmental Costs of Fossil Fuel Extraction

Fossil fuels are extracted from the Earth on land and underwater. Land-based coal mining changes the entire landscape of the mining area, displacing the flora and fauna that reside there. Trees are cut down, soil erodes, sediment concentration increases in local waterways, noise levels rise from the use of heavy mining equipment, and air quality declines. 

Oil and natural gas extraction on land, via strip mining or drilling, disrupt large areas of land to build the infrastructure necessary to remove the carbon-based energy source. This change in landscape fragments habitats for many species, degrades the nutrient density of soil, pollutes local waterways, and decreases air quality. 

To extract fossil fuels underwater, energy companies build oil rigs and pipelines offshore to drill the wells necessary to access the fossil fuels. Locating the oil and building the infrastructure for extraction drastically disrupt the marine ecosystem.

Environmental Costs of Transportation of Fossil Fuels

Once extracted, fossil fuels must be transported to refineries for purification. Fossil fuel transportation requires massive infrastructure development from pipeline construction for oil and natural gas to coal truck utilization. This infrastructure invades ecosystems and poses significant health and environmental risks to the people, animals, and vegetation around the infrastructure, particularly if problems arise or the infrastructure breaks. 

Many times, pipelines are constructed on lands cared for by Indigenous nations, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, disrupting sacred sites and polluting land, air, and water in communities already marginalized by other circumstances.

Once refined, fossil fuels need to be transported again to power plants, gas stations, and homes for end-use. To reach their destination, large oil tankers, trucks, and trains carry fossil fuels thousands of miles. Sometimes these vehicles leak, spilling their contents into the surrounding environment.

Health and Environmental Impacts of Purification of Fossil Fuels

In the process of purification, fossil fuel refineries release toxins into the land, air, and water of the communities that reside nearby. To get a clear picture of what this looks like for the health and wellbeing of those that live in fenceline communities surrounding oil and natural gas refineries, we highly suggest you watch the documentary, Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. Like those in Mossville, Louisiana, people who live in communities located near refineries experience disproportionately higher rates of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other serious health side effects as a result of the pollutants and toxins that poison their water, air, and soil. 

Carbon Emissions From Burning Fossil Fuels

When fossil fuels are burned, carbon compounds are emitted, increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are heat-holding compounds that are necessary to make our planet liveable, however when in excess (as they are today) they increase the average global temperature of our planet, causing climates to change worldwide. The presence of excess greenhouse gases also increases the acidity of our oceans, causing drastic negative changes to the marine ecosystem, which is the main source of oxygen production for the planet.

Fossil Fuel Alternatives: Renewable Resources

Luckily, there are alternative energy sources to fossil fuels. These renewable energy sources come in many different forms but have one major thing in common: their use drastically decreases carbon emissions.

  • Solar – transforming light energy from the sun into electricity via solar cells. 
  • Wind – using the mechanical energy of the wind to move turbines, which create electricity.
  • Hydro – converting the mechanical energy of moving water into electricity via hydroelectric dams.
  • Nuclear – splitting radioactive atoms in a controlled environment and harnessing the heat energy released to power electric generators. 
  • Geothermal – utilizing heat from beneath the Earth’s surface to power electric generators.
  • Biomass – burning agricultural and constructional waste products to generate electricity.

With recent technological advancements, these sources of energy have become more affordable and accessible. However, there is still much to be done to transform current electrical grids to accommodate the input of alternative energy sources.

Benefits of Using Renewable Energy Instead of Fossil Fuels

Using renewable energy sources in replace of fossil fuels drastically reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy sources do not require transport to a refinery, thus decreasing the carbon footprint associated with transportation infrastructure. 

Further, fossil fuels must be burned to use them. When power companies burn these fuels to produce electricity, the process emits carbon. Aside from biomass, renewable energy sources are not burned to generate power. 

Read on to learn more about generating power from renewable resources, specifically solar and biomass, the types of renewable energy used for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.  

Renewable Energy for Olympic Venues

The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is committed to supplying 100% of the electricity required for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games from renewable resources. Specifically, electricity will come from two renewable energy sources:

  • Direct combustion of wood biomass from construction waste and tree clippings collected within Japan and processed into electricity in Kawasaki City.
  • Solar power generated in three different facilities within the Fukushima Prefecture.

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake that devastated the Fukushima Prefecture, Japan focused on rebuilding this area using locally generated renewable energy. The Olympic Committee’s dedication to power the Games with clean energy supports the local Fukushima economy as well as two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Olympic Games

Utilizing renewable energy sources to power the Olympic Games directly supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #7 Clean Energy, which ensures access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. Further, by using electricity generated from wood biomass and solar power, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are also supporting Sustainable Development Goal # 13 Climate Action, which encourages everyone to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. 

Relying on local, renewable resources to power the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games sends a powerful message to the global audience about the importance of generating electricity from sustainable sources. Since the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games use primarily solar and biomass energy sources to power the events, we prepared additional information and activities to focus on how these two energy sources work

How Does Solar Energy Work?

We can generate electricity from sunlight by utilizing solar panels to collect and convert light energy into electric energy. Solar panels are made of a collection of solar cells, which are also called photovoltaic cells. The word photovoltaic means light (photo) electricity (voltaic) based on each word’s Latin origin. These photovoltaic cells are made of different types of silicon. Solar panels are either a blue or black color depending on the type of silicon used in the construction of the panels. Both colors absorb light efficiently and effectively. 

Why is Silicon Used in Solar Panels?

Silicon is a metalloid, which means it has properties of both metals and nonmetals. Silicon looks like a metal. But unlike other metals, silicon conducts electricity with average efficiency. Because it is “okay” at conducting electricity, we classify it as a semiconductor. Electrons flow through semiconductors to generate electricity but don’t overheat in the process, a characteristic that makes semiconductors, like silicon, perfect materials for electronics and solar cells.

When sunlight hits the solar cells, it triggers electrons to flow between the silicon cells. This flow of electrons is called electricity. Since the sun does not shine continually, large batteries store the electricity so it is available even when the sun is not out.

How Does Burning Biomass Work?

Massive amounts of unused vegetation remain after harvesting agricultural products like corn. This unused vegetation, or biomass, is a useful source of renewable energy. We can collect and burn biomass to power electric generators.

Burning biomass creates heat. This heat converts water to steam which powers a turbine to create electricity. Biomass is also an effective heat source for homes or businesses.

Does Burning Biomass Release Carbon?

Biomass energy production does release carbon into the atmosphere, but it is a carbon-neutral energy source. Plants (or biomass) draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. When we burn plants to create electricity, the process releases the same amount of carbon sequestered through photosynthesis back into the air. 

Therefore, biomass is considered a carbon-neutral energy source. Although it returns to the atmosphere the carbon that is sequestered or absorbed during photosynthesis, it doesn’t add additional carbon to the atmosphere.

Concepts like burning biomass, building photovoltaic cells, and discussion of other renewable energy sources get complicated pretty quickly. We’ve created a fun workbook about renewable energy for kids. 

These activities introduce kids to renewable energy vocabulary and simpler aspects of the sustainability science of renewable energy. We’ve included a crossword puzzle, a fun and educational picture book that also incorporates elements of environmental justice, and two hands-on sustainability science experiments to watch renewable energy work in action. 

Renewable Energy Activities for Kids

In honor of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee’s commitment to using 100% renewable energy at this year’s Olympic Games, we’ve created four hands-on STEAM activities to engage your kids in learning about renewable energy. The workbook focuses on solar energy, as this is the primary source of renewable energy for the Olympic venues.

You can download the entire workbook of renewable energy activities, including answer keys, here!

Download the Renewable Energy Activity Workbook!

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    #1 Renewable Energy Crossword Puzzle

    Test your knowledge of various types of renewable energy with this ten-question puzzle. Hint: all of the answers can be found within this post, so be sure to bookmark this page to save for reference.

    #2 Light and Dark Bottle Heat Absorption Experiment

    As mentioned above in our explanation of how solar energy works, dark colors absorb and hold heat better than light colors. Using dark materials to maximize heat absorption is an essential characteristic for designing efficient solar panels. 

    Try this light and dark bottle heat absorption experiment for kids to observe different heat absorption rates. This simple sustainability science experiment also provides opportunities to collect and analyze data; two skills necessary for becoming an effective critical thinker.

    To perform this heat absorption experiment, download the workbook to get all the instructions or head to the Light and Dark Bottle Heat Absorption Experiment For Kids post for the materials list, experiment instructions, and lots of discussions questions to learn more about heat absorption rates, thermodynamics, and why this principle is so important in our work to mitigate climate change. 

    Download the Renewable Energy Activity Workbook!

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      #3 Read Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea by Elizabeth Suneby 

      Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea by Elizabeth Suneby is a story about a boy named Iqbal who lives in Bangladesh. During monsoon season, his mother must cook indoors over a fire, which makes her and his baby sister sick from inhaling the smoke. 

      Iqbal’s school hosts a science fair and offers a monetary prize to the winner. This prize could help his family purchase a propane cook stove, which would allow his mother to cook indoors without the health impacts of smoke inhalation. 

      Iqbal enters the fair with an idea to create a cooking method that utilizes the sun’s energy. He’s hopeful he can create a more sustainable cooking method for his mother and help his family pay for a propane cook stove with the prize money. 

      The story of Iqbal, his school science fair, and his invention provides a global perspective on peoples’ uses of renewable energy and the human health and environmental benefits they provide.

      You can request a copy of “Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea” at your local library, purchase a copy for yourself, or listen to a free read-aloud

      Once you’ve read or listened to the story with your child, ask them the following questions:

      Discussion Questions:

      1. What does Iqbal invent for the science fair?
      2. Why does Iqbal decide to create this invention?
      3. What materials does Iqbal collect to create his invention?
      4. What does Iqbal hope to purchase if he wins the science fair?
      5. Does Iqbal win the science fair? 
      6. How does Iqbal’s invention help his family?

      #4 Design an Upcycled Solar Oven

      Now it’s your child’s turn to design and test out Iqbal’s idea. We’ve created a STEM experiment for your learner to design an oven to bake a s’more. This project helps them apply knowledge about reflection and absorption of sunlight from Activity #2 and test out Iqbal’s idea of using solar energy to cook food from Activity #3.

      Through this project, learners exercise their engineering skills and analyze if a solar oven absorbs more heat compared to cooking in direct sunlight without an enclosed oven.

      We’ve created a whole post to focus on how to design an upcycled solar oven and use it to bake a s’more using solar energy. The experiment instructions with materials, directions, and discussion questions are also included in the downloadable renewable energy workbook for kids. Drop your email in the sign-up form below to have the workbook delivered right to your inbox!

      Download the Renewable Energy Activity Workbook!

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        About The Authors

        Jen Panaro

        Jen Panaro, a co-founder of Raising Global Kidizens, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. She’s also a serial library book borrower and a messy gardener.

        As a mom to two boys, she is passionate about helping families be more responsible stewards to their communities and the planet. She also owns Honestly Modern, an online space focused on eco-friendly living for families.

        Jess Purcell

        Jess Purcell, a co-founder of Raising Global Kidizens, is a science educator who is dedicated to making the science of sustainability accessible to all learners. She creates sustainability science lessons and nature activities written for students of all ages to be done in the classroom or at home to foster critical thinking skills and a love of the natural world. You can find more of her work at Thoughtfully Sustainable.

        Jess lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and two cats and can usually be found outside, working out the kinks of an experiment, upcycling trash into “treasure”, hiking with her family, or attempting to read a book while being cajoled into a game of hide-and-seek.

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