Sunday, April 15, 2001

How Do Sun-Powered Homes Work?

Most existing buildings, including your home, are powered through an electrical grid.This grid connects all the homes in your neighborhood and all the buildings downtown through wires. At a power plant the wires all come together. A power plant generates the electricity that you use to light, heat, and cool your home. Power also allows you to turn on your hair dryer, your computer, and your microwave.The power that is produced at most of these power plants comes from fossil fuels.

There are three forms of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. All three were formed several hundred million years ago, before the time of the dinosaurs. This time period is called the Carboniferous Period and occurred about 360 million years ago. The planet was covered with swamps, trees, and large leafy plants. As the plants died, they sunk to the bottom of the swamps. Over many, many years, these plants were covered with sand, rocks, and other minerals. Eventually, all the water within the plants was squeezed out. The remaining material became coal, oil, or natural gas.

Mining companies take these fossil fuels out of the earth and use them to generate electricity. In order to produce energy, power plants burn fossil fuels. These fuels give us the energy to run our cars and power our homes. However, fossil fuels take millions of years to make. Right now, we are using fossil fuels that were made over 300 million years ago. If we don't conserve the fossil fuels that we have, we may run out!

HAVE NO FEAR! There is an alternative to using fossil fuels. Any guesses?

The sun and the wind! Scientists are discovering more ways to use renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind. Renewable means that unlike fossil fuels, which are limited in energy, these sources will not run out. Another bonus to using renewable resources is that they don't pollute the environment the way fossil fuels do. When fossil fuels are burned, they release gases into the air. These gases can be harmful to the environment and may contribute to individuals' developing cancer or allergies. Renewable resources, like sun and wind, do not have bad side effects. Through science the sun may help us fuel more environmentally friendly homes, cars, and much more.

Little Lions Experiment:

For this month's experiment, you need to talk your parents or an adult family member into taking you to the Clean Energy Expo at Penn State. This event is free and will take place from April 2-3, 2004, at the Bryce Jordan Center. Check it out on the web at Once you are at the expo, visit the Penn State Science Lions booth where you can do some actual hands-on energy experiments!

If you are not able to make it to the expo, search your home for ways to cut down on use of electricity and other resources. For example, figure out ways to conserve water while showering or washing your dishes. Or, research how to start a recycling program in your home, school, or neighborhood.


Chapter 8: Fossil Fuels- Coal, Oil and Natural Gas; found at

A Primer on Sustainable Building. Rocky Mountain Institute, 1998.

Dr. Riley with the Penn State American Indian Housing Initiative found at


Science Lions wrote this article with the help of Amy Grommes, a graduate student in Architectural Engineering at Penn State. Amy studies architectural sustainability and works on using straw bales and other "green" (environmental friendly) materials to build homes for the Northern Cheyenne in Lame Deer, Montana. View Dr. Riley's website for more information on this project.