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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: How renewable energy inventions protect the environment

August 8, 2017

Full Lesson


Picture your nearest river or lake. How do people use it? Are you happy with the way it is treated and its relationship to your community? In some areas, sources of water are being used as enormous batteries to help supply power to thousands of homes, schools and businesses.

In this PBS NewsHour lesson, students will explore inventions that harness the power of water to make electricity. Students will then sketch, model or build an invention that uses renewable energy and helps protect the environment.




Physical Science, Earth Science, Environmental Science

Estimated time

Two 50-minute periods


Internet access
Computer with LCD projector and speakers or student devices
Whiteboard/poster board and markers for each team
Student journals


From the 1960s to 1980s, pumped storage hydroelectricity accounted for around 90 percent of the energy storage (energy produced and captured at one time for use at a later time) in the U.S. These storage facilities were mainly built and used alongside nuclear power plants. But as nuclear power became less popular, so did large pumped storage projects.

With the push for alternative and renewable forms of energy production, pumped storage hydroelectricity is making a comeback. While solar and wind power are popular sources of energy, what happens when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing? Pumped storage plants allow excess energy to be stored for use on a rainy day. How do you think the pumped storage system below works?


Students will learn how electricity is generated using hydroelectric power and renewable energy sources. Then, students will sketch, model or build a prototype of an invention that uses renewable energy in the community or region where they live.

Essential Question

How do inventions that use renewable energy help protect the environment?


Warm-up activity
    1. In teams of 2 to 3 students, brainstorm a list of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. 
    2. Ask each group to jot down answers to the following questions:
        • What are the names of the inventors who created these different energy sources? If students are not sure, how could they find out? 
        • What problem were the inventors trying to solve?
        • What steps are involved in the invention process (turning an idea into a finished product)?
        • What innovations or improvements were made to these inventions?
    3. Remaining in their groups, ask students to make some personal connections: Where does your community’s water supply come from? What forms of energy are used in your home? Have you ever heard of hydroelectricity? What do you think this term involves?
        • If students are unsure of the energy sources used in their home, have them ask their family as a mini-homework assignment. Report back the results the next day.

Main activities

  1. In the same teams, students should read the PBS NewsHour article Oregon to transform lakes into batteries to charge electricity grid and jot down any important ideas.
      • Next, students should answer these two questions:
        • Why is it important to store electricity for later use?
        • Would it be possible to build a pumped-storage plan in your community or region? (or how could you find out if your community has such a system?) Explain your answer.
      • Students should listen to the audio link in the story for a clear, brief explanation of pumped storage hydroelectricity. Students should add to their notes, writing down important points that were new from the text piece they read. 
  2. Design a renewable energy plan for your community
    • Let your students know that they have been asked to write a 1-2 page proposal for their community arguing for the use of alternative energy. The plan should include a sketch, model or prototype of their renewable energy source, which they will present to the town or city council (classmates and teacher!).
    • Start by asking your students to once again think about the environment and landscape around them. To generate electricity, what inventions using renewable energy might work in their community or region? (i.e. wind turbine, pumped storage, etc.; see websites below for suggestions) What forms of renewable energy would not work well?
    • In their previous groups, have students sketch, model or build a prototype of a renewable energy source.
    • Optional: Ask students to include a drawing of the new landscape with the alternative energy source included. How will the energy source affect the surrounding area?
    • Along with the sketch, model or prototype of the energy source, include a 1-2 page proposal which addresses the following:
      • Key features of the alternative energy source
      • Location of the energy source
      • Problem that the invention is trying to solve
      • Cost of the plan
      • Number of people, homes and businesses that will be serviced
      • Personnel needed for carrying out the plan 
      • Analysis of any negative impacts on the environment
      • Explanation of how the plan is more advantageous than other renewable and non-renewable energy sources
    • Groups should present their sketch, model or prototype to the class and address key elements of their energy proposal. The class should ask questions and provide feedback as if they are key stakeholders, including town or city council members, state officials, scientists, business leaders, environmental advocates, etc. 
    • List of useful websites on renewable energy:
    • We would love to hear how you used this project in your class. Tag #PBSInvention and @NewsHourExtra and send images of your students’ inventions. We will retweet and put up on our Facebook account. Plus, we will send you a PBS NewsHour Extra stress ball and a PBS thumb drive. Email with any questions.

Extension Activities

  • Show the PBS Learning Media clip on The Hoover Dam and Hydroelectric Power. Ask students to recap how dams work. Then ask if they know of any similar engineering feat taking place today. Do the positive effects of the project outweigh the negative effects? Explain. 

Eric Strommer teaches middle school in Flint, Michigan. He wrote this PBS NewsHour Teachers’ Lounge post about the water crisis in Flint which continues to impact schools.