Everything You Need to Know About the Renewable Energy Debate to Operate Sustainably
To begin to slow the effects of climate change we are already experiencing, the world’s citizens must significantly reduce the amount of energy we consume. Conservation is the first step. After all, the cleanest unit of energy is the one that isn’t produced. Investing in alternate energy sources that produce no — or at least fewer — greenhouse gases should come after conservation, efficiency, procurement and demand efforts have been implemented. The bottom line: action must happen to stave off the worst of climate change. Today we’ll look at various energy sources that can play a part in the solution.
The expansion of renewable energy sources within the past decade has put pressure on governments and corporations around the world to influence societies to operate sustainably. Some traditional power providers have fought back, while others have invested in the future of the planet.
Even for engaged citizens, the debate over energy may feel completely overwhelming. Words like wind, solar, biofuel and natural gas get thrown around as suitable replacements, but to replace what? And how effective are these alternatives compared to what they’re replacing?
As the language over climate change continues to heat up, the next generation of citizens needs to understand how to combat the threat of climate change. To understand the full scope of this debate, you need to understand the difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy sources and the impact of each source on the environment, consumers and governmental structures.
How Bad Are Nonrenewables?
Pretty bad. Carbon dioxide emissions account for 82.5 percent of all greenhouse gas production in the United States. These gases are trapping heat from sunlight in the atmosphere, gradually warming the planet and resulting in significant changes to global climate.
In the coming decades, scientists project climate change will bring about an increase in catastrophic weather events, decimate many plant and animal species and threaten the health and future of vulnerable communities at home and around the world. By the end of this century, they believe much of the planet will be too hot for comfortable living and many current coastal areas will be underwater. Changes to climate will create unstable weather patterns, causing mass migrations of disaffected refugees on a global scale — the likes of which would dwarf the impact of even the Dust Bowl.
To prevent the worst effects of climate change, experts warn humans must radically curtail greenhouse gas emissions. This primarily means finding replacements for nonrenewable sources of energy that produce carbon dioxide when burned.
Long considered the staple of American energy, in 2018 coal produced just under 1.2 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity in power plants across the United States. That number is a fraction of what it once was and is rapidly decreasing thanks to the prevalence and affordability of natural gas.
Phasing out of coal-fueled power production should go a long way toward reducing the country’s carbon footprint. Coal’s significant pollution stems from its unique chemical structure. Coal is formed over millions of years by organic matter that becomes buried under growing layers of soil and rock and crushed by the pressure.
Coal’s complex array of organic molecules — many carbon-based — are released into the atmosphere when burned. The high concentration of carbon in coal makes it the highest contributor to greenhouse emissions per volume among mainstream energy sources.
In addition, the complex molecular structure of coal harms the environment and air it comes into contact with. Mining coal leads to polluted water supplies and exposes miners to the possibility of lung-related diseases. Burning coal primarily releases carbon into the atmosphere, but also delivers many toxic compounds which infiltrate food chains or the atmosphere in the form of smog.
As the primary source of power for most automobiles, gasoline accounts for a sizable share of greenhouse gas production. Transportation emissions — road, rail, ship and air — account for 26.8 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere every year. Of this, gasoline accounts for almost all, making it perhaps the most crucial source of energy in the climate change debate.
Gasoline’s substantial environmental impact has resulted in two significant movements. One: commercial efforts to develop cars completely reliant on electric power to gradually phase out gas-powered vehicles. Two: in an effort to further reduce the impact of cars on the road altogether, many cities have opted to upgrade public transit options.
With a simple chemical structure — CH4 — natural gas burns far cleaner than coal, producing lower doses of carbon without many of the harmful pollutants. However, lower levels of carbon emissions are still carbon emissions, and many controversies abound over extraction methods required to obtain natural gas.
The process of fracking is one of the most common methods of extracting natural gas from the ground. To harvest the maximum amount of the gas, a company drills down and shoots a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at a high pressure into the gas-containing geological formation. This releases gas for collection and containment.
The fracking process revolutionized the energy industry, allowing natural gas to become the leading source of energy for electricity generation in the United States. With 35.2 percent of the market share, natural gas provides a cheap, accessible alternative to coal that produces a fraction of the greenhouse gas.
Despite the advantages, experts have linked fracking to minor earthquakes, and fracking poses a huge risk of contaminating nearby water sources. Until it is processed, natural gas also poses a health risk to consumers, as it is toxic when inhaled but naturally odorless.
The uses for natural gas can extend into vehicle consumption as well. As a fuel source, it produces fewer pollution emissions than gasoline or even diesel, a type of petroleum made for diesel engines. Nonetheless, diesel fuel produces less carbon dioxide and methane — key greenhouse gases — than natural gas.
In addition, diesel fuel has a greater efficiency, requiring fewer trips to the fueling station and lowering a consumer’s carbon footprint. Consistent advancements in diesel production make it an increasingly accessible and greener product. Less volatile than gasoline, diesel fuel is also safer and easier to store.
Propane serves niche needs across the country — from vehicles and small microturbines to farm use and backyard gas grills. Despite a limited use, propane produces some of the lowest rates of carbon among all nonrenewable energy sources.
Custom vehicles can be outfitted for propane consumption, allowing consumers to take advantage of relatively low fuel prices. Propane has a higher-octane rating than traditional gasoline, protecting engine performance over the long run. The propane industry in America is less developed than its gasoline and natural gas counterparts, so the potential for expansion into certain heating, transportation and consumer markets remains high.
Renewable Energy Sources
Any type of nonrenewable energy source consumers use emits carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases and toxic smog into the atmosphere.
Many have discussed carbon capture as a realistic method for controlling CO2 levels in the atmosphere. However, even if the technology — still years away from widespread implementation — runs as efficiently as advertised, carbon capture provides only a small tweak to business as usual, not enough to stop climate change.
Unlike the finite fossil fuels of nonrenewable sources of energy, renewable energy sources do not contribute greenhouse gas emissions, do not produce acid rain and come from resources that hypothetically cannot run out. With increasing accessibility and affordability, renewables give power plants the ability to operate sustainably.
Despite public fears over the 2011 Fukushima meltdown and HBO’s recent Chernobyl series, nuclear power infrastructure has greatly accelerated in recent years. In 2018, nuclear energy produced over 800 billion kWh, responsible for approximately 19.4 percent of American electricity generation.
Producing nuclear power relies upon harnessing the power of the nucleus in atoms. The process of nuclear fission splits bits of atoms into smaller particles, generating massive quantities of energy as a byproduct.
Nuclear plants can operate and generate power almost continuously and independently of weather patterns, making them more consistent power producers than solar- and wind-powered plants. Their average operational life is nearly twice as long, and nuclear plants produce far more energy per square acre than solar and wind, reducing the need for physical land required for plants to operate.
While fears of nuclear meltdown and radiation poisoning on a pandemic scale are largely overblown, there are notable downsides to nuclear power. Like any other infrastructure, costs on facility construction can skyrocket and timelines get delayed. Radioactive waste from nuclear plants must be warehoused far away from civilian and wildlife populations. Storing nuclear waste deep underground requires considerable investment, but scientists are researching possible methods for alternative disposal.
Harnessing the power of the wind is one of the most promising avenues of sustainable energy on the market. Wind power production is growing in the United States, as the 273 billion kWh produced in 2018 accounted for 6.5 percent of the electricity generated nationwide.
Wind speeds decrease the closer they get to the Earth’s surface, so wind turbine propellers are built at high altitudes to capture wind energy where it is strongest. These expansive structures can require relatively high initial investments, but generally require less maintenance, making for lower costs over the long run.
Drawing from an inexhaustible source, wind energy prices are relatively stable, the polar opposite of wildly fluctuating fossil fuel commodities. Turbines may be relegated to rural areas of the country, but many farmers and ranchers have the potential to build turbines on their property, minimizing the need to expand into lands reserved for wilderness or recreation. With no pollution or greenhouse emissions to harm the planet, wind energy has many positive attributes to consider.
The exception to that, of course, is the high avian mortality rate. Annual bird deaths resulting from collisions with turbines number over 200,000. For perspective, power lines annually kill over 130 million birds, and as many as one billion die from crashing into buildings. Any new physical developments will pose harm to wildlife, but newer, safer wind technology is helping to mitigate these deaths.
While turbines are strategically placed in areas susceptible to intensively windy areas, the technology is still largely dependent on the weather — days without much wind produce less power. Their largely rural and isolated locations — while convenient for landowners making some extra income — necessitate miles of extra transmission lines to transport the energy generated to consumers in cities.
They’re also loud. Wind turbines are typically installed at locations at least 300-350 meters from residential buildings, where they will have a sound pressure comparable to a quiet room. At the base of these towers, sound pressure can reach levels approaching 80 decibels, the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner.
Floated around for projects of all sizes, solar power mainly finds its niche in residential power and minor commercial settings. Solar panels can come in sizes small enough to fit on roofs, giving consumers direct access to energy as it’s made. Solar power generated can be stored onsite, decreasing a homeowner’s reliance on a utility company to supply power.
Further aiding solar customers is the process of net metering, where homeowners who produce energy in excess of consumption can sell the surplus back to the grid. This incentive motivates homeowners to actively operate sustainably.
As seen in states with strong incentives, solar can make a huge impact at the individual level. What was once a market too pricey for serious interest has blossomed into a thriving industry, thanks to government assistance and recent technological innovations.
Despite the promise shown at the consumer level, some inefficiencies remain. Solar panels only convert about 20 percent of available energy (about half as much as coal, but sunlight is free as a resource). Additionally, there may not be enough of the rare earth materials required to produce panels in existence to meet the rapidly increasing demand for solar in the coming decades.
It goes by many names, but hydroelectricity is formed through dams controlling the release of water. As the water moves downhill through the gates of the dam, the energy of the water’s movement turns the blades of a turbine, which converts the mechanical energy into electricity. Variations of this process may store extra water for future conversion or rely on a series of canals to guide water to turbines without the use of a dam.
With over 293 billion kWh produced in 2018, hydroelectric energy accounts for 7.0 percent of American electricity generation — a more popular source of renewable energy than solar and even wind. Worldwide, it accounts for 71 percent of all renewable-based electricity. The average dam has an operating lifetime of 50 to 100 years, which can make hydropower a shrewd investment.
A major drawback, however, comes from the propensity for environmental disruption to local ecosystems. Hydroelectric dams commonly alter natural water temperature, chemistry balance and river flow; obstruct fish migration essential to population sustainability; result in deforestation and force communities to relocate.
A politically complex industry, biofuel is formed out of biomass — i.e., crops or animal manure — that is burned to produce energy at power plants. Fermenting sugar creates one of the most common types of biofuel, ethanol. Many biofuels are close to 100 percent pure, but in the United States, ethanol is normally formed through blending gasoline with corn (the most common solution contains 10 percent corn).
Other countries, such as Brazil, create biofuels out of sugarcane-based ethanol (at a concentration of 80-100 percent) or biodiesel — the combination of diesel fuel with oil-based plants such as soybeans and oil palm. Wood, a biofuel used worldwide for millennia, provides another abundant source for fuel.
Today, biofuel is still a niche energy source in America, having produced only 58 billion kWh in 2018. This paltry 1.4 percent market share hints at how difficult this fuel is to implement. Biofuel is only economically feasible through government subsidiaries, and critics argue the land used to farm biofuel sources takes away from amount of arable land used to meet food production demand. The demand for biofuel also poses the threat of deforestation to natural habitats.
The predominant use of non-renewable fuel sources will continue to have an impact on consumers, homeowners and government employees for decades to come. Conscientiously monitoring the types of energy one consumes will result in a better-informed populace and a society ready to operate sustainably.
While some forms of energy may provide more benefits to the environment than others, the best way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to not consume energy where possible. Minimizing energy consumption does not have to come at a cost to personal comfort, but it reduces our dependence on all fuel sources. The aggregate impact of similar changes among hundreds or even thousands of people results in a decrease in demand significant enough to force energy providers to scale back operations, freeing up land and resources for conservation.
If you’re part of an organization that’s looking to reduce its energy consumption — including electricity, fuel and even water — contact Cenergistic today for further information at 1-855-798-7779 or visit Cenergistic.com.