Renewable Energy

Royal Albatross, Falkland Islands

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines renewable energy as “fuel sources that restore themselves over a short period of time and do not diminish.”

By contrast, we mainly use fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, whose ancient energy stores, locked away in the earth for millions of years, we mine and deplete. Even atomic energy depends on mining limited sources of uranium for fuel.

Renewable energy sources are replenished naturally and are abundant.  Across North America and around the world, renewable energy is available. It is a matter of harnessing it.

Renewable energy includes natural forces we often take for granted that actually power the planet: sunlight, blowing wind, oscillating tides, the heat of the earth, the force of falling water.  These are called solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and hydro.  There are others.  Plants can be burned; that’s called biomass energy.  Algae can be grown to make liquid fuel similar in use to petroleum.

Renewable energy has many benefits.  Most sources have zero emissions – they emit no pollution — so they do not contribute to climate change or global warming.  Renewable energy also provides jobs and economic opportunity, fosters energy independence, and helps preserve the natural world.

Fossil fuels are finite.  The oil well does indeed go dry, and you cannot plant more coal.

Renewable energy is infinite.  The sun will continue to shine for billions of years and the oceans will be moving long, long after reserves of gas are used up.

Oil, gas, and coal ran the 20th century.  But it is logically impossible that reaching increasingly difficult-to-reach sources of fossil fuels could actually be easier and cheaper than harnessing the clean, abundant, eternal energies that have always powered planet Earth.

Fossil fuels are also the old and dirty way to generate power – extract and burn.  Almost all renewables are a healthy innovation and evolution away from such ancient thinking.

Nearly all renewables can be harnessed to create electricity.  Wind and solar are relatively new technologies while hydroelectric – damming a river to generate power — has been used for hundreds of years.

Geothermal heat turns water into superhot steam to generate power.  In Iceland, where geothermal energy is abundant and easily accessible, it creates over a quarter of the nation’s electricity (and nearly all of its heat).  Hydropower accounts for over 73% of electricity production in Iceland.

Biomass is plant matter that stores the sun’s energy through photosynthesis and then gives heat when it is burned.  Biofuel, such as bioethanol and biodiesel, is the result of turning such biomass into a liquid that can be burned in a car or truck.

Brazil has one of the most progressive renewable programs in the country with 18% of its automotive fuel blend consisting of ethanol derived from sugarcane, and vehicles that enable people to choose the fuel blend or 100% ethanol based on the latest prices.

Not all renewables are equally clean.  Using solar energy to generate electricity produces no emissions but emissions come during the manufacture of the actual photovoltaic or PV technologies.  These emissions are very small compared to the emissions from traditional energy technologies.

Ethanol, when burned in vehicle engines, emits carbon.  However, some argue that biofuels such as ethanol should be considered carbon neutral since the vegetation used to produce the fuels absorbs carbon from the air while the plants grow.

Still, renewable energy is generally a far cleaner and more viable alternative to dirty fossil fuels whose carbon emissions are warming the air and acidifying the oceans.

Renewable energy has long suffered a price disadvantage compared to well-established fossil fuels.  Some argue that the true cost of fossil fuels is not reflected in the price, and if it were, there would actually be a price advantage to renewables at the pump or meter.

Currently, renewable energy, excluding hydroelectric, makes up about 5 percent of total electricity generation in the US, and globally in 2008, about 19 percent of the electricity generated came from renewable sources.

The good news is that renewable energy continues to make promising gains.  Renewable energy is projected to have the strongest growth in global electricity generating capacity at over 2.5 % per year through 2035 with China and India leading the way.

On the investment side, $257 billion went toward clean energy in 2011, which is a 17% increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, the clean energy economy in the US currently employs 2.7 million workers.

In countries leading the clean energy charge, active government and investor support is essential to growth in the clean energy industry.

In Germany, where renewable energy comprises a fifth of total electricity consumption, feed-in tariffs are the primary stimulus promoting unprecedented solar installation and wind development.  Feed-in tariffs are guaranteed fair market prices for the energy that is generated and sold back to the grid.

In 2011, 27 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity were added to the world with Italy and Germany accounting for over half.  By comparison, 25 gigawatts powers about 6 million average American homes.

In China, the government proactively makes clean energy a significant part of its energy future through policy and government spending.  China spent more than any other country on renewable power — $52 billion — in 2011, which supports the country’s plan to achieve 20 percent total power from renewable energy by 2020.

In the US, the industry struggles against the interests of the fossil fuel industry as well as challenges common to any nascent industry.

The fossil fuel industry seems to prefer that every American believe that Americans cannot have jobs, prosperity, and energy security without their industry’s pollution.

During the 2012 US presidential campaign, fossil fuel interests spent three times as much as clean energy interests — $153 million versus $41 million — on pro-fossil fuel television advertisements.  In 2011, the petroleum and gas lobby in the US spent over $148 million to support policies and legislation that favored fossil fuels and to oppose policies and legislation that favored clean energy.

Nevertheless, clean energy investment, installation, and understanding continue to grow.  The U.S. wind industry installed 34% more MW during the first half of 2012 than the first half of 2011 and utility-scale wind installations are going up across 38 US states.

In 2012, 3.2 GW of solar are expected to be deployed in the US, which is a 71% increase from the previous year.

The outlook is hopeful despite challenges and you can be part of it.

Because fossil fuels’ carbon pollution contributes to ocean acidification, ocean warming, and sea level rise, support for renewable energy is support for healthy oceans.

3 things you can do to support renewable energy:

1. Conserve energy at home and at work.
2. Switch to renewable energy when and wherever possible.
3. Change your driving habits to conserve fuel – walk, ride a bike or carpool.

Other great ways you can make a difference.


How Clean is the Electricity You Use? EPA
FAQ: Electricity – US Energy Info Administration

Renewable Energy Guide – NRDC
Renewable Energy, Wikipedia

American Wind Energy Association

American Solar Industry Association

The Truth About Ethanol – Union of Concerned Scientists

Renewable Energy News
Solar News & Programs – Energy.Gov

Solar Thermal or Photovoltaic – Industry Report

Progress Report on Clean Energy – International Energy Agency

Renewable Report 2008 – Scientific American

The Energy Report – WWF 

Clean Energy Race – Clean Technica

Energiewende: Germans Plans to Cut Carbon Emissions with Renewable Energy are Ambitious, Economist