How renewable energy and energy efficiency can fuel our future
Clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind currently constitute about 2 percent of our electricity mix. In contrast, nearly 90 percent of our electricity still comes from polluting sources: fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas and dangerous nuclear power plants. Coal-burning power plants alone release over a third of the nation's carbon dioxide pollution, which forms a heat-trapping blanket that surrounds the earth and causes it to heat up. In addition, coal-fired power plants are largely responsible for the pollutants that cause acid rain, haze and smog, asthma, and other air and water pollution.
We can face these challenges by taking steps today toward a brighter energy future. We have the opportunity and the know-how to move beyond our dependence on polluting power plants to a future of clean, safe, and affordable energy. We also have a responsibility to leave the planet in good shape for our children, and we need to take steps-as individuals and together-to live up to that responsibility. By using existing technologies, we can start producing cleaner, safer electricity today.
Renewable energy is poised to take us into a clean energy future. By using technologies and resources that are already available, we can provide at least 20 percent of our electricity from clean sources by 2020.
But renewable energy can't deliver a safe and clean energy future by itself. We must cut down on the amount of electricity we use in the first place. Simply put, we must increase our energy efficiency. We can do this by using available technologies that do the same amount of work but use less energy, like a computer that goes to sleep when it's not in use.
Success Story: Wind Power in Action
Winds have shaped the rugged West Texas landscape for years. Now those winds are fueling a clean energy revolution that is revitalizing the West Texas economy. Since 1999, wind energy has infused the state with more than $1 billion in capital investment, providing farmers, ranchers, and local communities with new sources of income. As a result of state policies that require utilities to purchase renewable energy, the old oil town of McCamey is now home to multiple wind farms, above, that produce enough electricity to power 125,000 homes. By replacing electricity generated by fossil fuels, these wind farms take 880,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air every year.
Wind energy is the fastest growing source of power.
With our tremendous wind resources, the United States can become a world leader in wind energy. Already, wind turbines in this country produce enough electricity to meet the needs of more than 1 million households.
A single modern wind turbine can produce enough power to meet the annual electricity needs of 500 average homes. In recent years the price of wind has fallen dramatically, making it increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory projects that the price of wind energy will fall even further over the next decade, making it the most economically competitive renewable energy technology.
As a growing power source, wind energy can become a major force for economic development. Wind development can save consumers money and will bring construction jobs, leasing royalties, and increased tax revenues to local communities. Supplying 5 percent of the country's electricity with wind power by 2020 would add $60 billion in capital investment in rural America, provide $1.2 billion in new income for farmers and rural landowners, and create 80,000 new jobs. Farmers and ranchers can also use wind power as a new "crop," helping insulate them from falling commodity prices. A single turbine takes up less than a quarter of an acre, including access roads, and farmers can grow crops or graze livestock right up to the base of the turbines.
How Does it Work?
Standing as tall as 300 feet to capture the full force of the wind, modern wind turbines use state-of-the-art technology to turn wind into electricity. When the wind blows, the blades begin to spin, turning an electric generator to create electricity. In newer turbines, this electricity is carried by wire through the turbine tower underground, where it is fed into the electric grid.
Success Story: Solar Power in Action
When Oberlin College decided to build a new Environmental Science building, it made it a hallmark of environmental engineering. Solar power became an integral component of the building's design, dispelling myths that the Ohio climate could not support solar energy. A rooftop array of solar photovoltaic panels provides more than half of the building's energy needs, saving money and protecting the environment. The solar array is connected to the electrical grid, allowing Oberlin to sell excess electricity back to its utility on sunny days, while using backup energy from the grid on cloudier days. The Science building uses only 14 percent as much energy as a typical office building. By using solar power, Oberlin reduces its energy bills and keeps more than 350 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. As Professor David Orr says, "Even in cloudy Ohio, by God, this stuff works."
The sun is the ultimate source of energy.
All the energy stored in the earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is equal to the energy from only 20 days of sunshine. With today's technologies, we can harness this energy to produce electricity. While some parts of the country are sunnier than others, most areas receive enough sunshine to make solar energy a powerful source of clean and affordable electricity.
The cost of solar technologies has plummeted in recent decades and is approaching the cost of fossil fuels. Thanks in part to successful research and development, the cost of photovoltaics has fallen dramatically and is likely to fall even further.
How Does it Work?
Solar technologies allow us to capture the sun's energy in two principal ways. Solar photovoltaic panels, which frequently sit high atop buildings, convert sunlight directly into electricity. These solar panels are made of cutting-edge silicon materials, similar to those used in computer chips. As light passes through the panels, it creates a current, generating electricity. This process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage) gives us the photovoltaic effect. Also currently in use are solar thermal systems, which use the sun's heat to warm water for our businesses and homes.
Geothermal energy is right under our feet.
The Earth's core is like an inner sun, heating the Earth's surface and warming the water and rocks beneath. This steaming water and rock can be used to generate heat and electricity. The uppermost six miles of the Earth's crust alone contains more energy than all the oil and gas reserves in the world.
Geothermal resources are abundant, affordable, and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Currently, geothermal energy provides enough electricity to power nearly 4 million American homes. Using existing technology, geothermal power plants run more efficiently and reliably than do coal and nuclear facilities. The Department of Energy estimates that geothermal power plants prevent some 22 million tons of carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere every year, helping curb global warming by reducing pollution from our nation's biggest culprits, coal-fired power plants.
Biomass energy provides plant-powered electricity.
Plants absorb and store energy from the sun as they grow. With the right technologies and careful attention to responsible land-management practices, the energy contained in plants can be harnessed to produce heat and electricity. Sustainable, dedicated energy crops have the potential to supply a significant portion of America's energy needs while providing farmers with a valuable new market for their crops.
Energy efficiency is easy and can save money.
The cleanest way to meet our electricity needs is by not using it in the first place. By planning intelligently and using existing technology, we can cut our electricity consumption and slow down the meter. Improving energy efficiency lowers energy bills, eliminates the need for new power plants, increases our energy security, and keeps our environment clean.
We have already seen that energy efficiency works. Today's efficiency standards save as much energy as is used by 6.5 million households. This prevents as much global warming pollution as if we took 25 million cars off the road. And we can do much more with only small improvements. For example, if every household in the United States switched to Energy Star light fixtures (see "Take Action" below), we could prevent 100 billion pounds of global warming pollution per year, which would be equivalent to taking another 10 million cars off the road.
Everyone can take personal responsibility to make sure our homes, businesses, and appliances are as efficient as possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
If renewable energy is so affordable, why aren't more people using it today?
Electricity from renewable energy has historically been more expensive to buy than fossil fuel-fired electricity. But with plummeting prices, some renewable technologies are now cost-competitive with fossil fuel, and many more renewable technologies are becoming competitive every year.
Nevertheless, strong economic and political barriers remain that keep renewable energy sources from realizing their full potential. Research and development investments and tax subsidies for polluting power sources like coal, oil, and nuclear have far outweighed investments in clean, renewable energy, giving a huge advantage to polluting technologies. As a result, investors are often wary of investing in renewable energy. Market barriers also exist that make it difficult and costly for renewable energy sources to connect to the electricity grid and transmit their power to customers.
Are there downsides to wind power?
No energy source comes without tradeoffs. Wind turbines kill an average of 2.2 birds per turbine per year. This translates into wind turbines being responsible for 0.01 to 0.02 percent of annual avian collision mortalities in the United States. In comparison, communication towers cause 1 to 2 percent, vehicles cause at least 15 to 30 percent, and buildings and windows cause 25 to 50 percent of avian mortalities per year. In addition, feral and domestic outdoor cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. Currently the United States has approximately 30,000 turbines of varying sizes. Even with a hundred-fold increase in the number of properly sited wind turbines, the percentage of birds harmed by turbines would be very small.
Wind generators can take significant steps to reduce the possibility that turbines will harm birds. The most important of these steps is to properly site turbines where they will not pose a danger to birds. In addition, developers can shut down turbines during migratory seasons, minimize lighting on turbines, slow down blade rotation speed, and eliminate perches on the turbines themselves.
Not expanding our use of wind power is a much more serious threat to birds. Global warming could shift whole species of birds north, causing a loss of songbirds here in the United States and potentially making it more difficult for these species to survive.
Is renewable energy reliable?
Renewable energy means energy from abundant and naturally occurring sources whose use does not harm the environment. In contrast, nuclear power produces huge amounts of highly radioactive waste that is dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Large hydropower can be extremely damaging to surrounding habitats and destructive to species that live in these habitats. The Sierra Club supports some small-scale hydropower on a case-by-case basis.
There are many things you can do to support clean energy. We can all pay attention to the choices we make in our personal lives and in our representatives for local, state, and national government. For a more comprehensive list, please go to www.sierraclub.org.
Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs-especially those that burn the longest each day. Compact fluorescents produce the same amount of light as normal bulbs, but use about a quarter of the electricity and last ten times as long. Each switch you make helps clean the air today, curb global warming, and saves you money on your electricity bill.
Button up your house. Start with caulking and weather-stripping on doorways and windows. Then adjust your thermostat and start saving. For each degree you lower your thermostat in the winter, you can cut your energy bills by 3 percent. Ask your utility company to do a free energy audit of your home to show you how to save even more money. Finally, you can save energy by beautifying your home-planting shade trees around your house will cut your summer air-conditioning bills.
Buy energy-efficient electronics and appliances. Replacing an old refrigerator, air conditioner, or heating system with an energy-efficient model will save you money on your electricity bill and cut global warming pollution. Look for the Energy Star label on new appliances or go to www.energystar.gov to find the most energy-efficient products.
Make your home renewable. Call your local utility and ask whether it offers electricity produced from clean energy sources. If so, purchase it. If not, tell your utility you'd like clean energy options. Check with your local home improvement store to find out if it carries photovoltaic panels for installation on rooftops.
Become a smart water consumer. Install low-flow showerheads and faucets and you'll use half the water without decreasing performance. Then turn your hot water heater down to 120¼F and see hot-water costs go down by as much as 50 percent.
Mount a local campaign supporting clean energy. Educate your community about how it can cut global warming pollution. Support measures at the national, state, and local level that establish uniform standards to make products more energy-efficient, provide tax incentives for exceptionally efficient products, and increase funding for efficiency research and development.
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