These are exciting times for alternative energy proponents. With the historic election of President Obama, it finally feels like we have a strong ally in the White House. The President has called for the investment of $150 billion over the next 10 years to build a clean energy future, including the creation of five million new jobs.
It's just in time, too, as we try to come to grips with the threat of global warming, high energy prices, and reliance on foreign sources of energy. According to the Sierra Club, clean, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power currently produce only about 2 percent of our electricity nationwide. But President Obama has set a goal of ensuring that 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
What does our alternative energy future look like? And what are the best sources of energy to consider as we move forward?
Mark Jacobsen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, conducted the first quantitative, scientific evaluation of proposed energy solutions in 2008. He assessed their potential to deliver energy and power vehicles, as well as their impacts on global warming and other environmental factors. It turns out that some of the energy solutions that have received the most media attention are not the most suitable ones.
"The energy alternatives that are good are not the ones that people have been talking about the most. And some options that have been proposed are just downright awful," Jacobson says. "Ethanol-based biofuels will actually cause more harm to human health, wildlife, water supply and land use than current fossil fuels."
Jacobsen ranks wind power at the top of his list, followed by solar, geothermal, tidal and wave power. At the bottom of the list are hydroelectric, nuclear and "clean" coal.
Following is a look at a few types of alternative energy that may be part of our future.
Oil man T. Boone Pickens popularized wind energy in 2008 when he launched a campaign to generate as much as 22 percent of America's power by wind. Wind energy is the fastest growing source of power on the planet, according to the Sierra Club. Wind energy doubled between 2005 and 2008, and now produces about 1.5 percent of worldwide energy use.
Wind turbines stand as high as 300 feet, where the full force of the wind causes their blades to turn. Electricity is carried through the turbine tower underground where it feeds into the electrical grid.
So far, wind turbines produce enough electricity in the United States to meet the needs of more than 1 million homes. Wind energy prices have fallen in recent years, making it more competitive with fossil fuels. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory expects that wind energy costs will fall even further in the next decade. It is considered the most economically competitive renewable energy technology.
Wind energy is sustainable and non-polluting, and the energy source is perpetual. However, some people living close to wind turbines have complained about noise pollution, and aesthetics of wind farms are another concern.
The amount of energy from the sun that hits the planet in just one hour is enough to meet the world's energy needs for an entire year, according to Nature magazine. Stanford University's Global Climate & Energy Project determined that just a half year's worth of sun energy is equivalent to all of the planet's non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas and mined uranium.
Solar energy is used for heating, cooking and electricity production. It is a clean, well-proven, renewable energy that is well suited to provide power to individual homes or buildings. It releases no water or air pollution. There are also tax incentives available to go solar.
On the other hand, solar power stations are expensive to build, and solar power produces little or no energy unless the sun is shining. And homeowners who want to install solar capacity need to spend thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for photovoltaic arrays and storage equipment.
Geothermal is power gained from the heat stored in the earth. Since ancient Roman times, it has been used for space heating and bathing. Now, it is being used to generate about 0.3 percent of the world's electricity. Geothermal energy's growth rate is about 3 percent per year as more geothermal plants come online.
Geothermal power is cost effective and generally eco-friendly. It can be generated day or night, and doesn't depend on weather conditions. The energy produced is very inexpensive after startup costs. Power stations are relatively small, and have a smaller impact on the environment than tidal or hydroelectric plants. However, geothermal power is geographically limited, and can produce pollutants if not done correctly.
Wave and Tidal Power
While people have tried to harness the power of ocean waves to generate electricity since at least the 1890s, it is still not widely available commercially yet. There are various forms of wave power, including the placement of electricity generators on the surface of the ocean. In one touted example, Pacific Gas & Electric, a Northern Californian utility, will team with Finavera Renewables to build a wave farm 2.5 miles off the coast that they hope will offset 245 tons of carbon dioxide annually when it comes online in 2012.
In 10 years, says Roger Bedard, the ocean energy program leader for the Electric Power Research Institute, wave power could produce enough energy for 4.3 million homes.
Disadvantages of wave power are that wave farms are expensive to build, and they may disturb marine life.
Tidal power is produced by large underwater turbines that are designed to catch the kinetic energy generated by the ebb and flow of the ocean's tides. Because of the massive size of the oceans, tidal power has strong potential for energy generation. Construction costs for tidal power plants are high, but once built, they are relatively inexpensive to operate. Tidal power can also be harnessed by underwater dams, but these may damage environmentally sensitive estuaries.
While solar and wind garner a lot of media attention, people may be surprised to learn that biomass (plant material and animal waste) currently supplies more electricity than those sources combined. According to the Department of Energy, biomass provides about 3 percent of the nation's electricity. It is also the oldest source of renewable energy used by humans, who have used it at least as long ago as the advent of fire. Biomass includes trees, grasses, other crops such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers, and microalgae.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, biomass reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent compared to fossil fuels. The advantage of biomass over fossil fuels is that biomass is part of the carbon cycle. "When a plant dies or is burned, it gives its carbon back to the air, which is then absorbed by other plants," according to the UCS. "Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are made of plants that grew millions of years ago. The carbon they absorbed then is released now when the fossil fuels are burned. There are no extra plants to absorb that carbon, so the cycle becomes out of balance." The UCS adds that biomass, in comparison to fossil fuels, reduces air and water pollution and erosion, increases soil quality and improves wildlife habitat.
Some biomass sources are more environmentally friendly than others. The UCS says energy crops are much better than high-yield food crops such as corn (which typically uses heavy amounts of pesticides and pulls nutrients from the soil). Prairie grasses, for example, have deep roots that build up topsoil and put nitrogen and other nutrients into the ground. And since they are planted only every 10 years, they require much less plowing than other crops.
Hydroelectric energy, sourced mainly from dams, is the most widely used form of renewable energy, generating about 19 percent of the world's electricity. Hydroelectric power stations can generate a great deal of energy for a relatively low price. Washington State is the nation's leading hydroelectric producer, generating nearly 75 percent of the state's electricity. We boast the largest hydropower plant in the United States, the 6,800-megawatt Grand Coulee power station on the Columbia River.
After dams are built, hydroelectric is considered a clean energy, producing low greenhouse emissions. However, the creation of dams can wreak havoc on river ecosystems and fish populations. And dam failures can kill thousands (the Banqiao Dam failure in southern China in 1975 killed 171,000 people and left millions homeless). Hydroelectricity can also be impacted by drought, and some regions such as the Northwest are more suited for it than others (e.g., Midwest).
Nuclear technology is in widespread use, accounting for about 19 percent of America's energy supply. But no nuclear power plants have been approved for construction in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, reflecting the American public's unease with the technology. Some environmentalists support the technology because of its high capacity and its relatively low carbon dioxide emissions.
Most environmentalists, however, do not support nuclear power because of the risk of catastrophic accidents and the problem of disposing highly toxic nuclear waste. Also, there is concern that nuclear power plants could be the target of terrorist attacks.
Coal is considered the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, producing global warming emissions and acid rain. It supplies half of the electricity in the United States. "Clean" coal technology is a phrase that covers several technologies, including chemically washing impurities from the coal, carbon capture and gasification, designed to minimize the environmental impact of coal. The coal industry has launched a $40 million marketing and lobbying campaign to sell clean coal to the public and politicians, but BusinessWeek reports that anything resembling clean coal is many years away, and it could cost trillions of dollars to switch to clean coal in the U.S. alone.
Environmentalists point out that carbon capture would lead to huge amounts of liquid being sequestered in the ground. One large coal plant could generate enough liquid to fit in a space the size of a major oil field. Curt White, who ran the U.S. Energy Department's carbon sequestration group until 2005, told BusinessWeek that pressure from all the liquid stored underground could cause leaks or even earthquakes. "Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground," he said.
What you can do?
If you'd like to participate in the green energy revolution, it's becoming easier than ever. Many electric utility companies now sell green energy options. For example, Puget Sound Energy's Green Power program allows you to buy renewable energy equal to the amount of money you use. For the average household, Green Power usage (wind, solar, biomass) costs an extra $10 per month. PSE says the environmental benefit is the equivalent of taking a car off the road for a year. In addition, Green Power consumers are helping build the alternative energy market. You can visit Green-e (www.green-e.org) to learn more about alternative electricity options in your community.
You can also purchase carbon offsets to compensate for your fossil fuel usage. Numerous energy suppliers offer offsets, which add clean power to the nation's energy grid in place of electricity from fossil fuels. Visit the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/offsets.asp) to learn more.
As important as it is to develop alternative energy sources, one of the most important things we all can do as individuals, families and businesses to have a positive effect on our energy future is to conserve. By being conscientious about our energy consumption, we can help prevent the need for new polluting power plants.
Businesses and households can take several steps to promote energy efficiency. Buy Energy Star appliances, lights and products (Energy Star is the government's seal of efficiency). Try to avoid running washers, dryers and other large appliances during peak energy demand hours from 5 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.
Beware of energy vampires - electrical devices that consume energy while on standby mode. Standby power consumption may account for as much as 5 percent of residential electrical consumption in the United States, according to Alan Meier, a staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley. You can avoid standby power consumption by using power strips for your home electronics. Simply turn the power strip off when not in use.
Consider buying a laptop for your next computer purchase, as they use much less energy than desktops. An Energy Star labeled computer uses 70 percent less electricity than a non-Energy Star computer.
The average home dedicates 11 percent of its energy budget to lighting. By following new lighting practices such as using compact fluorescent bulbs, homeowners can reduce electricity used for lighting by 50 to 75 percent. CFL bulbs last six to 12 times as long as incandescent bulbs. You can also purchase Energy Star-qualified fixtures. For outdoor lighting, consider using light emitting diodes (LED). They offer better quality light than incandescent bulbs and last as much as 25 times as long.
Businesses can save a great deal of energy by turning off all unnecessary lights, and by turning off computers, monitors, printers, copiers and other business equipment at the end of the day. Turn computers, copiers and other equipment to standby mode when not in use during the business day.
As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reports in his landmark book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution - And How It Can Renew America, "Energy efficiency was always the quickest, cheapest, most effective way to create clean power, because the best form of power is the power that doesn't have to be generated at all because you eliminated demand for it."
Friedman notes that the McKinsey Global Institute, in a study of energy efficiency, determined that electricity consumption in U.S. residential buildings could be reduced by more than one-third by 2020 if compact fluorescent lightbulb usage became widespread, along with higher efficiency standards for appliances, and room insulation. The Institute found that the energy saved if all residential buildings adopted these standards would be equal to the production of 110 new 600-megawatt coal-fired power plants.
Cameron Woodworth is the author of Green Cuisine, web designer for Full Spectrum Web, and have been a contributing writer with the Natural Choice Directory for 10+ years.