Renewable energy is often also clean energy, meaning it doesn’t produce emissions that pollute the planet. Increasing the amount of clean energy we use and reducing emissions will be key to solving the global warming crisis.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
When we burn fossil fuels, which is how we get most of our electricity, we release carbon dioxide and other emissions into the atmosphere. These substances are known as greenhouse gases. These gases act like a blanket, or a greenhouse, and trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
This buildup of heat is global warming, which is causing more extreme weather events and rising sea levels as well as threatening food supplies, plant life and wildlife.
Around 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the electricity, making it the biggest contributor to global warming. Most of these emissions come from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.
Different types of fuel release different quantities of carbon dioxide, CO2. Coal is the dirtiest type of fuel. Depending on the kind of coal, it emits between 214 and 229 pounds of carbon dioxide for every million British thermal units (Btu) of energy it produces. Natural gas emits 117 pounds per million Btu.
Generating energy from renewable sources like wind and solar, on the other hand, does not release any emissions. Geothermal and biomass energy, which are also renewable, produce some emissions but not as much as fossil fuels.
Although other activities associated with renewable energy, such as producing solar panels, do create emissions, the amount is still nowhere near that of fossil fuels.
Water plays a central role in the fossil fuel industry. It’s required for electricity generation, fuel extraction, fuel processing and other applications.
Coal mining and natural gas drilling operations use water, can contaminate groundwater and produce wastewater. The refining process for oil and natural gas also requires large amounts of water. 65 percent of electricity in the U.S. comes from thermoelectric plants, which boil water to create steam to produce electricity and need water to cool generators. These plants include coal and natural gas facilities.
However, it takes almost no water to run a wind or solar plant. Geothermal and biomass plants require water for cooling. Hydroelectric power is, of course, reliant on water. Despite this, a recent National Renewable Energy Laboratory study found that a scenario with 80 percent renewables by 2050 would reduce water consumption and withdrawal.
Renewable energy also enables electrification of cars, heating and other aspects of our lives to have a substantial impact on emissions reduction. Cars that use gasoline release pollutants, including greenhouse gases, directly into the atmosphere. Gasoline without ethanol emits 157 pounds of CO2 per million Btu, while diesel fuel emits 161 pounds.
Just how green an electric car is, though, depends on the fuel used to generate the electricity that powers it. A car that runs on electricity from solar will be much cleaner than a car that gets its electricity from coal. Based on averages of energy generation sources used in the United States, driving an electric vehicle is typically greener than driving a gasoline-powered or hybrid one.
Electric cars could be especially helpful for the agricultural industry that contributes greenhouse gases through cattle and other animal transportation, which can cause severe stress to the cattle. The money saving benefits of electric vehicles in the long run may encourage more humane transportation methods and promote a greener future.
However, increased renewable energy use would make electric vehicles an even more environmentally friendly choice. If you generate your home’s electricity and charge up your car with rooftop solar, you can get around and run your home with virtually no direct emissions.
Fossil fuels are a major source of pollution and the largest source of emissions that cause global warming. Using more renewables and less fossil fuel is critical if we want to reduce pollution and slow global warming. While switching to renewables isn’t without its challenges, it’s necessary to avoid climate disaster and continue enjoying the standard of living we currently have.
Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger from Lancaster, PA. She covers topics in conservation, sustainability and renewable energy. To see her latest posts, check out her blog Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter.