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RENEWABLE ENERGY:
A BETTER WAY

How can renewable energy work in cities?

Renewable energy comes in many different forms. While cities may not have the space for large wind farms and geothermal plants, solar energy thrives in urban environments--solar water heaters and space heaters, passive solar design for buildings, and photovoltaics are all available. Even better, they capture the energy right where it's needed. There are many ways to put renewable energy to work in buildings and take advantage of small, "neighborhood" renewable energy technologies.

Renewable energy resources vary by region, too. While the Inuit in Alaska and northern Canada may never use solar electric panels, they are using wind turbines. The Southwest is rich in solar energy, the Midwest has wind and biomass from crops, New England and the Southeast have biomass from trees, and the Pacific Northwest has hydropower.

Aren't renewables really expensive?

The cost of renewable energy technologies has fallen rapidly in the past 20 years, and some forms of renewable energy are already competitive. Utilities in the Midwest have signed contracts that pay less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity from wind turbines. This is comparable to production costs from coal plants, and is less expensive than those from nuclear plants. The price of a solar panel has fallen from $80 per watt 25 years ago to less than $5 per watt now. In some parts of the country, where sunlight is strong and the cost of electricity is high (like California), solar panels can be competitive with utility power during peak hours. Off the grid, they are typically the most convenient and versatile choice.

Meanwhile, government spending on renewable energy research has fallen from a high of $700 million in 1980 to about $270 million in recent years. Spending on renewable energy research is only a fraction of what has been spent on nuclear power.

How much energy do we get from renewables now?

The US obtains about 8 percent of its energy supply from renewable sources, mostly hydro and biomass. Hydroelectric power is the largest, producing 10 percent of the nation's electricity (or 4 percent of total energy), and 20 percent of the world's electricity (or 7 percent of total energy). Biomass accounts for about 3.2 percent of total US energy production, mostly as thermal energy produced from wood and wood waste and used directly by the pulp and paper industry. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, we get almost as much total energy from biomass as we do from hydroelectric dams. All other renewables -- wind, geothermal, and solar -- add up to less than 1 percent.

Why don't we use more renewables already?

Some types of renewable energy technology, like photovoltaics and large wind turbines, are relatively new. It takes some time for new technologies to move into the mainstream. The biggest impediments to renewable energy in the United States have been in the way business decisions are made. Renewables are at a disadvantage because of the way taxes and financing rules are structured (penalizing projects with large up-front costs and low operating costs); because their environmental benefits are not valued in dollar terms; and because some of them are fairly expensive. But renewables are at a disadvantage most of all because business and political leaders are not familiar with them.

How can we increase our use of renewable energy?

To make our energy systems cleaner and more sustainable, we can do many things, as individuals and as a society: ask our politicians and utilities to support renewable energy, support research and development funding, choose renewable energy whenever it is offered to us, and balance the playing field by making polluters pay.

What can I do to help promote a sustainable energy system?

Many people in rural areas have chosen to live "off the grid," using small-scale renewable generators to power their homes. There is a strong sense of camaraderie among the members of the "home power" community, and they will be happy to welcome you into their fold. (See Energy Resources on the Web for information.) If you are a city dweller, it is still possible to use solar energy in your home, with solar water heaters, solar electric panels, and passive solar home designs. You can do many other things as well. First, conserve energy. The less energy we use, the more possible it becomes to supply much of our needs from renewables. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs, keep your home well-insulated and sealed, recycle (especially aluminum), buy a fuel-efficient car, and avoid driving whenever possible. At work or school, see if you can have high-efficiency lights installed (T-8 lights with reflectors), use the "sleep" functions of your computer to save power, and don't waste paper. And finally, be an activist. Call or write to your elected representatives and show them your support for renewables. Lobby your local electric utility to use more renewables. Utilities can join groups like the Utility Photovoltaic Group or the Utility Wind Interest Group. Customers of many utilities have the option to buy part or all of their electricity from renewable energy sources. Residents of Sacramento, California, Traverse City, Michigan, Tallahassee, Florida, and many others can choose to buy solar or wind power from their utility.

Can renewables really supply all of our energy needs?

Many projections of future energy use predict an ever-increasing use of energy, met by the same old supply of fossil fuels, until eventually those supplies run out. Under these scenarios, about a century down the road we are rescued by a new technology, usually either fusion or solar power, which meets all our needs.

But there is no reason that energy use must increase at the rate it has. A new study, Energy Innovations: A Prosperous Path to a Clean Environment, shows that a decrease in energy consumption over the next 30 years results in steady economic growth and job creation, as well as benefits to the environment and the climate. This study assumes that the United States starts a clear transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable resources, which could meet 14 percent of US energy use needs by 2010 and 32 percent by 2030.Written by: Union of Concerned Scientists


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