Millie HennickJuly 25, 20184640
Solar panels and wind turbines are an increasingly common sight. What are the benefits of renewable energies—and how do they improve our health, environment, and economy? This article explains the many positive impacts of clean energy, including the benefits of wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass. Human activity is overloading our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other global warming emissions. These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat. The result is a web of significant and harmful impacts, from stronger, more frequent storms, to drought, sea level rise, and extinction. In the United States, about 29 percent of global warming emissions come from our electricity sector. Most of those emissions come from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, but other air pollutants—such as methane—also cause global warming. Different energy sources produce different amounts of these pollutants. To make comparisons easier, we use a carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2e—the amount of carbon dioxide required to produce an equivalent amount of warming.
In contrast, most renewable energy sources produce little to no global warming emissions. Even when including “lifecycle” emissions of clean energy (ie, the emissions from each stage of a technology’s life—manufacturing, installation, operation, decommissioning), the global warming emissions associated with renewable energy are minimal.
The comparison becomes obvious when you look at the numbers. Burning natural gas for electricity releases between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2E/kWh); coal emits between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of CO2E/kWh. Wind, on the other hand, is responsible for only 0.02 to 0.04 pounds of CO2E/kWh on a life-cycle basis; solar 0.07 to 0.2; geothermal 0.1 to 0.2; and hydroelectric between 0.1 and 0.5. Renewable electricity generation from biomass can have a wide range of global warming emissions depending on the resource and whether or not it is sustainably harvested and sourced.
Moreover, different sources of energy produce different amounts of heat-trapping gases. Increasing the supply of renewable energy would allow us to replace carbon-intensive energy sources and significantly reduce US global warming emissions. For example, a 2009 UCS analysis found that a 25 percent by 2025 national renewable electricity standard would lower power plant CO2 emissions 277 million metric tons annually by 2025—the equivalent of the annual output from 70 typical (600 MW) new coal plants.
The air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas plants are linked with breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, cancer, premature death, and a host of other serious problems. The pollution affects everyone: one Harvard University study estimated the life-cycle costs and public health effects of coal to be an estimated $74.6 billion every year.
Most of these negative health impacts come from air and water pollution that clean energy technologies simply don’t produce. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions. Geothermal and biomass systems emit some air pollutants, though total air emissions are generally much lower than those of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants. In addition, wind and solar energy require virtually no water to operate and thus do not pollute water resources or strain supplies by competing with agriculture, drinking water, or other water needs. Fossil fuels can have a significant impact on water resources: both coal mining and natural gas drilling can pollute sources of drinking water, and all thermal power plants, including those powered by coal, gas, and oil, withdraw and consume water for cooling. Powerful winds, sunny skies, abundant plant matter, heat from the earth, and fast-moving water can each provide a vast supply of energy. A small fraction of US electricity currently comes from these sources, but that could change: studies have repeatedly shown that renewable energy can provide a sizable share of future electricity needs, even after accounting for potential constraints.
If you want to move into the future and join the solar revolution, or if you want to find out what solar panels are right for you, go to HahaSmart.com and try our price checker tool. You can see how much a system will cost, and how much you can save over the next 20 years.
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