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Know Your Renewables: A Guide to Green Energy


The world is committed to decarbonization! With more than 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being generated in 2016, the far-reaching consequences of greenhouse gases are already being felt in terms of extreme weather to glacier meltdowns.  

Going green with renewable energy sources is no longer an option if we want to avoid the “Day After Tomorrow” scenarios!

The transformation is here!

Most developing nations across the world have continued to focus on green energy with greenhouse gas emissions remaining static in 2016. In 2015, a 3% reduction in global greenhouse emission was witnessed!  

  • Renewable energy production in 2016 increased by 14.1% registering the largest increment of growth.
  • Wind energy production accounted for more than half of the growth registered in renewable energy production, with solar energy accounting for one-third of the production.
  • Asia Pacific became the largest producer of renewable energy, overtaking Europe while China emerged as the leading producer among countries in the Asia Pacific.
  • There was a 2.8% increase in hydroelectric power in 2016 with the U.S. being one of the largest producers.
  • Consumption of coal fell to a low of 28% which is the lowest it has been since 2004.
  • There was only a marginal increase in natural gas production in 2016. Both oil and natural gas registered sluggish growth with a global slowdown in production.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, there was a 161 gigawatts increase in production of renewable energy across the world. The total capacity for renewable energy production reached 2,006 GW by the end of 2016.

The transformation as far as renewable energy sources are concerned is truly taking hold and it's here to stay!


What are the non-renewables?

Being finite reserves, the non-renewable sources of energy including natural gas, coal, nuclear power, and oil do not last forever!

Coal: Coal is the most commonly used fuel source which when burnt at high temperatures, generates enough steam that can power turbines. Relatively cheaper and more abundant among non-renewables, coal also is the maximum carbon-dioxide generator. According to Statista’s 2016 figures, the U.S. has coal reserves of 251,582 billion metric tons, while China has 244,010 billion metric tons of the fossil fuel reserves. Russia, Australia, and India are the other countries that have major coal reserves in the world.  About 75% of the world’s coal reserves are in these five countries.

If coal usage steps up in the coming years because of a paucity of other fuels such as gas and oil, the world would run out of coal by the year 2088 according to one estimate. Burning the entire reserves of coal would result in a two-degree rise in global temperature.

Oil: Oil is the major fuel used in transportation. About 60% of the world’s reserves of oil is in the Middle East. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE are some countries that top in terms of oil reserves. According to British Petroleum estimates, the world would run out of oil in another 53 years if the rates of production and usage remain unchanged.

Natural gas: Dead and decaying plants and animals release a gas known as methane. The process of extraction of this gas involves fracking or hydraulic fracturing. Heavy drills are used to make numerous tiny cracks in rocks to release the methane from the fossils. Methane is a greenhouse gas and contributes significantly towards the greenhouse effect. Per BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2016, natural gas and oil reserves would last for 50 years.

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More light on renewable sources

The renewables are those that are available in nature in abundance and can be tapped as sources of energy without depleting the reserves. Solar and wind are the most often talked about renewable green energy sources but biomass and hydropower are other renewables.

Biomass: Biomass makes use of wood and is considered as a renewable source of energy because it is possible to grow wood. Using plant sources to produce fuel is also a form of biomass energy. An example is the use of corn to produce biodiesel or ethanol. According to an IPCC report of 2014, the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels are 30 to 90% lower than that produced by natural gas or diesel fuels. In the U.S., only 5% of corn was used to produce ethanol in 2000, but in 2013, more than 40% of corn was used to produce the biofuel. Rapeseed, sugar cane, palm oil, jatropha which are seeds of a bushy plant, soybeans, and switchgrass are other sources of biomass. According to a study by researchers at the University of Alabama, every acre of switchgrass can produce up to four thousand liters of ethanol.

Hydropower:  Hydropower harnesses the power of water when the force of running water is used to turn turbines that produce electricity. Traditionally used in water mills around the world to produce energy, canals or dams are required to store the water and run it through the turbines. Close to one-fifth of the world’s electricity is generated by hydropower. According to the World Energy Council, with a global capacity of 1,064 GW, 16.4% of the global electricity was produced in 2016. China, US, Brazil, Canada, India, and Russia are the leading hydropower generators in the world.

Wind energy: Harnessed from wind which is used to turn blades and the hub of turbines, the wind is one of the top clean energy sources.  Texas leads in wind energy production. In New York, wind turbines can produce 39 GW to light up and power fifteen million homes. Wind turbines in New York alone produce close to 1,812 MW megawatts of clean energy. Expected to become the leading source of energy in the years to come, wind energy contributed 6% of the electricity supply in the U.S. in 2016. The government plans to step up the capacity to 2.4 GW by the year 2030 to supply power to more than one million homes in New York.  

Across the globe, the total capacity for wind energy was 486,790 MW in 2016 which was a 12.5% increase from 2015. The Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) has an objective to achieve 800 GW by the year 2021. Wind energy contributed 41% of total power capacity in the U.S. in 2016. With the total wind energy capacity of 82,143 MW in 2016, the U.S. leads the world in wind energy production, according to the GWEC. The wind energy produced in the U.S. in 2016 was enough to power about seventeen million homes.

China and Germany are the other major wind energy producers in the world.

Geothermal: Geothermal energy makes use of the natural heat sinks in the earth's crust to heat water and produces steam. The steam that is produced at high pressure can spin the turbines to produce electricity. Once the steam cools down, it goes back to the earth’s crust making it a renewable source of energy. The U.S. produces 2,530 megawatts of geothermal energy and the leading states are California, Idaho, Nevada, and New Mexico. Oregon, Hawaii, and Utah are the other states where geothermal energy is produced. Even though the U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal energy, this accounts for just over 1% of total energy produced in the country.

Solar energy: By the end of 2016, 40 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity was installed in the U.S.  Compared to 2015, there was a two-fold increase in solar power capacity in 2016. About 47.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) of solar power was generated in the first half of 2017, representing 1.17% of the total electricity produced.

In the first quarter of 2017, additional 2,387 megawatts of solar capacity was installed in the U.S.  which means the total capacity currently is 47.1 gigawatts that can power and light up more than nine million homes. According to estimates, before 2017 ends, another 12 GW of solar capacity would be installed.

Solar energy systems consist of photovoltaic cell that can directly convert the sunlight into electricity. Numerous PV cells when connected make up a solar panel and several panels make up the solar array.  Solar farms include arrays that can produce electricity on commercial scales.  States like California have made it mandatory for all new construction to include solar panels.

Cities like Boston and New York in the U.S. continue to lead by example with their strong commitment to green and clean energy. Solar capacity went up to 743.65 MW in 2016 in New York alone.

According to the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority ( NYSERDA),  New York has invested about $14 million for encouraging green and clean energy start-ups in the state.

Boston topped the list on American Council for Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) scorecard of the 2017 City Energy Efficiency ratings by scoring 84.5 points on 100. The ACEEE rates cities on various parameters that include green building initiatives, utility, transport, green initiatives in local governance and other services.  

Heating and cooling account for a majority of power consumption in residential buildings while in offices, plug-ins, lighting, and other electrical loads guzzle up most of the power. Outdated air-conditioning units can cost up to $180 million annually while the greenhouse gas emissions can be as much as 525,000 tons. The tall buildings in New York account for 67% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Benchmarking for multi-story buildings which consume huge amounts of power and arranging car/ vehicle pooling for government employees are some initiatives Boston and New York have taken.

With an aim to cut down on carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, switching over to clean and green renewable energy sources is the way forward for New York and for other cities. 

Almost 24% of the electricity used up in 2016 in New York was from renewable sources such as solar. The plan is to increase this to 50% by the year 2030. Boston plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.


Why go green and clean?

Renewable energy sources have multiple advantages over fossil fuels apart from being freely available in nature in abundance.
It’s emission-free: With renewable energy sources, there is no danger of greenhouse gas emissions including methane, carbon dioxide, sulfur or carbon monoxide. These gases trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere causing a rise in global temperature and extreme weather conditions.  
All the processes involved in the manufacture, installation, operations produce minimal if any greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to natural gas and coal which emit carbon dioxide between 0.6 to 3.6 pounds per kilowatt hour, 0.02 to 0.07  pounds per kilowatt per hour is the emission from solar or wind energy.
Stepping up the renewable energy use can achieve a reduction of 277 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2025.

It’s healthy!: Non-renewable sources of energy produce heavy metals during the process of extraction and purification. These heavy metals can include lead, mercury, arsenic, and many more. The usual gases produced during coal extraction are:

  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2) that gives rise to acid rain, besides increasing risk and incidence of respiratory illnesses.
  • Nitrogen oxides which create the “smog” and also contribute to respiratory illnesses.
  • Particulate matter which gives rise to several lung ailments and breathing disorders. Particulate matter also contributes in a major way to haze and smog.
  • Carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas that increases global temperatures.
  • Heavy metals such as mercury which are toxic to the health of both animals and humans. Mercury poisoning is known to result in numerous birth defects besides causing neurological illnesses.
  • Lead is the major heavy metal emitted by the transport industry which uses fossil fuels. Almost 35% of lead emissions are accounted for by energy and transport sectors according to the European Environment Agency.

Heavy metals get into the food chain at multiple touch points when industries release contaminated water into lakes and rivers. Certain cancers, kidney and liver failure or damage, heart disease, immunological conditions, asthma, and allergies are attributed to heavy metals. Close to eight hundred billion dollars is spent treating the disease conditions arising from fossil fuels accounting for almost 6% of GDP.

With renewable sources, there is negligible to zero emissions which mean reduced healthcare expenditure and improved productivity.

It’s water friendly: The processes involved in extraction, purification and the production of fossil fuels involve huge amounts of water at every stage. Besides, fracking can contaminate groundwater, rendering it unfit for domestic and agricultural consumption. Water is also required to cool down certain systems used in manufacturing. With renewables, there is no need to use water for cleaning, production or maintenance leading to huge savings on water bills besides avoiding contamination.

It’s cheap: There is a 70% reduction in installation costs of solar power with rising demand and continuing federal and state support.  For a single-family house, the combined incentives offered by federal and state agencies have cut down the costs of solar installation by $10000 to $25000.
The major savings is in terms of monthly energy bills. Using solar energy reduces the monthly expenses on energy by 85%. The energy bill can be a low $18 in summers and just $50 during winters.

Save on tax:  In New York, there is a 15-year exemption on property tax when you install solar panels. This means that even as the property value appreciates, you do not have to pay increased property tax. A 25% credit on income tax is also another attractive feature. Besides, sales tax exemption of 8.875% on the photovoltaics helps reduce costs further. Along with the state rebate on income tax, a 30% federal tax credit brings down costs by 50% for initial installation.
The solar systems are easy to install and can fit into a wide range of sizes and shapes of buildings. When there are inaccessible rooftops or excessive shading, all you would need to do is purchase solar power from the neighborhood. Besides being easy to install, the solar systems are easy on maintenance. One malfunctioning module does not mean the entire system needs to be replaced!

It creates jobs: Wind and solar power production and installation can boost the local economy. The solar industry gave rise to 170,000 jobs in 2014 in the U.S. More than a billion dollars are contributed by the sector towards national economy each year. A number of jobs related to consultation, finances, legal, logistics, manufacturing, and installation are generated every year with the increasing focus on renewable energy production.
Per the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) report, the annual income is almost $8.7 billion from the renewable energy industry. In 2017, an additional 26,800 new jobs would get added thanks to the solar sector, according to the NYSERDA.

Renewable energy sources can work throughout the year in any weather condition. Because the solar system can store the sun’s energy in its batteries, it can be effective on cloudy days and in winters as per the Department of Energy and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.  

New research is enabling solar panels to capture ultraviolet rays, the blue and red wavelengths to the optimal levels possible. And this means that solar energy production does not stop in the cloudiest of days.

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