Why Renewable Energy?
Electricity generation is the leading cause of industrial air pollution in the U.S. Most of our electricity comes from coal, nuclear, and other non-renewable power plants. Producing energy from these resources takes a severe toll on our environment, polluting our air, land, and water.
Renewable energy sources can be used to produce electricity with fewer environmental impacts. It is possible to make electricity from renewable energy sources without producing CO2, the leading cause of global climate change.
But first, just what is renewable energy? Renewable energy is energy derived from natural resources that replenish themselves over a period of time without depleting the Earth’s resources. These resources also have the benefit of being abundant, available in some capacity nearly everywhere, and they cause little, if any, environmental damage. Energy from the sun, wind, and thermal energy stored in the Earth’s crust are examples. For comparison, fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas are not renewable, since their quantity is finite—once we have extracted them they will cease to be available for use as an economically-viable energy source. While they are produced through natural processes, these processes are too slow to replenish these fuels as quickly as humans use them, so these sources will run out sooner or later.
- 66% of the nation’s sulfur dioxide (SO2), which causes acid rain, comes from electricity generation. According to the American Lung Association, sulfur dioxide affects breathing, increases respiratory illness, weakens pulmonary defenses and aggravates cardiovascular diseases.
- 25% of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which react with sunlight to create ground level ozone and smog, come from electricity generation. Ozone and smog irritate the lungs and lower resistance to infections like influenza, according to the American Lung Association.
- Ozone (O3) occurs naturally in the upper atmosphere where it is beneficial. However, ozone in the lower atmosphere creates the urban haze which we call smog. Automobiles and electricity generation are the top contributors to ground level ozone. It causes over 1.5 million significant respiratory problems per year in children and adults. Short term effects include coughing, lung irritation and exacerbation of respiratory disease. Long term effects include chronic lung disease and even cancer.
- Particulate matter is a type of air pollution more commonly referred to as soot. Exposure to particulate matter is especially harmful to people with lung disease (e.g. asthma, bronchitis, emphysema) and heart disease.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a climate change gas that causes global warming. Global warming can lead to the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. It also contributes to air quality problems, which increase the health effects of other air pollutants. Long-term effects associated with fossil fuel burning could be even more alarming than air pollution-related deaths today. In the future, tropical diseases could thrive as the earth’s climate warms, and deaths due to extreme weather conditions (e.g. hypothermia) could increase.
- Nuclear energy poses the unique threats of radioactive waste and radiation. Waste from nuclear energy facilities is dangerous to transport and to dispose of. In addition, there is potential for a disastrous nuclear accident, like Chernobyl. Health effects of radioactive waste include cancer, sterility and even death. Radiation may cause immune system damage, leukemia, miscarriages, stillbirths, deformities and genetic mutations.
- Mercury is a highly toxic metal that is released from coal-fired power plants. Mercury accumulates in the fat cells of fish and other animals. When humans eat the fish, they are exposed to mercury. Mercury causes permanent damage to the liver and central nervous system, causing loss of motor function, slurred speech, tunnel vision, and loss of hearing. Mercury is particularly harmful when ingested by pregnant or nursing women as it can cause birth defects and developmental defects. Because mercury accumulates in biological organisms it is constantly being recycled in the environment as it moves up the food chain.
For More Information about Your Health and Electricity:
- Environmental Defense Fund
- Electric Power Research Institute
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- American Lung Association
- World Resource Institute
Renewable energy sources are good for business, providing energy security, economic development, energy price stability, and reduces the global risks of climate change.
Renewable energy provides reliable power supplies and fuel diversification, which enhance energy security and lower risk of fuel spills while reducing the need for imported fuels. Renewable energy also helps conserve the nation’s natural resources.
According to two studies by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)1, if the U.S. were to supply 10% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 the following would occur:
- Consumer savings: $22.6 billion to $37.7 billion in lower electricity and natural gas bills
- Jobs: 91,220 new jobs—nearly twice as many as generating the electricity from fossil fuels
- Economic development: $41.5 billion in new capital investment, $5.7 billion in income to farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners, and $2.8 billion in new local tax revenues
- Healthier environment: reductions of global warming pollution equal to taking from 25 million to 32 million cars off the road, plus less haze, smog, acid rain, mercury contamination, and water use
Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal do not entail fuel costs or require transportation, and therefore offer greater price stability. In fact, some electric utilities factor this into their retail electricity prices, exempting customers that buy renewables from certain charges.
Electricity and the Environment
Traditional electricity generation is responsible for the emission of a host of chemicals with widespread environmental impacts. The same compounds that are detrimental to human health have similar consequences for the natural environment. Electricity generation from fossil fuels is responsible for:
- 38% of the nation’s carbon dioxide2 (CO2), a greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. Climate change is a serious environmental threat that may contribute to coastal flooding, more frequent and extreme heat waves, more intense droughts, an increase in the number of severe storms, and the increased spread of infectious diseases.
- 66% of the nation’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) when combined with rain water, creates acid rain. Acid rain damages the foliage of forests, crops, and other plants, and eventually can kill the plants. It also acidifies rivers and lakes causing them to be biologically “dead.” Acidification also alters the chemistry of soil, releasing harmful metals into rainwater runoff and groundwater. Sulfur dioxide also accelerates the decay of stone and paint, damaging many buildings and
- 40% of the nation’s mercury3 contributes to contamination of soil and waterways. Mercury can circulate in the air for up to one year and can be transported thousands of miles from its source. Mercury accumulates in the fatty tissue of fish and is constantly being recycled in the environment as it moves up the food chain. Mercury causes permanent damage to the liver and central nervous system and can cause birth defects.
- 25% of nitrogen oxides (NOx), which react with sunlight to create ground level ozone and smog. Nitrogen oxide deposition causes algae blooms in lakes and streams. This depletes the water of oxygen, killing fish and other living organisms. Nitrogen dioxide has also been shown to cause pulmonary disease in animals.
- Particulate matter is the major cause of reduced visibility (haze) in the U.S. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of emissions of particulate pollution – soot particles made of ash (heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, hydrocarbons, sulfates, and nitrates) that can transport and deposit trace metals such as mercury hundreds of miles from their source. Soot stains and damages stone and other materials, damaging many of our buildings and monuments. After traveling long distances, particles settle on ground or water, causing these effects:
- making lakes and streams acidic
- changing the nutrient balance in coastal waters and large river basins
- depleting the nutrients in soil
- damaging sensitive forests and farm crops
- affecting the diversity of ecosystems
More Information about Electricity and your Environment
- Environmental Protection Agency: Air Pollution
- Environmental Protection Agency: Climate Change
- Environmental Protection Agency: Power Profiler
- Environmental Defense Fund
- Natural Resource Defense Council: Air Pollution
- Natural Resource Defense Council: Global Warming
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory
- World Resources Institute: Climate, Energy & Transport
- Energy Information Administration
- Union of Concerned Scientists: Clean Energy
1 Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/solutions/renewable_energy_solutions/renewing-americas-economy.html
2 US EPA: Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2004, Section 3, Page 12.
3From Coal-burning power plants alone, http://www.epa.gov/mercury/about.htm
All emissions data, unless otherwise noted, is from the U.S. EPA website,