The Environmental Impact of Clean Energy

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What is Meant by Clean Energy?

Wind power station - wind turbine against the blue skyClean energy is the term applied to the energy sources that don’t produce any harmful byproducts to produce electricity. Solar, wind, and geothermal are the most predominant types of clean energy today. They don’t produce any gas or solids as a result of the combustion process, unlike coal, natural gas and even nuclear.

Although the growth in clean energy has been impressive in the last few years, combined, they accounted for just 1.6 percent of all electricity produced in the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


Benefits of Clean Energy

Solar, wind and geothermal are free, renewable resources. The technology to use each of these has advanced to the point where it’s now economically feasible to use them instead of coal, natural gas and nuclear for large scale power generation. Since clean energy produces no gases or residues, its only environmental impacts lie in the materials and energy needed to build the installations that harness the potential of these resources.

Why Is Clean Energy Such a Big Deal?

Using coal and natural gas to produce electricity dumps many millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually. Carbon dioxide hangs onto heat, which builds up in the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.

Producing electricity, with the exception of generating it from hydropower, is quite inefficient. Like school kids, power plants get grades on how efficiently they produce power, and the scale runs from zero to 100 percent. And like all grades, higher is better.

Nuclear and coal receive the lowest grades when it comes to producing electricity and natural gas the highest. It takes three pounds of coal to generate a single kilowatt of electricity. The other two pounds end up as greenhouse gases that go into the atmosphere and as solid waste.

Natural gas is slightly more efficient, and while it doesn’t produce the solid waste that coal does, it still pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions. Its heat rate stood at Extracting natural gas from the earth also involves fracking, a process that uses a good deal of water and releases methane gas, a far more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide.

Nuclear power doesn’t create gases and its solid waste products are minuscule, but they lead the list for toxicity to life on the planet for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and require some form of environmental remediation.

Solar, wind and geothermal don’t have efficiencies any higher than nuclear or fossil fuels, but they’re abundant, nonpolluting, free, and 100 percent renewable.

Largest Clean Energy Installations in the U.S.

When measured by output, China and the U.S. lead the world in total output of clean energy. However, per capita, Denmark, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, and Germany lead the world in clean energy production.

Not surprisingly, the largest solar power plants in the U.S. are located in Arizona, Nevada and California, all states that receives the highest amounts of solar radiation annually. Of them, the Solar Star plant in Rosamond, California is the largest and has a 579 megawatt capacity. It opened in June, 2015 and is the largest solar array in the world.

Wind farms have a broader distribution and the largest currently lies in Tehachapi, California, southeast of Bakersfield. The Alta Wind Energy Centre has a capacity of 1,020 megawatts. The state of Texas has a number of wind farms that total 18,531 megawatts of generating power in 40 different installations.

Eighty percent of the geothermal energy produced in the U.S. comes from California, followed by Nevada, Utah and Hawaii.