Renewable energy is a practical, affordable solution to our electricity needs. Simply, by ramping up renewable energy. Renewable energy—wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass. These energies provide substantial benefits for our climate, our health, and our economy. Each source of renewable energy has unique benefits and costs.
Cut global warming emissions by green-powered cities
Human activity is overloading our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other global warming emissions. Emissions trap heat, and steadily drive up the planet’s temperature. Also, it creates significant and harmful impacts on our health, our environment, and our climate. Electricity production accounts for more than one-third of U.S. global warming emissions. The majority generate coal-fired power plants, which produce approximately 25 percent of total U.S. global warming emissions. Meanwhile, natural gas-fired power plants produce 6 percent of total emissions. In contrast, most renewable energy sources produce little to no global warming emissions. According to data aggregated by the International Panel on Climate Change, life-cycle global warming emissions associated with renewable energy including
- operation and maintenance
- dismantling and decommissioning
- Natural gas, which emits between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2E/kWh),
- Coal, which emits between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of CO2E/kWh, wind emits only 0.02 to 0.04 pounds of CO2E/kWh,
- 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. It depends on the resource and how it is harvested. Sustainably sourced biomass has a low emissions footprint, while unsustainable sources of biomass can generate significant global warming emissions.
Move toward a cleaner, healthier energy future
Generating electricity from renewable energy rather than fossil fuels offers significant public health benefits. The air and water pollution emitted by coal and natural gas plants are linked to breathing problems, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy reduces premature mortality and lost workdays, and it reduces overall healthcare costs. Wind, solar, and hydroelectric systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions. While geothermal and biomass energy systems emit some air pollutants, total air emissions are generally much lower than those of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants.
In addition, wind and solar energy require essentially no water to operate and thus do not pollute water resources or strain supply by competing with agriculture, drinking water systems, or other important water needs. In contrast, fossil fuels can have a significant impact on water resources. For example, both coal mining and natural gas drilling can pollute sources of drinking water. Natural gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) requires large amounts of water and all thermal power plants, including those powered by coal, gas, and oil, to withdraw and consume water for cooling.
Biomass and geothermal power plants, like coal and natural gas-fired power plants, require water for cooling. In addition, hydroelectric power plants impact river ecosystems both upstream and downstream from the dam. However, NREL’s 80 percent by 2050 renewable energy study, which included biomass and geothermal, found that water withdrawals would decrease 51 percent to 58 percent by 2050, and water consumption would be reduced by 47 percent to 55 percent.
Clean energy, green jobs, and the benefits of a national renewable electricity standard
Compared with fossil fuel technologies, which are typically mechanized and capital-intensive, the renewable energy industry is more labor-intensive. This means that, on average, more jobs are created for each unit of electricity generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. Renewable energy already supports thousands of jobs in the United States. For example, in 2011, the wind energy industry directly employed 75,000 full-time-equivalent employees in a variety of capacities, including manufacturing, project development, construction, and turbine installation, operations and maintenance, transportation and logistics, and financial, legal, and consulting services.
In addition to creating new jobs, increasing our use of renewable energy offers other important economic development benefits. Local governments collect property and income taxes and other payments from renewable energy project owners. These revenues can help support vital public services, especially in rural communities where projects are often located. Owners of the land on which wind projects run often receive lease payments ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 per megawatt of installed capacity, as well as payments for power line easements and road rights-of-way. Or they may earn royalties based on the project’s annual revenues. Similarly, farmers and rural landowners can generate new sources of supplemental income by producing feedstocks for biomass power facilities. Renewable energy projects, therefore, keep money circulating within the local economy, and in most states, renewable electricity production would reduce the need to spend money on importing coal and natural gas from other places.