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Clean Energy Basics

WHAT IS RENEWABLE ENERGY?

The United States currently relies heavily on coal, oil, and natural gas for its energy. Fossil fuels are nonrenewable, that is, they draw on finite resources that will eventually dwindle, becoming too expensive or too environmentally damaging to retrieve. In contrast, renewable energy resources—such as wind and solar energy—are constantly replenished and will never run out.

Most renewable energy comes either directly or indirectly from the sun. Sunlight, or solar energy, can be used directly for heating and lighting homes and other buildings, for generating electricity, and for hot water heating, solar cooling, and a variety of commercial and industrial uses.

The sun's heat also drives the winds, whose energy is captured with wind turbines. Then, the winds and the sun's heat cause water to evaporate. When this water vapor turns into rain or snow and flows downhill into rivers or streams, its energy can be captured using hydroelectric power.

Along with the rain and snow, sunlight causes plants to grow. The organic matter that makes up those plants is known as biomass. Biomass can be used to produce electricity, transportation fuels, or chemicals. The use of biomass for any of these purposes is called biomass energy.

Hydrogen also can be found in many organic compounds, as well as water. It's the most abundant element on the Earth. But it doesn't occur naturally as a gas. It's always combined with other elements, such as with oxygen to make water. Once separated from another element, hydrogen can be burned as a fuel or converted into electricity.

Not all renewable energy resources come from the sun. Geothermal energy taps the Earth's internal heat for a variety of uses, including electric power production, and the heating and cooling of buildings. And the energy of the ocean's tides comes from the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun upon the Earth. 

In fact, ocean energy comes from a number of sources. In addition to tidal energy, there's the energy of the ocean's waves, which are driven by both the tides and the winds. The sun also warms the surface of the ocean more than the ocean depths, creating a temperature difference that can be used as an energy source. All these forms of ocean energy can be used to produce electricity.

WHY IS RENEWABLE ENERGY IMPORTANT?

Renewable energy is important because of the benefits it provides. The key benefits are:

Environmental benefits

Renewable energy technologies are a lot friendlier to the environment than conventional energy technologies, which rely on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels contribute significantly to many of the environmental problems we face today— greenhouse gases, air pollution, and water and soil contamination— while renewable energy sources contribute very little or not at all.

Greenhouse gases— carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrocarbons, and chlorofluorocarbons— surround the Earth's atmosphere like a clear thermal blanket, allowing the sun's warming rays in and trapping the heat close to the Earth's surface. This natural greenhouse effect keeps the Earth's average surface temperature at about 60°F (33°C). But the increased use of fossil fuels has significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, creating an enhanced greenhouse effect known as global warming. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), carbon dioxide is responsible for one-half to two-thirds of our contribution to global warming. Renewable energy technologies, however, can produce heat and electricity with a very low or no amount of carbon dioxide emissions.

Energy use from fossil fuels is also a primary source of air, water, and soil pollution. Pollutants— such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and lead— take a dramatic toll on our environment. On the other hand, most renewable energy technologies produce little or no pollution.

Both pollution and global warming pose major health risks to humans. According to the American Lung Association, air pollution contributes to lung disease – including asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory tract infections – and close to 335,000 people in the United States die from it every year. Meanwhile, the long-term effects associated with global warming may be even more devastating. Deaths due to extreme weather could increase, and diseases could have a greater potential to thrive as temperatures rise.

Ultimately, renewable energy technologies could help us break our conventional pattern of energy use to improve the quality of our environment.

Energy for our children's children's children

What will the world's energy use be like in the future? Well, we can be pretty certain that electricity use will grow worldwide. The International Energy Agency projects that the world's electrical generating capacity will increase to nearly 5.8 million megawatts by the year 2020, up from about 3.3 million in 2000. However, the world supplies of fossil fuels—our current main source of electricity—will start to run out from the years 2020 to 2060, according to the petroleum industry's best analysts. How will we meet those electricity needs? Our best answer could be renewable energy.

Shell International predicts that renewable energy will supply 60% of the world's energy by 2060. The World Bank estimates that the global market for solar electricity will reach $4 trillion in about 30 years. Biomass fuels could also replace gasoline. It is estimated that the United States could produce 190 billion gallons per year of ethanol using available biomass resources in this country.

And unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy sources are sustainable. They will never run out. According to the World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainability is the concept of meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." That means our actions today to use renewable energy technologies will not only benefit us now, but will benefit many generations to come.

Jobs and the economy

Many U.S. communities have to import fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, to provide electricity, heating, and fuel. The cost of these fossil fuels can add up to billions of dollars. And every dollar spent on energy imports is a dollar that the local economy loses. Renewable energy resources, however, are developed locally. The dollars spent on energy stay at home, creating more jobs and fostering economic growth.

Renewable energy technologies are labor intensive. Jobs evolve directly from the manufacture, design, installation, servicing, and marketing of renewable energy products. Jobs even arise indirectly from businesses that supply renewable energy companies with raw materials, transportation, equipment, and professional services, such as accounting and clerical services.

In turn, the wages and salaries generated from these jobs provide additional income in the local economy. Renewable energy companies also contribute more tax revenue locally than conventional energy sources. 

The economic advantages of renewable energy also extend far beyond the local economy. The whole country benefits. In 2001, the United States spent about $103 billion dollars outside the country for oil. But as one of the world's leading manufacturers of renewable energy systems, we can bring in more money with the increased use of renewable energy sources around the world. Currently, for example, the United States manufactures about two-thirds of the world's photovoltaic (PV) systems. And it exports about 70% of these PV systems, mostly to developing nations, resulting in annual sales of more than $300 million.

Energy security

Our nation's energy security continues to be threatened by our dependency on fossil fuels. These conventional energy sources are vulnerable to political instabilities, trade disputes, embargoes, and other disruptions.

U.S. domestic oil production has been declining since 1970. In 1973, the United States only imported about 34% of its oil. Today, our country imports more than 53%, and it is estimated that this could increase to 75% by 2010. 

Most of the world's oil reserves are now in the Middle East. We have witnessed this shift in economic influence through the last three sharp increases in the world's oil prices: the Arab Oil Embargo in 1974, the Iranian Oil Embargo in 1979, and the Persian Gulf War in 1990. It has resulted in periods of negative economic growth and a rising trade deficit.

But with renewable energy, we can decrease our dependency on foreign oil imports. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that if we displace 10% of our petroleum use for transportation with biofuels, which are produced from organic material, we could save about $15 billion over 10 years. A 20% displacement could save us about $50 billion. This would strengthen our energy security, as well as our economic and national security.

WHY IS ENERGY EFFICIENY IMPORTANT?

Energy efficiency means using less energy to accomplish the same task.

The more efficient use of energy throughout our country results in less money spent on energy by homeowners, schools, government agencies, businesses, and industries. The money that would have been spent on energy can instead be spent on consumer goods, education, services, and products. For more information, see the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Alliance to Save Energy.

An energy-efficient economy can grow without using more energy. From 1970 to 2000, U.S. energy consumption grew only 45 percent while the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased 160 percent. In other words, the amount of energy used per dollar of GDP decreased 44 percent from 1970 to 2000.

An economy that uses less energy also produces less pollution, because the two are closely tied. By 1999, greenhouse gas emissions from energy use had risen 13 percent above 1990 levels. During that period, energy use increased 14.9 percent.

For your home or small business, and for other buildings, energy efficiency means using less energy to heat, cool, and light the building. It also means buying energy-saving appliances, computers, and other building equipment. For the homeowner or business owner, using less energy saves money.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has available a number of resources for homeowners wanting to save energy. DOE's consumer energy information will guide you to resources on saving energy, including Energy Savers. You might also try out the Home Energy Saver, a do-it-yourself home energy audit, created by DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

For your car, and for other vehicles, energy efficiency means creating new drive trains and other vehicle technologies to help manufacturers achieve higher-mileage vehicles. Cars powered by hybrid gasoline-electric engines or by fuel cells are two examples of energy-efficient vehicles.

DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have an online fuel economy guide, which can help you find fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids, and provide you with gas mileage tips.

For your power company, and other providers of electricity, energy efficiency often means helping customers like you save energy in their homes and businesses. But it also means delivering and storing electricity more efficiently. 

For local industry, energy efficiency means finding processes that achieve the same task with less energy. For instance, continuous casting in the steel industry is an energy-efficient improvement. Energy efficiency also means using more efficient motors, steam systems, compressed air systems, and other industrial equipment.

WHAT DOES CLEAN ENERGY HAVE TO DO WITH ME?

As a homeowner, what do I need to know about energy efficiency and renewable energy?

There are a number of renewable energy technologies that you can use in your home. Some are best incorporated in new homes when they are built. Others can easily be added to existing homes.

Technologies that are commercially available today include:

  • Biofuels
  • Geothermal direct use
  • Geothermal heat pumps
  • Hydroelectric power
  • Passive solar heating and daylighting
  • Photovoltaic (solar cell) systems
  • Solar hot water systems
  • Wind energy
  • Wood heating (biomass energy heating)

Homeowners throughout the country can now buy their electricity from renewable energy sources. This so-called "green power" avoids pollution by displacing the generation of power from other energy sources, such as coal. In states that have not yet deregulated their electricity supplies, this is often referred to as "green pricing." If you cannot buy green power through your utility or other energy providers in your state, you can still buy "green tags" (also called "tradable renewable certificates" or "green certificates"), which allow you to offset your energy use by buying the "green" component of electricity generated at renewable energy projects. Depending on the source of the green tags, those projects may be located nearby or in another state. For more information, see the Green Power Network or the Green-e Home Page.   

A wide number of energy-efficient technologies are available for your home. See the DOE Building Technologies Program for more information. Also see Energy Star® for information on energy-efficient appliances, electronics, and much more for the home. Energy Star® is a joint program of DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Homeowners can also save energy by buying energy-efficient vehicles and using biofuels. Hybrid electric vehicles are now available on the U.S. market, offering high mileage and low emissions. Cars and trucks that run on alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas, are also widely available.

As a small business owner, what do I need to know about energy efficiency and renewable energy?

There are a number of renewable energy technologies that small businesses can use, whether in a home office, small office, or commercial building. Some are best incorporated in new buildings, as they are built. Others can easily be added to an existing building.

Technologies that are commercially available today for small businesses include:

  • Biofuels
  • Geothermal heat pumps
  • Passive solar heating
  • Photovoltaic (solar cell) systems
  • Solar hot water systems
  • Wind energy

There also are opportunities for small businesses in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and many ways a small business can save energy to cut its utility bills.

NREL's Technology Transfer Program provides information to help small, renewable energy technology businesses get off the ground and forge profitable partnerships.

Energy Star®, a joint program of DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, can help you save money on energy costs. See its Energy Star® Small Business Program for more information.

Small businesses can also save energy by buying energy-efficient vehicles and using biofuels. Hybrid electric vehicles are available on the U.S. market, offering high mileage and low emissions. Cars and trucks that run on alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas, are also widely available.

As a student or teacher, what do I need to know about energy efficiency and renewable energy?

There are a variety of educational resources that can help you learn about the following renewable energy sources and technologies:

Biomass energy
  • Biofuels
  • Biopower
  • Bioproducts
Geothermal energy
  • Geothermal electricity production
  • Geothermal direct use
  • Geothermal heat pumps

Hydroelectric power

Hydrogen energy

Solar energy
  • Concentrating solar power systems
  • Passive solar heating
  • Photovoltaic (solar cell) systems
  • Solar hot water

Wind energy

For information on NREL's educational opportunities and resources, see NREL's Office of Education Programs.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has links to resources in energy education and training, including science projects, activities, lesson plans, and much more.

Learn about EnergySmart Schools— DOE's national effort to reduce energy bills in schools and reinvest the savings in educating children.

As an electricity provider, what do I need to know about energy efficiency and renewable energy?

Many renewable energy technologies for electricity production are now commercially available. They include:

  • Biopower
  • Photovoltaic (solar cell) systems
  • Solar hot water systems
  • Concentrating solar power systems
  • Geothermal electricity production
  • Hydroelectric power
  • Wind energy

Learn about the opportunities in producing electricity from renewable energy sources at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Green Power Network. These opportunities include "green marketing," "green pricing," and "green certificates"—optional utility services that allow customers the opportunity to invest in renewable energy technologies.  

One way to improve the operation and efficiency of your electricity delivery system is through the use of distributed energy resources. Distributed energy resources refer to a variety of small, modular power systems that can be combined with energy management and storage systems. For more information, see DOE's Distributed Energy Resources.

By promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, such as solar hot water, you can gain a competitive edge. In addition, you can partner with DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program to help your low-income customers save money on their electric bills.

As a farmer or rancher, what do I need to know about energy efficiency and renewable energy?

There are a number of renewable energy technologies that you can use on your farm or ranch. There also are many agribusiness opportunities in renewables. You can grow crops to make biofuels and bioproducts. And some farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to lease land to utilities for the installation of large wind turbines.

Technologies that are commercially available today for farms and ranches include:

  • Biofuels
  • Biopower
  • Bioproducts
  • Geothermal heat pumps
  • Geothermal direct use
  • Hydroelectric power
  • Passive solar heating
  • Photovoltaic (solar cell) systems
  • Solar hot water systems
  • Wind energy

Farmers and ranchers in many parts of the country can now buy their electricity from renewable energy sources. This so-called "green power" avoids pollution by displacing the generation of power from other energy sources, such as coal. In states that have not yet deregulated their electricity supplies, this is often referred to as "green pricing." If you cannot buy green power through your utility or other energy providers in your state, you can still buy "green tags" (also called "tradable renewable certificates" or "green certificates"), which allow you to offset your energy use by buying the "green" component of electricity generated at renewable energy projects. Depending on the source of the green tags, those projects may be located nearby or in another state. For more information, see the Green Power Network or the Green-e Home Page.   

You can also save energy by buying energy-efficient vehicles and using biofuels on your farm or ranch. Hybrid electric vehicles are now available on the U.S. market, offering high mileage and low emissions. Cars and trucks that run on alternative fuels, such as compressed natural gas, are also widely available.

As an inventor, what opportunities are available to me in energy efficiency and renewable energy?

There are many opportunities for inventors of energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies, as well as assistance.

See the U.S. Department of Energy's Inventions & Innovation Program to learn about the financial assistance available for the development of energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies. It has a list of helpful publications.






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