[ return to Geisswerks ]

The Green Revolution
by Ryan Geiss, 3.17.02
last updated: 3.11.03

Table of Contents:

Welcome. The article you are about to read is about renewable energy, with a focus on electricity production. It first describes how electricity is produced in the U.S. today, taking a close look at the various power sources we have and analyzing which ones are more sustainable (clean and renewable) than others. Next, the article discusses ways that we can make these preferred energy sources more economically viable (cheaper) in order to facilitate their use on a mass scale. Finally, the article ends with some easy energy conservation facts and tips.

Electricity in the U.S. comes from a variety of sources, but the majority of it comes from fossil fuels. The process is simple: fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, are burned. The heat given off in the burning is used to boil water, the steam from which is used to rotate massive turbines. Then, thanks to electromagnetism, this rotational energy of the turbine can be turned into current, or electricity, which powers our homes and businesses.

How much of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels? According to the U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E.), electricity production in 2001 could be broken down
like this:

    71.3% fossil fuels
              51.2% coal
              16.5% natural gas
               3.4% petroleum
    20.7% nuclear
    8% renewable 
               5.8% large-scale hydroelectric
               1.6% wood, waste, alcohol (i.e. biomass)
               0.4% geothermal
               0.156% wind		
               0.013% solar

This breakdown doesn't change much from year to year; it's been roughly the same for 30 years, except that nuclear power has replaced some fossil fuel power, starting around 1970 and steadily rising to today's 20% mark. The net amount of electricity consumed has grown over time, though. In the seventies we used about 62 quadrillion btu's per year, on average; in the late nineties that amount hovered around 72 quadrillion btu's per year.

How does this apply to us, as individuals? Well, of all the energy consumed in the U.S., about 65% of it goes to commercial & industrial ends such as manufacturing, store lighting and A/C, street lights, and so on, while about 35% of it is consumed in our homes4.

There are many problems with today's power production. The most obvious problem is that fossil fuels are not renewable, and our supply of them will someday be exhausted; perhaps in our lifetime or our grandkids' lifetime, or perhaps far into the future. But regardless of when they run out, we have more immediate problems to face - such as the quality of our air, water, and environment, which affect our health; and the balance of our planet's ecosystem, which provides us with food and life. Let's now look at how some of the electricity sources in use today threaten our ecosystem.

Burning fossil fuels is an extremely cheap way to produce electricity, but it is not the cleanest; it generates quite a bit of pollution. When fossil fuels are burned they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. The D.O.E. estimates2 that electricity production in the U.S. released 2.5 billion tons - that's 5 trillion pounds - of CO2 into the atmosphere in 1998 alone, or about 8,500 pounds per household11.

This constant, monumental release of CO2 into the atmosphere is often linked to global climate changes in the past hundred years. The EPA claims that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have risen about 28% since the Industrial Revolution5, and claim 82% of this is from burning fossil fuels. The EPA also claims that global temperatures are rising - by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (see graph below) in the past few decades - and that precipitation has increased by about 1% in the last century.

Scientific explanations for the link between CO2 and global climate change have not been proven, but are fairly simple and somewhat widely accepted. For more information on global warming, please see the
EPA's Global Warming Center.

(image from the EPA)

However, carbon dioxide isn't the only byproduct of spent fossil fuels. In 1998, electric power generation also released 8 million tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 12 billion tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2). According to the EPA6, "these pollutants contribute to public health problems and environmental degradation; they are linked to acid rain, ground-level ozone, fine particulate pollution and global climate change." They claim that regions of the U.S. with high concentrations of these pollutants exhibit significantly higher symptoms of the above problems. Much of the amendments to the Clean Air Act during the 90's, which put stricter limits on the emissions of these pollutants from power plants, was legislated with the help of studies linking these pollutants to widespread health and lung problems, especially for children, asthmatics, and the elderly.

As you can see, burning fossil fuels is hardly sustainable, in any sense of the word - it is limited in supply and high in pollution, and its continued use threatens to further damage the ecosystem that we depend on.

Nuclear power is also highly efficient, but highly problematic; the amount of energy produced per pound of waste is astounding, but so is the deadliness of that same pound of waste. The medley of radioactive elements left over from nuclear power generation takes hundreds to thousands, sometimes billions of years to naturally decompose into non-radioactive elements. In other words: this waste stays toxic for a long, long time.

We also seem to have a huge problem figuring out where to store the waste. In the 1950's the federal government promised the states that it would handle all nuclear waste, but it has yet to actually do it. As a result, "more than 40,000 tons of waste already have accumulated at the plants, and 2,000 tons are being added each year," according to journalists at the Washington Post7. The fed has had its eye on building a repository underneath Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, for decades, but Nevada has strongly resisted. They claim that if Yucca Mountain was built, and all current waste was shipped there, "some communities along major corridors, including St. Louis and Omaha, might see shipments every hour on the hour for the next 38 years"7.

There is also an ethical risk with nuclear waste, in that we should be wary of trusting ourselves with its ethical disposal. In the Gulf War, the U.S. admittingly used "tank-busting" mortar shells made out of depleted uranium (DU), a byproduct of the nuclear power process. The damage done to Iraqi tanks proved that DU munitions are extremely effective because of their high density, but can this justify saturating a country with waste radiation? The U.S. used 340 tons of it (783,000 bullets and 9,000 larger tank rounds, according to the Pentagon's complete report) in the Gulf War, which is now littered across the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait... and with a half-life of 4.5 billion years (the time it takes to become half as radioactive), it's not going anywhere soon.

Is DU dangerous? During the Gulf War, we claimed it was harmless; yet we buried all of our own vehicles hit by DU 'friendly fire' in low-level radioactive waste dumps. We still claim it is safe, yet U.S. military rules for handling DU require respirators, protective suits, and 14 licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, cancer rates and birth defects are skyrocketing in Iraq, but there is still (valid) debate about whether the cause is DU ammo, or the nerve gases and oil fires from the war.

We also later used DU in cluster bombs in Kosovo and Bosnia, but that could be the end of it - the European Union (EU) is extremely upset about it and is currently trying to push a ban on the use of DU munitions through NATO. See this series of articles for a detailed history of the U.S. and DU.

The point: nuclear waste might be acceptable if it was handled responsibly, but in the real world, this doesn't always happen. There are many risks.

It should be clear by now - if it wasn't already - that fossil fuels and nuclear power both have severe drawbacks to their widespread use. What should we replace them with? Renewables, of course - energy sources that never deplete. But renewables can have their problems, too - they are usually more expensive, and some are more environmentally friendly than others.

First, almost all of our hydroelectric power is 'large-scale hydro' which virtually cuts large rivers in half, so that fish and other river organisms can't travel upstream or downstream. It's a matter of opinion whether or not this is a worthy sacrifice, but it does seem small compared to the global effects of most non-renewables. However, hydroelectric power is getting better. New, smaller turbines - dubbed 'small-scale hydro' - have been developed, which can be anchored in a river with far fewer adverse ecological effects.

Electricity from biomass - the burning of wood, waste, and alcohol - also has its problems, primarily in that it has emissions similar to those of fossil fuels. It's a good, natural, renewable way to produce electricity, but not a complete solution; if we were replace fossil fuels with biomass, we'd still have many of the environmental problems we face today.

So, in comparison to fossil fuels and nuclear power, hydroelectric and biomass are more renewable, and probably pose less of a risk to the environment. But there are a few energy sources left that are even more environmentally friendly: solar power, wind power, small-scale hydroelectric power, and geothermal power. These will be discussed more in the 'Solutions' section.

Before we get to solutions, though, we have to understand one more problem: waste heat.

If you look at the earth as a closed system, and think about it for a bit, you might notice that all of the energy that comes to the earth is, essentially, from the sun. (A small amount also comes from changes in gravity caused by orbits of the earth and moon, though.) This energy is also dissipated into outer space, as heat and light, at some fairly constant rate (based on the size of the earth, the temperature difference between it and outer space, and so on). The net flux - the net amount of energy that comes in or out of the earth's atmosphere (the system) - is zero, over a long period of time... if it weren't, the earth's temperature would be forever rising or falling.

So, over the years, all this solar energy hits the earth, drives various processes, then escapes as heat, over and over. Over a billion years, plants grow, oceans heat up, winds stir, and tectonic plates move, all thanks to energy from sun. This cycle of energy has been the same for billions of years, and the entire ecosystem of the earth has been built on it.

In this context, fossil fuels represent hundreds of thousands of years' worth of stored solar energy, stowed away in the high-energy chemical bonds of oil and coal. When we burn them, this heat produces steam to drive turbines which produce electricity. With today's technology, the burning process (dubbed the Rankine cycle) is somewhere around 35% efficient, meaning that 65% of the energy in the fossil fuel is released as waste heat (hence the need for cooling towers or - cringe - lakes), and 35% is successfully converted to electricity. This electricity is then used for some purpose, but after it is used to meet our needs, 100% of it is given off as waste heat and light. Computers, televisions, heaters, light bulbs, even fans - all release the energy you put into them as heat or light - all of it. Energy is always conserved, so what goes in must come out, and since heat is the simplest (lowest quality) form of energy, it is usually the waste output of most electrical and mechanical processes.

Unfortunately, all of this heat - constantly "injected" into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels - sticks around in our atmosphere. It will eventually dissipate, but it can only dissipate so fast. How fast? According to Newton's law of thermal cooling, the dissipation rate will increase as the temperature gap between the earth and outer space increases - just as heat leaves a coffee cup more quickly when it's snowing than on a hot summer day.

For the mathematically brave: (...please feel free to skip this box!)
Newton's law looks like this:
Tearth at time t = Tinitial + (Touter space - Tinitial) * e(k*t)

where 'e' is 2.71828, and 'k' depends on the system. 'k' would have one value for a coffee mug (which you could easily determine by experimenting), but would have a different value for, say, a thermos, or for the system we're talking about: the planet earth. Unfortunately, it could be a costly experiment to determine our 'k'.

If the rate of heat "injection" is kept constant (for simplicity), then at first, the amount of heat dissipated won't be enough to match the increased amount of heat coming into the earth, so the earth's surface temperature will start rising. It will continue to rise as we continue to burn fossil fuels and "inject" heat. It will begin to slow down, though, as the difference between the surface temperature, and the temperature of outer space, increases (think of the coffee cup) and the dissipation rate increases. Eventually, the surface temperature will rise up enough so that the dissipation rate matches the "injection" rate; the heat in will equal the heat out, and this temperature will be the new "steady-state" (destination / eventual / equilibrium) temperature for our planet's surface.

If we were to then increase the rate of heat injection, then this steady-state (final) temperature would increase; if we decreased our rate of burning, the steady-state temperature would decrease. If we stoped "injecting" heat altogether, then (ignoring greenhouse gases released by the burning) the earth would eventually settle back to its original surface temperature.

The real bummer is, all of these greenhouse gases are raising our 'k' value, i.e. decreasing the rate at which heat can escape the earth and dissipate into outer space; so it sticks around and builds up. This will make our steady-state temperature (for any given rate of electricity usage) that much higher. The big question over the last decade has been whether the temperature rises we've witnessed were a) a fluke, b) from us reaching our steady-state (or "destination") temperature (T), or c) from the fact that we're at T and T is rising due to greenhouse gas buildup. But consensus is finally building very strongly for the latter cases, to the point where the Bush administration can no longer deny it. (What they do about it is a totally different story.)

I don't profess to know what the destination temperature (T) is for today's injection rate, or how quickly we will reach it; but you can be certain that T is higher thanks to greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, and that continued burning of fossil fuels will keep raising today's temperature until it reaches T, and keep increasing T over time.

You hear a lot about greenhouse gases and global warming, and hopefully, you now have a sense for how it works. The important thing is to be able to break it down. Part of the problem is due to heat trapping, another part is due to injecting more heat by releasing energy from non-renewables. Coal is a problem in both senses. Nuclear, however, emits no greenhouse gases (you trade them for toxic waste... yeesh, it's always something, isn't it?). So although using more nuclear won't modify T, it will accelerate our approach toward T. (Now, if only we knew what T was...)

(Future work: it should be possible to run a simple simulation of the above equation over time using data about radiation coming from the sun (it modulates in slow waves over time and changes due to sunspots), global electricity production estimates, forest fires (they emit a lot of CO2), and global temperature over time. You should end up with a curve that would give you the value of k, and the value of T as a function of these inputs.)

The good news is that we can avoid baking our planet like this, by using renewable energy. Renewable energies - solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass - don't inject "new" heat into the atmosphere; instead, they capture various other kinds of energy from our planet's surface, and later, as the energy is used, transform it into heat - which it would have eventually become, anyway. These renewables have the bonues that they are what they say they are - renewable (meaning they will never run out) - and that they are virtually pollution-free.

Now, think back to that appliance that was running on fossil fuels, and instead, imagine it is being powered by solar energy. In this case, the earth's temperature doesn't change. Why? Because some of the energy from the sun, when it hit the solar panel, was absorbed. This 'cooled' the earth a little bit (actually, it kept it from maintaining its warmth). Then when you use this energy in an appliance, it turns back into heat, and the earth is the exact same temperature as it would have been if your appliance was never even turned on.

So, solar energy captures light before it hits the earth and produces heat; when the electricity is used, it re-creates the missing heat. Nothing changes. But other renewables have the drawback that they capture energy of a particular form and turn it into heat prematurely, and thus, they do not preserve the distribution of energy types on the earth. For this reason, they are not ideal (though they're still vastly preferable to fossil fuels!).

Wind energy, for example, takes kinetic energy (moving wind) and transforms it into electricity. When the electricity is used, heat is produced. Kinetic energy in, heat out. What's happening is that we're removing kinetic energy from our ecosystem - which plays a vital role - and replacing it with heat energy. Eventually, the wind would have wound up as heat energy (thanks to friction), but it also would have served an ecological purpose while doing so.

Imagine the entire earth covered with wind turbines: there would be no more wind - it would all be absorbed. We'd have tons of energy, but the ecosystem would suffer greatly. The question for wind energy is, could we capture a substantial amount of the energy we need from the earth's wind, without adversely effecting the earth's ecosystem? I don't know the answer. Hopefully, it is 'yes', and wind can complement other renewables with a minimal footprint on the earth; super-hopefully, though, because wind energy is the cheapest renewable we have today.

You might ask me now - why don't solar panels have the same problem, since they convert light energy into (ultimately) heat? The answer is: because it was going to happen quickly anyway. If the solar cell wasn't there to harvest the light, the light would fall on some other matter, get absorbed by electrons, and be released as heat, all in an instant. The only real difference (between photons hitting your lawn and the solar cell) is that the heat is released in your home, instead of in your back yard (or wherever the cell is). Note that this could create strange temperature differentials if the energy was harvested in the countryside and used up in cities - but none worse than what we already experience today.

So, it appears that solar energy doesn't seem to affect the earth's temperature at all - nor does it disturb the balance of the types of energy. It is also pollution-free and has no moving parts. So, except for the manufacturing & disposal process, it is 100% renewable and ecologically sound. Even if a solar panel or inverter is not perfectly efficient - i.e. it loses some energy in the form of heat - that is just solar energy that never got captured and used, so it doesn't contribute to global warming either. No energy that comes from solar panels can possibly contribute to global warming. Wind energy comes in a very close second, but it might not be able to solve all our problems, because it tampers with the balance of the types of energy in our atmosphere, converting kinetic energy prematurely into heat.

An additional, and very significant, benefit of solar and wind energy is that their production is geographically distributed; and since the electricity can be produced closer to where it will be consumed, there is far less loss due to transmission. DOE estimates say that with fossil fuels, about 20% of the electricity produced is lost in transmission over long-distance power lines.

Whew. Hopefully, you now understand why fossil fuels are non-renewable eco-disasters, and why some renewables are more eco-friendly than others. It might seem like a no-brainer now - we should switch to solar (and wind) immediately! So what's the holdup?

Because it is expensive. Electricity from fossil fuels is cheap - wholesale prices are 3 to 4 cents per kWh (kilowatt*hour). Electricity from solar energy, though, costs far more (3-4 times as much); wind power is far more competitive, costing only about 20% more per kWh to produce, and dropping. The difference is mostly due to the high initial cost of the hardware; once running, they require little maintenance. However, even though wind power is only slightly more expensive to produce, it is completely shut out from being competitive. For example, if a fossil fuel power plant makes a profit margin of 19%, an equivalent wind farm would make a 1% loss on all the electricity it produced (assuming the wholesale market value of electricity is the same for both); and if the fossil fuel plant made a 25% profit, the wind farm will only make 5%. What business investor, except the rare altruist, would choose the wind farm, when they could make 5X as much burning fossil fuels?

There are a couple ways to get people to choose to build the wind farm. For example, we could shoot for government subsidies. Subsidies would work by the government taking a portion of its income (taxes) and giving it to companies/individuals that construct and run 'green' power plants. How much money? Exactly enough to make Joe Q. flip a coin when he goes to construct his new power plant, because thanks to the subsidies, he makes just as much money with the wind (or someday, solar) farm. But this is a lot of money - 20% for every watt used in the U.S., per year. And subsidies mean that the money comes from the taxpayers' pocket, which means that the taxpayers have to support this idea in order for it to manifest. But with automobile fuel economy voluntarily at 20-year-lows (we're talking about SUV's here), it's clear that the majority of Americans aren't too concerned about these issues.

But even if taxpayers wanted green energy, they might still reject the use of subsidies, arguing that the people who use the most electricity should pay for it. So, instead, the government could put a heavy tax on electricity usage, and the proceeds could go to 'green' providers as subsidies. But until taxpayers want this tax out of altruism, any politician who promotes such a tax can count on having a ticket out of office next election. I mean, come on, that's Joe's wallet you're talking about!

However, this kind of plan does work. It's already in effect in California; in my house, we pay 12 cents/kWh for our first 250 kWh (elecitricity is very expensive here). We then pay 19 cents/kWh for our usage from 250 up to 500 kWh, and 24 cents/kWh beyond that. The usage-based price increases are levied by the state, not by the power company; and the money goes specifically into a fund that works to conserve energy. My friend Steve is directly involved with this; he goes around installing highly efficient lighting in public buildings, using the money from this fund. So this program not only discourages waste (via graduated prices), but it also puts the money toward highly effective conservation efforts. Whatsmore, it's not a regressive tax, because low-income families, don't have to pay it.

So, it comes down to this: unless people have a dramatic change of heart (which might take a long time, if ever - remember the SUV's), the only way to do this is to get renewable energy hardware (such as solar panels) to cost less, and take away the 20% gap. This is the goal. Hardware prices must drop, so that solar/wind/etc. energy is as cheap to produce as fossil fuel energy.

So, our goal is to get renewable energy hardware prices to drop. For simplicity, let's use wind turbines as our main example. The ultimate goal is to get the hardware's price-per-watt to drop by 20% or more; this could mean either making a wind turbine that costs the same but is 20% more productive (unlikely), or making a wind turbine that has the same output, but costs 20% less (much more likely). There are two ways - that I can see - to make either happen.

First, research. If we pour more money into researching cheaper manufacturing processes, we might come up with something that's 20% cheaper to produce or 20% more efficient. Take the $368 billion we'll spend on the military in 200310 (17.3% of our total budget) and put just $1 billion of it toward this type of research, or far less, and this problem could be solved forever. But, traditionally, research is very expensive and corporation-sponsored, and private industry won't spend the research money until there's a big market for the results.

So, that brings us to the other option: to drop the cost by 20% by stimulating demand, thus giving corporations an incentive to streamline the manufacturing process or do their own research. How to stimulate demand? Try to get your city/state to spend some money on large numbers of wind and/or solar farms. If you're loaded, spend $10,000 and buy yourself a nice solar array that will provide electricity for your house. (If you're in
California, the state will pay half!) The more panels that are produced, the more streamlined & cheap the manufacturing process can become, and the more competitive corporations will become, focusing on manufacturing efficiency and slashing prices. Take another $1 billion from the $293 billion we'll spend on the military in 2002 and put it toward buying wind turbines or solar panels and you'd start to see things change dramatically (i.e. corporations would see a $1 billion market and pour money into R&D, in order to win that market).

These are the two key ways, as I see it - research and stimulating demand - that we can lower the cost of renewable energy hardware to levels competitive enough to see renewable energy become a viable choice to the investors and businessmen who build new power plants and who care primarily about money. And once fossil fuel energy and 'green' energy cost the same, congress won't be so afraid of passing laws to slap strict standards on adopting green energy (they're afraid, today, because the big energy companies are also big, big campaign donors).

Lots of stuff. There are many ways you can contribute to this cause. Some involve money, some involve your time and energy, and some are practically free.

First, let me tell you about green tickets. These tickets are bought by energy consumers and traded between electricity producers. Usually, a ticket represents the production of one megawatt*hour (MWh) of green electricity, and costs from $15 to $25. This money represents the difference between the cost of producing 1 MWh of green electricity and 1 MWh of fossil fuel electricity. The money goes, almost like a subsidy, to those who build renewable energy farms, and makes it so they can sell their electricity to the utilities at a 20% loss, but still stay in business and make a small profit - thanks to people who care. These providers make no more money than fossil fuel burners.

The average American household uses about 10 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, so for a donation of about $200 a year you can rest easy knowing that you're running on green. But you might wonder - how do they get the 'green' electricity to your house? The answer is that they don't. Electricity is electricity, no matter where it's from, and there's no difference between green and non-green electricity; but there is a major difference in how they're produced. Your money goes to support the existence (as described above) of a green energy farm somewhere in the 48 states, and although you're not using that megawatt-hour of green electricity in your house, someone, somewhere, is. You have to look at the goal as being 'to fund the production of one more megawatt-hour of green electricity in the U.S.' rather than 'to fund the production of one more megawatt-hour of green electricity for your house.'

The key is that the number of renewable energy farms in the U.S. is somewhat limited by the number of people that buy green tickets (and by the number of states that fund their own renewable energy - many are starting to). If people bought more green tickets, there would be more money available for us to build more renewable energy farms. See
Sterling Planet's explanation of Green Tickets for more information.

There are two implementations of this program. In the less common implementation, you buy green tickets outright and get a certificate in return. For a list of where to buy, and some more information about how to choose wisely, see this article at SolarToday.org. In the second implementation, you sign up to pay a 10-20% higher electric bill, and the money goes directly toward green tickets. You can pick a program available in your area by going to EnergyGuide.com then clicking 'Choose Green' on the and entering your zip code. Sterling Planet can also sign you up, and they're constantly audited by energy giant APX.

I bought my green tags this year from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation; you can buy online, and their site has lots of good information, too.

Another way to buy green is through electric choice programs, where you directly choose who you pay for your electricity. It doesn't go through a middleman (such as Sterling Planet), but the tradeoff is that it takes a little more work to do the research and set it up - you have to call around, ask about prices, ask each provider what percentage of their electricity is renewable, and so on. Most states have had programs to give you this choice for many years now, though, so there are a lot of resources to help you with this, especially online. For links to "electric choice" programs in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, N. Carolina, N. Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, S. Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, W. Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming - click here.

A word about the money (and electricity) flow in these 'electric choice' systems: here, your money goes directly to the provider you choose, at their rate, and they produce enough extra electricity, using their facilities, to meet your power demands. However, this power might not go directly to your house, just like in the green ticket scenario. Regardless, the final result is the same: another X number of megawatt hours of green (or greener) electricity replaces fossil fuel energy in the electricity marketplace every month, where X is your monthly electricity usage.

Another way to use money to encourage renewable energy is to make donations to fund the purchase of solar panels for small projects, such as schools or city buildings; these projects are everywhere. Check to see if your school or city has a program like this; many do. These projects stimulate demand and have a direct impact by producing more green energy. If you don't see a project like this, start one! These projects are also very efficient because your money still goes toward increasing solar energy harvesting, but you don't have to spend your time doing the research & installation (which is a tremendous amount); a few people - usually volunteers when the project is small - perform this task for a much larger number of donors like you.

Next comes the cheaper way to make change: communication.

If you'd like your representative(s), senators, and president to hear your voice on this issue, you can call, write, or e-mail them; all three methods of communication are weighted equally. Encourage them to support higher appliance efficiency standards and tougher pollution standards in the Clean Air Act; that you support spending money on renewable energy research & harvesting; and that you want to see the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) gas mileage standards raised. Tell them to take a few dimes from military spending to work on our energy problems. And especially tell the Bush Administration, whose non-environmentally-conscious actions have gone so far as to inspire key EPA officials to quit in protest.

Note that although you can call any representative/senator you like, they'll only 'count your vote' if you're in their district. To find out exactly who your senators & representatives are AND get their phone numbers and e-mail addresses in one swoop, go to Zip To It! and enter your zip code. From my experience, phone calls are almost always answered in less than 2 minutes.

Not only can you try to convince who's in office right now, but you have a say in who goes into office next term. So the next time you go to vote, don't forget to pay attention to candidates' stances on issues like the environment. If you're really pro-environment, check out the Green Party and see what they stand for. Think about vote on measures and propositions that would benefit the environment and promote renewable energy. Maybe other cities will soon follow the example set by the city of San Francisco in November 2001 in which the people voted to spend $100 million on solar energy for the city. Think about programs that stimulate research and demand.

Finally, what's the point of producing more green energy if we're wasting the energy we've already got? The U.S. consumes twice as much electricity per capita than France or Germany, and 15 times as much as China9. Here are some ways to easily conserve energy, cut your bill, and reduce your stake in the 2.5 billion tons of CO2 that we put out each year.

Consider using energy-efficient "compact fluorescent" (CF) light bulbs instead of regular incandescents. Regular 60, 75, and 100W light bulbs can be replaced by 15, 20, and 23 watt CF bulbs that provide the same candlepower (lumens). Some people complain that they don't like the color of the light, and I've felt this way at times too, but most of the time they work well in a room. Experiment with different brands; some have a yellowish color, some pinkish; I've found that mixing them can produce very cozy lighting. We use them in about ˝ of our light fixtures and they work great. They cost about $10 piece, but you can get great deals sometimes at wholesale stores (like Costco or Sam's Club); I even found them for $1 each last fall. You can easily order them online for the absurd price of (around) $7-10; just search google for "compact fluorescent" and you'll get dozens. The best place to look for them is at wholesale places like Costco, Ikea, Sam's, etc. - you can regularly find them for $1-2 apiece at these places.

Perhaps even more important than using CF bulbs, though, is getting rid of halogens - those tall, super-bright torch lights. Most of them use 300 WATTS… that's about one-fifth the average electrical usage of an American home, just from one light bulb. Put your hand over it, you can feel the heat from it, it's almost like a space heater. (Notice that if you can find a 'torch light' that takes an incandescent bulb (not a halogen), and has a nice depth to it, you can fit a CF bulb in it; it will be about as bright as a halogen, but use about 10% as much power! When I find a good lamp like this, I usually buy a few, stick CF's in them, and give them as gifts.)

Speaking of which, also be careful with space heaters - most of the standard 2-foot tall ones are 1500W, which is the average power usage of an American home, all from one appliance (when at full power).

In the winter, cover your windows with that plastic stuff, and use curtains. Curtains are often drastically undervalued, as far as how much heating cost they can offset.

For any major appliances you buy - washer, dryer, refrigerator, water heater, etc. - try to get 'energy star' appliances, or appliances that offer top efficiency in their class.

If you work on a computer regularly, consider replacing your old CRT (tube monitor) with a new LCD flatpanel; they use less than half the power, emit far less radiation, and are (allegedly) easier on the eyes.

If you have small electronic devices with AC adaptors (those black power adapters), try to unplug them when they're not in use; they stay on all the time, sucking power and dissipating it as heat when the device isn't using the energy for its intended purpose. Feel them; they should feel warm; that's wasted electricity in action. Put these on a power strip and switch it off when you leave the house.

You can also try to get your community to conserve power; try to get your state's DOT to replace old traffic lights with the newer LED-powered traffic lights, which are easier to see and only use 25% the juice. Urge them to use more energy-efficient streetlights as well.

If you've got the time and money, buy yourself a solar array or a wind turbine. Check to see if your state offers rebates to help you pay for it; the state of California will pay half of your total bill to install a system, including the price of the cells, mounting equipment, and the labor fees! To see what your state offers, visit the Consumer Energy Center.

Although they don't run on electricity, you could also consider buying a hybrid electric car that gets around 60 miles per gallon. They run only on gasoline, but they're made to be ultra-efficient; for example, when you brake, they store your kinetic energy in a battery, and use it again to help you accelerate later. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius are the main two on the market right now. The Honda is a better commuter vehicle but only has two seats; the Toyota is a pretty fully functional sedan but doesn't get quite as good gas mileage.

From what I've heard, they are very fun to drive, performing just like a regular car, but with that space-age feel: they shut off at stop signs and turn back on (instantly) when you hit the gas again. I'm pretty anxious to go test-drive one; and my next car will definitely be a hybrid.

Finally, you can get a bumper sticker that says "Be Green" or "Solar Energy". This will get other drivers thinking about the subject, and maybe even remind your fellow citizens that the economy is not the end-all-be-all, if it's a nice sunny day.

Many people have the idea that fuel cells will solve all of our energy problems for automobiles. The truth is that they could, if most of our electricity came from renewable energy sources; but until that point, fuel cells offer only a marginal improvement over today's gasoline-powered automobiles.

Fuel cells are an energy storage medium - like a battery. They are not an infinite power source, as the media seem to want to portray them. They're not even an original power source - they're just batteries.

Fuel cells take hydrogen (not water, but hydrogen!) as fuel (input), and produce electricity and water as output - that's all there is to it. Hydrogen - free, unbound hydrogen - doesn't really exist on earth, though, because it bonds readily to other elements, like oxygen and carbon. Where do we find it, then? The most common sources of hydrogen on earth (substances with hydrogen inside them) are 1) water and 2) hydrocarbons, also known as fossil fuels.

We can extract hydrogen from both water and hydrocarbons, to fuel our fuel cells. Unfortunately, though, it takes energy to do that. To extract hydrogen from water, we use electricity; this process is called electrolysis. To extract hydrogen from hydrocarbons (fossil fuels), it requires heat; this process is called reforming. The astute reader will notice that both of these processes require some kind of energy. That's why fuel cells are just batteries: because it takes energy to free up the hydrogen that they run on. There is no free lunch involved.

Later, when it's time to use that stored energy (free hydrogen), you simply allow the hydrogen to mix with oxygen (from the air). They combine to form clean, ordinary water, and in the process, create electricity. This electricity can then be used for anything, from household appliances to automobile engines.

The reason fuel cells are getting such attention these days is because they could replace gasoline in automobiles. In a hydrogen-powered car, the only exhaust is water, dripping from the tailpipe or drifting out as steam. This sound great; there is zero pollution (at least, in the final stage), and there's no nuclear radiation, of course - you're simplay rearranging bonds between hydrogen and oxygen atoms, not breaking big atoms apart (into umpteen kinds of radioactive particles) like in nuclear power.

However, you have to look at the bigger picture: where the hydrogen came from. If it was produced using electricity from a coal power plant (like 51% of our electricity today), then you have to factor in the pollution and CO2 emissions from burning that coal, the fact that most of the mercury poisoning in our environment comes from coal-burning, and the fact that the coal is a limited resource. Or, if the hydrogen was produced by reforming fossil fuels, you have to factor in that 'reforming' is not a clean process either. It involves burning about 25% of the fuel (just like automobiles do today) to create heat, then using that heat to extract the hydrogen from the rest of the fuel. This has the same amount of CO2 emissions as burning the fuel directly, but it does emit 75% fewer toxic pollutants. Regardless, though, it is hardly sustainable or clean. The big picture is that if we suddenly had fuel cell cars today, it wouldn't mean much, because our hydrogen production process would be dirty and unsustainable.

If, on the other hand, the electricity used to extract hydrogen from water came from pure renewable sources (such as wind or solar), the entire process is 100% clean. There is no pollution anywhere in the entire cycle, zero global warming, zero emissions, and the process is completely sustainable. You would simply use electricity, from the wind or sun, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Store the hydrogen. Fill your car up with it. Let it react with oxygen from the air; use the electricity produced to make your car go. Clean water drips from your tailpipe. It is, actually, the blissful picture that the media paints.

Unfortunately, this will not happen anytime soon, since we are in the dark ages when it comes to renewable energy; today, less than 0.2% of our electricity comes from wind or solar power. The cool thing is that when we do someday convert to renewable energy, fuel cells will allow us to take its benefits on the road as well. This will be the real contribution of fuel cells: they make clean energy portable.

Fuel cells are vastly superior to [pre-fuel-cell] electric cars, which only have a range of around 100 miles. Fuel cells have a much higher energy density (energy stored per pound) than most battery technologies (hence their use in the space shuttle), so a fuel-cell car can go much farther (250-300 miles) than an electric (battery-powered) car of comparable weight.

However, there are catches. For example, if we are electrolyzing water for our fuel, then the hydrogen must be stored as a liquid in order to be useful. Unfortunately, the boiling point of hydrogen - the temperature at which it becomes liquid - is about 20 degrees Kelvin, which is -253 degrees celsius, or 423 degrees below zero, fahrenheit. This is really cold. BMW's prototype hydrogen cars have tanks with 70 layers of fiberglass in them, just to keep the fuel cold. You can get around this by keeping the fuel at a higher pressure (PV=nRT), but keeping your fuel pressurized can be dangerous - not to mention that hydrogen, like gasoline, is quite flammable.

But who knows - perhaps the materials of the future will fix these problems. President Bush is sure banking on that; he recently scrapped Clinton's almost-complete Partnership for the Next Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) plan, replacing it with a
plan to stimulate research on fuel cells. Clinton's plan was started in 1993 and was nearly finished, and had already doled out billions to the auto industry to fund research, but the required improvements that it set for automobile efficiency were scrapped by the Bush Administration with the introduction of the fuel cell plan.

Now, in my humble opinion, that was stupid. Automobile efficiency is already at a 20-year low, and here we go letting auto-makers off the hook again. Plus, we don't really know if fuel cells will be cost-effective in automobiles in our lifetime; they currently cost a fortune to produce, and the storage of hydrogen is a major problem.

Bush's fuel cell initiative does have one merit, though: it would help solve the catch-22 of establishing a network of hydrogen filling stations across the coutnry. The problem is that no one will buy a hydrogen car if there are no filling stations; likewise, no one will build a filling station if there are no cars. With the money Mr. Bush wants to throw at this, perhaps some of it would be used to establish a hydrogen production, transportation, and dispersal infrastructure. And if the technology works out, and hydrogen cars can be produced at competitive costs, Mr. Bush will be able to sit back and say, truly, that he thought ahead and did a very good thing.

BMW is quite on the ball in the hydrogen sector, and has already created a hydrogen-powered car - the 750hL - and promised to sponsor a hydrogen filling station in every major European city by 2005.

GM, however, is catching up rapidly, and seems to be heavily hedging their bets on fuel cells. They are making huge investments and are hoping to really dominate the fuel-cell automobile market someday. They've made some major breakthroughs, too. For example, they have already created automobiles with 'onboard reformers'. These vehicles take fossil fuels (such as gasoline or ethanol) as fuel, and reform it themselves. As mentioned above, this produces fewer toxic pollutants (nitrates/nitrites and carbon monoxide) than burning it directly, but still produces the full amount of CO2 emissions. However, it is also 50% more efficient (overall) than burning the fuel directly. In addition, this kind of engine can readily accept renewably hydrocarbons (such as ethanol from corn, and other grain-derived alcohols). This is an incremental improvement over what we have today; it's not the utopian application of fuel cells, but it's a step in the right direction.

  1. Fuel cells powered by hydrogen extracted from hydrocarbons are a slight improvement over today's gasoline engines. They have only 1/4 the toxic emissions, and are about 50% more fuel-efficient. They have just as many CO2 emissions per gallon, but by being 50% more efficient, they therefore have 33% fewer CO2 emissions per mile driven. However, they still cause global warming (thanks to the CO2), and still pollute.

  2. Fuel cells powered by hydrogen extracted from water basically defer the pollution and global warming problems from the automobile to the power plant. So if the 'power plant' is actually a solar or wind farm, the entire process becomes pollution-free and sustainable. But if it's a coal power plant, the pollution and CO2 emissions are still a big problem, and the coal is, of course, in limited supply.

  3. We can not have pollution-free cars until our electricity comes from pollution-free renewable sources such as wind and solar. Fuel cells simply let us take this clean energy on the road.

So, that covers it. Hopefully you've learned a bit about how energy flows in the world, the various sources we have for it, and why some are good and some are not. Also, you hopefully now have a better appreciation for the beauty of solar energy, a good feeling for what you can do to assist the 'green revolution' along its way, and a better idea of how to conserve energy in your own home. Remember that no matter what else is going on - no matter how much energy is wasted here or there - every Watt you save is a Watt off the top, and makes a difference, all other things constant.

I'd like to finish with a quote from Ed Inglehart, from the UK, who wrote the following in the jan/feb 2002 issue of
Adbusters magazine:

In an Orion feature called "Thoughts on America: Writers Respond to Crisis," Wes Jackson wonders what would happen if President Bush gave a speech like this:

"…We will begin at once to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We need to move immediately toward a solar economy. Private investment to erect wind machines to meet a large part of our electrical needs can be encouraged with savings from the military budget now used to keep foreign oil flowing…"

Why is it that we cannot imagine Bush - or any other president - making this speech? Why is it that we'd have a hard time naming more than a few members of our national media who would have such thoughts and convey them? And why is it that many of us can imagine ourselves making such a speech?"



SolarAccess.com - news on solar & renewable energy
SolarBuzz.com - for solar news and great low price guide
Biomass as an energy source
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
EPA's Global Warming site
The Sustainable Energy Coalition
SaveOurEnvironment.org action center
ZipToIt! for contacting congress
Sterling Planet on Green Tickets
EnergyGuide.com - great conservation tips & how to sign up with green energy providers
The Consumer Energy Center - information on all state-sponsored rebates (for building residential solar/wind power systems)
BMW's hydrogen-powered 750hL
US Dept. of Energy - loaded with statistics
Energy Information Adminstration at the DOE
DOE's Annual Energy Review
The Sierra Club
Sierra Club on a responsible energy plan
Sierra Club: recycling tips
Natural Resources Defense Council report on clean air & energy
California's Buy-down Program - the state will pay 50% of the bill for residents buying & installing a renewable energy system (like solar or wind).
Links to Electric Choice programs in most states


1 "Electricity Net Generation, 1949-2001." Note that values in table are not percentages, but these are easy to compute.
2, table 7
2b, table 5, normalized to total utility generation
3 "Estimated Emissions of Greenhouse Gases, 1980-1999"
4 "Electricity End Use, 1949-2000"
5 "Carbon Dioxide Emissions" (EPA)
6 EPA page on "Electricity & Environment"
7 The Washington Post on Yucca Mountain
8 BBC World News on increasing child cancer rates
9 Fast Solar Energy Facts at solarbuzz.com
10 Bush Administration's U.S. budget for 2003; click 'summary tables' at the bottom
11 computed thus: (5 trillion pounds CO2 per year for electricity production in the U.S.) * (35% of all electricity in the U.S. goes to homes) / (200 million homes in the U.S.) = over 8,500 pounds per year per household.

To contact the author: please e-mail