What is green energy? How solar power, wind help fight climate change – USA TODAY
The world is in the midst of a shift away from fossil fuels and towards carbon-neutral energy sources, a change expected to be as momentous as the coal that enabled the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s.
The United States has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, just 27 years from now. It’s a move that 69% of Americans support and one that would mitigate climate change, clean the air and make power cheaper.
But what does green energy mean, actually? Is it wind turbines, solar panels, natural gas or nuclear? Who decides and what are the guidelines?
What to know about clean, green energy:
What does green energy mean?
Renewable energy is electricity produced by fuel sources that renew themselves and do not diminish when humans tap them for power. Think the sun, the wind, plants and the heat at the Earth’s core. These include electricity from solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams and what’s known as biomass, which is burning wood, crop waste or garbage.
How does climate change affect you?: Subscribe to the weekly Climate Point newsletter
READ MORE: Latest climate change news from USA TODAY
For 2023, 16% of US electricity will come from solar and wind projects, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Hydroelectric power produces 6% of U.S. electricity. Biomass, which includes ethanol blended into gasoline, made up about 5% of total US energy consumption.
Renewables also include geothermal energy, which means making power from naturally occurring underground reservoirs of very hot water and steam. Mostly available in the western United States, geothermal power is still a tiny proportion of US energy but already produces enough electricity to power 2.7 million homes. For comparison, geyser-filled Iceland gets 66% of its primary energy from geothermal power.
Why is it called green energy?
Like many ecologically friendly initiatives, “green” energy has gotten its name because it is good for the planet.
It has become common to label clean, renewable projects “green” to remind people that they are intended help lead to a healthier, greener, more sustainable planet. Green racing, Green New Deal and green plane fares are other examples.
While scientists agree green energy helps fight climate change, it’s important to remember that not everything with the “green” label is actually better. It can also be used as a form of “greenwashing” where a company tries to make a product or policy seem environmentally friendly when it in fact isn’t.
Green energy helps fight climate change
The shift to renewable energy is important because most of these power sources don’t produce greenhouse gasses that drive climate change. These gases, especially the carbon dioxide produces when coal, oil or natural gas are burned, create a “blanket” in the atmosphere that holds in heat.
Since humans began burning large amounts of coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, later adding oil and natural gas, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to 418 parts per million.
DEFINITIONS: Is climate change the same thing as global warming? Definitions explained.
CLIMATE CHANGE CAUSES: Why scientists say humans are to blame.
Is renewable energy the same as green energy?
In general, renewable and green energy mean the same thing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines green power as a subset of renewable energy, including all renewable energy resources that provide the greatest environmental benefit and the lowest environmental cost.
In practice, this means all renewable energy sources with the exception of large hydroelectric resources that can have “environmental trade-offs on issues such as fisheries and land use.”
Is solar power green energy? Is wind? Definitions explained.
Here’s a cheat sheet:
- Green energy: Wind, solar, small hydro, geothermal, biomass
- Renewable energy: Wind, solar, all hydro, geothermal, biomass
- Carbon neutral: Wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, geothermal, biomass
- Conventional: Coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear
What is carbon-neutral energy?
Carbon-neutral energy is energy that is produced without emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Renewable energy sources – wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal – are all considered carbon-neutral energy production, although building them (and all energy plants) does produce carbon. The major energy source that’s carbon neutral but not renewable is nuclear power.
America’s 92 nuclear power plants produce about 20% of US electricity and about 50% of the nation’s carbon-neutral energy.
CLIMATE CHANGE EFFECTS: What are the effects of climate change? How they disrupt our daily life, fuel disasters.
CARBON DIOXIDE: Here’s what to know and a look at how it contributes to global warming.
What are conventional energy sources?
Conventional power is energy that comes from the burning of fossil fuels including coal, natural gas and oil. Power from the nuclear fission of uranium is also considered conventional. These fuels all have environmental costs from mining, drilling and extraction and all but nuclear power emit greenhouse gases.
Elizabeth Weise covers climate change and the energy transition for USA TODAY. Reach out to her at email@example.com.