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The Reality of Renewable Green Energy

Written in 2009.

I've been discussing the issue of "clean and renewable energy" with my roommate constantly. He is an electrical engineer working for National Grid and I am an efficiency specialist with a solid science and economics background. There has been a massive amount of debate on the subject of renewable and "clean" energy in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. While I agree that we need to slow our reliance on fossil fuels, we must keep in mind that "clean and renewable energy" is not always completely straightforward. One must remember that the law of thermodynamics states that "energy cannot be created or destroyed", it can only change forms. Therefore, the renewable energy created from renewable sources such as wind, air, ethanol, electricity, and plant fuel had to come from somewhere. It is not "free" energy as some organizations and companies would have us believe.

Many forms of "clean and renewable energy" have substantial costs in one way or another. The cost of a windmill includes the trees that must be cut down for wood, and/or the metal that must be mined for parts, and/or the oil that must be converted to plastic parts. There must be a large wiring system that can transmit the power generated from the wind moving the windmill's turbines. There is also the constant problem of maintaining the windmill and what alternate sources of power are available in the situation that there is minimal or no wind.

Hybrid cars are all the rage with gas prices fluctuating between high and extremely high prices. The batteries that can be charged electrically and reduce gasoline usage are extremely expensive for the consumer to pay for or replace if damaged. More importantly, the costs of pro- curring these raw material metals to build the batteries are exorbitant. The damages from mining done to most ecosystems usually outweighs the benefits of reduced emissions in hybrid cars.

The use of biofuel such as ethanol is not as perfect as it may seem. The ethanol is usually derived from corn, the most popular crop in the United States by far due to various business and legislative policies. The use of corn as a source of ethanol fuel not only increases the price of everything that includes corn (nearly everything we eat and many that we don't) but it decreases the amount of crop diversity that we produce in our nation and in the world. Corn is cheap and very efficient but the more corn we plant the less we can produce for other crops. Ethonal can only be produced from corn due to United States legislation, but every crop of corn means a reduction in the possibility for other crops or trees. Ethanol is about the same price as gasoline and about 34% less efficient. Also, the byproducts of ethanol from plant sources is just as damaging to the ozone layer as byproducts from fossil fuels! It may be renewable, but not necessarily as efficient or clean.

Solar panels are another very popular form of renewable energy. While the idea of solar panels is fantastic, it is limited by the same problems of windmills. It is very expensive to install solar panels onto a house or business. There is also the constant issue of a decrease in solar energy being absorbed by the panels during a dark or cloudy day. There must be a backup plan or generator if the primary source of energy for a building is solar panels. Solar panels have had to face an incredible amount of adversity from United States and international legislation (mostly due to oil companies) and still need to be mass-produced so that the price is not so intimidating to consumers.

So am I for alternative and clean energy and the pursuit of improved independent energy production? Yes, of course I am. I am for the most efficient, affordable, and environmentally stable forms of energy production possible. Do I think that we have a lot of work to do before we can increase the efficiency of renewable energy production? Absolutely. Until then, we cannot be swayed by extremists on either side of the issue.

Michael J. Schiemer
RESULTS Business Solutions
Schiemer Consulting Digital Media Services