Is Electricity Sustainable?
The United States relies on many different sources for energy generation. Primary energy sources, which include natural gas, coal, water, and nuclear energy, are original fuels. Secondary energy, such as electricity, is produced from primary energy sources. Though electricity is a clean and safe source of energy, the methods behind its production and transmission can negatively affect the environment through deforestation and gas emissions.
Electricity is generated through electric power plants, with 65% of the electricity generated in 2018 produced from fossil fuels, materials that come from plants, and municipal and industrial waste. One of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions is the electric power sector; when these fuels are burned to produce electricity, large quantities of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other substances are released. These gases damage the environment and human health by contributing to the greenhouse effect and to ground-level ozone pollution, which is colorless and highly irritating gas that forms above the earth’s surface. Depending on the level of exposure, ozone can cause severe health issues.
The electric power lines that channel electricity from power plants to consumers also negatively impact the environment. Power lines tend to be large towers high above the ground-- the building of which requires altercation of nearby landscape and vegetation. Trees and plants near the wires have to be maintained to prevent them from touching the wires. Some areas near power lines also use herbicides to prevent vegetation from growing, which disturbs the natural landscape by changing the original area that existed previously.
Though electricity as a form of energy doesn’t harm the environment, the way it’s generated and transported to users affects many aspects of the environment. In order to become more sustainable, it’s imperative that the United States look towards healthier alternatives like renewable energy.
Renewable energy is often considered to be the cleanest source of energy because it comes from natural resources or processes that are constantly being replenished. Though renewable energy will never fully deplete, it’s limited in the amount of energy that’s available per a unit of time. Using renewable energy as an alternative comes with promising environmental benefits and economic benefits.
Compared to electricity, renewable energy is a much cleaner alternative. Energy that is generated through renewable resources emit no greenhouse gas emissions and therefore reduce air pollution.Types of renewable energy sources include biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar.
Wind turbines that convert kinetic energy into electricity don’t release any emissions. In fact, they actually reduce the amount of electricity generation from fossil fuels, which lowers carbon dioxide emissions.
Since the 1990s, the United States has increased renewable energy use. However, energy use during COVID-19 has changed the future outlook of renewable energy.
COVID-19: The Impact on Electricity and Renewable Energy
Since March of 2020, everyday life for societies worldwide has dramatically changed. Coping with the outbreak of COVID-19, many countries have introduced public-health regulations to prevent the spread of the virus. However, these regulations failed to consider one important factor: change in electricity demand. Thanks to the quarantine, many large public gathering sites -- like office buildings, public schools, theme parks, movie theaters, restaurants, and more -- have been closed for months. With the sudden shift to working, learning, and socializing from home, electricity demand has significantly decreased.
Examining electricity usage data before COVID-19 further emphasizes a downward trending demand. In 2019, the United States used around 3,955 terawatt hours of electricity. In 2020, the United States used around 3,802 terawatt hours of electricity. This is about a 5% decrease in just a year;. Though 5% sounds very minimal, just 1 terawatt of electricity can power around 200,000 homes. What’s even more significant is that this is the lowest level of electricity use in the United States since 2005. However, this downward trend of electricity demand introduces new possibilities and barriers for establishing renewable energy nationwide.
Current Status in Shift to Renewable Energy
Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was projected to be a budding year for renewable energy. Despite inconsistent developmental progress on clean energy technologies, favorable conditions can be expected for the future. One renewable energy sector that’s made progress so far is the electric car program. Below, a graph displays how far the project has gone in terms of sales and how it’s projected to continue. A report from the International Energy Agency showed that only 6 out of 46 technologies and sectors were in line with the long term goals set in 2019. However, another 24 technologies and sectors showed progress.
As COVID-19 cases rapidly increased, business closures and local lockdowns generated uncertainty toward the expansion of renewable energy. Safety regulations and restrictions paused supply chains and construction of renewable energy installations. Compared to 2019, first quarter capacity additions in 2020 were slightly lower for all technologies except for hydropower.
The solar power industry was impacted particularly hard in the United States. The industry planned to employ 302,000 workers to focus on installation, but only hired 188,000 through June 2020. The losses experienced by the pandemic will most likely negate 5 years of solar industry growth. Despite this, renewable energy continues to remain resilient.
Predictions for Future Energy Resources
As projects that once were put on pause resume, renewable energy sources are expected to increase in capacity additions throughout 2021. With the Biden administration rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, renewable energy’s growth potential for acceleration is markedly increasing. Around $2 trillion dollars will be invested to work towards clean energy and fully decarbonizing the power sector by 2035 to achieve a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As of summer 2021, renewable energy is on track to provide over one-third of United States electrical generation in 2030.
As electricity continues to be the world’s leading power source, carbon dioxide emissions and natural landscape deterioration will persist -- the shift to renewable energy must gain more traction for the sake of our natural world. COVID-19 continues to impact the amount of electricity used and the building of new renewable energy sources; unforeseen barriers like COVID-19 will invariably slow the renewable energy transition. Thankfully, renewable energy research is expected to continue and become a leading power source. Switching to renewable energy is one big, crucial step towards a more sustainable and cleaner future.
- See article from U.S. Energy Information Administration, “U.S. Energy Facts Explained,” https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/
- See article from U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Electricity Explained,” https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-and-the-environment.php
- See article from U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Renewable Energy Explained,” https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/renewable-sources/
- See article from U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Wind Explained,” https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/wind/wind-energy-and-the-environment.php
- See article from International Energy Agency, “Covid-19 Impact on Electricity”, https://www.iea.org/reports/covid-19-impact-on-electricity
- See data from Electricrate, “What is a Terawatt?”, https://www.electricrate.com/what-is-a-terawatt/
- See chart from Bruna Alves, “Electricity consumption in the U.S. 1975-2020”, https://www.statista.com/statistics/201794/us-electricity-consumption-since-1975/
- See article from International Energy Agency, “The Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis on Clean Energy Progress”, https://www.iea.org/articles/the-impact-of-the-covid-19-crisis-on-clean-energy-progress