In recent years, the environment and its many issues have steamrolled into the consciousness of the American Public. Dating back to the early 1980’s, public opinion increasingly shows that Americans believe environmental issues are “‘serious, worsening, and increasingly threatening to human well-being.1’" From global warming and deforestation to renewable energy policy and recycling, the range of environmental issues is both broad and complex. One of those environmental topics, green energy, is viewed by many as a key solution to the fight against global warming and the depletion of the world’s fossil fuels.
Green energy is commonly defined as the energy that is produced and used in ways that produce less air pollution and other environmental impacts. In particular, green energy must be renewable and non-polluting. Green energy is generally thought to provide two kinds of environmental benefits: i) it reduces environmental impacts of production and delivery of the energy we use; and ii) it reduces the environmental emissions from the energy we use. Green energy is typically considered to include: geothermal power, wind power, small-scale hydropower, solar power, biomass power, tidal power, and wave power.
The most highly touted benefit of green energy is its positive impact on the environment. Currently, electricity generation is responsible for one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. Electricity generation is also responsible for two-thirds of the nation’s sulfur dioxide, the primary trigger behind acid rain. Tapping into green energy would significantly reduce the production levels of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and smog. In addition, green energy eliminates the need for the harvesting of non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), an activity that can damage the Earth and its surrounding eco-systems and habitats
While consumer costs are viewed as a chief barrier to widespread implementation of green energy, there is also evidence that green energy actually presents a financial incentive to its users. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Colorado citizens participating in Xcel Energy’s Windsource program paid 0.66¢/kWh less for wind energy than for regular energy- as of November, 2005. In Oklahoma, wind power customers have experienced similar results. OG&E Electric Services clients who purchased the wind power option, paid 0.13¢/kWh less for wind energy than for traditional electricity and customers of Edmond Electric's pure & simple wind power program paid 0.33¢/kWh less.
A long standing issue in the green energy debate is its effect on the U.S. economy. Because the United States relies on fossil fuels for over 85% of its energy needs, it is imperative that it develop economic relations with nations that export fossil fuels, specifically nations that export oil. Full-scale development and implementation of green energy sources would alleviate our nation’s dependence on energy sources such as oil and coal- creating a global economic environment that would 1) reverse U.S. reliance on energy imports, and create an environment (as it relates to energy trading) that saw energy exports outnumber energy imports and 2) eliminate our economic dependence on foreign countries for our energy supplies.
Green energy is also increasingly seen as having the ability to provide significant contributions to the Energy sector. Organizations like the Apollo Alliance are creating jobs and impacting the economy through the promotion and implementation of green energy initiatives. For instance, in Pennsylvania, the Apollo Alliance helped enact policy that led to the opening of a wind power manufacturing plant in Johnstown, PA -- creating over 1,000 jobs for the state and spurring the development of 18 new wind farms across the state. And in California, the California Public Utilities Commission committed $3.2 billion for solar power over the next eleven years.
Another important economic implication is the prevailing opinion that green energy generates more jobs per unit of energy produced than does fossil-fuel energy. Faculty at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley summarized 13 independent reports on job creation and renewable energy, concluding that renewable energy generates more jobs than fossil-fuel energy for each unit of energy produced. Renewable energy operations have the potential to generate three to eleven times the number of jobs created by fossil-fuel operations, with solar and biomass exhibiting the highest potentials. The Renewable Energy Policy Project labor calculator estimated the creation of nearly 30,000 jobs in Nevada over a ten year period if the state’s renewable energy portfolio were gradually raised to 15 percent and only wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy were considered.
Since their inception, green energy prices have consistently exceeded the cost for that of traditional energy sources like oil, coal, and natural gas. Many view the cost gap between green energy pricing and traditional energy pricing as the primary reason for green energy’s emergence (or lack thereof) as the dominant U.S. energy source. According to a recent report conducted in 2001 by the California Energy Commission, the biggest barrier to homeowner purchases of renewable energy products was the initial cost of the system (89% of respondents). Amongst businesses, 84% of respondents indicated cost to install renewable energy systems was a key barrier to their business’ utilization of renewable energy. In addition, business decision-makers felt that the “availability of financing at reasonable rates” (88%).
With energy companies (i.e. oil firms) posting record profits, legislators are not likely to enact sweeping energy reforms any time in the near future. Many energy firms possess skillful lobbyist who present compelling reasons why their firm’s business is good for America, sometimes with the promise and security of campaign contributions acting as a compelling piece of that argument. The political process is a formidable challenge to the full-scale implementation of green energy, and one that will likely take time, as well as skillful pro-green energy advocates, to overcome.
Public Perception and Consumer Response
Regardless of the challenges green energy may face, the sentiment from the public and their follow through on this sentiment indicates that the American consciousness desires wide-scale implementation of green energy options. Green energy proponents have consistently argued that, provided an option, Americans prefer renewable energy to conventional energy options. A study conducted by Dr. Barbara Farhar of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The study, Energy and the Environment: The Public View, analyzes 23 years of polling data- indicating a widespread public support for green energy options. The study also shows that support for renewable energy alternatives has remained steady, even as conventional energy prices have dropped and memories of the 1970s energy crisis dissipate. “The pattern of preferences for using renewables to supply energy has been consistent in the poll data for at least the past eighteen years. This is one of the strongest patterns identified in the entire data set on energy and the environment” (Farhar).
As such consumer patterns become more apparent, the behavior of our country’s utilities appears to be aligning with these patterns. “In the early 1990s, only a handful of utilities offered their customers a choice of purchasing electricity generated from renewable energy sources. As of 2005, nearly 600 utilities in regulated electricity markets—or almost 20% of all utilities nationally—provide their customers a “green power” option. Through these programs, more than 40 million customers spanning 34 states have the ability to purchase renewable energy to meet some portion or all of their electricity needs—or make contributions to support the development of renewable energy resources.2"
For consumers’ part, the figures indicate a consistent increase in the utilization of green energy by consumers. “At the end of 2004, about 330,000 customers participated in utility green pricing programs in regulated markets, including about 8,000 nonresidential customers, which represented an increase of 25% from customer participants in 2003. The news was even more promising for green energy providers. In 2004, sales of renewable energy through utility green pricing programs continued to exhibit strong growth, increasing 43% to a total of nearly 2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), following annual growth rates of 44% in 2003 and 56% in 2002. This growth has been driven by increases in the number of customers purchasing green power as well as larger purchases by nonresidential customers“(Bird, Brown).
How quickly green energy supplants traditional energy is yet to be determined, but the transition does appear to be forthcoming. The speed with which the transition takes place will be connected to the challenges facing green energy- costs and political barriers. There is no argument from the environmental side of things however. The faster green initiatives are implemented, the better the news for the environment, and arguably for America itself. Not only would this allow America to position itself as a leading supporter of pro-environmental policy, but it would also strengthen its global economic position in the energy market.
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