The United States expends a lot of energy studying green energy. There's no shortage of ideas. For example, San Francisco considered installing giant turbines under the Golden Gate Bridge and harnessing tidal power to generate electricity. There are all kinds of research projects, coalitions and advocacy groups touting renewable energy, but the country is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Only 7% of energy consumed is from renewable sources. So why haven't we made more progress and what can be done to change the numbers?
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It's Too Expensive to Produce
The total cost to research, build and operate new green energy plants combined with storage and transmission expenses is significantly higher than traditional coal burning plants. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average cost of solar power is almost four times as much as traditional coal burning electric generation. The costs are difficult to compare due to the widely disparate nature of individual technologies but the net result is that startup costs are steep.
The U.S. government is attempting to jump start green energy projects through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 by allocating $16.8 billion dollars for energy conservation, research and development. The bill includes everything from grants to tax credits to encourage green energy activity. Most projects have a long-term horizon, so results are not immediately available.
Eco-investing has been around for a while now with green mutual funds and bonds available to both individual and institutional investors. Private equity dollars fund the green technology industry through venture capital firms like Kinetic Ventures of Atlanta. Nonprofit organizations also supply grant money for emerging technology that enables the production and conservation of energy. So, the money is flowing in from multiple sources. (Learn more about green technology in The Future Of Green Technology Investing.)
Which Green Energy Source Is the Best?
The local environment determines whether wind, hydro power or solar energy generation is feasible. The availability of fuel, technology and transmission are factors in the long-term success of a new energy project. Some of the most efficient and economical energy solutions combine energy sources. Also, the local government's willingness to provide tax incentives has a large impact on the costs.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, which use solar panels to directly generate energy are popular for individual buildings or small geographic areas, but large scale use is expensive. Solar energy used to heat liquids that power large electric plants is actually less costly. Sunlight can be inconsistent, so solar is often used in conjunction with other power sources.
Biofuels have been around for a long time and they are the least expensive renewable energy source. One of the fastest growing segments was ethanol, aided by the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Renewable Fuel Standard which requires fossil fuels to be mixed with a minimum amount of bio-fuels when they are transported in the United States. The regulations attempt to reduce greenhouse gases and increase the use of clean energy.
Wind energy requires a certain amount of sustained wind speeds to be effective. Huge wind turbine fields in various parts of the country produced 1.3% of the electricity in the U.S. in 2008. New technology for storage and transmission make wind power cheaper than solar, but it is still 50% more expensive than coal-powered electrical plants. Offshore turbines are almost twice as expensive. (Wind and solar energy can be used at home. Find out more in Taking Your Home "Off The Grid".)
Hydro power and nuclear power cost about the same amount. Both are more expensive than traditional electric plants and environmental issues plague both. The transportation and long-term disposal of nuclear fuel is remains a concern for nuclear plants. Hydro power poses a threat to wildlife.
Renewable Energy is Really Hot
It is politically correct and even "cool" to use green energy. Businesses, governments, celebrities and anyone else gains immediate recognition for buying, using or promoting renewable energy. The economic consequences are serious. Increasing global demand for energy is creating a sense of urgency for the United States to produce domestically generated renewable energy. It is not just an economic concern, but a political one, as oil rich countries assess their future.
The Bottom Line
The reason we are still dependent on fossil fuels for energy is about as old as the fossils themselves. A complicated mix of costs, technology and environmental issues means no one source is best. The diverse implementation of energy sources is a positive step toward energy independence and sustainability. (To learn more, see 6 Reasons Nations Don't Go Green.)
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