How Renewable Energy Is Showing Its Potential During the Pandemic
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
I wasn’t planning on running more than a half marathon on a Saturday morning last month. But as I felt the warm sunshine on my face and appreciated the beautiful glow it gave my surroundings, I felt energized to keep my legs moving and my spirits up despite my body feeling increasingly tired.
I also kept pushing my body because I was part of a team running in a virtual 24-hour race.
Each member of our team of 12 would run for two hours total at different times during this 24-hour period. I was hoping to run 6 miles during each of my legs for a total of 12 miles, but as I felt the warm sun on my shoulders during the second leg, I felt powered to dash past 7.5 miles after running about 7 miles in the first leg.
After several days of grey, dreary weather, everything the sunshine touched that morning seemed to come to life in the most dazzling way. This included the delicately blooming cherry blossoms fluttering in a light breeze by Delaware Park’s sparkling Hoyt Lake.
Sunshine always has a way to draw me outside and boost my mood.
I think somehow humans inherently know the power of the big ball of gas that supplies life to our planet—the major challenge continues to be harnessing its energy to cleanly power our societies.
I think the pandemic might just be the backdrop solar energy and other renewables needed to truly “shine.” And I mention my 24-hour race because I think the same sort of combined effort from all of us humans living on this Earth and influencing its climate is going to be needed to turn around the climate catastrophe headed our way. Luckily, just like I think nobody on our team would have expected we’d run more than a combined 150 miles, I think the combined efforts of human societies can do much more than we ever imagined.
Seeing the Bright Side
While spring has often seemed dark and dreary here in Buffalo, April was a surprisingly different story in the United Kingdom.
The Met Office, the UK’s national weather service, has reported that April 2020 was the sunniest on record (Forbes). And that’s good news for the UK’s renewable energy infrastructure, which Forbes reports set a record for the electricity it produced on April 20.
But solar and other renewable energy resources didn’t just need the right weather to shine while the world has grappled with the COVID-19 health crisis the past few months.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) an organization created in 1974 to ensure the stability of oil supplies and that today is at the center of international energy issues, renewable energy has been far more resilient during the pandemic than fossil fuels.
Lockdowns put in place to prevent the pandemic’s spread, causing many companies to screech to a halt, decreased the amount of energy that needed to be supplied to many grids. This allowed power grids to incorporate more shares of photovoltaic (PV) solar and wind energy (IEA).
Although lockdowns caused a disruption in the production of fossil fuels and renewable energy, the IEA anticipates that by the end of 2020, renewable electricity production will rise by about 5 percent globally.
Renewables in particular are more tolerant of lower electricity demand because they have lower operating costs and regulations, according to the IEA.
With planes grounded and people around the planet forced to work from home, the demand for oil hit its lowest point since the early 1990s in the U.S., the U.S. Energy Information Center has revealed. A recent Forbes article predicts there will be an agreement on supply cuts soon between the U.S. and countries that control the oil supply—Russia and Saudi Arabia. However, with oil demand falling around 20% in April and a huge glut in the market due to power demands, “major players” in the industry may still face major consolidation and even bankruptcy (Forbes).
However, some fossil fuels like coal have been going out of style since before the pandemic. The Hill recently reported that 2019 was the 6th year in a row that coal use dropped in the U.S. More impressively, the EIA found 2019 marked the first time in more than 130 years that renewable energy consumption in the U.S. was greater than coal consumption.
You Don't Need to Brank the Bank to Support Renewable Energy
So hopefully by now you are convinced that renewables can lead us to a more sustainable future.
If so, if you are like me, you may start searching for ways to switch your electricity source to renewable energy, and thus will be targeted with a stream of advertisements for services that will switch your current power sources to 100% renewables.
Luckily before I committed to CleanChoice Energy’s services to convert our apartment’s electricity to 100 percent renewables, my husband convinced me to do more research.
We found that switching to CleanChoice Energy—although they offer some cool gimmicks like a free FitBit and $50 Visa gift card with switching to renewable energy through them—would have increased our electric bill by at least $10 per month, we estimate.
When you start the process to switch to CleanChoice Energy, you have to fill in your zip code. When we plugged ours in, the options we had were to switch to “99% Wind and 1% Solar” for 7.9 cents/kWh” (kWh=kilowatt-hour) or “100% solar” for “10.6 cents per kWh.” While these didn’t sound too much more than what we currently pay at first, looking back at our electricity bill, even the cheaper option was around double per kWh what we currently pay.
CleanChoice Energy also concerned us a bit due to some less-than-praising Better Business Bureau reviews (although the company overall gets 4.5 stars).
Checking an organization’s Better Business Bureau’s reviews is just one of several recommendations a Washington Post article recommends before switching to a new electricity supplier—no matter how cheap per kilowatt-hour their rates may sound. It also recommends checking with state agencies that regulate energy suppliers before making a switch.
Overall the reviews for CleanChoice Energy do make it seem like a trustworthy organization and I can definitely get behind their mission of creating, “a world free of catastrophic climate change with pure, clean air and abundant renewable energy” without all the extra steps of efforts like installing solar panels.
So overall I think if you want perks like the $50 Visa gift card or a Fitbit (or I also saw at one point they were offering a Kindle, which honestly almost convinced me) and you don’t mind paying a bit more than maybe some other options, CleanChoice Energy is for you.
However, what really gave my husband and I pause is that they didn’t seem to be fully affiliated with our current electricity provider—National Grid.
So we decided to see if National Grid offered any programs to source our energy from renewables—and turns out, they do!
The program is called GreenUp. It allows National Grid customers to ensure that part or all of their electricity comes from renewable sources while staying National Grid customers.
How this works is that National Grid allows you to compare and choose energy suppliers that work with them.
My husband and I decided to go this route, and I’ll break down what it involves.
National Grid makes it pretty straightforward by describing the additional cost per kWh with this handy chart.
We factored the additional cost into our current electricity bill and also considered the types of energy each supplier provided, including biomass, solar, wind, and hydro.
We decided to go with a supplier that’s a local family-owned company—EnviroGen, with an office in Williamsville, N.Y. It produces at least half of its energy from 100 percent hydropower, or electricity created from the force of moving water.
Now, about 50 percent of BioGen’s energy could come from biomass or landfill gas generation, which probably doesn’t sound like such a particularly pleasant source. However, it seems to depend on the type of biomass used.
Burning wood is a form of biomass, for example, but it emits a troubling amount of climate-change fueling greenhouse gas emissions if trees are not planted fast enough to offset the carbon emissions of cutting them down and burning them. Although burning wood as biomass is labeled as “renewable” power plants that take this form of energy emit around 65 percent more carbon dioxide than coal-burning plants and 285 percent more than plants that run on natural gas and steam turbine energy (Blogs.ei.Columbia.edu).
However, upon looking into the biomass EnviroGen relies on by checking out its Green Portfolio, I found it is produced from landfill generation, or the natural gas that naturally comes from landfills.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), landfills are the third-largest emitter of the potent greenhouse gas methane. That’s because methane is a natural byproduct of the breakdown of trash. Capturing this gas (called Landfill Gass, or LFG) and using it as energy can help reduce these emissions, and it’s a form of renewable energy.
LFG electricity projects can capture around 60 to 90 percent of the methane a landfill emits (EPA).
Although LFG electricity can lead to the production of harmful nitrogen oxides, overall it can greatly reduce methane emissions and the emissions of other hazardous particulate matter pollutants from landfills, including sulfur dioxide—a major cause of acid rain (EPA). Particulate matter (PM) or particular pollution is simply very small bits of dirt, soot, smoke, dust, or drops of liquid that factories and other man-made sources emit. They can cause a range of health issues from throat, nose, and eye irritation to trouble breathing and throat cancer (CDC).
However, it does matter where these projects are placed and how they are run. In 2018 a battle began that involved environmentalists protesting against a power plant that would convert landfill methane to energy in Seneca County—an area of the stunning Finger Lakes Region where I grew up. Where the incinerator was proposed is near an area as picturesque as it sounds: Deer Haven Park (Democrat & Chronicle). The park with dense forest attracts many tourists and locals alike for a glance of the many rare white deer that call it home.
The battle over this incinerator is ongoing. The Finger Lakes Times reported at the end of May a Supreme Court Judge annulled a law the town of Romulus had put in place in 2018 to stop the incinerator from being built by changing the town zoning code. It’s unclear how the company that’s proposed the incinerator, Circular EnerG LLC, will proceed.
Trash incineration definitely has environmental concerns to take seriously. These include releasing toxins such as dioxin, lead, and mercury into the air that often disproportionately impact people of color and in marginalized communities (Institute for Local Self-Resilience).
Although this makes me nervous about EnviroGen, when I clicked on "Product Content Label" on the GreenUp program's New York renewable energy provider page, a PDF pops up that makes me feel a bit better about this program. It shows that 100% of EnviroGen's power supply comes from clean hydropower. And for comparison, the average mix of resources for a New Yorker's power supply is also provided as being made up of 16% coal, 27% natural gas, 16% hydroelectric, 28% nuclear, 10% oil, and 3% "other."
So with some simple math, that means 53%, or a majority, of the average New Yorker's home energy comes from fossil fuels that spew greenhouse gases and incite climate change.
Conclusions/What You Can Do
Looking into where our electricity was coming from turned out to be more challenging and complicated than I had thought, but it was also empowering.
My husband and I had assumed that our electricity was coming from renewable energy generated at Niagara Falls, which isn’t too far away, but we realized in trying to look into this that it’s really hard to determine if this is the case.
Making the switch through National Grid to ensure when possible our electricity does come from renewable sources felt like taking a step in the right direction.
So I encourage those who’d like to play a role in securing a more sustainable future to see if their power utilities have programs like GreenUp.
NYSEG has a program called Catch the Wind that can allow a portion of your household’s electricity to be produced from New York generated wind energy. Participating can cost as little as $5 per month and even with this minimum amount, after one year it can help avoid the CO2 emissions equivalent to burning 191 gallons of gasoline!
So even small changes can add up.
And just like I was amazed to find out my relay team ran more than 150 miles in 24 hours to secure a 2nd place finish in the 24-hour relay, I think we can all be surprised by our impact to save the planet if we feel empowered by our planet’s incredible renewable resources and commit to using them.