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Clean Energy 101

What is clean energy?  Think unlimited resources, nearly zero pollution.

Clean energy creates electricity by tapping into natural cycles and systems, turning the ever-present energy around us into usable forms while producing little or no pollution or global warming emissions.

The movement of wind and water, the heat and light of the sun, warmth in the ground, carbohydrates in plants—all are natural energy sources that can supply electricity in a sustainable way.

Why clean energy?  It slows global warming, improves air and water quality, and creates jobs.

Manmade emissions are driving up the planet’s temperature. Our air, water, and environment are harmed by pollutants like mercury, arsenic, and sulfur dioxide.  And electricity production is a big reason why.

Power generation from coal and other fossil fuels produces more than a third of U.S. global warming emissions, contributes significantly to air pollution, and has costly and adverse effects on public health.

Renewable energy technologies generate electricity with almost no pollution or carbon emissions and have the potential to significantly reduce our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. By expanding renewable energy, we can improve air quality, reduce global warming emissions, create new industries and jobs, and move America toward a cleaner, safer, and affordable energy future.

How does clean energy work? 
It depends on where it comes from.

Electricity can be generated from a range of sustainable resources—including solar power, heat from the earth, and ocean currents—but wind, hydroelectric, and biomass currently account for the majority of America’s renewable energy production. Each source of energy comes with its own unique set of technologies, benefits, and limitations.

How much electricity comes from clean energy? 
Not nearly enough given our vast resources.

Non-hydro renewable energy is expanding rapidly but still accounts for only about four percent of U.S. electricity generation, a mere fraction of its potential. If you think we can’t get more, think again.

Germany already generates about 20 percent of its power from renewable energy and hydroelectric power, and has far fewer resources than the United States. Denmark gets 30 percent of its power from renewable sources—and accomplished it while growing its economy by 80 percent.

If we pursue smart energy solutions here in America, clean energy could reliably provide up to 40 percent of U.S. electricity needs by 2030. 

Is natural gas a clean energy alternative? Not really.

It’s true that natural gas releases fewer pollutants than coal, but it does not represent a long-term solution to our energy needs. The supply of natural gas is finite, there are growing environmental concerns associated with its extraction, and it still produces substantial global warming emissions. It does have potential, however, to serve as a critical ‘bridge technology’ as we transition toward a sustainable clean energy economy.

What about nuclear power?  Cleaner than coal, yes. Safe, no.

Nuclear power plants do not produce air pollution or global warming emissions when they operate, but unlike other clean energy sources they have the potential to cause catastrophic damage to our health and environment—as evidenced by the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

How can we increase renewable energy? 
Support smart energy policies.

UCS experts analyze and recommend energy technologies and policies that help phase out coal, reduce barriers to the growth of renewable energy, and build a cost-effective, sustainable clean energy economy.

As part of this effort, UCS works to strengthen government policies that move toward these goals, including the adoption of strong renewable electricity standards, strict pollution controls on power plants, and high efficiency standards that reduce the amount of electricity we need in the first place.

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