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Pros and Cons of Common Renewable Energies

2 November 2016

Renewable energy has grown increasingly popular as evidence of human-caused global climate change accumulates. Solar, hydroelectric, and wind energies make up a large majority of the renewable energy sector, and are seen by some as preferable alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear energies.

Renewable energy, despite not being the most prevalent subject during this election cycle, is still an important issue that deserves discussion. The four major presidential candidates all have unique views on whether or not to fund research on further developing these energies.


Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is in favor of government funding for renewable energies, and promises to “generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America, with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of [her] first term.”


Republican nominee Donald Trump has a different take on the subject. He has called wind turbines an “environmental & aesthetic disaster,” and heavily supports oil and gas energy.


Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson’s doesn’t criticize renewable energies, but he does oppose using government funding to support them. On the topic, he says “In a healthy economy that allows the market to function unimpeded, consumers, innovators, and personal choices will do more to bring about environmental protection and restoration than will government regulations.”


Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s position is somewhat obvious given her party’s namesake. She is very much so in favor of funding renewable energies, even including it in her Green New Deal; she wants to  “Create 20 million jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030.”


Although all the candidates have different takes on funding renewable energies, there are different ways to collect clean energy which have their own benefits and downfalls.


Solar: Solar energy is produced constantly from the sun, and it won’t go away for a very, very long time. Solar power is usually harvested through a photovoltaic power cell (solar cell) which, put simply, turns the photons produced by the sunlight into electricity. Solar energy produces, as of 2015, .6% of the total energy in the United States.


Pros:

Solar power does not produce any carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases (except for the initial construction of the photovoltaic cell), and the effect of the environment is usually minimal if the solar panels are placed properly, such as on buildings.


Solar power takes a few years to pay for the original installation, but it is becoming cheaper. It can save tremendous amounts of money on one’s electric bill, especially over time. Although it depends heavily on where you live, people save between $44 and $187 a month. According to the Energy Department, you will save money long term in most states. Another bonus of solar energy is that some power providers will buy excess energy off of you. If you have a very sunny month, your backup energy provider will likely end up paying you, instead of the other way around.


Cons:

Solar power’s overall price is extremely variable depending on where you live and what season it is. In the winter, the sun is not in the sky for as long, which means you will likely not be saving nearly as much money on your solar bill. The entire process is estimated to cost between $15,000 and $40,000 (including repairs and maintenance), and even though some utility companies offer subsidies, the system will nonetheless take a long time to pay for itself.


As of right now, solar cells have a poor efficiency rate. Most panels have between a 15 and 16% conversion rate, meaning merely 15-16% of the solar energy available is converted to electricity. Although new breakthroughs are constantly being made, the most efficient produced to date still has only barely broken a one fifth conversion rate, at 22.1%.


Wind: Wind power is created by harnessing, you guessed it, the wind. The most common model is 328 feet in the air (including the blades) and takes up approximately an acre of area in the sky. When the wind catches the blades and spins them, they spin a motor to create energy. Wind is the second most used renewable energy in the U.S., taking up 4.7% of the total annual energy production.


Pros:

Wind energy is an excellent producer of electricity on a massive scale. According to the Wind Energy Development agency, “in 1990, California's wind power plants offset the emission of more than 2.5 billion pounds of carbon dioxide, and 15 million pounds of other pollutants that would have otherwise been produced. It would take a forest of 90 million to 175 million trees to provide the same air quality.”


Wind turbines are extremely technologically savvy, and are advanced enough to detect the direction of wind and change the angle of their blades to optimize energy capture, and can be manually rotated as well. They are good at maximizing their own power output, something few other energy sources can do.


Cons:

Although there are no traditional pollutants produced, wind energy is not particularly good for some aspects of the environment. Bats and birds are at risk and have been known to fly into the deceivingly fast moving blades. The noise that the turbines produce causes noise pollution, which can cause animals to leave their own habitats. Some animals even use it to escape predators with more sensitive ears, which could have disastrous effects on an ecosystem.


Because windmills usually come in clusters called wind farms, they take up an enormous amount of land. Two of the most popular models, the GE 1.5-MW and the Vestas V90, take up 32 and 78 acres, respectively. When the turbines are capable of spinning towards the wind (the more efficient way), they need 82 and 111 acres. The area around these turbines is also unusable for humans, as approximately one in one hundred turbines will break and lose at least one blade, a massive safety hazard. If that wasn’t enough, the noise from the machines is known to be grating and living anywhere near them is not advised. On top of this, turbines can cost about $1.3-$2.2 million per MW of capacity. Most turbines today are 2 MW and cost $3-4 million.


Hydroelectric: Hydroelectric power is the most common renewable energy, with 7% of the annual U.S. energy output being produced by hydroelectric. Water from a reservoir or river runs through turbines that turn a generator and produce electricity (similar to how wind powers a windmill). There are two main types of hydroelectric power. The dam method is done by placing a reservoir that is a much higher elevation overtop of another reservoir. The water falls through a tunnel in the ground that has the turbines, turning them and producing the electricity. The other method, “run-of-the-river,” is done by simply putting turbines on a river and collecting energy from the movement of the water.


Pros:

If you have a river or a lake near you, you can have power. Once the water is moved to the reservoir, you can use it to produce all of the energy you could realistically need. The water will always be there for the dam method if the reservoir is built properly, and will always be there regardless for the run-of-the-river method. As long as the original water source continually feeds into a reservoir, you have unlimited energy.


Hydroelectric power is a nearly limitless, cheap source of power. Just one turbine can produce between 200 and up to 800 MW of power. Although initial installation is extremely costly, the average cost to produce one kWh (kilowatt hour) is just .7 cents. This is one third the cost of fossil fuel and nuclear energy and one sixth of the cost of natural gas.

An 8 kW dam should take a mere 7 years to pay for itself.


Cons:

Hydroelectric dams have been known to mess with the environment. Although different mechanisms are used to prevent animals from being caught in the blades (a fish ladder is the most common, and basically provides a fish bridge over the dam), none of these mechanisms work 100% perfectly. For run-of-the-river models, there is even more danger to animals. For the dam variants, the constricted flow of water can cause the river beyond a dam to shrink. This can cause massive issues down the river, such as a decrease in vegetation and fish, which invariably affects the animals that depend on these things for food.


For dam models, the most efficient placement is on a high up mountain. Being on a mountain is a precarious place to put such a delicate operation, and when these dams fall and break, the effects can be absolutely disastrous.


There is debate across the country by both state-level and federal politicians about government funding of renewable energy. By understanding the positive and negative aspects of all of these energies, one can see that there is no magic bullet energy source. However, as renewable energies continue to gain popularity and more politicians discuss climate change, we will continue to see renewable energy on the legislative radar.


Brian (Dakota) Jackson is taking a gap year between high school and college, but intends on majoring in political science. He is currently interning with Vote Smart in the Profiles subdepartment. For more information on internship opportunities with Vote Smart, contact us at intern@votesmart.org or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.

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Related tags: blog, environment, renewable-energy

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