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  • Writer's pictureSean

Not So Simple: The Complex Relationship Between Energy Use and Climate Change


a melting glacier fragment
Photo by Melissa Bradley

Energy use and climate change, two massive topics, are as intertwined as spaghetti and meatballs. In our busy lives, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture – but the reality is, every flip of a switch or push of a button has a far-reaching impact.


Traditional Energy Sources and Their Environmental Impact


In the energy world, fossil fuels are the old guard, the traditional choice. We've been using them for centuries, and they've done a great job keeping our lights on and engines running. Fossil fuels, which include coal, oil, and natural gas, release greenhouse gases when burned. These gases trap heat in our atmosphere, leading to what we know as the greenhouse effect – the main driver behind climate change.


Remember that record-breaking heatwave? Remember the one that broke that record? Climate change is playing a major role in these extreme weather events.


But the good news is that we can help combat climate change by making smart energy choices. Which brings me to...


Renewable Energy: The Earth-Friendly Alternative


Renewable engery has been growing in leaps and bounds lately, and it is getting a lot of attention in the climate change arena, and for a good reason. Unlike their fossil fuel counterparts, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and biomass have a much smaller impact on our environment.


Digging Deeper into Renewable Energy Types


Each type of renewable energy has its unique benefits, but let's delve deeper into what they each offer.


Solar Energy


First off, let's look at solar energy. It's near and dear to my heart because it's attached to my roof. The cost of solar panels has been dropping fast over the last decade and more and more people are taking advantage, of the long-term price savings.


Solar panels work by converting sunlight directly into electricity. A 2019 study from the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that solar energy could potentially become the world's largest source of power by 2040. It's an empowering feeling, harnessing the power of the sun from our rooftops, contributing to a more sustainable energy future.


Solar panels are not just a practical way to power your home. They also serve as a tangible, everyday reminder for our kids about the importance of renewable energy. The number of home solar panels I see in my neighborhood see has been steadily growing for years. What was once a strange outlier, is becoming the norm.


Wind Energy

U.S wind power growth from 2000 to 2021

Next up is wind energy. Now, we might not all have the luxury of installing a wind turbine in our backyard, but supporting wind energy on a community or national level is something we can all get behind. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, wind power capacity in the United States has more than doubled between 2010 and 2020.


Wind turbines generate electricity by using the wind to turn blades that are connected to a generator. Simple, clean, and effective. They're usually used on a larger scale – think wind farms – but there are smaller wind turbines available that are suitable for residential use.


Even if installing a wind turbine isn't practical for you, many energy companies offer options to purchase wind energy credits. This means that even though the energy you use might not be harnessing the wind from your own backyard, your dollars support the production of wind energy elsewhere.


Hydropower


On to hydropower. Again, this may not be something we have immediate access to, but this form of renewable energy is a crucial part of our national – and global – energy picture. Hydropower generates electricity by using flowing or falling water to spin a turbine connected to a generator. It's one of the oldest sources of renewable energy and continues to play a vital role today. While we might not be able to implement this form of energy in our homes, supporting legislation and companies that prioritize hydropower can help further the cause.


Geothermal Energy


Geothermal energy, gaining traction as a promising renewable energy source. This hidden powerhouse of this energy is found beneath the Earth's surface where temperatures stay much more consistent than here at the surface.

An application of geothermal energy that is particularly relevant for residential use is the geothermal heat pump, an innovative solution for home heating and cooling. Unlike traditional HVAC systems, these utilize the consistent temperatures found just below the Earth's surface to maintain indoor comfort, offering a more energy-efficient alternative. Geothermal heat pumps operate on a simple principle: they extract heat from the ground during winter for heating and transfer heat back to the ground during summer for cooling.

The initial investment for installing a geothermal heat pump can be steep, but the long-term energy savings make it a worthwhile consideration. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, these heat pumps can save you up to $500 per year on energy costs. Thus, geothermal heat pumps present an opportunity to combat climate change by significantly lowering our carbon footprint while offering homeowners appreciable savings on energy bills.


Biomass Energy


Finally, let's talk about biomass energy. It's a bit of an underdog in the renewable energy world but has the potential to make significant contributions. Biomass energy involves using organic material – like plant matter – to produce energy. The idea of producing energy from compost might seem a bit futuristic to us suburban parents, but it's already happening on a larger scale.


While implementing large-scale composting or biofuel production in most residential settings might not be realistic, supporting the industry through consumer choices and advocating for sustainable waste management in our communities is something we can do.


Shifting from Traditional to Renewable Energy: Why It Matters


You might be thinking, "These all sound great, but what's wrong with sticking to traditional energy sources? I don't even have to do anything!" I get it, Mr. Strawman. Change is hard, and it might seem daunting to shift from traditional to renewable energy.


But here's the deal: by embracing renewable energy, we can drastically reduce our carbon footprint. Numerous communities around the world have made successful transitions to renewable energy. One of my personal favorites is the story of the little town of Wildpoldsried in Germany, which produces more than five times the energy it needs entirely from renewable sources. If they can do it, so can we!


Implementing Renewable Energy in Our Homes


You might be wondering what is the best way to bring renewable energy into your home. The most accessible way is through solar panels. When we had our solar panels installed, not only did we reduce our electricity bill, but we also found that we were more aware of our energy consumption.


There are also financial incentives for installing renewable energy systems. Look into federal, state, or local programs that might offset the installation costs.


Practical Energy-Saving Tips for Families


Reducing our energy consumption is not only good for our planet, but also for our wallets. With a few tweaks here and there, we can significantly cut down on our energy use. Here are ten practical tips that can help suburban families live more sustainably:


  1. Embrace Natural Light: Use natural light whenever possible to reduce reliance on artificial lighting. Mirrors and light-colored walls can help reflect more natural light inside.

  2. Unplug Idle Electronics: Known as 'phantom loads', many electronic devices and appliances consume energy even when they're not in use. Unplug these devices, or use a power strip and turn it off when you're not using those electronics.

  3. Invest in Energy-Efficient Appliances: When it's time to replace an old appliance, look for energy-efficient models. They may be more expensive upfront, but they can save you money (and energy!) in the long run.

  4. Turn Down Your Thermostat: A degree or two might not seem like much, but it can make a significant difference in your energy consumption. Consider investing in a programmable or smart thermostat that can make these adjustments automatically.

  5. Seal and Insulate Your Home: Proper insulation can keep your home warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Don't forget to seal doors and windows to prevent air leaks!

  6. Use Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs: Replace traditional incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient alternatives like LEDs or CFLs. They use less energy and last longer.

  7. Opt for Cold Water: Whether it's laundry or dishes, using cold water instead of hot can save a lot of energy. And don't worry—your clothes will still get clean!

  8. Hang-Dry Your Clothes: Clothes dryers can use a lot of energy. When possible, hang-dry your clothes either outdoors or on an indoor drying rack.

  9. Plant Trees Strategically: A well-placed tree can provide shade in the summer and windbreaks in the winter, reducing your need for heating and cooling. As they say: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now."

  10. Regular Maintenance: Keep your appliances and HVAC system in good shape with regular maintenance. This will help them operate more efficiently and last longer.

Many of these might seem like small changes, but remember, this is a group effort and the millions of small steps we all take towards sustainability can add up to significant energy savings and a lighter carbon footprint. And it saves money too.


To Powering a Sustainable Future


At the end of the day, the choices we make, big and small, can help combat climate change. As a parent, I want to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for my children and yours. By understanding the connection between energy use and climate change, we can make informed decisions that not only benefit our families but also our planet.

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