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Status Check: Does the U.S. Measure Up in Renewable Efforts?

While the United States comes under fire for lagging behind European countries for recycling and other sustainability efforts, it is second only to China in renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Since 1990, the U.S. has steadily increased its reliance on non-hydropower (wind, solar, biomass wood and waste and geothermal) sources. Electricity from wind alone has increased from 6 billion kilowatt hours (kwh) in 1990 to 120 billion kwh in 2011. The increase in sustainable energy sources is impressive and exciting, but it accounts for only 13 percent of the nation's total energy. Nuclear, natural gas and coal continue to provide 86 percent of the U.S.'s power.

Sustainable Energy

At the consumer level, individuals are making small strides toward higher levels of sustainable energy through use of residential and commercial solar panels. According to the Solar Energies Industry Association (EIA), a record number of U.S. consumers have installed solar panels in 2012; by the third quarter the U.S. had surpassed 2011 totals. However, as the EIA points out, solar energy accounts for less than 1 percent of renewable energy sources in the country. Solar panel installation can be attributed to affordable pricing and innovative financing solutions for the historically cost-prohibitive solar panels. SolarCity, for example, developed a creative leasing program for consumers, which allows them to avoid the typically large up-front capital investment in the solar panels. Its program is so creative that it elicited the attention of Google, which invested $280 million in the company in 2011, according to CNNMoney.

While a growing number of consumers realize that the need to decrease their energy consumption, some consumers are setting their sights higher and developing large-scale innovative solutions they hope to bring to the mass market. At the Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition (NCEBPC) in May, CalTech and UCLA students presented their solar panel robot cleaners. Solar panel cleaning is a labor-intensive process, and these robots clean solar panels with less water, in less time, and can increase solar efficiencies up to 15 percent. Although these robots are not yet available to the masses, such innovative technology is rapidly evolving and expanding as demand for increased sustainability continues. 

Environmental Remediation

Parallel to environmental sustainability is environmental remediation, which is especially relevant when turning abandoned manufacturing and industrial sites, also known as brownfields, into usable real estate. Environmental remediation helps municipalities re-purpose these abandoned sites, which decreases sprawl and contributes to sustainability. For all the innovation seen in renewable energy, there are also accidents, spills, disasters and more that affect the environmental momentum. New York-based Sevenson Environmental Remediation has played key roles in cleanup of contaminated groundwater and polluted soils in hundreds of sites since the late 1970s.

Private companies, local governments and federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiate an environmental remediation project. While contaminated soil and water are easy to identify, the sources of the contamination are not. Oftentimes, the contamination occurred decades earlier, and the responsible party is long gone. The process of determining the cause of contamination, finding the responsible parties and making them pay for the cleanup can be a long process. The process of containing, cleaning up and monitoring the contaminated soil and groundwater is also long and expensive.

For example,starting in 1993, Sevenson removed 47,000 buried drums of contaminated and non-contaminated waste from a former Ciba-Geigy manufacturing site, and it excavated 175,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils. Ciba-Geigy manufactured chemicals from 1952 to 1990, and the excavation and cleanup took seven years to complete, according to the EPA.

The U.S. and CO2 Emissions

The U.S. and China lead the world in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In fact, both countries together account for 44 percent of the world's CO2 greenhouse gases, according to the EIA. In 2010, the EIA's latest data reporting year, China's CO2 emissions were 8.3 billion metric tons, and the U.S. emitted 5.6 billion metric tons. To put that into perspective, all countries in Central and South America are responsible for 1.3 billion; European countries 4.4 billion; Eurasia 2.4 billion (included Russia at 1.6 billion); the Middle East at 1.8 billion; and Africa at 1.1 billion.

Per capita, China's 6.26 billion people generated far less greenhouse gases than the U.S.'s 3 billion citizens in 2010. And year over year, although both countries continue to develop alternative sustainable energy sources, neither has shown much progress in decreasing its carbon dioxide emissions. China's has increased 43 percent since 2006, while the U.S. has decreased less than 5 percent in five years.

What does this mean? The U.S. has a lot of work to do. According to a University of Delaware study, renewable energy could fully power a large electric grid at the same cost of today's electricity expenses, and this could be in place by 2030. The authors conclude that reliance on 90 percent renewable sources could result in 80 to 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and lead to economic savings for consumers.

The Good News & Bad News

The good news is, the United States is relying more on hydropower and non-hydropower sources of energy, and the bad news is these shifts have done little to decrease the country's carbon footprint. Major barriers to full implementation include cost (which is always a barrier to change) and location. The renewable energy sources are typically in remote locations (windmill farms and geothermal conductors) and the infrastructure doesn't exist to transmit the power.

On a state-by-state basis, Washington, California, Texas and Oregon lead the U.S. in renewable energy generation. The U.S. government has created renewable energy incentives that offer tax credit for certain systems, and some states have created similar programs. California, for example, offers grants to help residential and commercial real estate owners purchase small renewable energy systems.

The scenario is far better than where the U.S. was a decade ago, but clearly there is room for improvement. Many states' officials are banking on solar energy and related businesses to help play a part in lifting their beleaguered economies out of the doldrums, so the incentive for growth is high. Coupled with consumers' continuing interest in recycling and sustainability, the optimism remains a worthy goal. 

Written by Tor Constantino
Tor Constantino is a former journalist, bestselling author/speaker, marathon runner and current PR guy who lives near Washington, DC with his wife and kids. He also has an MBA degree and blogs regularly at http://www.thedailyretort.com

Windmill and cloudy blue sky

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