Climate change is here, and it represents humanity's defining challenge in the 21st century. As you may have already experienced, climate change is no longer a distant prospect. Record level heat waves, flooding and drought have shown us that climate change is already here with us. In 2021. Should nothing change, 2021 is likely to be one of the coolest and calmest years for the rest of our lives. The climate crisis is truly a code red for humanity.
At its core, man-made climate change comes from our addiction to hydrocarbons to derive our energy needs. Hydrocarbons are a fuel source that are made up of some mix of hydrogen atoms attached to carbon atoms, this kind of fuel source typically comes from organic material that's had hydrogen compressed into it over millions of years. For example, natural gas is CH4 (one carbon atom, four hydrogen atoms), some examples of oil are ethane (C2H6) and propane (C3H8). The chemical makeup of coal is C135H96O9NS, this complicated formula indicates that coal also releases nitrogen in the form of oxidized nitrogen, and sulfur in the form of sulfur dioxide. Oxidized nitrogen causes lung trouble and sulfur dioxide causes acid rain.
The focus on reducing fossil fuel usage around the world ultimately boils down to reducing the combustion of hydrocarbons present in all fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). Combustion of hydrocarbons creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct, and humanity is rapidly pumping high concentrations of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing global warming and accelerating climate change impacts. At the same, our hydrocarbon usage includes processes which release other substances which worsen global warming (called greenhouse gasses (GHGs)). For example, natural gas production releases methane, a potent GHG, into the atmosphere.
It doesn't seem so daunting though, right? We simply need to replace our current hydrocarbon-heavy energy sources with cleaner sources. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Energy transitions are just as much about infrastructure as they are about energy usage. It may seem simple enough to utilize cleaner sources of energy, but for every unit of fossil fuel we burn, we also utilize significant infrastructure. Natural gas requires pipelines. Gasoline (oil) is overwhelmingly used in private vehicles. Coal has a key role in industrial processes. All these applications represent significant investments and are difficult to replace overnight. In other words, our addiction to hydrocarbons is as much about how we get energy to people (the structure of the energy system) as it is about where we get energy from (burning fossil fuels). Replacing them will be difficult and take time, but we can all do our parts, and it starts with green energy.
Green energy is defined as both environmentally friendly and carbon neutral. The former refers to its minimal impacts on the environment (low ecological impacts), and the latter refers to its lack of hydrocarbons (so it doesn't worsen global warming and climate change). It is considered a subset of renewable energy which has the fewest environmental impacts. Wind and solar energy represent the most well-known examples of green energy. Other examples of green energy include biomass (like burning wood), geothermal (like hot springs), biogas (like burning animal manure), and some hydropower. Our focus with Green Share Energy is going to start with solar energy.
Green energy will be the backbone of decarbonizing our energy systems, and by extension, human society as a whole. Using the breakdown of GHG emissions by sector in the US below, replacing our direct electricity usage emissions with electricity from green energy sources (we can call this green electricity) would already reduce emissions by 25%. Furthermore, reducing emissions from transport and industry (another 52% of emissions) would require replacing burning hydrocarbons with using green electricity in a process called electrification. For transportation, replacing internal combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles would enable the transportation sector to use green electricity instead of gasoline. For industry, electrifying manufacturing equipment or combining heat and power processes can enable the sector to use green electricity instead of burning coal. For commercial and residential, we could electrify heating and cooling for homes. Right now, there's a lot of propane and natural gas systems, and converting these to electricity would reduce the carbon footprint of the average American home. These pathways to decarbonization suggest that we need to install a lot of green electricity capacity and ensure our energy systems (like the electric grid) are capable of meeting people's new and existing demands without relying on hydrocarbons.
In the end, this means that we need to rapidly scale up green energy production and green energy technologies which produce electricity (like wind and solar) and invest in technologies which enable our energy systems to continue to meet demand (like batteries and smart grid technologies). We will discuss these technologies in greater detail in future posts. Click here to learn more about how we're going to build solar farms across America.