Sustainable Cleveland will be focusing our outreach efforts in the month of September on energy, including information about what the City is doing to achieve ambitious renewable energy goals, community resources that are available to help lessen your energy burden, and ways that you can live a more energy efficient lifestyle. To kick the month off, we have put together a primer on what energy is, why it is important, and how it affects our environment.
You may remember from your school textbooks that energy is the ability to do work. It can exist in many different forms – thermal, radiant, kinetic, chemical, nuclear, electrical, gravitational – and can be transferred from one form to the next (i.e. ‘energy is neither created nor destroyed’). For example, when someone is riding their bike, the chemical energy that they have gained from the food they have eaten gets transferred into kinetic energy as they pedal, moving the bike forward.
When we talk about energy within a sustainability context, this typically refers to the energy that is used to power our homes and buildings: heating, cooling, lighting, running motors, pumping water, charging phones, etc. Just like energy is transferred when we ride a bike, energy is transferred to turn on a lightbulb as well. At the electricity power plants for instance, fossil fuels (such as coal or natural gas) are burned, and transfer thermal energy to heat water. The steam that is released turns a turbine, which transfers mechanical energy to electrical energy with the use of a magnet. This electricity is then sent to our homes to turn on our lights. Through this series of energy transfers, activity in our homes and businesses drives the emissions that are released at the source of generation. Unfortunately, more than 60% of the energy used for electricity generation, is also lost in all these conversions.
In 2018, the total U.S. electric power industry generated a total of 4.17 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh), which resulted in the emission of 1.87 billion metric tons of CO2. By being more energy-efficient in our day to day lives, we reduce the demand that the power industry has to supply. This includes the associated conversion and transportation losses, as well as, reducing the cost that we pay each month. This can be done by remembering to turn off lights, using energy-efficient appliances, or washing our clothes in cool water – to name a few ways.
Outside of our individual energy use, it is important to consider the source of our electric generation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, of the 4.17 trillion kWh of electricity generated in the U.S. in 2018, 63% of that was sourced through the burning of coal, natural gas, and petroleum fuels – all nonrenewable energy sources. The burning of these fossil fuels accounted for 99% of the 1.87 billion metric tons of CO2 that were released. By sourcing our electricity from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, we are able to generate electricity through a similar energy transfer process, without the emission of greenhouse gases. It is important that we find ways to make renewable energy accessible on an individual basis (such as through the Cuyahoga Country Solar Co-op) and also advocate for large-scale renewable energy projects (such as LEEDCo, an offshore wind farm in Lake Erie).
Energy can be a confusing and daunting topic, but we hope that this month we can *shed some light* on this very important aspect of sustainability.
For more detailed information about the process of electricity generation:
For more information about electricity generation and carbon dioxide production in the U.S.: