Green Energy

Water, Wind, and Sun

By Neftali Hernandez Santiago

In Kansas City we briefly glimpsed spring before having another snowstorm come through the area.  There were a couple of patches of green before the white stuff covered everything again.  It got me thinking about diagrams in my old textbooks, the ones showing the cycle of photosynthesis and respiration.  As you know photosynthesis is the name we give to the process of converting light into energy that can be used to support plants which create their own food.  Nutrients, water and daily sunlight are almost enough to maintain their life styles.  Plants could be totally independent but they are not.  They also rely upon the wind, pollinators, and other animals to carry seeds and assist with propagation.

If someone asked me what the bare minimum for human beings to survive is, I would say food, water, shelter and clothing.  Thankfully, plants don’t only produce energy for themselves, but they share their transformed energy by producing wood, fibers and edible fruits to help us cover our very basic needs.  Plants do all these by utilizing the sun as their primary source of energy.

Our modern world, however, is full of needs beyond the basics.  Our society is maintained with many complex networks such as transportation, communications, energy supply, water and wastewater.  As part of our society we need energy to power our industries, cars, appliances, computers, tablets, and the heating or cooling of our homes.  But if we had to act like plants, just getting our needs met by the water, wind and sun, could we do it?

Currently the world human energy consumption during an entire year is 15 terawatts (10 to the 12th power watts give or take).  Each day, 89,000 terrawatts of solar radiation (energy) reaches the earth.  In a year, this totals almost 32.5 million terawatts.  Doing the math, 15 terawatts is a really, really, small percentage (in fact a decimal place with six zeros) of the energy the sun sends our way.  In fact, a professor at Stanford (Mark Z. Jacobsen) has put some numbers to it.  According to his calculations, we would need: 3.8 million (5-mega watts) wind turbines; 720,000 (0.75-mega watts) wave devices; 5,530 (100-mega watts) geothermal plants; 900 (1300-mega watts) hydro plants; 490,000 (1-mega watts) tidal turbines; 1.7 billion (3-kilo watts) roof PV systems; 40,000 (300-mega watts) solar PV plants; and 20 (300- mega watts) concentrated solar panels plants.  This sounds like a lot of Green (both figuratively and metaphorically) but lots of work is already being undertaken.

EPA has established the Green Power Partnership,  a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. The Partnership currently has more than 1,400 Partner organizations voluntarily using billions of kilowatt-hours of green power annually.   The National Renewable Energy Lab, (part of the US Department of Energy) has as its goal, developing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies and practices and transferring knowledge and innovations to address both the nation’s energy and environmental goals.  They also have great GIS data and maps relating to solar radiation.

So, can we fulfill the energy needs of modern human civilization and improve our environment at the same time as we move forward as a civilization by being more like plants?  It may be a long way off, but the math says YES.  Plants have been doing a good job of converting sunlight into energy a lot longer than humans.  For them it is easy to be green.   If we continue to find new ways to be green ourselves, someday we might not find ourselves singing Kermit’s famous song.

About the Author: Neftali Hernandez grew up in Puerto Rico and is an Environmental Scientist with EPA Region 7′s Drinking Water Branch.  He is a member of EPA’s Water Emergency Response Group and has a bachelor of science degree in biology and a masters of science degree in environmental health from the University of Puerto Rico.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: A Sustainable Super Bowl XLVI

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection.Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Marguerite Huber

On Sunday, February 5th 2012, thousands of people descended upon Indianapolis, Indiana to watch Super Bowl XLVI. While millions watched the game, they were probably unaware of the sustainability actions that were put forth at Lucas Oil Stadium.

I spoke with NFL Environmental Program Director, Jack Groh, about what his job entails. He describes his job as incorporating environmental principles into sporting events, all the while making good business decisions. In the 18 years Groh has been with the NFL, they have kept expanding their sustainability actions, moving from just solid waste recycling to green energy seven years ago.

This year the NFL will be offsetting the energy for the stadium with Renewable Energy Credits for an entire month! “We are renting the stadium for a month, so we believe we are responsible for our tenancy,” states Groh. In addition to the stadium, the program will be offsetting the city’s convention center and four major hotels. That’s an estimated total offset of 15,000 megawatt hours.

“Every year there is something new and exciting. We want to push the envelope and look for new impacts and strategies,” Groh proclaims. For example, diverting waste from landfills by promoting recycling and reuse, collecting extra prepared food for donations for soup kitchens, donating building and decorative materials to local organizations, and reducing the impact of greenhouse gases from Super Bowl activities. My favorite is the 2,012 Trees program, which will help plant 2,012 trees in Indianapolis to help offset environmental impacts.

What I found most interesting from talking with Mr. Groh was that he does not spend a lot of time with publicity, which is why many of you may have never heard of this program. “People are amazed that we have been doing this for two decades. We don’t do it to create an image or green presence in the media, but do it because it’s the right thing and a really smart way to run things. Our goal is make the Super Bowl as green as we possibly can make it.” Groh admitted.

Sustainability and sports is a growing trend, even if it is not seen on the surface of our favorite sporting events. I am excited to see how professional leagues will mold the core of their existence into a new form of competition that is not just for teams, but for the professional leagues themselves. With sustainability, everybody wins!

About the author: EPA intern Marguerite Huber is working on Masters in Public Affairs from Indiana University, concentrating in sustainable development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Wednesday: Environmental Protection and the Green Economy

Go to EPA's Science Month pageAbout the author: Diana Bauer, Ph.D. is an environmental engineer in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research where she serves as the Sustainability Team Leader.

I have been pleased in the past several months to see the “Green Economy” emerge as a priority for the nation. As an engineer who has been engaged in environmental research, I am particularly excited about new roles for engineering and new opportunities to avoid environmental problems through better design.

When I was in my first job as a mechanical engineer a couple of decades ago, I was dismayed when my colleagues and managers told me that I shouldn’t concern myself with where or how my work was used. My job as an engineer was to solve challenging technical problems. Others had the responsibility of worrying about the broader context, including what technology we should be investing in and how the technology would interact with people and the environment.

Later on, working at EPA and elsewhere, I have met many environmental professionals who were skeptical that engineers could have much impact for preventing or avoiding environmental problems, precisely because of engineers’ narrow focus.

In the years since that first job, I have enjoyed watching and contributing to fields such as Green Engineering, Green Chemistry, and Sustainable Engineering as they emerged and began to mature. These fields will be required as the nation addresses climate change through green energy and invests in transportation, and water infrastructure.

To contribute fully to the new green economy, engineers need to understand the environmental and social implications of their work.

National investments present an opportunity for EPA to collaborate with other departments and agencies across the government to ensure that holistic, multimedia environmental considerations are integrated into the development of green energy technologies, transportation, water infrastructure, and green building. Efforts such as these may reduce the future environmental issues that EPA will have to address with regulation.

One area where cross-government collaboration is already occurring is in Green Building. Commercial and residential buildings currently account for about 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from electricity and heating. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is coordinating across the federal government the Net-Zero Energy, High Performance Green Buildings Research and Development Plan to dramatically reduce energy consumption in buildings. The plan holistically addresses the challenge by focusing on water efficiency, storm water management, sustainable materials management, and indoor environmental quality.

Cross-cutting agendas such as this one can help engineers of my generation and those following to broaden our perspective and learn how to build a green economy while protecting the air, water, and land.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.