Each year the United States uses the equivalent of 6 trillion pounds of coal to heat and light our homes, fuel our cars, and power industry. Our dependence on fossil fuel-based energy is simply not sustainable in any form. It drives climate disruption, destroys habitat, endangers wildlife, and causes toxic air and water pollution. This reliance on dirty fuels is rapidly diminishing the resources people and wildlife need to survive. We need an alternative to burning away our land, biodiversity and future, and we need it today. And while the shift to 100 percent renewable energy by mid-century is critical to avoid greater than 1.5-2 degrees Celsius warming, not all renewable energy is created equal. We need a system that combines wildlife-friendly renewable energy sources with efficiency and equity to provide healthy, affordable energy for everyone.
Ideally wildlife-friendly energy sources will be built close to where the energy will be consumed to reduce the need for new transmission lines and the efficiency loss associated with long-distance energy transmission. It’s important to keep in mind that not all energy projects commonly referred to as “renewable” are truly sustainable or good for wildlife. For example, dams to produce hydropower alter entire river ecosystems, biomass made from trees significantly contributes to climate change and habitat loss, and even large-scale solar and wind farms destroy habitat and can result in concerning levels of bird and bat mortalities when poorly sited or designed. These types of projects would not be considered wildlife-friendly renewable energy.
The solution is clear: Wealthier nations need to end their dependence on dirty fossil fuels and curb energy overconsumption and waste, while providing financial and technological support to developing nations to quickly leapfrog to clean-energy development that increases energy access and reliability to improve health and opportunity.
The path toward a healthier, sustainable energy future for America relies on two basic — and achievable — principles: First, we must stop investing in new fossil fuel development and immediately shift resources to rapidly expand wind and solar energy that is carefully planned, properly sited and effectively managed to minimize threats to wildlife. Second, we have to reduce energy consumption by using energy more efficiently and reducing demand, no matter the source. By generating and consuming less overall energy, we can reduce our energy demand and improve the outlook for our climate, wildlife, air and water.
Not only is the rapid shift to 100 percent renewable energy critical, it’s also technically possible. Even given our complex energy system of intricate relationships of technology, policy, utility market economics and industrial activity, we can achieve a sustainable energy future.
By using renewable energy, particularly photovoltaic (PV) solar, certain types of wind–generated energy, and possibly small amounts of other non-carbon sources, along with energy storage capability, renewable energy can meet all America’s electricity and power needs within 30 to 40 years.1 Costs of renewable energy are rapidly decreasing and installations are booming, showing that there’s a strong demand for cleaner energy and that people understand its benefits to both the planet and themselves.
There are nearly 650,000 PV solar installations on homes and businesses across the United States, with growth at 50 percent each year since 2012.2 Energy from onshore wind turbine sources now stands at a capacity of 62,300 megawatts (MW) in 39 states, enough to power 18 million homes.3 Both solar and wind energy can now be produced at about the same cost — and even less under certain conditions — as energy from fossil fuel sources.
But we could have much more. Right now, there are barriers to overcome to achieve this energy future. The costs of generating renewable energy for companies and the price consumers pay for renewable-sources electricity are still too high compared to cheaper fossil fuels in many parts of the United States — a disparity that is shifting, but not fast enough. Our grid can be ready for all renewable-energy sources with sufficient attention and resources, but we’re not dedicating the time or money to needed upgrades focused on incorporating renewable energy. Underlying these challenges is the continual political battle against powerful opponents who benefit from dirty energy or who lack the vision to see a path to a new sustainable energy system.
The renewable energy revolution has arrived, and these sources are proving better for the planet than fossil fuels by every measure. While renewable energy sources such as solar and wind have a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuel-based sources, not all renewable projects are wildlife-friendly. The next stage of the energy revolution needs to be one that benefits the climate, protects habitat and saves endangered species.
America needs a fully renewable, non-carbon energy system designed to minimize ecological impact, recognizing that at every stage of development and operations there are opportunities to minimize impacts to the environment — from the solar panel materials mined from the Earth to the color of wind-turbine blades. As we increase the renewable infrastructure over the next few decades, environmental impacts must be studied, avoided and when possible mitigated, particularly in large-scale solar and wind farms. Issues like the size and location of projects in relation to local ecosystems and endangered species; amount and locations of transmission lines; and impacts of materials and manufacturing processes all need to be considered. Large utility-scale solar farms are effective for generating large amounts of electricity, but shouldn’t fragment or destroy habitat or disrupt the path of migratory birds. Wind farms with hundreds of turbines atop 300-foot-tall towers in the windy parts of the Midwest and California can supply large amounts of energy, but they must be planned and designed to minimize impact on animals like bats and golden eagles that fly in the same paths as wind tower or harm to sage grouse that are shown to abandon areas with tall structures that attract predators.
Among renewable sources, distributed generation at or near the point of consumption — such as solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots or even windows — promises affordable electricity, technology that’s easy to maintain and scale up to meet demand, and lower ecological impact. It can also prevent millions of tons of climate-disrupting greenhouse gas pollution and provide local jobs.
Using energy wisely is just as important in creating a sustainable future as getting it from cleaner sources. Some experts argue that energy efficiency is the shortest path to ending our dependence on fossil fuels. In other words, needing less energy in the first place lowers demand and means fewer energy-generating devices and transmission lines disrupting the landscape and less impact from manufacturing and installing new energy sources, even as population continues to grow. Americans waste 30 percent to 50 percent of the energy generated — and because we lose so much of the energy that is produced, we can save millions of watts, tons of greenhouse gas emissions and dollars. Simple, existing solutions like high-efficiency lighting and appliances, heating and cooling for buildings, electric vehicle fleets (from non-carbon electricity) and better manufacturing practices across industry will go far in creating a system where energy needs can be met in a sustainable way. Using less energy saves consumers money as well, and is especially beneficial for economically and socially disadvantaged populations and communities.
We can — and must — install the solar and wind we need without paving over our planet with harmful new infrastructure or causing major harm to biodiversity. A wildlife-friendly energy system will include significant amounts of distributed PV solar generation on rooftops, parking lots and other built structures. New renewable energy generation facilities will be designed to minimize environmental footprints, including avoiding siting on ecologically important land areas or habitat of vulnerable species and using every technological and operational innovation to minimize harm to plants and animals. A sustainable energy future means investing in and installing renewable sources that not only protect the planet, but provide affordable, clean energy to those who need it most and clean up the air, water and land in their communities.
Making a renewable energy future a reality will take a combination of personal action, such as homeowners installing rooftop solar panels, and an unprecedented shift in the way our government plans and funds energy sources. On an individual level, it is already evident that when people better understand the impact of their choices about energy and have the information on how they can make the change to renewable and more efficient sources, they make decisions that benefit their households and the planet. In some cities and counties, we’re seeing and supporting community-based progress in renewable energy via community-choice programs, shared renewable sources and fights against unfair fees.
Because of the complexity of the U.S. energy system, policy solutions to get to 100 percent renewable energy will encompass an enormous range of laws, regulations and programs at all levels of government to set goals and standards for renewable energy development, direct funding, manage energy markets, and rules on where and how renewable energy sources operate. It will require federal, state and local level actions to set the stage for appropriate renewable energy growth in regulations and permitting. This includes encouraging appropriate renewable energy development, continuing and expanding subsidies, and supporting programs that help get new ideas applied in the real world. Existing polices like designating certain less vulnerable areas for siting new renewable projects and including ecological impacts in permitting decisions provide starting points for a broad new approach.
The Center for Biological Diversity is working to create a sustainable energy future that addresses critical climate disruption problems while recognizing the need to protect sensitive wildlife and habitats. Through our Population and Sustainability Program, we are advocating for policy approaches that advance distributed solar, urging businesses and local governments to implement forward-thinking energy plans and providing tools for activists and the public to push the renewable energy revolution forward in their communities and the country.
Other Center programs are using advocacy and legal campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground and fight global warming pollution, work to improve planning and siting of specific large-scale renewable energy projects and seek appropriate avoidance measures and protections for wildlife and habitats with robust mitigation for impacts that are not avoided. Through science, public policy and social change, we’re fighting for an energy future that is not just renewable, but able to sustain healthy communities and a rich diversity of species.