Gareth Lewis
Apr 30 · 5 min read
Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies

Like climate change itself, the massively broad concepts of energy systems and global energy use can be somewhat difficult to comprehend. We all know that we use energy for almost everything we do and that renewable energy is preferable to energy from fossil fuels, but actionable knowledge about what individuals can do is in far shorter supply. Project Drawdown, one of our favorite and most referenced resources, points to a number of changes in residential, corporate, and larger scale energy use that would have a crucial impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s important to continue to refresh ourselves on why these changes need to take place as soon as possible.

First, a quick middle school science class review to give us some context. While we might think of “energy” as this abstract, mammoth resource that powers the entire world, in its most basic form energy is simply “the capacity to do work.” That’s why we talk about individual living things having high energy at their peak and lower energy when they feel tired and unable to do much. The same goes for any inanimate system that can “do work”, they require an energy source in the same way that we require food and nutrients for energy. You also might remember learning the first law of thermodynamics: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can change form. So for example, we can extract “primary energy” in a raw form like fossil fuels, convert it into a usable “final energy” which is then actually put into action as “useful energy” like the electricity that powers a home.

There are two main reasons why the movement away from fossil fuels is crucial. First, is that it’s a nonrenewable resource, meaning that it takes millions of years to develop. As we continue to use up the world’s supply of fossil fuels, energy companies are resorting to more and more challenging ways of accessing them which is a cause for safety and environmental concern. The second and far more urgent issue is that the burning of fossil fuels for energy is the number one emitter of carbon dioxide, and thus the top cause behind human-driven climate change. The best way to ensure that the planet doesn’t warm any further is to move towards sustainable and renewable energy sources with less harmful emissions.

Project Drawdown, Solar. Credit: Steve Proehl

Currently, renewable energy comprises a minority share of the world’s energy sources, but it is also the fastest growing type of energy. Solar and wind energy are the most popular, but renewable energy also includes hydropower, geothermal energy from the planet’s internal heat, and biomass from plant materials. Because fossil fuels have such a high energy density, it has typically been a cheaper form of energy, but as technology advances, renewable options are becoming much more affordable on a large scale.

A number of big companies have made headlines in the past few years by committing to a switch to renewable energy as well as cities committing to go 100% renewables. It seems like it’s only going to get easier in the future. That might be easy for Google, Facebook, or DC, but as an individual who might not have the time or ability to put solar panels on your roof, it can be difficult to know what your options are for becoming more energy efficient.

Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., of the Hip Hop Caucus, speaks after the climate bill vote. Jacob Fenson/WAMU

Here’s what you can do:

  1. Understand your usage

We need to know what’s happening before we know how to change. So to start, it’s always helpful to take a look at your current energy bill to see exactly where most of your energy use is coming from. The pie chart below gives a typical home energy use by emissions (don’t it’s still relevant even if it is 2005). Heating and cooling typically make up 50% of your bill, so keep an eye on that. (If you're super nerdy like me, check out the Sense, which is a home energy monitoring system. I’ll have a review on that soon.)

  • Get a smart home thermostat, Nest is a great option, to optimize your home heating and cooling for efficiency.
  • Or, the free option is some good ol’ fashion fresh air for a little breeze when possible.

2. Switch your energy source

Once we’ve figured out where we’re using it, let’s switch the source. Simply switching to renewable energy through your utility company is becoming more of an option. Many utilities now allow you to opt for a renewable option or do so through a company that they work with like Arcadia or Clean Choice Energy that allows you to continue paying your bill like you always have but pulls your energy strictly from renewable sources. Depending on where you live, this might slightly affect your price, but typically it’s not a huge swing one way or the other.

3. Install solar if possible

If you live in a home or own your own roof, the next step is to get a rooftop solar consultation. A quick and simple way to check that out on your own is Google’s Project Sunroof, which helps you find out your home’s opportunity for solar.

4. Efficiency upgrades

This is a deep topic that we’ll dive into soon, but switching to LEDs if the first step you can take. Replace your most used bulbs first, then go from there.

While the renewable energy revolution won’t happen overnight, the more that consumers make the switch, the more the trend will spread and the cheaper alternative energy will become. Student Energy is a great resource to learn a bit more about energy in general and helps paint a picture of how crucial a movement away from fossil fuels is and will continue to be in the near future. We also love NWEI’s Drawdown Challenge, which provides ways for you to take actions and learn more, check out their energy page here.

Have you switched over your power to renewables? What’s your experience been like? Contact us at

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Eco-impact content, products, and experiences.

Gareth Lewis

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Eco-impact content, products, and experiences.

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