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Understand the Different Ways Your Home’s Electricity is Created

On the surface, the answer to the question sitting atop this blog post is rather simple:

  • “Regular” or “Conventional” energy is generated from fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas.
  • “Green” or “Renewable” energy is generated from sources like the sun, wind, and water.

But such a simple answer downplays the complexity of how electricity is first generated and then distributed to homes and businesses across the country. This is why, if you want to be an educated electricity consumer who makes good energy decisions, you need to ask yourself:

What exactly powers our homes and businesses, and does it matter if that power comes from regular or renewable energy?

In short, yes – it does. So, while you don’t have to be an expert, you should understand the basics of why and how conventional energy differs from green energy, especially in terms of how your choices can impact the world around you.

A Primer on Fossil Fuels

As you might imagine from the name, fossil fuels are created by animals and plants dying, decomposing, and being transformed into a carbon-based source of power over millions of years. There are four fossil fuels currently being processed:

  • Coal
  • Petroleum
  • Natural Gas
  • Orimulsion

Humans have mined the first three for hundreds and thousands of years, as multiple civilizations around the globe and throughout history have used them as fuel and lighting. Orimulsion is the newest development, as it’s a trademark fuel derived from bitumen (asphalt) sourced from the Orinoco Belt in Venezuela. Once obtained from the earth, the fossil fuels are then processed into a usable form that can then be consumed to spin the generators that create electricity.

As the global population grows and modernizes, an increasing amount of fossil fuels must be mined, processed, and burned to generate enough electricity to power all those homes, businesses, buildings, and electronic devices. The problem with that increased generation is two-fold: we’re slowly running out of all those fossil fuels sitting below the earth’s surface, and the pollution caused by that generation (in the form of carbon dioxide and other substances) points toward possibly irreversible climate change.

A Primer on Green Energy

Similar to fossil fuels, humans have used renewable forms of energy for millennia, from biomass and solar used in cooking to wind energy powering sailing ships and hydropower in sawmills. But the technology necessary to generate electricity from renewable energy sources is less than 50 years old. While green energy rose in popularity in the ‘70s as part of the growing environmental movement, only in this millennium has green energy made true inroads to someday outpace and maybe supplant fossil fuels as the main power source used in electricity generation.

As we’ve discussed before, green energy takes several forms, including:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Geothermal
  • Hydropower
  • Biomass / Biogas

Let’s be clear – just like coal doesn’t directly power your home, you don’t directly use solar panels or personal wind turbines either. When you “go green,” a green energy source is used to generate the electricity, instead of burning a fossil fuel. At the end of the day – you’re still using electricity.

The True Difference Between Regular and Green Energy

At this point, you might have detected a common theme: both fossil fuels and green energy are used to generate the electricity people have in their homes and businesses.

The real difference between the two lies in what happens outside your home, not inside it.

With fossil fuels, companies must constantly explore for ever-new deposits of material as the old ones become depleted. However, there’s only so much of the stuff, and we can’t make more of it in an average human lifespan. You also have to factor in the costs of extraction and consumption, which harms plant, animal, and human life on the planet, as well as that of the overarching environment. In fact, the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

We’re not saying green energy is the magical solution that halts climate change. The industry struggles to create the battery technology to overcome the inconsistencies in wind and solar. Furthermore, while sun, wind, and water are completely renewable, many of the rare earth minerals used to create solar panels are finite resources that must be mined. These two factors are large sources of both frustration and research and development for many renewable energy companies, as they want to respect the earth at all costs.

However, we are saying that, compared to fossil fuels and the regular energy they create, green energy does create a more sustainable future. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity generated from renewable energy resources represents a significant step forward.

Electricity isn’t going away. That’s why one of the most critical choices we have as individual electricity consumers and as collective humanity lies in how we source and create electricity.

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