Expert Insights

The Truth About Dirty Energy

Dave Nichols
July 8, 2023
You can help lower CO2 emissions even more if the electricity you use to recharge your electric car or plug-in hybrid is sourced from clean energy. What is clean electricity and how do you get it? Let’s find out.
clean wind energy contrasted by coal powered pollution

Understanding Dirty Energy

If you drive a zero emission car, your vehicle is not contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In fact, your electric vehicle (EV) probably doesn’t even have a tail pipe. But you can help lower CO2 emissions even more if the electricity you use to recharge your electric car or plug-in hybrid is sourced from clean renewable energy. What’s the difference between clean and dirty energy? What is clean electricity and how do you get it? Let’s find out.

Wind and Solar Farm

What is Clean Electricity?

If you’re an electrician, clean electricity has the meaning of simply being electrical power that is free from sudden drops or voltage spikes. If you are looking at electrical energy on an oscilloscope, dirty electricity is what is referred to as “noisy” because of the erratic way it looks on a waveform monitor. The electricity literally looks distorted and that distortion can cause electronics to perform poorly. Voltage spikes can cause computers to lose memory or cause operating errors.

For purposes of this article, we’re concerned with the “other” use of the terms clean and dirty electricity. We want to know if the electricity we are using to power our homes and to recharge our electric cars is being produced in a way that utilizes renewable green energy. After all, one of the reasons we drive green cars is that we want to help the environment and limit harmful greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. While our EVs help to eradicate 60 percent of CO2 and other gases, the next step is to make sure we are getting our electricity from green sources.

Clean energy comes from such methods as wind-powered or water-powered turbines (hydro power), geothermal and waste heat recovery and photovoltaic (PV) solar power. Many homeowners are adding photovoltaic power cells (solar panels) to their rooves to generate their own electricity as these PV cells convert direct sunlight into direct current. These days, you can actually choose who generates the power you use as well as how and where your energy company gets the electricity.

According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide energy production was 14,421 Mtoe (Million tons of oil equivalent) in 2018. That was a 3.2 percent increase over 2017. It was driven by natural gas, coal and oil but all renewable energy sources also increased. In fact, nuclear and renewable clean energy increased by 60 Mtoe and clean energy use is on the rise everywhere in the world.

Let’s take a closer look at most prevalent forms of clean energy used in America today.

Wind and solar farm on water

Solar, Wind and Water

Solar energy is nothing new. Human beings have been using the sun to grow crops for many thousands of years. But today, solar panels have started a revolution in green energy. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by the beginning of 2020, 585.5 GW (a gigawatt is one billion watts of energy) of electricity is produced around the world through the use of solar panels. Adding solar panels to your home is a great way to get renewable clean energy as is joining a local community solar farm.

Wind energy is the second-largest renewable energy provider, with a capacity of over 620 GW of electricity thanks to ever-more efficient wind turbines. Water powered hydro-electric energy is the largest clean energy provider with a capacity of over 1,310.9 GW.

As more and more electricity comes from renewable clean energy, the price for this clean energy will continue to drop. Part of the reason that clean energy will be cheaper is that it costs a lot more to process and transport coal, crude oil and natural gas than it does to generate electricity through solar, wind or hydro power.

A pile of coal

What is Dirty Energy?

The least beneficial use of energy comes from such conventional methods as coal, crude oil, natural gas and nuclear power. Don’t be fooled by what has been named “clean coal.” This is coal that is produced by trapping harmful CO2 before it is emitted into the air by burying it underground. Coal creates a negative impact on the environment that goes beyond simply burning it in order to produce electricity. In order to refine coal, it must be mined, creating land erosion and acid rain. Besides, when has burying something ever made it go away? “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” doesn’t really work in the long run.

Just like crude oil, natural gas is derived from dinosaurs and is, therefore, a fossil fuel and it produces greenhouses gases such as methane. Natural gas releases fewer emissions than coal or petroleum, but it still pollutes the air. And, the production of natural gas uses fracking as a way to extract natural gas from rocks. As we all know, there is nothing green about fracking. It causes the contamination of water supplies and even traps enormous amount of waste water below the surface. Fracking can even cause earthquakes.

Technically speaking, nuclear energy is very efficient and emissions-free. However, the pellets of uranium fuel that is used to produce electricity is extremely radioactive. While there are extensive safety systems in place to keep nuclear plants from leaking radiation, they still generate radioactive waste water that has to be stored. While we treat used nuclear fuel as waste in America, many other countries recycle used plutonium to generate electricity. Here in the U.S., we seal used nuclear fuel in canisters and bury them in tunnels that are then sealed with rocks and clay. Another one of those “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” scenarios.

A happy couple at home, paying bills

Buying Clean Energy

The electric industry has been restructured in recent years to include competition between companies. The industry has actually been restructured to include many companies that generate renewable energy that is available to local commercial and residential customers. Many default electricity providers now offer green options and the small premium you pay offsets any additional costs for generating renewable green energy.

Did you know that over 50 percent of utility customers in America today can purchase clean renewable electricity from their power suppliers? It’s called Green Pricing. By paying a small premium that covers costs to cover your electricity utility provider, you can make sure your energy comes from renewable energy sources.

Companies like Inspire Clean Energy offer clean energy plans that let you pay a fixed amount each month to power your home (and EV) by purchasing clean energy on your behalf. Inspire’s goal is to create a future of net-zero carbon emissions.

To find out more about your local energy providers and how you can work with them to buy clean green energy in your area, click here and enter your zip code to see the power profile in your state. Many electric companies also offer energy discounts in the form of lower rates for owners of electric vehicles.

Keep in mind that our homes are the third largest consumer of energy in the country. We depend on electricity to power everything, including our electric cars. Being aware of which energy sources generate and provide our electricity has never been more important since by 2040, more than half of all passenger vehicles on the roads are projected to be EVs.