Comparing and ranking energy sources in our modern times.
This month we will be writing a Sustainable Guide for the Sierra Foothills which will be printed in the Union in August. It will contain 3 main themes:
“How Sustainable Is Our Community” in terms of Food, Water, Shelters, Energy & Fire.
A guide of “Most Sustainable” Businesses, Organizations, Ideas, People, Restaurants, Farms and more.
Explanations on how they were deemed sustainable in the first place.
Every category will have a list of local people, groups, businesses and organizations with an explanation of something you will hear me talk a lot about, Levels of Sustainability. In other words, a list of who is really looking out for the planet, the creatures and our environment.
How sustainable something is, depends on what level it is at, compared to the options. It also depends on how deep or how perfect you are measuring.
Let’s talk about Sustainable Energy.
Food for Thought: Some may say solar is not completely sustainable as it takes energy from start to finish to mine, process, produce and transport the equipment needed for an installation. As do all of our electronics. But compared to the rest of the available energy options like coal, gas, oil, hydro, nuclear, biomass and wind, is Solar a more sustainable option?
The “compared” part is what matters the most in this conversation and was the basis for our list below. Please remember, like most ranking lists, this list will be relative depending on how bad the reader believes the negatives are in each case.
Our 2022, State of Energy List
Ranked from Most Sustainable to Least Sustainable Energy Sources
#1 the Best to #11 the Worst
Passive/Active Solar Heating (direct energy)
Small Sustainably Built Hydro
Large Hydro (depending)
Energy Storage (depending)
Oil (Petroleum) & Coal (tied for being the worst)
* There may also be technology that has not been released or hidden or even technology that has not seen it’s day yet. One such technology could what they call the “holy grail” of clean energy, nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is what powers our sun and essentially, in some shape or form, our planet!
Why is Passive/Active Solar Heating #1?
It is number 1 because we can use it by simply being on this earth. We can heat water by placing it in the sun, heat our homes with or without windows, grow our food and keep ourselves healthy with by producing Vitamin D! Direct solar heating is as sustainable as it gets, with with little or no technology needed.
Why did I say “depending” for Biomass, Large Hydro or Energy Storage?
Biomass depends highly on the source you are burning for energy. The spectrum of sustainability goes from super fast growing algae reactors, to clear cutting forests, to sustainably harvesting trees, to using GMO corn for fuel. Each at it’s only level of sustainability.
Large Hydro, when built without healthy ecology at the forefront, dams have destroyed river ecosystems to a devastating degree. Anything that destroys fresh water ecosystems is a very dangerous idea. Even when ecology is considered by adding fish passages, these passages have not been effective especially for certain types of fish like salmon. There has been some successes with fish passages for other types of fish but overall the success has been limited. Other methods to help ecology like increasing water levels downstream have helped, but many have not been implemented with out a fight with whoever controls the dam.
Pumped water storage accounts for most of the energy storage around the world. More storage projects like this would help steer us away from fossil fuels when the sun is not shining but they do also have have negative environmental effects depending on how and where they are built.
Energy Storage has many faces and chemistries. Some chemistries use elements that are hard to get and/or mined with damaging means to environment and humans (and sometimes children) doing the work. But then again there are energy storage techniques being used and developed without those elements and in my opinion, that is the future of what we need to stabilize the energy grid. Concepts like long duration storage using thermal techniques or even green hydrogen show a lot of promise if implemented with ecology in mind.
Why is Solar Electric the most sustainable, second only to directly using the sun?
The answer lies in the term Embodied Energy. How much energy does it take from start to finish to create a solar panel, transport it and recycle it. The multiple studies on this subject say that the embodied energy of a solar panel is 2-3 years while it’s energy production lasts 25+ years. Also solar panels can be recycled and in some cases like the solar panels we offer, are being made without lead soldering.
In my opinion, 25 years or more of clean energy, little or no moving parts and maintenance make solar our best option for clean sustainable energy in our community. Coupling solar with innovative, sustainable energy storage is the final piece to our future of sustainable energy. I believe we are on our way, and locally we are seeing a lot of customers adding batteries to their solar projects.
Lastly, we need to also be resilient, especially in our community with fires and power outages.
If anyone wanted to be resilient and sustainable in Northern California, here is my energy recipe:
Get solar, plus a battery or 2 depending on the size of your house.
Charge the battery with the sun each day, and use it at night when the sun goes down.
Just incase the sun does not shine through the clouds or snow like we saw during the Snowmageddon, install a generator to get you through the in between times. *we can do all that!
With this new information, here is your homework… if you are willing to accept it:
Take a moment to think of and reach out to the last remaining homeowners without solar. Help them understand that solar is not only great for the environment, but also a really smart investment. Chat with our landlords, businesses and industry without solar and ask them if they would like to play their part in creating a beautiful future for our community, our children and the generations to come. Clean energy is a good thing for all of us!
We hope you enjoyed our State of the Energy Address, Energy List and deep dive into sustainable energy options. Energy is just one piece of the large eco-puzzle but it’s one of the most easily accessible changes to make in own homes and businesses.
Please stay tuned for our 8 page guide and write-up on sustainability in our community in the The Union’s special section called Going Green coming out in August 2022.