Climate Science

July 1, 2012

The answer is blowing in the wind

As the United States slowly begins moving forward and diversifying its energy production away from heavy reliance on both imported and domestic fossil fuels, these words come to mind:

“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others sang this song in the 1960s at a time when our country faced dissent and critical choices, just as we do now.

The combustion by-product from all fossil fuels, as well as biomass, is carbon dioxide. For well over a century, its physical greenhouse gas properties have been known and demonstrated, and is a major contributor to climate change.

Efforts to reduce the emissions of this gas are beginning, and the momentum is picking up.

The map of the United States illustrates just five different sources of power used to generate electricity. A significant amount of hydropower (dams) is shown in the Northwest; areas of large photovoltaic installations are shown in the Southwest; major wind-power farms are shown in the middle portion of the country; coal plants are situated throughout the United States, with a large concentration in the Southeast; and finally, nuclear installations in the North-central and Northeast portions of our country.

In fact, some of all five kinds of electric generation, and others, can be found throughout the United States, but this idealized map gives a general sense where they are concentrated.

Let’s look at the pie chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This gives the percent of electricity generated by the different technologies available in 2010. Note that the top three sources — coal, natural gas and nuclear — provide about 89 percent of our needs. This is followed by seven more ways we generate the electricity to power our lifestyles today.

From a climate-change point of view, the top two sources (coal and natural gas), providing almost 70 percent of our electricity needs, come from fossil fuels and are major sources of our GHG emissions.

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