You want your company to use renewable energy, but you don't have a clue about your options or how to weigh them. Don't worry. It's an increasingly common challenge as renewables gain in popularity.
There are seven main types of commercial renewable energy. All of them reinforce sustainable business practices, but—just like fossil fuels—all of them come with unique drawbacks. The best commercial renewable energy for your company should not only tick off boxes on the corporate social responsibility checklist, but also turn on the lights reliably and less expensively each day. Which one—or which combination—is best for you? That will depend a lot on your company's needs.
What it is: Bioenergy can be produced using any sort of biological matter: lumber scraps, crops, dead animals, human waste etc. This biomass can be burned directly, heated, and turned into natural gas or broken down chemically and turned into gas.
The pros: Bioenergy is highly renewable, technologically proven, and it reduces waste. Technically, it’s also carbon neutral, but that's debatable—plants take carbon out of the air, but burning them just returns that carbon to the atmosphere.
The cons: Growing and transportation costs also help make bioenergy more expensive than other types of renewables (and fossil fuels), so it's not likely to reduce commercial electricity bills. And since most biofuels—like ethanol—are made from food like corn, many argue that those resources ought to go into feeding people, not making energy. Plowing, transportation, and other factors in growing and moving these crops throw other pollutants into the air as well.
The pros: Geothermal is probably the cleanest type of energy, and it's super-reliable. It's also completely renewable, as long as care is taken to preserve the hot-water reservoir.
The cons: The biggest drawback to geothermal is that it's very location-specific. Virtually all hot-water reservoirs are in the western United States and Alaska and Hawaii. While technological changes may soon make it cheaper, the initial investment in equipment is costly, and a lot of drilling and landscape changes may be needed. Geothermal also requires a lot of water, and—because it relies on a process similar to hydraulic fracking—it has become notorious for causing earthquakes.
What it is: About half of all renewable U.S. energy comes from hydroelectric, which harnesses the power of moving water. A typical hydroelectric generator uses a dam on a river or a creek. Pent-up water rushes through the dam’s turbines and produces electricity.
The pros: The electricity generated from hydroelectric can help reduce commercial utility bills. It also requires little maintenance, produces almost no pollution, and is completely renewable. Droughts are the only major obstacle when it comes to reliability.
The cons: Unfortunately, dam-building is expensive. Dams are also very location-specific. Building sites can be tough to find. Just as important, hydroelectric can be a hard sell for corporate social responsibility, because dams harm wildlife in numerous ways—flooding land, altering geography, and disrupting the movement of fish and wildlife.
The pros: Hydrogen fuel cells are very clean, and they’re extremely reliable and efficient, powering cars, generators and NASA spaceships.
The cons: There’s one big catch to hydrogen power: it takes a lot of energy—which often comes from fossil fuels—to pull hydrogen from water. That process is also really expensive. And there are other issues. Hydrogen has to be stored and transported under high pressure and is just as flammable as gasoline. Hydrogen may be the clean energy source of the future, but so far, using it is not the most sustainable business practice.
What it is: Ocean power works like hydroelectric, but in a bigger body of water. Ocean waves spin turbine blades that create electricity.
The pros: Since two-thirds of our planet is covered by ocean, this kind of wave power makes sense as a commercial renewable energy. It doesn’t pollute, it’s efficient, it works round-the-clock, and it’s as predictable as the tides.
The cons: Ocean-power technology is still relatively new, and there are many kinks to work out. Ocean energy is also one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity. The start-up costs are high, and so are the maintenance costs, since ocean water is very corrosive to metal. In addition, the turbines can be harmful to wildlife, and these ocean power “farms” are often seen as an eyesore in beach communities.
The pros: Solar PV has a proven track record of reducing commercial electricity bills. The benefits of solar power for business include reliability, maintenance costs, ease of use, lack of noise and power that is much cheaper than fossil fuels over the 25-year (or longer) lifespan of a typical solar installation.
The cons: The two biggest knocks on solar are 1) it only works while the sun's out, and 2) the start-up price can be really high. The industry is working on both issues by introducing improved battery storage for the first and financing options for the second, but there are other considerations. Big power needs may require a big solar system, which in turn requires a lot of land. While offsite solar is an option for constrained space, giant solar farms have been tied to bird and bat deaths caused by heat or collision with panels. These deaths are fewer than those resulting from fossil-fuel generation, but environmentalists have still criticized some large solar projects.
What it is: Wind power (or wind energy) is exactly what it sounds like—the process by which wind is used to generate power. Turbines convert kinetic energy in the wind into electricity.
The pros: Wind power is often compared to solar PV as a sustainable business practice, as both have grown in the last few decades into mature industries that provide reliable power. Both have seen their efficiency soar, and continually-plummeting costs have made both extremely affordable.
The cons: Wind and solar have some of the same drawbacks. The start-up cost for wind is high—obtaining the turbines is the biggest financial headache. Also, wind is tied to outdoor conditions. If the wind doesn't blow, the turbines don't spin. Wind power has also been linked to bird deaths because of the turbine blades, but (as with solar) these deaths are fewer than those caused by fossil-fuel generation. Of all the renewables, wind probably gets the biggest number of "not in my backyard" complaints. While some people love the sleek-looking turbines and think they're quiet, others hate the sight of them and complain about the whump-whumping of the blades.
Here’s a summary chart so you can compare the pros and cons of each type of commercial renewable energy and determine which is right for your organization.
|Startup cost||Generally low||High||High||High||High||High||High|
|Cost of energy produced||High||Low||Low||High||Low||Low||Low|
|Difficulty of use||Generally low, but can require sophisticated equipment.||Moderate||Low||Moderate||Low||Low||Low|
|Pollution||Depends on the biofuel used. Some are high, others low.||Low||Low||Low||Low||Low||Low|
|Harm to wildlife||Depends on the biofuel used. Some are high, others low.||Low||High||Low||Moderate||Low||Moderate|
|Not-in-my-backyard complaints||Moderate to high||Moderate||Moderate||Low||Moderate to high||Low to Moderate||Moderate to high|
|Limitations||Requires big storage areas for fuel.||Location specific. Can't be done without geothermal springs nearby.||Location specific. Can only be done at certain places on waterways.||Very expensive and requires other types of energy to create.||Location specific; still new and largely undeveloped technology.||Does not produce energy if the sun’s not out; space needed for solar arrays.||Does not produce energy if the wind’s not blowing; space needed for turbines.|