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Renewable Energy Rising Across All Spheres of U.S. Society

By Andrew Burger

Organizations across the U.S. are coming to grips with our fossil-fuel addiction and the escalating, often hidden, true costs of fossil-fuel production, distribution and combustion.

Registering another record-setting year in 2014, the U.S. solar energy industry is looking forward to another banner year in 2015, while the recent extension of the federal wind energy production tax credit is expected to boost growth across the wind sector.

A mix of supportive government policies and R&D investments, along with energy market reforms, ongoing technological advances and new financing vehicles, is proving to be a potent and self-reinforcing combination for allocating public- and private-sector resources for public good. As a result, the costs of renewable energy generation and energy efficiency upgrades are expected to continue on their downward trend -- and installations continue to grow -- despite the recent sharp drop in oil prices.

Manufacturers such as Boeing, for example, are helping refute the notion that “green” renewable energy technologies can't meet heavy industry and grid power needs. Smart grid demand response and management systems are being refined, while a new generation of advanced energy storage systems hold out the promise of a more efficient, effective and clean energy-fueled power grid.

U.S. universities, such as Cornell University, are at the leading edge of change as well, both in terms of installing and tapping into renewable energy sources for electricity and carrying out renewable energy and clean tech R&D. Community-based renewable energy is also on the rise, with municipalities such as aptly-named Greenfield, Mass. The town gives residents the opportunity to go 100 percent green energy by investing in and buying electricity from local utility distributors, solar power installations and wind farms.

Renewable energy and 737s

A growing list of leading U.S. companies are busting myths by proving that renewable energy resources can reliably and affordably meet all of their electrical power needs. Manufacturing airliners requires a lot of energy, but Boeing is demonstrating its commitment to corporate social, as well as environmental, responsibility in a variety of ways, including making increasing use of renewable power.

Producing 737s at a record pace, Boeing in December announced that renewable energy sources are meeting 100 percent of electricity needs at its production facility in Renton, Wash. Sealing an agreement with Puget Sound Energy, the 737 manufacturing facility's electricity needs are being fully met by a combination of hydroelectric power and wind energy from the local utility, purchased via renewable energy credits (RECs).

Commemorating the green energy milestone at an on-site ceremony,Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing's 737 program, said:

“Boeing is proud to expand our investment in clean, renewable energy. Investing in local wind energy through Puget Sound Energy demonstrates our commitment to our local community and the environment, and mirrors the environmental performance of our new fuel efficient 737MAX aircraft.”

Community-based renewable energy on the rise

In addition to manufacturers, entire communities are choosing to meet their electricity needs via renewable as opposed to fossil fuel-fired resources. Ringing in 2015, residents and businesses in Greenfield, Mass., for instance, will be getting their electricity from a new utility provider. Replacing incumbent Western Massachusetts Electric Co., the Greenfield town board chose ConEdison Solutions as its electricity supplier.

What makes this particularly notable is the fact that the electricity ConEdison Solutions distributes to Greenfield residents and businesses is sourced wholly from “green” renewable energy resources. Adding to the social and environmental benefits, Greenfield negotiated “an electricity price that is lower than WMECo's at the time of program launch.

“The town's goal,” as stated on the Greenfield Light & Power Program website, “is for the program price on average to beat WMECo's price.”

Solar and wind-powered schools and universities

The Solar Foundation recently released the first nationwide assessment of solar energy use across U.S. schools and communities. The study revealed that installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity at U.S. schools soared over the past decade, doubling every year for the past six years. That's resulted in big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of not burning 50 million gallons of gasoline, as well as avoiding the social and environmental threats associated with fossil fuel-fired electricity generation.

Adding to this total, the Ivy League's Cornell University last month announced it “has agreed to purchase all electricity generated by the proposed Black Oak Wind Farm in Enfield, New York,” the Cornell Chronicle's Blaine Friedlander reported.

Awaiting municipal approval, purchasing all the renewable power from the Black Oak Wind Farm would meet 20 percent of Cornell's annual electricity needs – the equivalent of powering some 5,000 homes. Having accepted a final environmental impact statement (EIS) on Nov. 12, the Town of Enfield Board “is preparing a findings statement to complete the mandated State Environmental Quality Review,” according to the Cornell Chronicle. That's expected to be finalized early this year.

Cornell faculty, students and staff in 2009 developed a plan to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2035. From 2008 to date Cornell has realized a 32 percent reduction.

“Wind is a very reliable source of renewable energy and contributes zero carbon into the atmosphere while generating electricity. As we use more wind, we reduce our dependence on carbon-produced electricity. This is a major step toward Cornell becoming a carbon neutral campus,” KyuJung Whang, Cornell vice president for facilities services, was quoted in the Chronicle's report.

Adding to its social and environmental cred, the Black Oak Wind Farm would be New York's first community-owned wind farm, a growing number of which are cropping up across the U.S. In December, community-owned solar project development specialist Clean Energy Collective announced a strategic partnership with solar PV manufacturer and project developer First Solar, the largest solar PV manufacturer in the U.S. In addition to working together to develop community-owned solar PV projects across the country, First Solar took an equity interest in CEC, indicative of a strong interest in community solar power on the part of market-leading solar PV providers.

*Image credits: 1) EPA Green Power Partnership; 2) Boeing; 3) Greenfield Light & Power; 4) Black Oak Wind Farm

Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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