Atlanta is the latest city pledging to fully switch to green energy by 2035, BBC News reported. It joins over a hundred other cities who have made the pledge. Sustainable energy is an achievable but complicated goal.
According to the BBC article, a green energy plan was approved by the Atlanta City Council in March. One of the first steps of the plan is to simply increase energy efficiency, including insulating old homes, which could reduce the city’s energy use by up to 30 percent. The city also plans to erect solar panels, seek renewable energy credits, and rely on increasingly efficient storage batteries for solar power in order to reach its goals. Sustainable energy can sound wildly complicated. Most times, it isn’t.
The Sustainable Philosophy
Sustainable energy has a tendency to sound like a major sacrifice to comfortable living. However, it’s more of a way of life than anything—a philosophy depending on creative but renewable methods of harnessing electric energy.
“A sustainable approach to life and community design focuses attention on the myriad ways in which energy is constantly and dependably flowing around us,” said Professor Lonnie A. Gamble, Founding Faculty Member and Co-Director of the Sustainable Living program at Maharishi University of Management.
Professor Gamble points to a simple example to explain this philosophy. “Some crystals make electricity when squeezed or stressed,” he said. “This is called the piezoelectric effect. In England, the parking lot of a supermarket uses piezoelectric material. The weight of cars driving over it stresses the material and it produces enough electricity to power the lights in the parking lot.”
Pros and Cons of Renewable Energy at Home
The three basic renewable energy technologies available for home use are solar electric, solar thermal, and wind. Each technology has its advantages and disadvantages. Let’s look at solar electric power first.
Solar electric comes in two options: grid-tied and off-grid. “Grid-tied systems put solar energy on the grid, offsetting energy you would have purchased from the power company,” Professor Gamble said. With a grid-tied system, you must purchase a device called an inverter along with your solar panels. The inverter captures solar power and uploads it to the grid. “Grid-tied systems don’t require regular maintenance or management,” Professor Gamble said. “But they do have one disadvantage—when the utility grid is down, your system can’t generate energy, even when the Sun is shining.” Off-grid systems, on the other hand, utilize storage batteries for later energy use. This frees users from reliance on utility grids, but requires more maintenance and a careful limited use of power at night and on rainy days.
Solar thermal energy is losing popularity in recent years. With solar heat, “you can use a different kind of solar panel to make hot water for things like bathing, washing, or to heat a pool,” Professor Gamble said. As the price of solar panels drops, this use is falling out of fashion; though, Professor Gamble points out that solar heat can also be used to heat your home, purify water, or heat your oven for cooking food.
Third, wind power is also technically a solar power. On the upside, the wind often blows when the Sun doesn’t shine. However, according to Professor Gamble, wind turbines must be considerably tall and are still in the early stages of development, thus facing more reliability issues than solar panels do. He recommends using wind as a supplement to solar, citing his own home only using a backup generator for about 20 hours a year.
Like any home that is converted to renewable energy, the city of Atlanta could see a big return on investment in a few years, if the city council is able to make the investment. Although the scale is much larger than a single home, the sustainable philosophy and available technology are surprisingly similar.
Professor Lonnie A. Gamble contributed to this article. Professor Gamble is a founding faculty member and Co-Director of the Sustainable Living program at Maharishi University of Management, where he has taught since 2003. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University.