Energy, methods to power human civilization, has been an issue for centuries. Two centuries ago, the British lost access to American forests. Their own supply of trees, was dwindling. They started to rely on alternative energy, coal, to power the industrial revolution. In the 1850s, American businessmen saw the decline of the whaling industry. Ships had to travel further and future to find whales and whale oil. The almost accidental discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania provided an alternative. Striking the massive Spindletop Reserve in Texas a few decades later spend up the development of the oil industry, and the growth of the United States as an industrial power.
Energy side effects have also been an issue. Air pollution from burning coal was noticed almost when it started being used in mass. The American supply of whale oil became a defense issue during the American Civil War. Confederate raiding ships worked to sink Union whalers. In World War Two, though there was never a total shortage of oil, thanks to German submarines transportation of oil because a major issue.
One major argument for alternative energy is that the various types – even nuclear – do not have the environmental problems of coal and oil. They have far less carbon footprint. Solar energy, the best known though not the most used, wind and hydro-power do not pollute. Their carbon footprint comes from production and transportation of the equipment to take advantage of these sources. The virtual lack of pollution from the operation of alternatives stands in vivid contrast to the discharge from a power plant burning oil or coal, even with treatment of the discharge. Coal ash, a solid residue of burned coal, presents a storage issue – particularly in case of flooding caused by a hurricane.
Renewable energy deserves its name. Its raw material is virtually unlimited. If the sun shines you have solar – even when the sun does not shine you have solar, as solar collectors also recharge batteries. As long as rivers flow, the lakes and the ocean have tides, hydro-power has its infinite supply. Hydrocarbons such as coal, oil, and natural gas, even with the promising technology of fracking, have a limited supply. Nuclear energy is also limited, though far less than hydrocarbons.
The United States has a large natural supply of fossil fuel but still has to import some to meet our extensive energy demand. We can get oil from stable allies such as Canada and Mexico. Our allies are not so lucky, with the Middle East and Russian being their man suppliers. Renewable energy is domestic, and thus has national security benefits.
A small business person reading this article, having reached this point, is probably saying – “Yes. I agree with everything you have said. But what is the financial advantage to me and to my business? Tree hugging is fine, but I am a businessperson. I cannot go out and build a hydro dam or nuclear plant. What can I do? How can I make some green by going green?”
The best area for a small business person is probably solar, where the technology can be scaled down as well as up. In 2017, according to the Department of Energy, renewable energy of all types, primarily hydro and wind, provided about 17% of U.S. energy consumption. Nuclear provided 20 percent. Solar just 1.3%. The rest came from fossil fuels. A good guess is that over the next years, nuclear will remain at the same level (very long and hard to build a nuclear plant) with a national intent to decrease fossil fuel use or at least switch fully to domestic sources. Growth in energy production will come from solar and other renewables.
How do you get started? The best first step is a to get a good overview of the field. Log into the website for the United States Energy Information Agency (www.eia.gov) for extensive background on the energy sector in this country and in the world. EIA can also give you information on solar technology. (Such as how solar collectors work at night and in bad weather). You will find what aspects are particularly interesting to you.
For legal aspects of going into solar and renewables, as a vendor or customer, states and cities have their own information. Examples of government information can be found at:
Good background is also available from some of the many Washington, DC, trade associations. Some useful ones include:
- Solar Energy Industries Association (www.seia.org)
- United States Energy Association (www.usea.org)
- American Council on Renewable Energy (www.acore.org)
- American Wind Energy Association (www.awea.org)
- National Hydropower Association (www.hydro.org)
You next take a look at what firms are in the solar and renewable industries. A web search is a good place to start. Most companies will have web sites, where you can get details and contact people for further information. Do you want to sell their product as a vendor, buy their product or compete with them? Check out their web site. Also check out their web site to find information on their newest products. Firms will range from the larger companies such as Tesla, ABB and Canadian Solar – Yes, one of the world’s biggest solar companies is in a major petroleum producing country.
Mass media and the web are best for monitoring what is happening or planned now. Energy journals are the place to look for what will happen tomorrow. A few journals of interest include:
- Renewable Energy www.journals.elsevier.com/renewable-energy
- Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews https://www.journals.elsevier.com/renewable-and-sustainable-energy-reviews
- Renewable Energy: An International Journal https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/renewable-energy
- Trade associations usually have their own journals.
Renewable energy produces only about 17 percent of American energy. But it has one thing going for it that fossil fuels do not have. The supply is renewable. Fossil fuels are finite. They will run out; the only rational debate is when. Renewable fuels are renewable. There is more where that came from.