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Green energy

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Green energy: What it is and how it works

Green energy comes from sources that cause little-to-no impact on the world’s carbon footprint. Most scientists agree today that the world is getting warmer due to the production of carbon dioxide.

Green electricity sources include geothermal, solar, wind, hydro, and biomass. These sources generate electricity with substantially less carbon dioxide output than fossil fuels.

Texas has a very strong command of renewable energy, excelling at wind and solar generation. Texas electricity rates are well below the national average. Accordingly, more Texans are looking favorably at green energy companies and green energy plans to help the environment.

Green energy vs. renewable energy vs. conventional power

Green energy and renewable energy often are used interchangeably, but the terms aren’t the same. All green electricity sources of power are renewable, but certain renewable energy sources are not green. For example, burning wood to produce electricity generates carbon dioxide. So, while wood is renewable, many scientists debate whether it is truly green.

Similar arguments can be made about other green energy sources. Solar and wind energy are often considered the best renewable energy, however both are aren’t necessarily green. Solar panel materials and manufacturing produces waste. Wind turbine blades can stay in landfills long after they’ve been used. Hydro energy can damage the environment by destroying habitats.

However, all renewable energy sources, including biomass, can reduce our dependence on the conventional power supply of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Here are a few alternative electricity sources available right now. 

Geothermal energy

Geothermal energy uses hot water and steam that comes from underground reservoirs. It can reach as far as the magma layer of the earth. Green electricity providers and power plants using this type of energy convert the heat and steam and use it to drive a turbine, which produces electricity.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of alternative electricity from geothermal energy. However, Texas is considered an untapped resource when it comes to geothermal. The Energy Information Administration says billions of barrels of water as hot as 200 degrees are produced annually as part of crude oil and natural gas production and could be used in geothermal generation.

Solar energy

Solar energy is a small but growing part of the nation’s energy puzzle, producing about 3 percent of the electricity generated in November 2020, the most recent month available from the EIA. Most people have seen solar panels on rooftops or in large solar farms, mostly in rural settings, but few know how they work.

The solar panels act as semiconductors, with positive and negative layers. A conductor attached to both layers creates an electric circuit and turns electrons from sunlight into electricity. Finally, a solar inverter converts direct current into alternating current for residential use.

Texas generated the second-most electricity by solar means in November (behind California). The Texas generation was 8.1 percent of the nation’s total.

Wind energy

With all due respect to the sun, wind energy is where Texas shines. The state was responsible for more than 24 percent of the nation’s electricity generation by wind in November. That was more than twice as much as any other state.

Wind, in general, accounted for more than 11 percent of the nation’s energy that month.

Here’s how it happens: Wind causes the huge turbine blades to spin, causing a rotor inside to turn as well. The rotor, in turn, is hooked up to a generator, which turns the motion of the rotor into electricity.

Hydro energy

Electricity generated by hydroelectric projects accounted for 7.3 percent of the country’s electricity in November. Washington state got more than 60 percent of its electricity from hydro means in November.

Dams are the key component for this form of green energy. The dams allow hydroelectric plants to channel water through turbines, again feeding generators that turn the kinetic energy into electricity.

Texas has more than 20 hydro plants, but they contribute less than one percent to the state’s electricity generation.

Biomass energy

Biomass is organic material from plants and animals. The material can be burned as is or converted to liquid or gas biofuels. Examples of biomass include wood, other plants, and wastes. Wood and ethanol make up the largest energy sources of biomass, which produces about five percent of the country’s energy.

Biomass produces less than one percent of Texas electric generation, with most of that coming from wood.

FAQs about green energy

If I get a 100 percent green energy plan, does that mean green electricity is delivered to my house?

No, it means your provider will purchase renewable energy credits equal to 100 percent of your usage. The equivalent amount of green energy is delivered to the electric grid, where it mixes will other forms of energy.

Does renewable energy cost more than other types of energy?

Not usually. Renewable energy costs are competitive and on par with conventional power sources. According to a 2019 report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, new generation techniques for solar and onshore wind plants have lowered costs to 6.8 cents and 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), respectively. Compare these figures to the cost of generating electricity from fossil fuels, which ranges from five to 17 cents/kWh.

Does green energy have harmful effects on the environment?

It can. The production of solar panels uses some toxic metals. Dams used in hydroelectric generation can cause flooding and affect wildlife habitats. Wind turbines have been blamed for bird and bat deaths, and the giant turbine blades, when no longer useful, can lie for years in landfills. Biomass, as mentioned, produces carbon dioxide when burned.

How to get a green energy plan

Renewable energy is part of every Texas energy plan. The percentage of renewable energy can be found on a plan’s Electricity Facts Label. Most retail electric providers in Texas also offer plans with higher percentages of green electricity, including plans that are 100 percent green.

Some providers are green energy companies that only sell 100 percent green energy, such as Gexa Energy, Green Mountain Energy, and Chariot Energy.

Green energy plans and programs

Here’s how green energy providers in Texas operate to give their customers access to renewable energy.

  • Green energy companies like Gexa Energy purchase renewable energy credits (RECs) from alternative energy generators in the amount to offset your energy usage. These renewable energy sources are a combination of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and biomass outputs. 
  • The energy you use at your home isn’t from these sources directly, because the power grid is a blend of electricity from all sources (renewable and conventional power sources). However, your green energy provider is purchasing the equivalent amount of energy you use from renewable sources.

If you want to use renewable energy directly at your home, having a solar panel system at your residence is a popular choice. Otherwise, your electricity will be a blend of sources.

Get a green energy plan

Uncertain of how to proceed? That’s understandable, given that there are different term lengths and options to purchase no-deposit or prepaid plans. Our buying guide offers useful tips on how to decide on a plan. Check out our green electricity rates page for more information on purchasing a green energy plan.

Green gift guides

Top image: [Designifty]/Shutterstock

Hydroelectric image: [BORJA PD]/Shutterstock

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