Should the U.S. Switch to Using Clean Energy?

Mark Badtke

A solar farm in Las Vegas, NV producing energy under the scorching sun (by Ethan Miller)

For several decades, debate has raged on across the U.S. and worldwide over the idea of switching to primarily using clean energy. Efforts to protect the environment and prevent climate change in the U.S. became increasingly prevalent in the later half of the 20th Century, and have continued to gain additional support in recent years. A major target of those wishing to protect the environment is energy production; more specifically, the pollution that it causes. The primary way that energy is produced in the U.S. has always been through use of non-renewable resources, such as coal and natural gas. These resources provide a simple and abundant source of power, but they come at a cost; widespread damage to the environment. Areas that are effected by this include air quality, water quality, danger to wildlife, and more. In recent years, clean energy technology, especially solar, has become increasingly more cheap and available, meaning that switching to primarily using clean energy has become ever more possible. In response to this, demand for increased clean energy production has risen greatly, especially by those from younger generations. So, what are the benefits and downsides of switching to clean energy, and would it be beneficial for the U.S. to do so?

The Benefits of Clean Energy

Switching to primarily using clean energy would have numerous positive effects on areas such as the environment and the economy. Contrary to what some people believe, utilizing clean energy sources, such as solar power, will lead to economic growth, not decline. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “the study modeling shows that solar will employ 500,000 to 1.5 million people across the country by 2035. And overall, the clean energy transition will generate around 3 million jobs across technologies.” The jobs created by the transition to clean energy will likely more than make up for the jobs that could potentially be lost in other sectors of the energy industry, such as jobs for coal or natural gas. In general, transitioning to clean energy will not negatively impact the economy in any foreseeable way. 

Furthermore, switching to clean energy will provide massive environmental benefits, on top of the previously mentioned economical benefits. Mr. Swenson, a Science teacher here at SPASH, stated that, “some of the big benefits are reduced ecological impacts, in terms of gathering resources, as well as a lot of economic benefits related to jobs and infrastructure.” The reason that clean energy has reduced ecological impacts when compared to energy from non-renewable resources is that, contrary to non-renewable sources, clean energy does not cause pollution while it is producing energy. Furthermore, the extraction process for non-renewable resources is very ecologically taxing, but with clean energy, such as solar, the extraction process is environmentally friendly, because the source of energy does not require the use of additional machinery to obtain. “For solar energy, one benefit is that we have a reliable energy source in the sun, and it isn’t something that we have to extract,” said Mr. Akemann, a Science teacher at SPASH. For these reasons, both environmentally and economically, transitioning to cleaner energy is sure to have positive impacts for the United States.

The Downsides of Non-Renewable Energy

Currently, a majority of the county’s energy production comes from non-renewable resources, which causes massive amounts of harm to our environment. As Mr. Akemann puts it, “coal and natural gas has an obscene ecological impact on our planet.” While non-renewable resources were helpful in the short term for our society to advance, at this point in time, non-renewable energy causes more harm than good when considering that there are better options, such as solar power. Continuing to heavily rely on non-renewable resources for energy would further harm the environment, unless we greatly invest in systems to reduce the ecological impact of non-renewable energy. However, doing so would be very expensive, and it would inevitably be less effective than just switching to clean energy. “If we were to continue using coal and natural gas, we would need to heavily invest in capturing pollutants, which is very expensive, and it would be more worthwhile to focus on using cleaner energy sources instead,” Mr. Swenson stated. 

In recent years, efforts to use cleaner energy sources have already had a considerable impact on the environment, even though clean energy use remains relatively low. According to Mr. Swenson, the results of using more clean energy are that, “over the past few decades, air quality in the United States has improved dramatically. Water quality has also had a large increase in quality over the years.” At this point in our country’s history, it seems as though we’ve grown past the point where we need to rely on non-renewable resources, and now is the time to switch to better sources of energy.

The Downsides of Clean Energy

While clean energy appears to be the better option for future energy production, there are still many flaws to consider when looking at transitioning to using clean energy. For instance, clean energy farms can still cause considerable harm to the nearby wildlife. According to the National Academies Press, “in the United States, wind turbines were estimated to have killed roughly 20,000 to 40,000 birds in 2003.” This problem, however, is easily solvable. When building clean energy farms, the placement of the structures and the potential effects that they have on the nearby environment should be considered before construction begins, as to avoid these negative ecological impacts.

Not all sources of clean energy are equal when it comes to their ecological impacts. Hydroelectric dams, for example, may seem like an ecologically friendly energy source, but in reality, can often cause more harm than good. According to Mr. Swenson, “hydroelectric is not the best option, because it causes ecological damage to fish in the area, while also not being very cost or energy efficient.” Wind turbines have similar problems as well, like the previously mentioned issue regarding killing birds. However, if wind turbines are placed in areas without many nearby birds, they can be an adequate source of clean energy that has little to no negative ecological impact. Solar power, on the other hand, can be placed in a wide variety of areas without harming their nearby environment. As long as the solar panels will receive an adequate amount of direct sunlight, and the construction process isn’t environmentally harmful, solar energy is generally the most environmentally safe option for future energy production. As Mr. Akemann puts it, “out of all of the clean energy sources to base a future energy grid on, solar is likely our best choice.” 

However, cleaner energy production is not the only way to help the environment. Personally, we can make positive impacts on the environment by wasting energy and resources less, using less energy, and using more eco-friendly products. Simply using cleaner energy, while a great change for the environment, is not necessarily enough on its own. “The best thing we can do is conservation, which doesn’t cost us much of anything to do. We should also take measures to prevent energy loss due to current imperfections with our electrical systems,” stated Mr. Akemann. While the United States is in a great position to start using more renewable energy, and should start doing so, we also need to start making greater strides towards other ways at reducing our harm on the environment, both as a nation and individually.