5 Surprising Ways Your Internet Habits Are Impacting the Environment

By Kegan Gerard

  1. Emails: Tiny Climate Bombs

laptop grassEmail may have done a great job improving productivity and reducing the amount of paper we waste, but those little messages can pack a carbon punch. An average email accounts for 4 grams CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent)—the result of the many servers, computers, and routers that enable you to hit send. For comparison’s sake, a plastic shopping bag is responsible for about 10 gCO2e. Considering an average worker sends between 121 and 140 emails per day, your daily footprint from these emails can quickly add up to over 484 g CO2e—the equivalent of nearly five and a half hours of TV watching.

Next time you want to send your coworker that “thanks!” email, consider walking there and saying it in person. Unsubscribing from all of those listservs you never read anyway is another great way to declutter your inbox and cut the carbon.

  1. Netflix Streaming: Equal to Powering Your Fridge

movie laptopEveryone loves watching movies online. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and you don’t have to put on real clothes to leave the house. Even though you may not put much energy into your movie selections, there’s a great deal of it required to power that 13-hour Orange Is The New Black binge. Streaming just one hour of video per week for a year requires more energy than two new refrigerators, according to a 2013 report by the Digital Power Group. Considering that Netflix at times accounts for nearly half of Internet traffic in North America, all that streaming can equate to the energy usage—and resulting climate emissions—of hundreds of thousands of “extra refrigerators” worldwide. Oddly enough, the 2013 report was funded by members of the coal industry and argued for the need for more dirty coal to power the cloud.

Because Netflix is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), much of the energy used to power the site comes from dirty sources of power like coal. Until AWS starts obtaining more of its energy from renewables, streaming from Netflix has the potential to impact more than just your social life. Even for those who like their movies a tad on the dirty side, the power that goes into streaming those films should come from clean sources. Visit buildacleanercloud.com to find out how to make this happen.

  1. Turn Off the Lights

lights on NYCWhile we’re on the topic of Netflix, your viewing habits may lead to other energy usage that you’ve never thought of. Leaving the lights on while you watch movies at night may be leading to higher energy bills for you, and more CO2 for our atmosphere. Nielsen reported that the average American watches television (on a TV) for 34 hours a week. For those who prefer to watch online, Business Wire estimates that the average Netflix user alone spends about 8 hours per week watching that service alone. Either way, that’s a lot of time for the lights to be left on.

Flicking that light switch not only helps you to reduce your energy usage, it’s also a better viewing experience—images appear brighter and sharper when viewed in a darker room. Next time you’re watching House Hunters to see if they go with house number one, two, or three, try turning out the lights in yours.

  1. Online Shopping: What’s in Your Cart?

Tlaptop outsidehose four hours you spent online shopping at work, while not so great for your productivity, may have been pretty good for the environment. Scientists from MIT looked at a number of shopping scenarios—whether you bought online or in store, how many visits to the store you made, whether or not you returned the product, etc.—and found that online shopping is often a more environmentally friendly way to buy. For those who completed every step of buying an item online, their carbon footprint was almost two times smaller than traditional shoppers, who often make several trips to a store before buying.

Green America has also compiled a list of some environmentally and socially responsible alternatives to purchasing from Internet shopping giants like Amazon, so you can feel even better about that pair of shoes you need to order online.

  1. Let the Music Play

musicJust as those Netflix movies have to be streamed from somewhere, so too does your music. Spotify, one of the most widely used streaming services, is hosted by AWS, which uses non-renewable sources like coal to power a majority of its operations.

Streaming the music online does cut down on the physical waste associated with CD production, but it’s often hard to conceptualize the energy mix behind your playlists. Streaming music is also much easier than obtaining physical copies of music, leading to increased consumption levels.

Fortunately for music lovers out there, there are some great services that give you all the freedom of streaming and less of the ecological footprint. Apple’s new streaming service, Apple Music, is run out of the company’s own data centers, which are entirely powered by renewable energy sources. Subscribers to the service have the ability to save songs for offline listening (a function also offered by Spotify), which further reduces the amount of streaming data required.

Bonus: Tweet Flatulation Tweetfarts.com claims that each tweet produces the same amount of CO2 as a human wind. Click through to their website to have them explain that one…

Renewable Energy Certificates: What They Are and What They Can and Can’t Do

When it comes to clean, renewable energy, the language can get confusing. In the tradition of Salt-N-Pepa, here I will attempt to break things down. Without further ado, let’s talk about RECs, baby!

By Kegan Gerard

solar and windInvesting in renewables makes sense. From an economic standpoint, Bloomberg is now forecasting that wind energy will become the cheapest new energy globally by 2026, before passing that title to solar production in 2030. This is great news, considering that poor air quality associated with traditional energy sources like coal will lead to an estimated increase of 57,000 premature deaths annually by 2100, according to a new report from the Obama administration. Not to mention all the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels.

Businesses, then, have any number of incentives to fuel their operations with renewable energy, with companies like Tesla leading the way to net-zero energy consumption.

Not everyone, however, has the resources to complete a solar installation comparable to Tesla’s “Gigafactory.” Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) can offer these organizations a way to commit to a renewable energy future.

Whats a REC and what can it do?

A Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) is a tradable tool used by organizations to represent the environmental, non-power qualities of a unit of energy. Think of it as a permit to claim the “green-ness” of a given energy source, with each REC certifying the generation of one megawatt-hour (MWh) of renewable energy.

This “greenness” claim can then be useful for a company, either to meet its own sustainability goals, or to meet the terms of federal Renewable Electricity Standards (RES).

Not All RECs are Created Equal

With a REC essentially representing the green aspect of renewable power, it can either be sold in a “bundle” with the power itself, or “unbundled” and sold independently. This, for many, is a hard distinction to understand, so I’ll break it down.

When 1 MWh of energy is created from a renewable source, like a solar array or wind turbine, there are two components to this: the actual electricity itself, and the claim of being produced in a “green” way. As the electricity generated from renewable sources is physically indistinguishable to electricity generated from dirtier coal and natural gas, the electrons themselves aren’t inherently green.

With “bundled” electricity, energy is sold to the customer along with the claim, the REC, that the energy was produced in a renewable fashion. In this setup, the power provider and buyer are located in the same power grid, so that produced green electricity can be delivered to the REC buyer.

Conversely, the REC and electricity generated can be sold separate from one another, with one business buying the use of that electricity and another buying the REC. To avoid “double-counting,” only the owner of the REC can claim the greenness of their energy.

Why does this matter?

Outside of reducing carbon emissions to curb climate change, one of the biggest advantages of renewable energy is its potential to grow local industries and improve regional air quality. This is key, because new investment in solar, wind, and other clean-energy technologies can both stimulate new jobs as well as decrease a region’s healthcare costs. Unbundled RECs, however, take away much of this opportunity. Here’s how:

As bundled green energy requires the power to be sourced within the same power grid, demand for the green alternatives increases. More businesses buying bundled green energy sends a message to local power providers that the community is invested in renewable energy. To meet this demand, local utilities increase the share of their energy sourced from renewables in order to supply more bundled RECs.

Conversely, unbundled RECs can often be purchased from states on the other side of the country. While this may still sound okay—”A REC is better than no REC, right?”—it fails to incentivize local power providers to provide green energy at a level comparable to bundled RECs. Think of it this way: if power providers can continue to generate high profits from coal or natural-gas sources, they may believe they have little economic incentive to spend additional funds to incorporate renewable technologies in their regions. High local demand for green, bundled RECs shifts this slope in favor of renewables.

Understanding Renewable Energy Claims

Many companies may claim to be “carbon-neutral,” or committed to investing in renewables. However, this may mean that they are simply buying unbundled RECs to meet arbitrary standards.

As consumers, it’s important that we stay informed and know how to read a company’s marketing claims about its renewable-energy commitments. Take Amazon for instance. It claims that its GovCloud web hosting service is carbon neutral, all the while sourcing much of the power for its data centers from dirtier coal-based utilities and buying unbundled RECs to make up its green “cred.” In doing so, it deprives the region’s communities many of the jobs and environmental benefits that new renewable investments have the potential to bring.

It’s important for consumers to continue to call for renewable-energy creation to replace dirty energies like coal, natural gas, and nuclear. At the same time, we need companies to demand renewable energy as well so that utilities will transition to cleaner sources of power like wind and solar. Bundled RECs, in the short term, can help quantify demand for renewable energy. In the long term, as more and more companies shift to sourcing 100% renewable energy directly, the RECs will no longer be needed.

Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014 Introduced by Reps Lofgren & Matsui

Today, US Representatives Zoe Lofgren and Doris Matsui, along with 15 original co-sponsors, introduced the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014. The bill is now before the House of Representatives, and not a moment too soon.

ImageThe Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014, or CEVB for short, is modeled after one of the most successful fundraising efforts in US history. In World War II, millions of Americans purchased over $185 billion (over $2 trillion in today’s dollars) worth of Victory Bonds issued by the United States Treasury, in order to fund the war effort. The bonds allowed citizens to invest directly in the materials and technologies needed to achieve victory in one of the most destructive wars in human history.

Today, however, we face different problems – a rapidly changing climate, rising sea levels, and more intense weather events like Hurricane Sandy put our infrastructure and economy at risk. Our outdated energy systems continue to inefficiently burn fossil fuels, and the extraction of these fuels continues to degrade ecosystems across the planet. Renewable energy and energy efficient technologies are a promising solution to these crises, but a lack of funding makes them unappealing to industrial-scale investors.

The United States also risks losing its position as a clean energy leader.  China, Germany and other nations are outspending the US in the clean energy race and are already seeing the benefits of increased jobs and plentiful clean energy.

Clean Energy Victory Bonds, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, will allow any American to invest in a clean energy future for as little as $25. The sale of the bonds is projected to raise up to $50 billion, which would leverage an additional $100 billion from private investors. The money raised would fund essential tax credits to renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal, as well as energy-efficiency programs. Continued support of these industries will reduce the demand for fossil fuels, reduce the amount of CO2 poured into the atmosphere, and create at least 1 million well-paying jobs that cannot be shipped overseas. With oil companies still receiving massive government subsidies, a fundraising effort of great proportions is needed to level the playing field for clean energy technologies.

If you want to invest in our nation’s energy future by purchasing CEVBs, call your Representative in Congress and tell him or her to co-sponsor the Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014. With your help, we can transition our economy from one that relies on dirty fossil fuels to a clean energy economy that provides real opportunities for our citizens, all while protecting our homes from catastrophic climate change. For more information, please visit www.cleanenergyvictorybonds.org.

New Financing for Clean Energy – Clean Energy Victory Bonds

As climate change and rising fuel costs, especially natural gas prices, generate headline news, it becomes ever more apparent that we need to invest in renewable energy. Clean Energy Victory Bonds can play a crucial role in securing the financing necessary to shift our energy sourcing to cleaner options.  This bond evokes the spirit of one of the greatest fundraising efforts in our nation’s history. During World War II, over 80% of American households bought at least one victory bond, raising the equivalent of over $2 trillion in today’s dollars. Inspired by the efforts of previous generations, the victory bond is being rebooted to face the energy challenges of the 21st century. The Clean Energy Victory Bond would support solar, wind, second generation biofuels, and energy efficiency programs needed to build the clean U.S. economy that the times require.

Green America CEO and President Alisa Gravitz speaks at a briefing on Capitol Hill, Feb 24, 2014.
Green America CEO and President Alisa Gravitz speaks at a briefing on Capitol Hill, Feb 24, 2014.

Americans are increasingly aware of just how large a challenge climate change poses to our communities, as well as the role of fossil fuels in creating this global crisis. Fortunately, the shift from dirty energy to clean sources is well underway. For example, in 2013, a new solar energy system was installed every four minutes. By the beginning of 2014, the US had installed 12 gigawatts of solar capacity, producing as much energy as 14.5 coal-fired power plants. Wind power in the United States has been rapidly increasing as well, with over 14.2 gigawatts of capacity installed since 2012. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the projects currently under construction have the potential to power 3.5 million American households, or all the homes in Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas combined.

Financing for clean energy like wind and solar complements these observed increases in capacity. Annual solar installation, both residential and commercial, has grown by more than 1,600% since the Investment Tax Credit was implemented in 2006. Funding for large-scale solar projects announced in 2013 reached $13.6 billion, up from $8.7 billion the previous year. Similarly, the US Wind industry has attracted nearly $90 billion of private investment into new infrastructure over the past five years. The Production Tax Credit has been instrumental in encouraging this growth – in December of 2012, wind producers installed 5.5 gigawatts of capacity as the expiration of the PTC neared.  Both wind and solar energy employ significant sections of the American workforce. Wind power currently employs more than 75,000 Americans, and for the first time ever, the US solar industry now employs more workers than the US auto manufacturing industry. [1]

While this growth is monumental in its own light, it still pales in comparison to the portion of our energy mix that fossil fuels provide. From 2002-2008, traditional fossil fuels received $70.2 billion of federal subsidies, while renewables received just $12.2 billion over the same time period. Legislators allow federal incentives like the Production Tax Credit to expire and then retroactively reinstate them, creating uncertainty in renewable energy markets. This limits growth in sectors like wind energy, and shifts support to more favorable countries like China and Germany.

The Clean Energy Victory Bond will protect the tax incentives essential to clean energy sources and energy efficiency initiatives, while simultaneously offering a reliable investment vehicle backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. By fostering these sectors of the green economy, the bill stands to create more than 1 million high-paying jobs that cannot be shipped overseas.

Thousands of Americans have already pledged to purchase the bonds once they become available, and you can too. You can also call your representative and urge him or her to support the bill once it is on the floor. We must work on both sides of the aisle to reduce our dependence on dirty, imported fossil fuels, create jobs for millions of Americans, and protect our environment with clean, American-made energy sources. As Green America’s CEO and President Alisa Gravitz put it, “Clean energy is joyfully bi-partisan.” The only side you need to choose here is the one that leads the US into the future running on clean, safe, domestic power!


[1] U.S. Energy Information Administration and Solar Foundation