Renewable energy: what is it in details?

Fossil Fuels versus Renewables

About 80% of energy used by humans is derived from fossil fuels and 2/3 of the Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions originate from the sector. This dependency to this type of energy sources is starting to shift quickly towards cleaner and environmentally friendly options.

Fossil fuels come from the decomposing plants and other organisms, buried beneath layers of sediments and rocks for hundreds of millions of years which become carbon-rich deposits. Coal, oil and natural gas are part of the non-renewable fuels and provide electricity, heat, transportation and can even be used to make a wide range of products. Despite their versatility, fossil fuels are the primary contributors to global warming and climate change. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other GHG which are then trapped in the atmosphere. Coal in itself accounts for 44 percent of the world total carbon dioxide emissions.

Many governments around the world are now committed to join the efforts to prevent climate change and disastrous environment events. At an international level, the 2015 Paris Agreements have seen countries engaging to reduce their carbon emissions. These resolutions generally focus on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

The renewable energy sector is going through an unprecedented period of growth. The long-run cheaper costs and the promise of a clean energy future make renewable energy increasingly popular among the general public, firms and businesses. These energy sources could hold the key to climate change mitigation as they, indeed, create no direct GHG emissions. The only environmental impacts they produce are indirect and minimal compared to the fossil fuel industry and comes from the production, installation, operation and maintenance. As opposed to fossil fuels and their heavy environmental impacts, these “clean” energy sources are constantly restored as they come from natural and sustainable sources such as the sun, wind or water.

The necessity to lead the future towards cleaner energy source

 

Thus, renewable energy represents a safe and reliable route to achieve decarbonisation and limit the rise of global temperatures. In order to meet 2ºC climate goal set during the Paris Agreements in 2015, the share of renewable energy in the final consumption must increase from 19% in 2017 to 65% by 2050 according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Meeting this goal would require a reduction of global energy demand through energy efficiency, an extension of the electric pathway and increasing the share of renewable energy. The Stanford Solutions project affirms that a 100% renewable energy system is feasible by 2050. The biggest issue to achieve this target does not lay on a technological perspective but instead, in finding the political will. The European Union (EU) is showing that initiative; they have begun to introduce a path towards net-zero carbon by 2050. By 2030, they will reach an average of 33% of their energy sourced from renewables with countries like Sweden, Denmark or Austria. The EU is indeed expanding the interconnectedness of its grid. To illustrate this statement, when the sun is shining in the south of Spain, excess energy can be traded to Denmark when the wind is not blowing through their turbines. Changing and adapting our western consumption habits is also an essential part of mitigating climate change. The challenge of using only renewables to meet energy demand will no longer be as daunting if the amount of energy that countries in North America and Europe uses decreases through policy and behavioural change. If you are not convinced, here are some arguments that translate the importance and need to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

Despite the amount of raw materials required to construct renewable energy installations, they can quickly pay off that initial carbon debt. As these technologies are young and are continuing to be improved, they are more likely to last longer, making waste less of a problem. Once installed, the facilities cost very little to operate.

 

A diversity of alternatives 

There is a variety of renewable energy which are more or less popular among the public. Wind power with wind turbines or sun power with the photovoltaics, they all share the common trait of being able to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

 

Solar energy

It is used in many ways, heating homes and businesses, warming water or power devices. Solar farms use photovoltaic mirrors to concentrate sunlight across acres of solar cells. The generated power is then transferred to a thousand homes. It is estimated that in one hour, the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth’s surface is more than the planet’s total energy requirements for a whole year. However, the amount of solar energy can vary according to the season, the time of the day and the geographical location.

Wind energy

It is the cheapest energy source. The wind pushes turbines that are used to drive generators. These generators, then, feed electricity into the grid.

Hydro Energy and Tidal energy

Hydro energy is one of the most commercially developed and is considered to be sometimes more reliable than wind and solar energy. The electricity produced can indeed, be stored for use when demand reaches a peak. The energy is created thanks to dam or barrier. A large reservoir can be used to create a controlled flow of water that will drive a turbine, generating electricity. Like hydro energy, tidal energy is highly predictable and uses twice-daily tidal currents to drive turbine generators.

Geothermal energy

It is produced on sites whereby huge amounts of heat are trapped beneath the Earth. This heat is then converted into electrical power. The production of geothermal energy is negligible in the United Kingdom compared to countries such as Iceland where geothermal heat is much more available. It has low emissions if steam and water are pumped back into the reservoir.

Biomass energy

It is the conversion of organic and plant waste into energy that is renewable. By converting agricultural, industrial and domestic waste into solid, liquid and gas fuel; biomass reduces economic and environmental cost.

The necessity to lead the future towards cleaner energy source

Thus, renewable energy represents a safe and reliable route to achieve decarbonisation and limit the rise of global temperatures. In order to meet 2ºC climate goal set during the Paris Agreements in 2015, the share of renewable energy in the final consumption must increase from 19% in 2017 to 65% by 2050 according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Meeting this goal would require a reduction of global energy demand through energy efficiency, an extension of the electric pathway and increasing the share of renewable energy. The Stanford Solutions project affirms that a 100% renewable energy system is feasible by 2050. The biggest issue to achieve this target does not lay on a technological perspective but instead, in finding the political will. The European Union (EU) is showing that initiative; they have begun to introduce a path towards net-zero carbon by 2050. By 2030, they will reach an average of 33% of their energy sourced from renewables with countries like Sweden, Denmark or Austria. The EU is indeed expanding the interconnectedness of its grid. To illustrate this statement, when the sun is shining in the south of Spain, excess energy can be traded to Denmark when the wind is not blowing through their turbines.

Despite the amount of raw materials required to construct renewable energy installations, they can quickly pay off that initial carbon debt. As these technologies are young and are continuing to be improved, they are more likely to last longer, making waste less of a problem. Once installed, the facilities cost very little to operate. Changing and adapting our western consumption habits is also an essential part of mitigating climate change. The challenge of using only renewables to meet energy demand will no longer be as daunting if the amount of energy that countries in North America and Europe uses decreases through policy and behavioural change. If you are not convinced, here are some arguments that translate the importance and need to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy.

Air and atmosphere quality will see a significant improvement if the necessary shift occurs. The burning of fossil fuels responsible for the increased GHG emissions is largely related to health issues (if you want to know more about air pollution and health, you can have a look at our last week article). Refineries expose people, animals, plants and organisms living within close proximity to poor air quality. Air pollution is also the indirect consequence of transports in urban areas as most of the vehicles are burning fossil fuels. Moreover, non-renewable sources require land clearing. In order to access the resources underground, trees in proximity are cut down. Trees play an important part in reducing air pollution and by cutting them, we reduce the absorption of CO2 they provide. Fewer of these emissions means an overall better air quality.

Renewable energy can contribute to improve public health, especially for communities living near fossil fuels infrastructures. These communities are at high risk of poor health. The harvesting and burning process of fossil fuels pose a danger, water contamination and air pollution.

The impact that fuel extraction processes have on natural habitats is also considerable. By destructing the natural habitats of animals and disturbing the migration patterns of fish, the fossil fuels industry highly contributes to the extinction rates of animals. In contrast, contractors for renewable energy pay better attention to their energy plant locations and the impact it can have on biodiversity. In Europe for example, approval from the government must be received for the implementation of offshore wind. The government will verify that the area is not an exclusion zone: nature reserve, shipping lane, lighthouse cone, exploration area or possible site for finding archaeological remains. In the United States (US), the Environmental Protection Agency assesses land use for renewable energy development potential and is working to “promote renewable energy development that avoids, minimizes and mitigates impacts on wildlife, important lands and natural resources”. 

 

Regarding the many advantages that renewable energy has to offer, the future goal is then to shift completely to cleaner energy. Encouraging projections show that by 2050, 50% of the world’s energy will rely on renewable energy.

 

The downside effects: how does climate change impact the viability of renewable sources? And do renewable energies impact the environment?

Climate change is clearly one of the main challenges that renewable is facing and will have to deal with in the near future. The irony is laying in the double cause and effect relationship between climate change and renewable energy. Climate change does impact the viability of renewable sources and renewable sources can impact the environment.

The power produced by renewable installations can be intermittent. Power is generated only when the sun is shining or when the wind is blowing. Unfortunately, the intermittency could be accentuated by climate change. According to the study “Climate change impacts on renewable energy generation. A review of quantitative projections”, the impacts of climate change are among the challenges that renewables will have to confront. Their main sources are directly linked to climate variable like precipitation, temperature, irradiation or wind and changes in the patterns can make them vulnerable and less efficient.

The rise of global temperatures poses a threat for the infrastructures or the primary natural sources used to create power. Higher temperatures may increase surface evaporation for hydropower stations, reducing water storage and as a consequence, power output.

On the contrary, ice melting can increase the water flows and the operational costs, affecting the efficiency of the equipment or iced the wind turbines. Sea levels rises could damage the off-shore turbine foundations of the eoliennes in low-lying coastal areas and on-shore turbines in coastal locations.

The infrastructures (photovoltaics (PV), eolienne, barrier, etc) could be deteriorated by extreme weather events like heavy rains. The changes in rainfall seasonal or annual patterns could impact the river flow and water levels, affecting the production of hydroelectric power. It also could reduce the efficiency of the PV panels due to less solar radiation.

Renewable energy has also its downside effects on the planet. Even though, the impacts are still negligible in comparison to fossil fuels, it makes scientists and companies working on better solutions to avoid their negative impacts. Large hydroelectric plants are often considered to be non-renewable energy because they restrict the access for animal and human populations that rely on rivers, forcing them to displace. Wind turbines can kill hundreds of thousands of birds annually, not as many as other threat like glass collisions or invasive species, but enough to make engineers working on solutions. Biomass from forests in some cases produce higher carbon emissions than fossil fuels. Still, some forms of biomass energy could serve as a low-carbon option under the right circumstances.

What can you do to aid the transition to cleaner energy?

 

The increase of the global human population and the emergence of developing countries makes the energy demand in constant growth. It is predicted that the energy demand will increase by 27% in 2040 according to the Global Energy Institute. Regarding the present situation, what can each of us do to help the transition.

Switch if you can

 Being aware of the energy we consume and its harmful impact on the planet could be the first step to help the transition. We should be active in helping the development of renewables if we can. Fortunately, there is a number of different types of clean energy available depending on where you live which could help you to compare and perhaps adopt one.

Several energy companies now offer renewable energy at a slightly higher cost than fossil fuels. Explore if you have a choice of suppliers where you live and work and look for local suppliers with credible renewable energy products.

It is now easier to make your home energy-sufficient and green. However, many factors can determine whether generating your own renewable energy will work for you (how shaded your home is, how exposed to wind, etc). You need to consider different points before making the decision to install solar or wind power at home such as the cost and the return on investment. Once installed, you can get money for extra energy your home generates to transfer to the grid depending on the place you live in. Grants are available in the UK to help you ease the costs of installations. For more information and find if you are eligible, check the UK government website

In the case you are unable to adopt a wind turbine or solar panels, you can still turn to “green certificates”. It allows you to contribute to the generation of clean power when you cannot buy renewable power from your power provider. Clean power generators are separating the power they sell to power providers from the environmental attributes (aka “green certificates”) associated with that power. The environmental attributes are then sold to companies and individuals who want to help increase the amount of clean power entering our nation’s electricity supply.

 Encourage governments and other people

Like we have seen earlier, renewable energy acceptance has encouraged the governments around the world to set targets for the transition to more renewable sources. In fact, at least 67 countries are now committed to progress towards cleaner energy. Australia leads the way with the aim to rely on 50% solar power by 2025. The UK is the first major economy to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050 with the will to bring all its GHG emissions to carbon net-zero.

Despite this promising news, some locations may not provide a choice to switch every home supply to renewables. It is still possible to write to government and councils or consider starting a petition. The more voices, the more likely you will be heard so bring as many people as you can. You can also have a look at the energy targets of your country and show your support for ambitious and accountable transitions. Get involve by donating or helping to share their message.

It is only by getting educated on the subject that you could educate in return and change opinions. If you want to read more about how to help, you can check the website Treehugger which provides a range of advices you should consider before investing in a specific type of green energy.

Renewable energy is a critical part of our future and the transition should collectively begin now.

To go further

Here is a list of companies and organisations that are working on the transition. 

 

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