Renewable energy has become one of the world’s most discussed and increasingly important topics over the past couple of decades. While there are some aspects of renewable energy that have become common knowledge, such as the existence of solar panels and wind turbines, much of this incredible and far-reaching technology is still misunderstood or underexplored. Read on to discover what you need to know about renewable energy as it stands today and how it relates to your everyday life.
What Is Considered Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy is a form of clean and endless power generation used for a variety of reasons in the modern world. Some examples of renewable energy sources are wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower.
As its name suggests, renewable energy can be renewed — in other words, it’s infinite in nature and can keep being used without running out. It’s also generally free of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is a growing problem with other forms of energy such as fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, and natural gas).
Because of this, renewables are often touted as the most sustainable energy sources. They will likely become more widespread in the quest to meet our energy needs without increasing GHG emissions or compromising our current standard of living.
Most renewable energy is used for electricity generation, with renewables accounting for about a fourth of global electricity production. While some renewable sources have been a part of the electricity mix for decades, others are becoming more widely available as the world attempts to move towards clean energy. Renewable energy technologies play a big role in moving the energy sector towards alternative energy sources that lower carbon emissions and combat climate change.
What’s the Difference Between Renewable and Nonrenewable?
The main difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy is that there is a finite amount of nonrenewable energy while renewable energy is unlimited because the source of its power is regenerative. Also, the way these energy sources operate in the real world is slightly different.
As mentioned, there’s an unlimited supply of renewable energy resources. But this supply is not always available or efficient. For example, wind power is only available when the wind is blowing. Wind will always be a part of the Earth’s systems in every region of the world, so wind power will always be available as long as the planet exists — it’s just not always accessible.
One of the most commonly cited differences between these types of energy is that renewable power is always free of carbon emissions while nonrenewable energy always emits carbon dioxide. While this is true in most cases, there are important outliers.
Nuclear power is a form of nonrenewable energy that does not emit CO2, and some climate activists have called for increasing nuclear energy for this reason. However, nuclear is often not viewed as a form of clean energy because nuclear fission, which is where the energy comes from, produces radioactive waste.
If this waste isn’t properly discarded, or if large-scale accidents occur such as the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, the environment can face immense harm. Conversely, some renewable fuels such as ethanol and wood still emit carbon dioxide but they are generally considered clean because they come from natural sources.
What’s the Most Common Form of Renewable Energy?
At present, the most common form of renewable energy is by far hydroelectric power. Hydropower has been around for centuries, predating its use in generating electricity, which began in 1882. Even with recent increases in solar energy and wind energy, hydropower continues to account for about 17% of all electricity production worldwide.
Hydroelectric power is used in more than 150 countries and makes up the majority of total electricity generation in countries such as Canada and Norway. Hydropower makes up 60% of Canada’s electric grid and 90% of Norway’s grid.
What’s the Best Source of Renewable Energy?
Given its widespread use and reliable nature, hydropower is the best source of renewable energy for baseload (aka non-intermittent) electricity generation to power electrical grids. However, other sources of renewable energy are better in more specific situations.
Since hydropower relies on geographical proximity to abundantly flowing water resources, many areas — such as deserts or places where rivers remain frozen for most of the year — cannot use this form of energy.
Taking geography into consideration, solar power is the best source of renewable energy for desert regions where the sun is always beaming. Meanwhile, geothermal energy is perfect for cold, volcanic regions such as Iceland because the volcanic activity provides a constant source of energy that can be harnessed without the need for input fuels.
Bioenergy, which is a form of renewable energy composed of organic matter called biomass, is perhaps the best option for areas that lack all other renewable energy access and would otherwise need to rely on fossil fuels for energy generation.
What Are the Most Common Ways to Get Renewable Energy?
The most common way to get renewable energy is to tap into an electric grid that is powered by renewable energy sources. In places such as Eastern Canada, this is as simple as plugging into an electrical outlet in any standard home, since almost all electricity along Canada’s East Coast comes from hydropower.
However, there are several other common ways that people can get renewable energy in their homes, including:
- Geothermal power plants
- Biofuels in the form of biogas or biodiesel
- Offshore wind farms
- Personal windmills or wind turbines
- Home solar systems
How Efficient Is Renewable Energy?
Renewables have come a long way, but the current renewable energy system is still not as efficient as fossil fuel counterparts. Overall, certain sources within this system fare better than others in terms of efficiency.
Intermittency (periodic unavailability) and energy efficiency have been two of the biggest challenges with renewable energy, though some renewables have improved both dramatically over the years.
Hydropower claims the best statistics in both these areas, with the most reliability and best efficiency. Why? Because of the constant availability and abundance of water.
The earliest solar panels had an efficiency of 2% in the 1950s, with a cost of $1.75 per kWh, but that has improved to over 20% efficiency by the start of the 2020s, with an average standard power rating of 370W.
Wind power is more efficient at around 30% or higher, but it’s also the most intermittent, which impacts overall delivery and takes away from some of the improved efficiency.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy, like all types of energy that are harnessed for modern power applications, has upsides and downsides. While some of these are minor, there are a few fundamentally beneficial pros to using renewable energy — and a couple of cons that are currently limiting usage and may persist into the future.
Pros of Renewable Energy
The two biggest pros of renewable energy are that it’s infinitely replenishable and free of greenhouse gas emissions, which are both game-changing attributes. These benefits have been the primary driving forces in the expansion of renewable energy technologies, as well as the drive towards making it more affordable and accessible for people all over the world.
However, there are additional benefits of using renewable energy. The variety of sources allows for different renewables to be used in the most fitting geographical locations, as well as for the most fitting applications, such as utilizing a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) solar water heater. Also, the absence of input fuels to run renewable energy infrastructure should allow prices to continue to drop as efficiency improves.
Cons of Renewable Energy
Though the positives are undeniable, there are still downsides to renewable energy. Some of these drawbacks can be improved but some will likely remain regardless of technological advancements.
Renewables such as wind and solar are intermittent, making them inherently unreliable without massive storage capacity, which we currently have not completely figured out. These same renewables are also much less efficient than other forms of energy due to their intermittency and the lower energy conversion rate, especially with solar. However, their efficiency has steadily improved over time and looks to continue improving.
Another downside is that some renewables cost more, especially upfront for the infrastructure needed to get them running. That said, as more infrastructure is built, the lower the cost should become over time.
Lastly, land use issues are a major problem for most types of renewable energy, whether it’s ecosystem damage caused by hydro dams, arable land (farmland or other areas that could otherwise be used) covered by solar panels and wind farms, or bird deaths from wind turbines.
How Do You Switch to Renewable Energy?
Switching to renewable energy depends largely on where you live and what kind of grid you want to join or create. In some areas, such as Norway or Canada, you might already be using renewable energy without even realizing it.
In other areas, such as Texas, switching to renewable energy may be as simple as contacting your local power provider and asking to connect to an available grid powered primarily by wind or other renewable sources.
For the more intrepid types, you can also tap into microgrids on a community level, or go off-grid and connect directly to solar, wind, or small scale hydro to power your home.
Why Switch to Renewable Energy?
Switching to renewable energy is an important piece of the strategy to deter global warming and keep climate change from causing irreparable and irreversible harm. On top of helping the environment, renewable energy can be cheaper than fossil fuels in some areas. It can be a good option for those who wish to be off the grid and not rely on large-scale power generation or power plants to produce their electricity.
The Cost of Renewable Energy
One of the most contentious issues surrounding renewable energy is its cost. While early technologies were expensive and extremely inefficient, modern advances in nearly all forms of renewable energy have driven down costs and made them more affordable than in the past.
However, other forms of energy, such as natural gas, have remained cost-competitive and have demonstrated their flexibility with an increased supply and demand. The good news is that overall costs of energy have been decreasing in many areas of the world when they were projected to increase, with renewables being a big part of this driving force.
Is Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Non Renewable Energy?
The price of both renewable and nonrenewable energy depends on several factors, such as geographic location, available access to hydrocarbons, and government policies, including subsidy plans for different kinds of energy. Nonrenewable energy is typically less expensive than renewable energy at this time, especially when looking at the world as a whole.
How Does Renewable Energy Save Money?
Renewable energy saves money mainly because there are no fuel input costs. When coal-fired power plants or nuclear reactors are generating electricity, they need to be supplied with corresponding raw material resources from which energy is extracted. For nearly all renewable energy systems, material input is not needed — nature provides the input to generate energy.
Solar energy uses sunlight, wind power uses naturally moving air, hydropower uses naturally abundant river water, and geothermal uses the constant heat coming out of the Earth’s core. The only type of renewable energy that requires fuel inputs is biofuels, but these are still provided by nature. They can be regenerated within months rather than millions of years, which is how long it takes coal and oil to regenerate under the intense pressure of the Earth’s crust.
Which Renewable Energy Source Is the Cheapest?
Hydropower is typically the least expensive form of renewable energy at about 5 cents per kWh. In part, this is because it has been around the longest and is very established in power systems around the world.
However, wind power has been continually decreasing in costs and is now in line with hydroelectric power at around 6 cents per kWh, at least in the United State and Europe. Both of these renewables are comparable to the lower end of fossil fuel-based electricity generation, which is around 5 cents per kWh. That said, costs can be much higher in some places where energy is more expensive in general.
Solar costs have fallen by 82% over the past decade, though costs remain relatively more expensive at 8-10 cents per kWh on average. This is encouraging news for the future nonetheless.
How Can We Make Renewable Energy Cheaper?
Renewable energy will continue to become cheaper if we can a) keep improving efficiency, b) improve intermittency issues by developing adequate storage facilities, and c) shift government subsidies away from fossil fuels and towards green energy, though this only applies to certain areas. If these three things happen, renewable energy will continue to become less expensive and more available to all.
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