Renewable energy has become the focus of our modern energy-dependent world. With increasing demand placed on finite fossil fuel energy resources — and their associated greenhouse gas emissions — there’s an increasing shift to meet our energy needs from cleaner, greener sources. There are several types of renewable energy sources, each one bringing its own set of benefits and challenges.
In this article, we cover the current state of renewable energy and where it’s heading in the future. We’ll also share some of the top trends for the year ahead and how these changes may impact you.
Is Renewable Energy the Future?
Yes, it’s clear that the future of energy heavily involves renewable power resources. Perhaps the most significant reason that renewable energy is our future is that it’s better for our environment. There are many benefits that come from fuel-free, carbon-free power generation. Plus, as the push for more renewables continues to increase, costs are rapidly decreasing. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown in its 2020 report, renewables will almost certainly become the dominant form of energy across the world in the near future.
Why Do We Need Renewable Energy Sources?
There are two main reasons why we need renewable energy sources: non-renewable resources are finite and most non-renewable resources emit carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs), which are harmful pollutants to the environment.
With finite resources the problem is clear: there’s a limited amount before they run out, which, at our current rate, would happen around the year 2060. Even if there were an abundance of fossil fuels available to extract from underground (which there currently are), at some point there would be no more left. And long before this point, it would become prohibitively expensive to extract them as reserves become increasingly scarce.
However, given the current state of the world, running out of fossil fuels is not our biggest concern: the emissions that come from burning them are much more problematic.
Current CO2 levels are higher than at any time in human history — the last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere Earth was a significantly different planet, with a much hotter and more humid global climate.
To put the role of CO2 in perspective, it makes up slightly more than 0.04% of our atmosphere. Yet without it, the average worldwide temperature would be –18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit) rather than the current 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). Clearly, even miniscule increases in this gas can have significant impacts on the environment. In fact, it’s a matter of life and death for humans, plants, and animals alike.
Renewable energy sources provide the necessary energy for our current way of life without emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. As such, they’re a much-needed addition to the current network of finite, fossil fuel resources used to supply energy to people all around the world.
How Much of the World’s Energy Is Currently Renewable?
Currently, a little over 14% of total energy is generated from renewable resources. This is a significant gain from even a decade ago, when only slightly more than 6% of total energy came from renewables in 2010.
Hydroelectric power is the most commonly used renewable energy source. Wind power and solar power trail behind, but they’re increasing their share every year as new hydro projects are not being introduced anywhere nearly as much. This is due largely because hydro resources depend heavily on geographically ideal locations, while wind turbines and solar panels can be implemented virtually anywhere, with varying degrees of utility. Hydro is also more expensive to start with higher upfront costs, though it does have a longer lifespan per project with much more reliability.
Hydroelectricity is also the only form of large-scale renewable energy that can be used as a baseload, or primary source of energy, because the flow of water is much more reliable than the intermittent availability of wind energy or solar energy.
Geothermal power is also increasing, although like hydro, this resource is very geographically dependent and cannot be scaled the way wind and solar are.
How Long Will It Take to Transition to Renewable Energy?
Estimates vary on how long it’ll take to fully transition to renewable energy — and some experts think it will not happen at all. Given the current trajectory of growth, in a realistic but optimistic scenario, the global energy system could consist of 85% renewable energy resources by 2050.
Still, there are significant challenges to achieving this in practice. First, most renewable energy is intermittent, meaning it cannot be relied upon at all times. This typically requires some form of reliable power as a backup or baseload source that runs regardless of environmental conditions. Usually, these are fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) or nuclear energy, though hydro can also be a solid form of baseload power.
Second, there’s an energy storage problem. The more renewable energy is utilized, the more storage is required. There’s a physical limit to how much energy can be stored in the available resources we have to capture this energy. As demand for energy grows, so too must the capacity for storing this energy.
Lastly, as more of our lives become electrified — whether it’s switching industrial practices from fossil fuel-based to electricity-based to driving electric vehicles — more electricity will be needed.
What’s the Fastest Growing Form of Renewable Energy?
Solar is the fastest growing form of energy in the world — and it also has the fastest falling prices for consumption, dropping nearly 90% in cost over the past decade. The price per megawatt for solar is now below every form of electricity, except for natural gas, across the United States and most of the world, with solar expected to make up just under half of all electricity generation by 2050 in the U.S.
Bioenergy is not the fastest growing power source for renewable energy, but it has been increasing in recent years — and is forecasted to grow by 25% over the next several years. Government subsidies and improving technologies are helping bring biofuels to the forefront. This is important because, unlike solar, biofuels can be used to replace fossil fuels for direct combustion in areas such as industrial processes that cannot run on electricity.
What Are Renewable Energy Trends to Watch in 2021?
Renewable energy technologies are pushing the limits of what we thought was possible only decades ago. The trends to watch out for in 2021 feature a mix of more traditional sources that continue to improve and relatively new technologies that are just starting out in the real world.
Solar continues to be the hottest on the market, with higher energy efficiency from continually improving photovoltaic panels and continually decreasing costs. In addition, offshore wind farms are gaining popularity, with 162 of them currently in operation as of 2020.
As for the newer, less proven technologies, 2021 is poised to see increased uptake in renewable hydrogen. There is also potential to see a boost in renewable methanol, but this may not be for several more years.
Utility-scale biogas, particularly biodiesel made from organic materials such as sugar (in the form of ethanol), should also be on the rise, along with synthetic fuels made from captured CO2 and methane byproducts. This might be the ultimate form of alternative energy, as these synthetic fuels might not be strictly classified as renewable energy.
Global Warming and Climate Change
Global warming is better encompassed by the term “climate change” due to the complex nature of how increased greenhouse gas emissions not only warm the planet but also cause higher seasonal variability (such as extreme weather). Whichever term is used to describe this phenomenon, it presents a risk to our current way of life that should be taken seriously.
The exact degree of risk is subject to intense debate, with climate models varying significantly. Still, it’s clear that increased greenhouse gases cause an increase in annual average temperatures on Earth. For this reason, it’s critical to utilize low-carbon and carbon-free energy resources as much as possible as we move forward.
How Do Renewable Energy Resources Affect the Environment?
Renewable energy resources are inherently carbon-free, making them ideal to produce electricity and power our modern way of life. Renewables can displace carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as coal or oil in many areas of the world, leading to a positive environmental impact.
Renewables can also affect the environment in other ways, such as land cover changes for windmills, solar farms, or biomass crops grown for biofuels.
Does Renewable Energy Help Address Climate Change?
Yes, renewable energy sources help address climate change. These energy sources are not burned or used in combustion, which is how carbon is released into the air from fossil fuels. Instead, renewables work by harnessing energy already found in nature that is converted into electricity through different processes, which can then be used by our devices and everything that consumes electric power.
Although most forms of renewable energy are carbon-free, there are several forms for which this is not strictly true, such as wood or biomass. Nonetheless, renewables help to address climate change by providing energy without adding excess CO2 to the atmosphere.
Why Is Renewable Energy Good for the Planet?
Renewable energy is good for the planet not only because it helps address climate change, but also because it provides energy without digging up fuels out of the ground or shipping them (which uses more fossil fuels).
Part of the issue with fossil fuels is that in addition to the carbon that’s released when they’re used, it takes a lot of energy to extract these resources, and in many cases mining for them is detrimental to Earth. This is also true for nuclear energy, which is a carbon-free form of electricity generation, but the mining of uranium for power plants is invasive to the environment.
Shipping of fuels is also risky to ecosystems and natural areas. Oil spills have continually proven to harm wildlife and cause environmental damage. And natural gas leaks, though rare, can be dangerous. In addition, nuclear waste can be devastating to the environment if it ever leaks containment and enters the biosphere.
Using renewable energy sources can solve these potential issues while providing a form of sustainable energy for areas that have retail energy providers providing renewable energy options, such as Tara Energy in Texas.
Can Renewable Energy Save the World?
Renewable energy cannot save the world on its own — but it can be a crucial, necessary part of a larger shift to mitigate the worst of what climate change may bring.
Electricity companies such as Tara Energy recognize the importance of renewables.
As renewable energy continues to grow and people keep driving demand for products and services that use less carbon-intensive practices, the world as we know it should remain a beautiful place to call home.
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