This article was specially written for blog.heliolytics.com
Authored by: JBayer
Edited by: Sarah Duquette
The World Economic Forum believes 2022 is a critical turning point in mitigating the harmful effects of unabated climate change. Discussions on the possibility of transitioning toward a net-negative greenhouse gas emissions economy that can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius have taken root in society and politics, leading to more and more countries committing to creating sustainability strategies and initiatives to achieve Net Zero.
Research into 100% renewable energy is a relatively new field and many recent studies have focused on the challenges and opportunities regarding energy transition pathways. A new scientific paper reviewing all published research (474 references) on 100% renewable energy systems concludes unequivocally, that a future without the use of fossil fuels is feasible worldwide at a low cost (Breyer et al., 2022). The research provides a holistic vision of the transition to 100% renewable energy, with solar energy and wind power increasingly emerging as the central pillars of a sustainable and cost-effective energy system based on 100% renewables.
The importance of global sustainability
Many global issues including excessive carbon emissions, overconsumption of resources, low quality of life, and global warming can be addressed through widespread adoption of sustainability practices. The four pillars of sustainability - human, social, environmental, and economic - aim to protect, improve, and balance continual growth (of populations, infrastructure, economics, etc.) with the preservation of natural resources, while improving the health and wellbeing of every member of society.
In 2016, the United Nations implemented the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. There are 17 SDGs - calls for action - that countries can and must translate into a solid commitment to ending deprivations and improving prosperity for people and the planet. Our previous article, 'A More Sustainable World Starts with All of Us,' highlights how combating these issues must be done collectively. Individuals, corporations, and governing bodies should do what they can to work together to achieve these goals.
More than 80 countries have pledged their commitment to the Net Zero goal, which aims to reduce or eliminate the production of greenhouse gasses to promote more environmentally friendly communities. Together, the SDGs and Net Zero goal have helped reduce global carbon emissions numbers, and represent some of the most concrete efforts taken by world leaders regarding addressing climate change. Despite ongoing efforts, however, global energy-related CO2 emissions increased by 6% in 2021, according to this infographic from the SDGs 2022 Progress Report. Our window to avoid a significant global climate catastrophe is closing rapidly.
Why 100% renewable energy is the future
As noted in our 2021 Sustainability Report, roughly 70% of global power still comes from non-renewable, carbon-intensive (fossil fuels and coal-based) energy resources. So, we still have a long road ahead to get to 100% renewable energy. But the future looks promising. Many industry advocates believe that we have reached a key milestone in the energy transition. A growing body of research and advances in technologies and methodologies, coupled with decreasing costs and improved governmental support, like the $372 billion legislative package, known as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, recently passed by the U.S. Congress, have helped to spur the growth of renewable energy. Currently, about 60% of global renewable energy comes from hydropower. Though, solar energy and wind power increasingly emerge as the central pillars of a sustainable energy system (Breyer et al. 2022). Here're some of the reasons why:
Going solar reduces carbon emissions since solar energy producers have no need to burn fossil fuels to make electricity. Instead, solar energy systems harness energy from the sun, an abundant natural resource, turning solar radiation into power that can be used and stored. The Department of Energy provides an excellent overview of solar energy and how it works.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that 20.1% of U.S. utility-scale electricity generation produced in 2021 was from renewable energy sources including solar. In addition, an estimated 49.03 billion kWh of electricity came from small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. This represents about 2.8% of total U.S. utility-scale electricity generation in 2021, which is up from less than 0.1% in 1990. Growth in the commercial sector, however, has been uneven, with little more than 1% of commercial electricity demand served by on-site solar. A review by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) of on-site solar power installations in businesses, non-profits, and governments found that the industry is still trying to unlock financing tools needed to provide access for a wide range of business types. Notably, large companies with clean energy goals like Walmart, Apple, and Target are pushing the segment to near-record levels this year.
Solar energy is not without its shortcomings. For example, some materials used to create solar panels can be harmful to the environment and communities when they are farmed improperly. Developing land to make installation possible can also negatively impact the local ecosystem. Other challenges include grid congestion, energy storage, and waste management.
Energy from the wind is generated when propeller-like blades of a turbine rotate around a rotor, spinning a generator to create electricity. This process is carbon neutral and can even be applied to hydrogen and synthetic fuel production processes, to produce products like kerosene and diesel in a climate-friendly way. The use of this form of electricity has grown by 15% over the past 10 years in the United States alone. It also accounts for more than $10 billion of annual investments throughout the country.
Much like the sun, the wind is inexhaustible, so it also has the potential to meet global energy demand. It’s relatively inexpensive to install wind turbines compared to solar and hydropower. These systems are also less disruptive to the environment because they limit or do not require significant land transformation or deforestation. Nevertheless, wind power plants (also called wind farms, wind parks, and wind power stations) can be hazardous to some wildlife, particularly avian animals that sometimes sustain injury or death when inadvertently colliding with one of the large turbine blades.
During construction, it can be energy-intensive to produce the steel towers and concrete foundations required to build wind turbines. Moreover, blades are made from plastic to keep them aerodynamic, making them difficult to recycle once their 25 years of durability are over. It’s difficult to recycle these blades, and they often end up in landfills as a result.
Finding the right location for a wind farm can also be difficult. They are typically built at a relatively far distance from communities as turbines are known to be noisy – especially on windy days. This also makes achieving community acceptance of wind farms challenging.
Lastly, due to intermittency, wind can be unpredictable, meaning there may be a possibility of an electricity shortage during peak consumption times.
Another viable and popular form of renewable energy is hydropower. It's highly accessible and can also be cost-effective. Instead of creating new stations, in many cases, existing water infrastructures can be repurposed into hydroelectricity plants. And since tides are predictable, hydropower can be one of the most reliable forms of renewable energy. Our World in Data reports that hydropower plants produce over 4000 TWh of electricity, which is 60% of all renewable energy globally.
Hydropower offers a flexible choice that can help provide flood control, irrigation support, and clean drinking water. However, hydropower may also disrupt natural ecosystems, break up habitats, and make the migration of aquatic species more challenging. Another downside is the lack of reservoirs – especially in more arid locales – making hydropower generation less accessible in some places.
Each of these forms of renewable energy has its merits and drawbacks. Energy supply diversification, or combining more than one form of renewable energy, combined with energy efficiency measures and cost-optimization modeling, will be key to applying a holistic approach to the energy transition and a net zero economy that can limit global warming in a sustainable and cost-effective manner based on 100% renewables.
Photo by Piat Van Zyl: https://www.pexels.com/photo/landscape-sky-water-clouds-13448549/
All other photos contributed by Heliolytics
Breyer, C., Khalili, S., Bogdanov, D., Ram, M., Oyewo, A. S., Aghahosseini, A., Gulagi, A., Solomon, A. A., Keiner, D., Lopez, G., Ostergaard, P. A., Lund, H., Mathiesen, B. V., Jacobson, M. Z., Victoria, M., Teske, S., Pregger, T., Fthenakis, V., Raugei, M., & Holttinen, H. (2022). On the History and Future of 100% Renewable Energy Systems Research. IEEE Access, 10, 78176–78218. https://doi.org/10.1109/access.2022.3193402
Electricity generation, capacity, and sales in the United States - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). (2021, March 18). Eia.gov. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us-generation-capacity-and-sales.php. Accessed on Aug 19, 2022.
Energy.gov. (2022). How Does Solar Work? Energy.gov. https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/how-does-solar-work#:~:text=Solar%20technologies%20convert%20sunlight%20into. Accessed on Aug 19, 2022.
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