Learn about renewable energy capabilities and its relationship with sustainability.
What is sustainability?
Sustainability is living in harmony with the natural world and protecting it from damage and destruction while recognizing that humans need resources from the environment to ensure their survival. Today, we live in a highly urbanized world that consumes large amounts of energy to power a modern and consumerist-based lifestyle. This lifestyle that most of the modern world has become accustomed to relies on harmful resources to create energy for our buildings, streets and homes, like fossil fuels.
To live sustainably, we must abide by the most practical and impactful ways to protect the environment while fostering humanity's economic and social development. Humans are stewards of the planet, and solving the problems that threaten future life is our responsibility.
Sustainable development has become increasingly popular as more countries recognize the critical responsibilities and economic opportunities that sustainable development can provide, such as sanitation and a quality supply of food, water and energy for future generations. Pursuing these goals is all done within the scope of minimizing the effects of climate change, pollution and all other environmental factors that harm the planet1.
Are all types of energy sustainable?
Not all types of energy are sustainable. While energy sources such as wind and solar are considered sustainable for their renewable capabilities, plenty of unsustainable energy sources are currently in use. For renewable energy sources, it's argued that both biomass and nuclear may be renewable, but they are not sustainable.
For example, biomass burns organic materials to create energy and is renewable, but that energy production outputs greenhouse gases which can be harmful to the environment. Therefore, biomass is a renewable resource that can be considered unsustainable for some harmful impacts on the earth.
In a similar case, nuclear energy can be renewable, but it creates nuclear waste that poses a harmful threat to the environment. Nuclear waste is the byproduct of nuclear energy production. When nuclear waste is stored, it can take anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 years to decay to a level that is no longer radioactive and harmful to the environment. Although some scientists will argue that nuclear energy is renewable, it still cannot be considered sustainable.
Nonrenewable and unsustainable energy sources are mainly composed of carbon elements. These energy sources include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The reason why these energy sources are considered unsustainable is that there is only a finite supply. Technically, these energy sources can replenish themselves, but it can take millions of years to do so. Therefore, they cannot be considered renewable for energy production with the number of resources we demand2.
What is the difference between renewable energy and sustainable energy?
Renewable energy is a type of energy production that comes from sources like wind and water that naturally replenish themselves. For renewable energy sources like hydropower, wind energy, and solar energy, production can remain constant as long as these resources are available, which is essentially guaranteed3.
In the same light, a sustainable energy source can be maintained for the indefinite future without compromising or threatening future generations. As sustainability relies on substituting harmful energy production processes with environmentally-friendly ones, most renewable energy sources are considered sustainable based on their ability to generate clean, reliable energy for the future4.
Why is renewable energy sustainable?
A general rule for an energy source to be sustainable is its ability to be naturally replenished, along with its resources having an ample supply for long-term use. Renewable energy sources like wind energy, solar energy, and hydropower are sustainable forms of energy because they have a low environmental impact, are widely available, and are naturally replenished.
Another significant indication of whether or not an energy source is sustainable is based on how much pollution is produced during the energy production process. If a particular type of energy production creates air pollution into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change, then it ultimately cannot be considered sustainable. Renewable energy sources do not make these negative impacts while in production and thus are considered clean and sustainable5.
Is renewable energy hard to produce?
Although renewable energy is not hard to produce, it does have certain limitations when it comes to making enough energy to meet all of our needs. For instance, wind and solar energy production require a significant amount of land to generate sufficient electricity needed to supply the power grid with energy. Another limiting factor is that the transition from conventional forms of energy production, like fossil fuels, to new forms, like renewable energy, takes quite a bit of time and resources. As renewable energy technology continues to become more advanced and its costs continue to decrease, it will become easier to transition to renewable energy production and supply power to future generations.
How long will renewable energy last?
The sun is a critical aspect of the production of renewable energy. As long as the sun continues to produce light and no catastrophic events occur that disrupt the earth's naturally occurring solar/hydro cycle, renewable energy can last indefinitely. When energy comes from the sun, we can harness the light with solar panels. At the same time, the energy that is transmitted from the sun heats the earth's surface water. The surface water then evaporates and precipitates. Precipitation refills sources of surface water. As long as this solar/hydro cycle remains, renewable energy can exist. However, there are regional exceptions. This solar/hydro cycle can be disrupted in particular regions where drought-like conditions persist. This can dramatically affect any local hydroelectric facilities that depend on the existence and flow of water to produce electricity.
Can renewable energy run out?
It is highly unlikely, if not impossible that renewable energy can run out. Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydropower will not run out, based on their ability to replenish naturally. There is no fixed supply of these types of energy sources, and instead, they will renew through the environmental cycles occurring on the planet.
What can interfere with renewable energy production?
Although renewable energy has become more reliable and energy-efficient in recent years, the weather affects renewable energy production methods. Wind turbines need wind at minimum speeds to power their turbines. When wind speeds are too low, the turbines cannot generate electricity. Similarly, hydropower requires enough rainfall to fill reservoirs, ensuring a consistent flow of water to generate electricity. The solution to the problem of inconsistent production levels based on weather is energy storage. While the weather can decrease energy production for a brief period, renewable energy sources can store excess energy when that energy is not required within the power grid6.
Why is renewable energy better suited for our future?
The main reason renewable energy is better for our future needs is its sustainable properties, helping to slow the harmful effects of climate change. We cannot continue to burn fossil fuels at our current and past levels, which would surely guarantee irreversible consequences on the environment. If we do not take responsibility now, these detrimental issues will be increasingly difficult to combat. Investing directly in renewable energy has the potential to save the world trillions of dollars in damages caused by the future effects of climate change.
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