Is Renewable Energy Sustainable?

Renewable Resources & Their Lifespans

Hands holding solar power as a sustainable and renewable energy source

Renewable energy is a wonderful concept, but if it is going to answer the world’s energy needs, it has to be sustainable. Although energy efficiency is improving, with an ever-growing population, the amount of energy we consume will rise. The questions are:

  1. Can renewable energy be relied on as we go forward?
  2. Will technology continue to help lower demand?
  3. Can renewable energy be relied on to replace fossil fuels?

Is renewable energy economically sustainable?

Renewable energy is contributing a growing share to the economy globally. The wind power market alone is expected to reach close to $100bn by 2025. Solar power was valued at $52.5bn in 2018 and is estimated to go over $223bn by 2026.
Not only does renewable energy offer a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, but it is creating jobs and wealth. In 2019 a report found that almost 3.3 million Americans were working in clean energy, more than three times that in fossil fuels. And the numbers are increasing. The expansion of renewables is nothing short of staggering.

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source in the U.S. and doubled in size between 2000 and 2018. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in a report published in 0ctober 2019, suggests that in the next four years, renewable power capacity is set to expand by 50%, led by solar PV and onshore wind turbines. That’s the equivalent of the total installed power capacity of the U.S. in 2019. Meanwhile, fossil fuels are becoming more costly because global supplies are rapidly depleting.

Is sustainable energy the same as renewable energy?

Commonly we use these terms interchangeably; they are not synonymous. So what is the difference between renewable and sustainable energy?

Renewable energy

Renewable energy is energy that uses a naturally replenishing source in order to create power. In other words, the source won’t ever run out as it is constantly being replaced. Theoretically, it could become unsustainable if the source is used up faster than it can naturally recover.

Commonly, the following are considered renewable energy sources:

  • Hydropower
  • Wind power
  • Solar power
  • Biomass power
  • Geothermal power

Sustainable energy

Sustainable energy is energy produced by a source that will be available for many generations and beyond. We once thought of fossil fuels as sustainable. Coal, natural gas and oil seemed to be held in the earth’s crust in such large quantities that the possibility of running short couldn’t be imagined. But with the earth’s population standing at 7.8 billion and rising, and the amount of power we need to live a 21st-century life, those resources seem remarkably small. They are certainly not sustainable.

But the word sustainable has taken on an added meaning when describing energy production. Most people now use sustainable to mean energy production that doesn’t damage the environment. Even today, this is a divisive subject, but the vast majority believe that climate change is happening and that fossil fuels are largely to blame for polluting the atmosphere.

How does renewable energy affect sustainability?

Man has been using renewable energy sources for thousands of years. We have long harnessed the power of wind and water to pump water and grind corn. The first hydroelectric power station began operating in 1882 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Small domestic wind turbines had their genesis in Scotland in 1887. It is not new, but the electricity generation by renewables has exploded in the last 20 years.

Climate change is the catalyst but not the only reason why renewable energy has received such a boost. That there is climate change is little in doubt, and that fossil fuels contribute to the problem is certain. And, fossil fuels pollute.

They produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide and particulates that both help to fuel global warming and cause acid rain and breathing problems. There is also the fact that resources of crude oil, natural gas and coal are running out. There may be disagreement about how long we’ve got left if we continue to use them at the present rate, but if it is not the present generation’s problem, it will be their children's or their children’s children.

Enough has been achieved to show that renewable energy can have the power generation capacity the world needs. The rate the technology is improving is impressive.

But what makes renewable energy sustainable?

It is that the sources tapped into are, for all intents and purposes, infinite. The sun will keep on shining, the wind to blow, the rain to fall, the tides to rise and fall, and the earth’s interior to be hot. Also, these sources are non-polluting and clean in a way no fossil fuel can be. They don’t contribute to climate change, don’t pollute the atmosphere and are green.

Is renewable energy reliable?

Renewable energy is remarkably reliable and is becoming more so. While it is true that solar power can’t generate electricity at night, and wind turbines don’t turn if the wind drops, when all sources are networked together, especially over huge areas, then the deficiencies of one can be made up for by another.
With the aid of computer modeling, sites for solar and wind farms are chosen well. They are put where they can be most efficient. Digital technologies are helping elsewhere. For instance, wind turbine blades are computer-controlled so that their pitch is always optimum.

The great breakthrough will occur when storage improves. Much time and money are being put into research on battery technology capable of storing grid-level amounts of electricity. There have already been great strides, and when we have the ability to keep the excess electricity that is generated, then the intermittency in generation will no longer be a problem.

What are examples of sustainable energy?

There are five widely recognized forms of sustainable energy:
Hydropower is the most widely used form of sustainable energy with a capacity that exceeds 1,295GW, over 54% of the earth’s renewable energy power generation capacity. That’s some 18% of all electricity generation capacity. There is controversy surrounding big hydroelectric schemes, however, because of their environmental impact.

Wind energy is next in the league table with a global installed capacity of around 600GW. China produces the highest amount of wind energy with perhaps 210GW, followed by the U.S, but many other countries have heavily invested in wind power. Wind energy, together with solar power, has changed the way we think about sustainable energy.

Solar power installed capacity has now nearly reached 500GW; the majority being produced by photovoltaic (PV) technology. Concentrated solar power (CSP) technology is newer but increasing rapidly. With a growth rate of about 25% a year for the last few years, solar power is the fastest expanding sustainable.
Biomass energy is fourth on the list, with a production capacity of about 120GW. Biomass energy is another way of using the sun’s energy by first letting organisms convert that energy into carbohydrates. The energy is released when it is burnt for heat, converted into electricity or processed into biofuel. The world’s biggest biomass power plant can be found in the Severn Gorge, Shropshire, in the U.K. It has an electricity generating capacity of 740MW.

Geothermal power generation capacity reached 15.4GW at the end of 2019, the fifth-biggest renewable energy source in the world. Only a third of this energy is used in generating electricity; the rest is used for direct heating.

Why is sustainable energy so important?

The world is facing a climate change crisis and the time to act is now. Sustainable, renewable, green energy sources will allow us to phase out the carbon dioxide producing, polluting fossil fuels that we have previously relied on. They offer clean energy from self-replenishing power sources so that we can still enjoy the benefits provided by technology, without damaging the environment further.

There are those out there that deny climate change or at least deny its dangers, but scientific evidence is compelling. A world without power is dreadful to imagine, but fossil fuels are a finite resource. They will run out in the next 50 or 100 years, but during that time, they will continue to damage the ozone layer, add to global warming, cause acid rain and pollute the atmosphere. Sustainable energy gives us the chance to have power that produces no pollution and may help reverse climate change or, at the least, limit its effects.

If you believe, as we do, that clean, renewable energy is the future, then it’s time to join us and make the switch to renewable energy. The signing up process is quick and easy, and we will guarantee that our electricity comes only from clean, renewable, sustainable energy sources that doesn’t pollute. You will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something to support and invest in the green energy movement and help prevent climate change. Click here to sign up in just a few minutes and do your part for the environment.