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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Renewable Energy
Inspire Clean Energy
17 min read
category: Clean Energy 101
Renewable energy has become a buzzword in the media in recent years, especially as more people and businesses start to take the effects of climate change seriously and take steps to reduce their carbon footprints. While we all know that supporting and using renewable energy is a step in the right direction, is it as great as it seems? Does it have any disadvantages? Let's dive into some important details and find out for ourselves.
Why renewable energy?
There are two main reasons why renewable energy has become so popular and so essential:
Fossil fuels (gas, petroleum, diesel, coal) are running out – and fast. Experts believe that we only have about 50 years' worth of oil deposits and 150 years' worth of coal remaining at the current usage rate1.
Electricity powers our world, but generating it is a dirty business. Electricity powered from unsustainable, nonrenewable sources is one of the biggest contributors to air pollution in the U.S. To make matters worse, it also pollutes our waterways and land.
If we don't start switching over to renewable energy, we will simply run out of fossil fuels and be unable to supply the world with the electricity it needs to run properly, causing irreparable damage to the environment and people's lives. While these things can sound like part of a plot to a sci-fi movie, it's the alarming future we have ahead of ourselves if we don't embrace renewable energy sources.
What are the advantages of renewable energy?
There are lots of advantages to using renewable energy, here are just a few:
- Abundant by nature: Even when it comes to renewable sources that aren't from never-ending sources (such as wind power and solar power), they can still be reproduced quickly. Biofuel can generate electricity and can be created from various waste products collected from the farming industry. And while biofuel is not as clean as other renewables and won't get us out of the woods when it comes to reversing the impacts of climate change, it is a reliable renewable source. It also helps us make sure that we maintain large areas of farming land, which allows the exchange of CO₂ back into oxygen as the plants in these areas grow.
- Clean: While biofuel may not be particularly clean, many energy generation methods are. Wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower are all clean and don't generate much — if any — pollution when installed and run.
- Suitable for the planet: Clean forms of renewable energy don't damage the health of our planet like fossil fuels do. This isn't only because they don't create any pollution, but also because they stay put once they're up and running. Throughout history, our dependency on fossil fuels has meant that we have to constantly search for new oil, coal and gas deposits and then dig down thousands of feet into the earth to extract them. And because this can't be done without dislodging the soil considerably, it often leaves behind huge scars on the surface of our planet.
How do nonrenewable energy sources harm our health?
Most renewable energy sources create little-to-no pollution. And because air pollution in cities causes significant and even life-threatening breathing problems, such as asthma, lung cancer and lung disease, we need to work hard to minimize the pollutants we add to the air2.
Currently, electricity generation from nonrenewable sources is responsible for the production of:
- Sulfur dioxide — causes acid rain, which is becoming more common and contributes to the respiratory diseases mentioned above.
- Nitrogen oxide — creates ground-level smog and adds to the ozone when it comes into contact with sunlight. This irritates the lungs and makes catching a cold or the flu more likely.
- Ozone — this is good when it's up high above the planet, but when it accumulates closer to the earth's surface through electricity generation, it can make breathing difficult, even on a short-term basis. People who live in high-ozone areas, such as inner-city environments, have been known to experience higher rates of lung disease and cancer.
- Soot and particulates from coal plants — these and similar byproducts can contribute to respiratory issues and lead to cancer, as it makes it easier for free radicals to find their way into your cells3.
- Carbon dioxide — one of the significant causes of climate change. Climate change does not simply make some days incredibly hot and others cold; it also creates environments that make it easier for us to get sick.
- Mercury poisoning — when coal power plants release mercury, it can find its way into the cells of fish in nearby waterways, as well as into the water and food supplies of other animals. When we then eat those animals, we can be exposed to mercury. And as mercury accumulates in our food chain, it's essential to educate yourself about it, mainly if you eat fish often.
- Nuclear power plants — though less common, the danger posed by these facilities is of equal concern. We need only look to Fukushima and Chernobyl to see the potential damage a nuclear power plant can cause if something goes wrong.
If we can reduce and even eliminate many of these issues, our cities and countries could enjoy air quality that's clean and healthy, improving our communities' health and the quality of the air worldwide.
Can renewable energy help the economy?
Absolutely. While most of us probably associate energy with all the oil tycoons and money from fossil fuel production, renewable energy is much more beneficial to the economy, particularly on a local scale. Renewable energy farms can bring new life to rural areas that are quickly forgotten and left behind in the U.S. Where land is cheap, there is potential to place a wind or solar farm if the conditions are right. This can create jobs, boost the local economy and generate more tax revenue for small governments to provide better facilities for people.
Can renewable energy help the environment?
All forms of renewable energy can help improve the state of the environment. Even biofuel, which still produces some pollution, helps support more plants that exchange CO₂ back into O₂ during daylight hours. Other forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, create almost no pollution at all over their lifetimes. So, besides the actual physical space each farm or plant takes up, they aren't taking anything away from the environment.
What are the common types of renewable energy that we can support?
There are six common forms of renewable energy that we can support, including:
- Solar power: Solar power is created using photovoltaic panels to harness the sun's energy and turn it into electricity. It's now a common sight to see solar panels on people's homes or even drive past a solar farm. While solar panels aren't quite sensitive enough to power our world in a significant way, the technology behind them is multiplying.
- Wind power: Wind power is one of the most promising forms of renewable energy, and it's one of the most common forms of clean electricity that Inspire purchases on behalf of our members (learn more about Inspire and how we can be your renewable energy supplier). Most wind farms are found in super windy areas or even out at sea.
- Geothermal: Geothermal power is created by harnessing naturally occurring heat from the earth to produce electricity. If you think back to your elementary science classes, you'll remember that the center of the planet is sweltering and cools bit by bit as it gets closer to the surface.
- Bioenergy: Bioenergy, also known as biofuel, is created by burning plant matter to generate energy. While it's not as clean as some of the other methods on this list, it is still renewable and far better than fossil fuels for the environment.
- Hydropower: Hydropower is generated by using the natural power of running water to turn generators that produce electricity. This uses the same method as old water mills.
- Hydrogen: Hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. New technology is developing every day, which brings more possibilities to utilize this renewable energy source4.
What renewable source produces the most energy?
The renewable energy source that is used most in the world today is hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power is a reliable renewable energy source that is inexpensive, easily stored, and easily transmitted. And in addition, hydropower produces electricity without fuel combustion. The production and generation of hydroelectric power do not release any carbon dioxide or other pollutants into the air like power plants that burn coal, oil, and natural gas. Additionally, the technology is not all that new, and some modern hydroelectric power plants have been in use for over 100-years. Because hydroelectric power emits zero carbon emissions and the technology is relatively simple, hydroelectric power has become the largest renewable energy source in the world5.
Top seven largest hydroelectric producers in the world (2020)6:
- China: China became the largest producer of hydroelectric power back in 1996, and they have maintained that title ever since. In 2020, China had a total installed hydropower capacity of 356.4 gigawatts. China also has two of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world.
- Brazil: Brazil is home to one of the largest and most powerful rivers globally, the Amazon River. With the Amazon River comes thousands of tributaries and other smaller rivers. In 2020, Brazil possessed over 109.1 gigawatts of hydroelectric generation capacity.
- United States: The U.S. is home to some of the most famous dams globally, including Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam located in Washington State on the Columbia River. In 2020, the U.S. had an installed hydroelectric capacity of over 102.8 gigawatts.
- Canada: Canada has been surging in hydroelectric capacity over the last decade. In 2020, Canada had over 81.4 gigawatts of total hydroelectric capacity. This number will be sure to grow through 2021.
- India: India has made purchasing a certain amount of hydroelectric power a legal mandate for the country's utility companies. In 2020, India had over 50.1 gigawatts of hydroelectric capacity.
- Japan: In 2020, Japan grew its hydropower capacity to almost 50 gigawatts.
- Russia: Russia is tied with Japan for hydroelectric power capacity as of 2020 with nearly 50 gigawatts.
What are the causes of renewable energy growth?
There are many reasons that renewable energy has become increasingly popular and more common in countries worldwide. The increasing awareness of how fossil fuel use negatively impacts our environment and contributes to climate change combined with undeniable scientific evidence significantly contributes to the increased investment of renewable energy sources.
Aside from environmental impact, many economic and political reasons have also contributed to the growth of renewable energy sources. First, the cost of renewable energy has fallen dramatically in recent years. This decrease in overall cost has made renewable energy sources competitive with more traditional fossil fuel energy generation methods. In some cases, renewable energy sources have become less expensive than fossil fuels. The continued advancement of renewable energy technology and its efficiency may decrease overall costs and motivate governments and private industries to increase their investments in renewable energy projects.
Aside from the environmental and economic reasons that renewable energy use continues to grow, you may have to consider the political and policy-making decisions that have helped renewable energy industries to flourish. As hurricanes, heat waves, wildfires and extreme weather are becoming more common, there is an increasing outcry from the public who want to see real change enacted to save their homes and businesses from nature-related destruction. Extreme weather contributes to billions of dollars in destruction in the U.S. alone. This fact has motivated many voters to select candidates for public office that are pro-renewables. These same politicians are responsible for adopting the policies that help contribute to an increase in renewable energy use. For example, some would say that the tax credits given for private residential and commercial solar use could be seen as one of the significant contributors to the recent surge in solar panel installations.
Climate change is also making businesses think about how they look to the average consumer. It has become quite popular for American companies to create marketing campaigns highlighting their commitment to renewable energy sources and what actions they have and will take to become carbon neutral. Consumers have the power to choose which companies and products they want to spend their money on. A company known for creating great harm to the environment could receive negative publicity and essentially a boycott from consumers who wish companies to be leaders in the fight against climate change7.
What are the disadvantages of renewable energy?
Of course, no fuel source is perfect. When it comes to powering our world, we will always have some impact. Here are some of the disadvantages:
- Renewable energy infrastructure will need to be produced from scratch, which is expensive and time-consuming.
- There isn't currently enough electricity to power the world, and developing it isn't consistent enough. For example, wind turbines can only generate electricity when there is enough wind but have trouble doing so if there is too little.
- It's more challenging to store renewably generated energy. When using coal for electricity, the coal can sit in a pile until it's needed. But this isn't how it works with many renewable sources, as we can't rely on the energy source being there when we need it. So, we need significant batteries to store excess energy.
- Wind and solar farms need a large amount of space to generate enough power, so the more renewable energy we need, the more freedom we'll need to develop it.
Is renewable or nonrenewable more efficient?
Renewable energy is more efficient than its nonrenewable counterparts, depending on which renewable energy source you are examining. For example, the most inefficient renewable energy source is solar thermal energy. Solar thermal energy uses the sun's energy to heat water, create steam, and use the steam to turn turbines and generate electricity. Solar thermal energy is not the same as solar panels to harness the sun's power and convert it into electricity.
Even though solar thermal energy is the most inefficient renewable energy source, it could still be considered more efficient than oil or coal that needs to be extracted from the earth, refined, transported all around the world, and then burned. There is a lot of excess energy dispensed in the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil fuels to generate electricity. On the opposite spectrum, you have wind energy. Once a wind turbine is installed, it will take the wind and convert it into electricity that measures over 1,164% more energy than its original input.
As renewable energy technology continues to become more advanced, the question of whether renewable or nonrenewable energy is more efficient will not even be a debate anymore. Renewable energy is already more efficient, and it will continue to increase that efficiency into the future.
Can renewable energy be expensive?
Renewable energy isn't expensive to generate, but getting the infrastructure in place can be a costly process. So, while renewable energy will likely be cheaper for the consumer in the future, it's going to take time and financial resources to get everything up and running.
Does renewable energy save money?
The price of producing electricity from renewable energy sources has decreased dramatically in the last decade. Specifically, the cost of large-scale solar projects has fallen over 85% in the previous decade. Over the same period, we also can see a reduction in the price of installing and constructing new wind farms. The cost of onshore wind farms has decreased by 13%, where offshore wind projects have become 9% cheaper. Because of this, renewable energy is now just as affordable or even cheaper than using fossil fuels to generate electricity8.
This dramatic decrease in charge has made renewable energy sources even more popular due to their ability to be competitive with traditional fossil fuels. This price competitiveness, combined with the environmental benefits of renewable energy sources, makes it much more plausible for countries to continue transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as their primary sources of energy production.
Is renewable energy reliable?
If a variety of different forms of renewable energy are working together, then yes, it is reliable. However, sources like wind and solar power tend to be a bit unreliable since we can't control the weather, so they may not be able to generate adequate amounts of electricity depending on the season.
Are there geographic limitations when it comes to renewable energy?
Solar power farms must be placed with relatively intense sunshine for as much of the year as possible. Similarly, wind power farms must be located in an area with moderately severe wind most of the year. Hydropower obviously can't produce energy without a moving water supply. We can transport coal, but, of course, not the sun.
Which countries are the leaders in renewable energy?
Many countries have made pledges and strides toward moving their energy generation methods away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Here are a few examples of some countries that have made the most ambitious commitments and achieved many of their renewable energy goals9:
- Uruguay: Uruguay has been able to transform its entire electric infrastructure in only 10-years. As of 2012, Uruguay got 40% of its energy needs met from renewable energy sources. Today, Uruguay receives 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources.
- Costa Rica: Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The government and its citizenry are almost unanimously committed to protecting the rich biodiversity and environment that makes their country unique. Costa Rica aims to be entirely carbon neutral by the end of 2021 and already gets 95% of its electricity needs met by combining hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, and wind energy.
- Sweden: Sweden has declared that it will 100% eliminate fossil fuels for energy generation by 2040. Sweden is also committed to clean transport.
- Scotland: One of the leaders in wind energy is Scotland. Scotland gets 98% of its energy needs met by wind farms.
- Morocco: Morocco is investing heavily in solar energy and hopes to produce over 50% of its electricity through solar power by 2021.
- Kenya: Kenya gets half of its electricity from geothermal energy. Their wind energy industry is on the rise as well.
The countries listed above have made excellent progress in changing the way their country produces energy. Their commitment to utilizing renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels is an inspiration to the rest of the world.
Can we overcome the current problems of renewable energy?
Yes, we can overcome them! Ultimately, we will have to if we want future generations to continue to have electricity. Solar panels are becoming more effective and less expensive, as wind power turbines are becoming more efficient, and so on. One of the best ways to help overcome these problems sooner is to increase the demand for renewable energy, so more money is invested.
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