Renewable Energy More Competitive But Still Undeveloped
The benefits of renewable energy stem from its natural sustainability. It comes from energy resources that are naturally replenished within a human time scale – either through natural ecological cycles (plants, animals, water) or through natural, chemical or physical processes (sunlight, wind).
These clean sources of energy are the heart of any rational climate action plan, and need the maximum investment.
The most-used renewable energy is hydropower (hydroelectricity). A long way behind comes offshore/onshore wind power and solar power. The niche source, geothermal energy (from underground heat sources) is less common again, though very important in certain parts of the world. Organic biomass, produced from a wide variety of organic materials, is becoming more important, although it remains difficult to quantify. (Estimates of its contribution range from 1-10%.)
Not long ago, these renewable sources were not very popular – when compared to conventional sources like oil or natural gas – because of their unreliability and cost. But because of our climate crisis and the need to get global warming under control, a huge amount of money has been spent on researching and developing renewable technologies. As a result, they are becoming much more competitive than they used to be, to the extent that fossil fuels have largely lost their price advantage.
Of course, if fossil fuel companies had to pay for the full environmental cost of their mining and drilling operations, as well as the damage caused to the planet, it’s likely that renewable fuels would be ridiculously cheap, by comparison.
Renewable energy is not necessarily 100 percent “clean energy.” Some forms do emit greenhouse gases when burned as well as pollution. For example, the World Health Organization has identified wood burning as a major source of indoor air pollution in Africa and Asia from open cooking fires. 1
However, in general, renewables are far better because they reduce the dangerous environmental effects of fossil fuels and rebalance our climate system. Even so, we are a long way from phasing out fossil fuels, which are likely to remain an important feature of our energy supply until well into the next century.
Renewable energy is usually but not necessarily “sustainable energy”. Meaning, if the rate of use exceeds the rate of renewal, its continued use will become unsustainable. Intensive cultivation of plant biomass, for example, may lead to gradually reduced yields until the land becomes exhausted. Fortunately, most of the other renewables are virtually inexhaustible. See also: Sustainable Energy Explained.
Despite their growing popularity, renewable energies are still woefully under-developed. More resources are needed to invent and engineer the necessary technologies to make clean energy a practical solution in all cases. But the benefits are becoming more obvious 2 and investment is slowly growing. 3 4
Benefit 1. Renewable Energy Helps To Limit Global Warming
All fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, natural gas) contain carbon. When they are burned, the carbon combines with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide (CO2). Before the Industrial Revolution (c.1750-1850), the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 288 parts per million (ppm). Now it is over 410 ppm. This man-made increase in CO2 derives from the ever-growing amounts of fossil fuel that are burned to meet our industrial and domestic energy needs.
Unfortunately, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it traps heat trying to escape from Earth, rather like a warm coat prevents a person’s body heat from escaping. As a result of this so-called “greenhouse effect“, the temperature of the Earth is a comfortable 15°C instead of the frosty minus 18°C it would be, if there were no greenhouse gases.
The problem is, we are burning so much coal, so much petroleum and so much natural gas, that our climate system – the system that keeps everything in balance – can’t cope with the huge greenhouse gas emissions we are producing. As a result, rising temperatures are causing major damage to ecosystems around the world, triggering sea level rise, rapid thawing of permafrost and a serious loss of biodiversity.
This is why renewable fuels are so important. We need to decarbonize our economies in order to reduce the effects of global warming and prevent irreversible damage to our planet.
How Much Carbon Dioxide Does Renewable Energy Produce Compared To Fossil Fuel?
Most sources of renewable energy produce little or no emissions of CO2. Even when all the emissions of a renewable technology’s “life-cycle” – its manufacture, installation, operation and wind-down – are included, the level of CO2 emitted remains minimal. This is one of the most important benefits of renewable energy.
That said, it’s very difficult to arrive at precise emission-comparisons between the numerous fuel types, let alone the difficulties involved in calculating “life-cycle” emission totals. Here are two such comparisons of average mid-range values, conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 and 2011.
Life Cycle CO2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Energy Source
- Notice the huge difference in CO2 emissions between fossil fuels (coal, gas) and renewables. Oil was not included as it is not a significant contributor to electric power. The difference between all the renewables is small, except for biomass. This is nothing unusual, as emissions from biomass combustion vary wildly according to the biomaterial used. 5
- Based on these figures, increasing the ratio of renewable to fossil fuel energy, allows us to significantly decarbonize our electricity generation and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions accordingly.
- A study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) concluded that if 80 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from renewable sources, by 2050, it will reduce the electricity sector’s emissions by approximately 81 percent. 6
Benefit 2. Renewable Energy Provides Better Global Health For All
Fossil fuel companies are responsible for a number of public health problems all stemming from damage to the environment caused by their operations. Among the most insidious problems are air pollution and contamination of the water supply. By comparison, clean air is one of the key global benefits of renewable energy.
Video footage of photochemical smog in cities like Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles testifies to the fog-like effects of emissions from internal combustion engines, with murky skies full of tiny aerosols – microscopic particles of lung-filling pollutants. This material includes:
- Particulate matter, such as black carbon emitted from vehicle exhausts. Diesel exhaust pollution is one of the largest sources of global air pollution. 7
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Nitrogen oxides (NOx). In sunlight, VOCs react with nitrogen oxides, like nitrous oxide, to form ground level ozone, one of the main constituents of urban smog.
- Carbon monoxide (CO), a poisonous gas emitted primarily from cars and trucks, accounting for over a third of all CO emissions.
The growing use of electric vehicles (EVs) should have a significant reduction effect on fossil fuel pollution in cities, since electrified cars, buses and trucks emit no pollutants of any kind.
These chemicals are linked to several respiratory illnesses, including asthma, choking, lung irritation, pneumonia and influenza. Some are associated with cancer.
One study, published in Nature magazine, revealed that smog in the Chinese city of Jinan (pop: 8,700,000), during the period 2011–15, was linked to a 5.87 percent rise in the rate of overall mortality. 8 Delhi is the world’s most polluted city, with roughly 10,500 pollution-related fatalities every year. 9 The city has the highest level of PM2.5, the smallest and most dangerous type of particulate matter. High levels of air pollution in the city have led to a significant increase in lung-related conditions (notably asthma and lung cancer) among Delhi’s women and children. 10 See: Health Effects of Air Pollution.
Contamination Of Water Supplies
Many of the localities around the world used by fossil fuel companies for mining are now too contaminated for safety. Toxic chemicals disgorged by mining activity – such as arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, iron, lead, manganese or selenium – can poison local drinking water for decades. 11
Waste water from mines and power plants is typically stored in large ponds or landfills, many of which contain millions of gallons of waste. There are more than one thousand of these waste ponds and more than 400 landfill sites across the United States. 12 Roughly 40 percent of these containment areas are unlined, allowing toxic materials to drain into the local water table, poisoning water supplies, causing cancer and other serious complaints. 13
The new technique of fracking for oil and gas uses millions of gallons of water. Unfortunately, between 20 percent and 40 percent of the water used for fracking that returns to the ground surface, contains toxic chemicals. 14 The safe disposal of this type of waste water is one of the known problems associated with fracking. Overall, in addition to its adverse impact on climate change due to seepage of methane gas from its installations, fracking is beginning to be seen as a hazardous and unhealthy procedure. 15 16
Renewable Energy Is Healthy Energy
Most of the health problems described stem from air and water pollution that renewable energy simply doesn’t produce. Solar, wind, and hydroelectric systems produce electricity with zero air pollution. Geothermal and biomass power plants emit some pollutants, though total emissions are always far lower than those of coal and gas-fired plants.
What’s more, wind and solar power need essentially no water to operate and therefore do not contaminate water resources or compete with agriculture, drinking water, or other water needs. In contrast, as we have seen, fossil fuels frequently have a major impact on water supplies: since coal mining and natural gas drilling can pollute sources of drinking water, while all electricity power plants fuelled by coal, gas, or oil, consume water for cooling.
Biomass and geothermal power plants, too, use water for cooling, while hydroelectric installations can disrupt river ecosystems both upstream and downstream from the dam. However, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 80-percent-by-2050 study into renewables, which included bioenergy and geothermal energy, found that water usage would decrease significantly if renewable energy were to overtake fossil fuels. 17
Benefit 3. Renewable Energy Provides More Economic Benefits
Jobs In the Global Renewable Energy Sector?
The fossil fuel industries that dominate our planet, are mostly highly mechanized and capital intensive. By contrast, renewable energy is, pro rata, more labor intensive. Solar panels need to be installed; wind farms need to be maintained and so on. In any event, more jobs are created for each kilowatt of electricity generated from renewables than from fossil fuels. What’s more, renewables are driving the whole “clean energy” agenda, which itself is a huge employer.
Globally, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the renewable energy sector employed 11 million people around the world in 2018, an increase of 700,000 jobs from 2017, growing 7 percent in just 12 months. The largest share of renewable sector jobs is taken by the primary markets in China, the U.S., Brazil, India and the EU, with Asia maintaining a 60 percent stake.
China continues to lead employment in the global sector with roughly 4 million direct and indirect employees, followed by the European Union bloc (1,235,000 jobs), Brazil (1,125,000 jobs), the United States (855,000 jobs), and India (719,000 jobs). Around the world, solar PV supports the highest employment in the renewable energy sector, with roughly 3.6 million jobs. Biofuels and hydropower follow closely behind, employing about 2,063,000 and 2,054,000 people.
Jobs in U.S. Renewable Energy Sector
In the United States, clean energy is cleaning up! For instance, according to a new report entitled “2019 Clean Jobs America”, issued by the nonpartisan business group E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), if all clean tech jobs are factored in – including renewable energy, clean vehicles, energy storage and energy efficiency, the total of clean energy jobs in the U.S. climbed to 3.26 million in 2018 – an increase of 3.6 percent over the previous year. This means that clean energy jobs outnumber fossil fuel jobs 3-to-1. 18
According to the report, the energy efficiency sector added the most new jobs in 2018. In fact, as of 2018 “more Americans work in energy efficiency (2.3 million) than there are waiters and waitresses in America’s bars and restaurants (2.25 million).” And this doesn’t include the 486,000 jobs in the auto parts supply chain relating to fuel efficiency.
According to the 2019 U.S. Energy Employment Report (USEER) jobs in electrical power generation, including both renewable and fossil fuel energy sources, declined nearly one percent in 2018. In this sector, solar power supported 242,343 jobs, coal supported 86,202 jobs, and natural gas supported 43,526 jobs. 19
Extra Economic Benefits of Renewable Energy
As well as the growing economic benefits of the “clean energy” sector, described above, there are several direct benefits to be gained by the renewable energy sector.
- Local governments also profit from clean energy, usually in the form of property and income taxes and other payments from renewable energy project owners.
- Landowners of wind farm sites receive lease payments related to installed capacity, power lines and access road rights-of-way.
- Farmers and rural landowners can also generate extra income by cultivating biomass feedstocks.
- According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 25-by-2025 national renewable electricity standard would lead to $263.4 billion in new capital investment in renewable energy projects, $11.5 billion in new property tax revenue for local communities, $13.5 billion in new landowner income from wind farm leasing payments and/or biomass production.
- Renewable energy sources like solar power, wind power and even hydropower, can be exploited on a small scale by off-grid homes, businesses or communities, especially in non-developed countries. This provides a source of low-cost power for a variety of purposes, many of which will have economic benefits. Installing solar panels, for instance, allows a house-owner to generate their own electricity, possibly reducing your energy bill to zero. In the United States, the average annual savings to be made from becoming self-sufficient in electricity range from $10,483 in Washington to $30,523 in Massachusetts. 21
- Stable prices is another benefit. Although it may be costly to install renewable energy facilities, they are cheap to operate because you don’t have to buy any fuel. And eliminating the cost of fuel significantly lowers the cost of the electricity produced. Also, it means that the price of renewable electricity isn’t vulnerable to price hikes, like it is with coal, oil or natural gas.
- World Health Organization (WHO) “Household air pollution and health”.
- For example, energy efficiency (EE) and renewable energy (RE) can benefit public health and climate change by displacing emissions from fossil-fuelled power generation units (EGUs). “Health and climate benefits of different energy-efficiency and renewable energy choices.” Buonocore, J., Luckow, P., Norris, G. et al. Nature Clim Change 6, 100–105 (2016).
- “Local Renewable Energy Benefits and Resources.” EPA.
- “Renewable Energy”: IRENA.
- Moomaw, W., P. Burgherr, G. Heath, M. Lenzen, J. Nyboer, A. Verbruggen, 2011: Annex II: Methodology. (In IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation p.193.) Cambridge University Press.
- National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). 2012. Renewable Electricity Futures Study. Volume 1, pg. 210. (PDF)
- Omidvarborna; et al. (2014). “Characterization of particulate matter emitted from transit buses fuelled with B20 in idle modes”. Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering. 2 (4): 2335–2342. (8)
- “Ambient air pollution, smog episodes and mortality in Jinan, China” Jun Zhang, Yao Liu, Liang-liang Cui, Shou-qin Liu, Xi-xiang Yin & Huai-chen Li. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 11209 (2017).
- “Delhi’s Air Has Become a Lethal Hazard and Nobody Seems to Know What to Do About It”. Time magazine. 10 February 2014.
- “Children in Delhi have lungs of chain-smokers!”. India Today. Feb 22, 2014.
- Holzman, D. C. 2011. Mountaintop removal mining: Digging into community health concerns. Environmental Health Perspectives.119(11).
- Lockwood, Alan H.; Evans, Lisa. “How Breathing Coal Ash Is Hazardous to Your Health” (PDF). Physicians for Social Responsibility.
- “Every coal waste dump site is a disaster waiting to happen.” Grist. Nathalie Baptiste. Jul 20, 2017.
- “What are the effects of fracking on the environment?” Investopedia. May 8, 2019.
- “Cumulative environmental and employment impacts of the shale gas boom.” Erin N. Mayfield, Jared L. Cohon, Nicholas Z. Muller, Ines M. L. Azevedo, Allen L. Robinson. Nature Sustainability. Vol 2. Dec 2019. 1122-1131. (16)
- “The False Promise of Natural Gas.” Philip J. Landrigan et al January 9, 2020. New England Journal of Medicine.
- Renewable Electricity Futures Study. 2012.
- “Money Talks: US Clean Energy Jobs Outnumber Fossil Fuel Jobs 3-to-1.” CleanTechnica.com. March 14th, 2019.
- “Fact Sheet – Jobs in Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Resilience.” Environmental and Energy Study Institute. July 23, 2019. (20)
- Energy Recovery Council
- UCS “Renewable Energy.” Updated Dec 20, 2017. (22)