Across the Globe
Renewable energy has the potential to vastly reduce total emissions. A clean source of energy can be used to power homes, businesses and transportation.
The main concern with renewable energy at present is the cost, as it will require huge investment to implement the infrastructure necessary to support the variability of renewable energy.
Costs are decreasing yearly however, with renewable energy emerging as a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuel sources. It has been reported that the cost of renewable energy per kWh is now on par to that of traditional power depending on location.
Renewable energy accounted for 24% of global electricity demand in 2017, which should only increase due to falling prices in solar and wind power sectors.
Concerns are commonly raised about renewable energy with regards to the carbon footprint in the actual production of turbines and solar panels. An environmental life-cycle assessment on 2 MW wind turbines was carried out, taking into account all aspects of the production cycle and continual maintenance of the turbine. It was found that these turbines offer a net benefit to carbon emissions after just five to eight months of operation. With an operation life of approximately 20 years, even turbines working at a low efficiency will provide clean, green power for the majority of their operation.
Solar power has also been found to greatly reduce carbon emissions throughout its lifetime when compared to traditional fossil fuel energy generation. Similar life-cycle assessments have found panels offer a net benefit to carbon emissions depending on location after 1-6 years. These studies of course don't confirm the greenness of renewable energy, multiple studies would have to be carried out for that. But they do seem to dispel the myth that renewable energy is just as bad for the environment as fossil fuels.
Worldwide, more and more investment from companies and governments alike is being directed into renewable energy research and installation. Ireland is positioned to benefit both environmentally and financially from this green surge.
g CO2/kWh is a commonly used metric which allows for the comparison of the carbon footprints of different energy sources. It states the number of grammes of carbon dioxide emitted to produce one kWh of energy.
The share of total energy production by renewables is complicated by the increase in energy demand every year due to an ever-expanding human population. Energy demand grew by 2.3% in 2018, the largest increase in the past decade. In order to cut emissions 45% by 2030 based on 2010 levels, the world would need to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy systems at a rate of 9 times greater than that of 2018.
Fossil fuel consumption is unfortunately increasing annually. Last year it increased by more than 275 mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) to help meet the 2.3% energy demand increase. For comparison, 114 mtoe of carbon-free energy was installed in 2018. It's not clear yet if there is much of an improvement in 2019, but it appears that the increase is nowhere near that required for the aimed reduction in global emissions.
These statistics are an unfortunate read, but they stress the urgent action needed regarding renewable energy use and installation to halt climate change. It's evident that renewable energy implementation will be futile in the long run unless we also cut global emissions across all sectors.
This chart describes contribution to total energy consumption for the end of 2018. This takes into account electricity generation as well as transport, home heating etc. Renewable energy makes up just over 10% of this, with individual solar and wind contribution insignificant in comparison to other sources. It highlights the radical wide-scale implementation of renewable energy necessary to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Taken from REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report: Link
Looking at contribution towards electricity generation, renewable energy has a much higher contribution. Hydropower is by far the biggest contributor. Wind and solar account for a small proportion which will have to increase significantly in the future
Taken from REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report: Link
Currently Ireland has a young and developing renewable energy market. It produces 30% of total energy consumption from renewable energy sources. Although this is a substantial percentage considering our position several years ago, Ireland is still far behind in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from other sources.
Ireland is finally realizing its unique potential for renewable energy growth. Situated on the edge of Europe bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Ireland is positioned in a way that allows for high exposure to wind as an energy source. There has also been recent plans to further investment into solar farms, offshore wind farms and tidal and wave energy, all sources which could help reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions.
For more information on the status of different types of renewable energy in Ireland please visit the respective renewable energy pages via the links below.
Problems with Renewable Energy
Depending on who you talk to, renewable energy is either the saviour of humanity or an expensive fantasy. Here at Grian we are obvious proponents of renewable energy, but this does not change the fact that there are noticeable issues with a global rollout of renewable energy. We include some of these problems here as we believe it's important for everyone to have a clearer understanding of what exactly Ireland and the wider world are committing to.
Wind and solar farms take up a lot of space when compared to traditional fossil fuel plants. They can require anywhere between 90-100 times more space than a natural gas plant. In order to meet a significant portion of our energy needs from renewables, vast tracts of land across the country will have to be used, primarily in our upland areas. Offshore wind should offset some of this need but as it stands the government has committed to a large increase in onshore wind capacity in Ireland. Concerns about noise pollution and visual impact of the turbines has long accompanied any proposed wind farm installations in Ireland. It's a valid concern and one that will continue to hinder renewable energy growth in Ireland and abroad.
It has been widely documented that wind turbines kill a large number of birds and bats worldwide. It is an unfortunate issue stemming from wide-scale rollout of wind farms, one that we may not fully realise the impact of until the near future. This is a concern for many however and it is hoped that a solution to this problem will be discovered soon.
The intermittency of renewable energy is the most pressing issue. Unless some way of storing renewable power is found, current wind and solar farms will never be able to provide Ireland or the rest of the planet with 100% of our energy needs. On some days renewable energy contributes less than 1% to our countries electricity demand, a significant difference from the often quoted 30%. The 30% is the contribution averaged out over a year. It's reasonable to use this figure to determine the annual renewable energy production in a country, but it ignores the issue of relying on alternative sources of energy to provide the other 99% on certain days. Current battery technology is too expensive to aid in this. Ireland will never gain energy dependence unless advancements in battery technologies are made or more reliable sources of less carbon intensive energy are found.
Recycling of wind turbines and solar panels at the end of their life will be essential if renewable energy is to be truly considered green. Grian features information on the current state of solar panel and wind turbine recycling which is worth reading. It is still unknown if the world is going to be prepared for the influx of end-of-life systems. If we are not then the successful widespread installation of renewable energy will be undermined by our inability to deal with the waste.
Development in wave and tidal power will be necessary in meeting our energy needs as well as a sustainable bio-energy sector. The use of bio-energy contributes greatly to many countries renewable energy generation but currently is more damaging to the environment than many believe. 40% of renewable energy in Ireland was produced using bioenergy (biomass, biogas, landfill gas and bioliquids). The use of biomass is only renewable if the burnt organic matter is readily replaced by new growth plants. Biogas is a product of landfills and agriculture, both of which are damaging to the environment for various reasons. Despite this, we will always need farms and potentially landfills. Harvesting bio-gas for the use of fuel and heat is a potential way to offset the emissions produced.
It's unreasonable to assume that we can just switch to renewable energy and completely quit our reliance on fossil fuels. It's possible that we may never be able to do this, that the task of switching our energy supply to a cleaner source is too expensive or unsustainable. No one really knows what's going to happen with regards to renewables. It's possible that years into the future nuclear fusion will finally be available, replacing renewable energy as the answer to global warming. Many critics of renewable energy would have us wait until such a time is upon us. We could wait, and maybe we would find other ways to power the world. But if we don't, then it will be too late to act. Renewable energy is not perfect, and we will always have issues with its use, but it's the best and only option we have in present times to avoid catastrophic damage to the planet.