Across the Globe
Renewable energy has the potential to reduce total emissions vastly. 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 a 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 with that of conventional power depending on location.
Renewable energy accounted for 29% of global electricity demand in 2020, which should only increase due to falling prices in the solar and wind power sectors. Renewables are predicted to account for almost 95% of global power capacity over the coming years. Renewable sources meet approximately 11% of the total energy demand.
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. Technology is advancing rapidly, with lifetimes of 25-30 years now being the industry standard, allowing turbines to provide clean energy 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.
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.
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 is expected to increase by up to 47% by 2050. In order to cut emissions by 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 2020.
Fossil fuel consumption is unfortunately increasing annually. The scale of renewable energy installation is not large enough to meet the ever-growing energy demand. Fossil fuel generation is set to cover 40% of additional demand in 2022 for electricity generation. This figure will be much higher for the total energy demand, as fossil fuels are still used worldwide for heating, transport, and other services.
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.
g CO2/kWh is a commonly used metric that 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.
This chart describes the contribution to total energy consumption for the end of 2018. Over 50% of total energy is used for heating and cooling purposes, highlighting the need for more efficient heating systems and investment in renewable heating options. 32% is used for transport, which will only decrease rapidly with the development and use of electric vehicles. 17% is used for electricity generation, with renewable energy being a large contributor to this. Energy generated from wind turbines, solar PV, and hydropower make up this percentage.
Taken from REN21 Renewables 2019 Global Status Report: Link
The majority of renewable energy generated contributes to electricity, but as can be seen above power only accounts for 17% of total emissions. If severe global warming is to be averted, more success in renewable energy in the transport and thermal sectors is needed. There is more progress with transport. Electric vehicles have the potentail to drastically change the above statistics. The ability to recharge using renewable electricity provides them a huge environmental advantage over other vehicles. At present, many electric vehicles are unafforable. The infrastructure in Ireland and many other countries is also not developed enough to support reliable charging. But, as battery price decreases and more people start to use electric cars, the market will evolve to switch focus to electric vehicles. It is predicted that this will happen in the decade or two. The thermal sector is more difficult. It is harder to convert renewable electricity to usable heat, with a lot of new technologies being developed to do this. Residential heat storage is growing in popularity, with the aim of reducing the fuel requirement for homeowners.
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.
We are finally realizing our 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 have 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.
Space issues, visual, and noise pollution
Danger to wildlife
Intermittency of power
Investment in other sectors
Problems with Renewable Energy
Depending on whom 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, however this is decreasing rapidly. Ireland will never gain energy dependence unless greater 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. A third 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 severe damage to the planet.