natural gas and nuclear power – have been fundamental to our economy and society. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, coal has been used to power machinery and different transport modes while gradually other forms of energy such as oil, natural gas and nuclear energy completed the modern energy mix. However, we have also come to learn about the hazardous effects of using non-renewable forms of energy.
While coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy all display different properties, they also have different ways in which they can impact our health and environment. For example, fossil fuels such as oil and coal, are highly polluting emitting different particles and substances into our air which can cause a variety of respiratory and other diseases. In addition, they release carbon dioxide which is the primary culprit behind climate change. While natural gas does not emit CO2, it is mainly composed of methane which is a potent greenhouse gas and greatly contributes to climate change. But it is not only emissions that are a cause of concern when it comes to fossil fuels: their method of extraction and the waste generated can impact local communities and resources. Coal mining can destroy landscapes and habitats; nuclear waste is radioactive and therefore highly dangerous while oil spills can cause great environmental damage particularly to marine ecosystems.
What is more, we know that fossil fuels are a finite resource. While nuclear energy itself is renewable it can only be produced with a rare form of uranium, the stocks of which are also going to be depleted. So with the knowledge that the primary raw materials used to generate non-renewable forms of energy are being depleted and faced with ever increasing demand for energy, the world needs to take a careful look at our energy mix and ensure it is fit for the future. So, the question is not “can non-renewable resources be replaced” and “how can non-renewable resources be replaced”. In other words, we do not have a choice: sooner or later we will have to phase our non-renewable energy sources and rely on other resources to power our economies.
The clear alternative that presents itself to us is the range of renewable energy technologies that we have already developed such as solar, wind or hydro. Biomass energy which relies on plants that are processed and burned to create electricity, can also be considered a renewable form of energy if the biomass feedstocks used are sustainably sourced¹.
Challenges on the way to low carbon economy
Transitioning to a low carbon and sustainable economy will mean radical changes to the way our energy infrastructure is set up as well as our energy services system. It will also mean overcoming some technological barriers for rolling out renewable technologies systematically and across countries. For example, a common issue with some forms of renewable energy such as solar and wind is storage for later use. However, this is likely to be a concern of the past as companies such as Tesla are developing advanced battery technologies to store solar energy so that it can be used by households as and when needed².
The rise of renewables also means that new ways of trading this energy across nations will be needed. This will allow Northern European countries to sell wind energy to the South, and Southern European countries to sell solar energy to the North. Such an international power grid will provide greater reliability of supplies, helping to smooth out the intermittent power produced from renewables such as wind and solar energy. For example, the UK is linked into this network through interconnectors to Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France; another possible project involves connecting the UK with Iceland’s supply of geothermal and hydroelectric power using a subsea cable³.
Another aspect that is often neglected is the fact that the market is currently distorted against renewable energy sources. This could be easily addressed by removing the current subsidies provided particularly to fossil fuels while continuing to provide ways to support the financing of renewables which unlike fossil fuels requires more upfront investment.
After all, it is a bit counter-intuitive to question whether renewables can replace non-renewables when the cards are stacked against the first from the outset.
But recent innovations and technological developments indicate this is very much possible! This optimism is reflected in the way the market has responded: investment in renewable energy worldwide rose to $250 billion in 2010, reaching about 20% of new investment in the energy space⁴. More recent date from the EU indicates that the share of renewables is increasing as 16.4% of gross final energy consumption was produced from renewable energy sources⁵.
Countries setting an example
- Costa Rica is one such country: in 2016 around 98% of the country’s electricity came from green sources such as large hydropower facilities, geothermal plants, wind turbines, solar panels and biomass plants.
- Denmark’s wind farms supplied 140% of energy demand while Germany’s renewable capacity has peaked on several occasions to cover the country’s energy needs.
- In 2015, China set the world record for most solar power capacity installed in one year, adding enough solar panels to cover one and a half football pitches every hour of the year, day and night.
With the cost of installing renewables becoming ever more competitive and attractive as it gives households the option to power themselves as well as the potential to sell energy back to the grid, it seems that transitioning away from non-renewable energy sources is not some forward-looking exercise – we are actually living it!