life activity, for making our morning coffee to the bus or train that takes us to work or to charge our phones. As users, we are mainly interested in having a constant supply of energy which is also affordable so we can go on with our life. Where the energy comes from is rarely something we are aware of unless it carries financial implications. But the reality is that the majority of our energy needs are met by forms of non-renewable energy, in particular fossil fuels. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the world generates more than 66% of its electricity from fossil fuels, and another 8% from nuclear energy¹. Both fossil fuels and nuclear are considered sources of non-renewable energy.
This is a staggering figure given all the scientific evidence that indicate that the use of fossil fuels is bad for our health and bad for the environment, to the extent that the environmental consequences are also in turn affecting our wellbeing. For example, air pollution is a global threat. Burning fossil fuels can cause lung damage and respiratory illnesses². Indeed, air quality is so bad that a report from the World Health Organization concluded that an average of 2 million people are killed worldwide every year due to air pollution³. Beyond our health, it is also undisputable that the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuels are damaging our planet through climate change. Nuclear energy emits considerable less carbon dioxide, but carries different concerns, for example the extraction of uranium and disposal of radioactive waste, as well as a higher risk of operation given the profound damages of accidents. A more detailed analysis of the pros and cons of nuclear energy can be found here.
So if we are aware of all these facts, how is it that we are still using primarily non-renewable resources?
Well, as frustrating as it may seem to us, non-renewable sources of energy are still here for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, it is an issue of cost. Our economies have been built around the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. To change, we would need to develop clear plans that provide predictability so that businesses can switch to investing and deploying renewables. Even when governments propose ambitious plans, their success also requires buy-in from fossil fuel companies, which over the decades have accumulated a lot of wealth and have become important industry stakeholders. In other words, it is no easy task, especially when fossil fuels are cheaper compared to alternative sources of energy particularly and in many cases subsidised by governments.
In many cases, fossil fuel prices are reaching a historic low despite concerns regarding limited reserves. This is due to a number of reasons, including previously inaccurate assessment of already identified reserves or the fact that today the technology for identifying a potential reserve and quantifying its potential have also evolved enormously⁴. Nuclear energy requires a lot of investment upfront, but once built a nuclear power plant can provide a steady stream of energy for decades.
Second, switching to non-renewables requires also a mentality change from consumers. Beyond “not in my backyard” arguments where consumers have objected to renewable sources of energy being built close to where they live – particularly wind turbines – consumers may have a more active role in a renewable energy future. This is because it is unlikely that a fully renewable energy future will rely on the same centralised distribution of energy. To put it simply, today most energy is disseminated to households and businesses through one central source. This is because of the way that energy is generated. However, it is possible that if renewables become the norm that households can power their own needs and give excess back to the grid thereby also generating some revenue. This creates a two-way relationship between the energy provider and the consumer – one which also requires an upgrade of energy grids in most of the developed world to enhance connectivity and efficiency. This highlights a further investment need.
Third, and also very important, is the state of renewable technology today. Major advancements have been made in terms of efficiency and storage. Many countries are increasingly power their energy needs with renewables. A striking example is Denmark where more than 40% of energy comes from wind power alone – on particularly windy days it runs a surplus and can then send energy to Norway, Sweden and Germany. The plan of Danish government is to reach increase wind power to 50% of all energy consumption and by 2050, for Denmark to be 100% free of fossil fuel⁵. Other countries are making a lot of progress too, such as Costa Rica, a small country in Latin America that was able to run for two whole months only using renewable energy⁶.
But the reality is that renewable energy technology cannot be deployed to such an extent that it can meet our energy needs globally. It is true that renewable energy is becoming increasingly more competitive vis-à-vis some non-renewable sources of energy. For example, solar electricity is now cheaper to produce in Dubai than electricity coming from gas turbines⁷. At the same time, we have witnessed a number of technology breakthroughs such as the Tesla Powerwall, a home battery that can power most homes during the evening using electricity generated by solar panels or the utility grid during the day⁷.
But for those successes to mean that we can use renewable energy anytime, anywhere and most importantly as much as we need to, we need a transition period. And unavoidably, among the energy sources that will make up our energy mix during that transition period, we will have to include some non-renewable energy sources. The most important question, however, is which non-renewable energy sources will be selected, to what extent and for how long. For example, one could argue that natural gas is an attractive option due to the fact that it is less polluting to the environment and emits less CO2⁸ compared to coal.
So let’s limit the use of non-renewable resources but let us also not forget that some of these non-renewable energy resources will be key for us to achieve our fully renewable future!