What Are The Biggest Drawbacks To Using Alternative Energy?


One of the biggest drawbacks of solar and wind power is that they are intermittent energy sources, meaning their power output fluctuates based on environmental conditions (Renewable Energy Intermittency Explained). The sun does not shine at night, and its intensity varies throughout the day and seasons. Similarly, wind speed is inconsistent and can change rapidly. This intermittency presents challenges for integrating high levels of solar and wind onto the electric grid, since supply must match demand at all times to maintain grid reliability (What is Intermittency in Renewable Energy?). Unlike traditional power plants which provide stable, controllable output, solar and wind farms can only produce energy when sufficient sunlight or wind resource is available.

High Upfront Costs

One of the biggest drawbacks of alternative energy like wind and solar power is the high upfront costs required to build out the infrastructure and facilities. According to Wind Turbine Cost: How Much? Are They Worth It in 2023?, the typical cost for a commercial wind turbine is around $1.3 million per megawatt (MW) of electricity production capacity. Most utility-scale wind farms require dozens or even hundreds of wind turbines to produce enough power, so the initial investment can easily reach into the billions.

Likewise, large solar farms or solar panel installations cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars depending on the scale and solar power capacity. According to DirectEnergy, the average cost for a professionally installed home solar system is $8,000 to $9,000. Commercial solar farms can cost over $1 million per MW capacity.

This high initial investment, especially compared to fossil fuel power plants, can deter adoption of renewable energy. Companies and utilities must secure large amounts of upfront capital to construct alternative energy facilities and wait years for returns on investment. The high upfront costs also get passed on to consumers through their electricity bills. However, over the long term, lower operating costs make alternative energy cost-competitive.

Low Energy Density

One of the biggest drawbacks of renewable energy sources like solar and wind is their relatively low energy density compared to fossil fuels. According to research, gasoline has an energy density that is 10 quadrillion times higher than solar radiation and 1 billion times higher than wind and hydro power. Coal, natural gas, and oil are millions of times more energy dense than sunlight and moving air (https://drexel.edu/~/media/Files/greatworks/pdf_sum10/WK8_Layton_EnergyDensities.ashx).

This means that renewable energy sources require much more land area to generate the same amount of energy as fossil fuels. One study found that wind power has a 10-fold lower power density than solar PV, so wind farms need even more space than solar installations to produce equivalent power (https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aae102/meta). The large land footprint required is one of the biggest limitations for scaling up renewables.

Fossil fuel power plants can produce tremendous amounts of electricity from a small footprint, while solar and wind farms require vast amounts of land and spacing to capture diffuse sunlight and wind. This lower energy density often means renewable energy projects face more siting and land use constraints.

Storage Limitations

One of the biggest challenges with renewable energy sources like solar and wind is that they are intermittent and unreliable. The sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing, so storing the energy they produce for later use is vital.

However, storing large amounts of energy from renewables is difficult. Batteries can store electricity for short periods when renewable supply exceeds demand, but aren’t cost-effective or feasible for long-term, utility-scale storage. Pumped hydro storage can store large amounts of energy by pumping water uphill into reservoirs when supply exceeds demand, then releasing it through turbines when energy is needed. However, geographical constraints limit suitable sites. Other storage methods like compressed air energy storage and flywheels have their own limitations.

According to an analysis from Arizona State University, “One of the main challenges in the energy industry at the moment is how to meet peak demand for renewables. Solar and wind generation, for example, produce intermittent power output that is determined by weather conditions. Having the ability to store excess power when supply exceeds demand, and to then deliver power when demand exceeds supply, can help overcome the intermittency issue.”1

Without cost-effective, large-scale energy storage solutions, the intermittent availability of renewable sources remains a key obstacle to their widespread adoption and ability to fully replace fossil fuels.

Transmission Capacity

One of the biggest challenges facing renewable energy growth is the need for major upgrades and expansions to our electrical grid and transmission infrastructure. Most renewable energy like wind and solar is location constrained, meaning it can only be generated where the resource is abundant. However, our existing transmission infrastructure was designed around large centralized fossil fuel power plants near major population centers. To take full advantage of renewable resources, substantial investment is needed in new long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines to transport the electricity from source to demand regions.

According to the Department of Energy, meeting projected growth in renewable energy will require expanding transmission capacity by 60% by 2030. Currently there is a significant backlog of proposed transmission projects to bolster interconnectivity and renewable energy integration, but permitting, planning, and constructing new transmission corridors takes considerable time and faces siting challenges. Upgrading and expanding transmission infrastructure is essential to unlock the full potential of renewable energy nationwide. (https://www.energy.gov/policy/queued-need-transmission)

Aesthetic Impact

Large solar and wind farms are sometimes considered an eyesore by nearby residents and passersby. The sheer scale of wind and solar farms, with rows upon rows of panels and turbines extending for acres, can create a significant visual impact on the surrounding landscape.

Some find the metallic glint and uniform, repetitive structure of massive solar farms unsightly, detracting from a more natural vista. Others complain that sprawling wind farms clutter horizons and ruin otherwise scenic views. There are concerns that sightlines to architectural or historic landmarks may be disrupted.

According to a study from the University of Barcelona [1], visual intrusion is one of the primary factors affecting public acceptance of solar projects. Proper siting to avoid major sightlines and blending panels into surroundings may help reduce aesthetic impact.

With wind farms, some argue the tall, revolving turbines are a blight on landscapes. Others find them visually interesting or even beautiful additions. Photographer Alex MacLean’s aerial images have highlighted the mesmerizing patterns and symmetry of wind farms.

Overall, the large scale of wind and solar projects makes their aesthetic impact unavoidable in many cases. Careful siting, design choices, and community involvement may help reduce visual concerns.

Wildlife Disruption

Large-scale renewable energy projects like wind and solar farms can negatively impact wildlife habitats and migration patterns. Wind turbines in particular can harm birds and bats that collide with the rotating blades. One study found that wind turbines kill between 140,000 to 328,000 birds each year in the U.S. (Source 1). Bats are also susceptible to injury from wind turbines, with recent estimates showing between 500,000 to 1 million bat fatalities per year. The placement of wind farms along migratory flyways seems to exacerbate the risks to birds and bats.

Utility-scale solar facilities take up large swaths of land, reducing habitats for local plant and animal species. However, some solar farms are designed with consideration for wildlife, allowing vegetation to grow under and around the panels. With careful planning, the impact of solar farms on habitats can be mitigated. More research is still needed on the long-term impacts of both wind and solar farms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Geographic Constraints

The viability of renewable energy often depends on favorable geographic conditions. For example, solar power works best in sunny areas like deserts, while wind power requires consistent windy locations. According to a General Fusion report, “The portfolio of hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear power all have their own geographic dependency on fuel source – a dependency on rainy mountains for hydro, consistent wind for wind, ample sunlight for solar, and natural sources of uranium for nuclear” (https://generalfusion.com/post/chris-mowry-geographic-constraints-on-energy/). This limits where renewables can be effectively deployed. A UCSUSA report notes that “renewable electricity technologies—if coupled to complementary sources and spread over a sufficiently large geographic area—become highly reliable” (https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/barriers-renewable-energy-technologies). The areas best suited for renewables may not overlap with the locations where energy demand is highest.

Scalability Challenges

One of the biggest challenges for renewable energy is scaling up production to meet global energy demands. While the costs of solar and wind power have dropped dramatically in recent years, renewables still only account for a small percentage of total energy generation globally. Fossil fuels still dominate energy supply, providing over 80% of primary energy use worldwide.

Ramping up renewable energy to the scale needed to fully replace fossil fuels presents difficulties. Building out the infrastructure for renewables on a massive scale requires substantial upfront investments and favorable policies from governments. Intermittency issues with solar and wind also means backup power or storage solutions are needed. According to a report from the International Finance Corporation, meeting climate goals will require quadrupling investment in renewables by 2030 (IFC).

While renewables can be installed rapidly, scaling up to the multi-terawatt level is a complex technical and economic challenge. More technological improvements, market reforms, large-scale systems integration, and grid flexibility will be needed (CleanTechnica). Renewables have great potential for increased scalability, but fully transitioning global energy supply will require overcoming hurdles.

Job Loss in Fossil Fuels

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will inevitably cause some job loss in industries like coal, oil, and natural gas. As renewable energy generation ramps up and fossil fuel production winds down, companies will need fewer workers dedicated to extracting and processing fuels like coal and oil.

Estimates vary on the potential job losses. One estimate suggests around 900,000 direct jobs in fossil fuel industries could be at risk in the coming years as the energy transition advances (The New York Times, 2023). The impacts will be particularly concentrated in certain communities and regions where fossil fuel jobs are prevalent.

Minimizing negative impacts on displaced workers is an important consideration. Research indicates that workers without a college degree are less likely to leave their communities when they lose jobs (The Boston Globe, 2023). Providing training, educational opportunities, and support for transitioning to new industries can help mitigate job losses.

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