What Are Two Major Drawbacks With All Renewable Energy Resources?


What are two major drawbacks with all renewable energy resources?

One of the major drawbacks of solar and wind power is that they are intermittent and unreliable energy sources. Unlike fossil fuels which can provide continuous power, solar and wind are weather-dependent and cannot generate electricity at all times (Scientific American). For example, solar panels do not produce electricity at night or when clouds block the sun. Similarly, wind turbines only generate power when the wind is blowing at sufficient speeds.

The intermittent nature of solar and wind creates challenges for integrating them into the electric grid. Grid operators have to balance electricity supply and demand at all times. With fluctuating renewable sources, there can be imbalances leading to instability and blackouts if insufficient power is available when consumers need it (EnergyX). There are solutions like storage and demand response, but managing intermittency remains an obstacle for high renewable penetration.

Overall, the unreliable output of solar and wind makes it difficult to rely on them for baseload power generation. Their intermittent nature needs to be addressed through backup power, storage, and grid flexibility to enable their widespread adoption.

High Upfront Costs

One major drawback of renewable energy is the high upfront costs required to build the infrastructure needed to generate electricity from renewable sources. Unlike fossil fuel power plants which require relatively low upfront costs for construction but have ongoing fuel expenses, the vast majority of the costs for renewable energy come from building the systems like solar panels or wind turbines (The Global Price Tag for 100 Percent Renewable Energy, 2019). For example, installing a utility-scale solar farm can cost millions of dollars upfront, while a natural gas power plant may cost a fraction of that initially. However, over the lifetime of the assets, renewable energy becomes cost-competitive because there are minimal ongoing fuel costs.

According to estimates, transitioning the entire world to 100% renewable energy by 2050 would require upfront investments of around $73 trillion in things like wind turbines, batteries, and transmission lines (The Global Price Tag for 100 Percent Renewable Energy, 2019). While fossil fuels enjoy established infrastructure that has been built up over decades, new solar panels, wind farms, hydroelectric dams etc. must be constructed to utilize renewable resources. These high capital costs can be a barrier to entry and slow down the transition away from cheap but polluting fossil fuels.

Land Use Concerns

One major drawback of utility-scale renewable energy like solar and wind farms is the amount of land required. Building enough solar and wind capacity to power entire cities or regions necessitates large-scale projects that can span hundreds or thousands of acres of land. For example, the Topaz Solar Farm in California spans over 9.5 square miles of land (cite: https://betterenergy.org/blog/the-true-land-footprint-of-solar-energy/). While the actual footprint of panels and turbines may only utilize a portion of that land, projects still require substantial contiguous open space.

However, studies show the actual land usage for renewable energy is small compared to other human activities. One analysis found solar projects utilize just 0.1% of total land area in regions where they are built (cite: https://www.seia.org/initiatives/land-use-solar-development). And modern solar panel efficiency improvements are allowing projects to generate more electricity on smaller plots of land. Nonetheless, large-scale solar and wind projects do raise questions around prioritizing land for energy production versus other uses like agriculture, recreation, or conservation.

Transmission Losses

One major drawback of renewable energy is that electricity transmission over long distances leads to losses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), annual electricity transmission and distribution (T&D) losses average about 5% in the United States (https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=105&t=3). Many of the best renewable energy resources are located far from major population centers that need the electricity. For example, large solar farms may be built in deserts and wind farms are often located in remote, windy areas. Transmitting power over hundreds of miles leads to losses along the transmission lines. The world’s grid infrastructure needs major upgrades and modernization to enable low-loss transmission over long distances.

Storage limitations

One of the major drawbacks of renewable energy like solar and wind is the lack of efficient storage for the electricity generated. Unlike fossil fuels which can be stored and used on demand, renewable electricity is mostly generated intermittently and needs to be used instantly or stored for later use.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office, most renewable electricity today is consumed as it is generated. However, as more variable renewable electricity comes online, the ability to capture and store excess generation will become more important for grid flexibility and reliability.

Batteries are one storage method but can be costly. Pumped hydro storage is another option but requires specific geographic features and has ecological impacts. Compressed air and thermal storage have also been used but come with their own limitations. Developing grid-scale storage that is cost-effective remains a key challenge for renewables to overcome.

As reported in the New Yorker, most power that isn’t consumed immediately is lost. The problem is that, with many technologies, “it actually costs more to store electricity than it does to make it in the first place.” Utilities will need more economically viable large-scale storage options for renewable energy to reach higher penetrations.

Material constraints

Some renewable energy technologies rely on rare earth metals and other critical minerals that have limited global supplies. For example, wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries require substantial amounts of metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and various rare earth elements.

Rare earth elements like neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium are essential for the magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicles. The demand for rare earths is expected to grow 400-600 percent by 2040 as clean energy expands globally (IEA). However, rare earth mining and processing comes with major environmental impacts. Securing adequate supplies of these minerals in a sustainable manner could pose a significant constraint on the transition to renewable energy.

Similarly, battery storage technologies rely heavily on lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. The lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and grid-scale storage require large amounts of lithium in particular. Global lithium demand could grow by over 40 times by 2040 according to IEA forecasts. Sourcing these battery minerals ethically and sustainably will be a major challenge.

Overall, the material intensity and reliance on limited critical minerals could hamper the scalability of some renewable technologies. Companies and governments will need to invest in recycling, minimize waste, develop alternative technologies, and source minerals more responsibly to enable the transition to clean energy.

Wildlife impact

One major drawback of wind turbines is their potential harm to birds and other wildlife. Birds and bats can collide with wind turbine rotors and towers, resulting in injury or death. According to a MIT study, wind turbines kill an estimated 0.269 birds per gigawatt-hour of electricity produced. While this is lower compared to other human-related causes of bird deaths, it can still negatively impact some bird populations.

Some research indicates wind turbines pose a threat to bird species that are already declining, such as golden eagles. There are also concerns that wind farms located along major bird migration routes could substantially increase collisions. However, the overall impacts on populations are complex and some studies have found no long-term declines near wind facilities. Proper siting, operational adjustments during migration periods, and deterrent systems may help reduce risks to birds.

Aesthetic concerns

Renewable energy infrastructure can have an aesthetic impact on landscapes and communities where facilities are sited. Some people find large-scale wind and solar facilities visually unappealing. The design and siting of renewable energy projects requires balancing functionality with aesthetics.

According to an article in the journal Sustainability, “Clean energy infrastructures continue to pervade our environments in multiple ways, leading to unprecedented changes in the aesthetic experiences of our everyday surroundings” (Törnroth, 2022).

As noted in an article on Utilities One, “The sheer size and scope of renewable energy infrastructure means that they have a major visual presence. While some may find the sight of rows of solar panels or wind turbines majestic and futuristic, others see them as an eyesore marring natural landscapes and horizons” (Balancing Aesthetics and Functionality in Renewable Energy Designs).

While aesthetic concerns vary based on personal preferences and local contexts, they are an important consideration in gaining public acceptance for renewable energy projects. Careful siting, design, and community engagement can help address aesthetic impacts.

Geographic constraints

The amount of renewable energy that can be generated depends heavily on geographic location. The most productive sites for solar, wind, hydropower or geothermal energy are limited based on climate, terrain, water resources, and geology. Many high-potential areas, like deserts or windy plains, may be located far from population centers where energy demand is highest. According to research by Tong et al. from https://www.nature.com, the potential for solar and wind power varies drastically across the United States based on geographic factors. Renewable energy development is constrained by the mismatch between the best resource areas and locations with transmission infrastructure and electricity demand.

Policy and regulation

Policies and regulations play an important role in the adoption and expansion of renewable energy technologies. Studies demonstrate that energy policies designed to support renewable energy have significant impacts on industry growth (see Effects of energy policies on industry expansion in renewable energy). However, policy uncertainty can also hamper investments and introduction of new renewable technologies. Frequent policy changes or inconsistent regulations create risk for companies and investors in the renewable energy sector.

Renewable energy growth projections and targets are tied closely to policy frameworks. For example, many countries have renewable portfolio standards which mandate minimum amounts of electricity generation from renewables. Policy shifts could slow progress towards these targets. Subsidies and tax incentives are also critical for supporting renewable energy deployment, but they depend on ongoing political commitment. A change in government could lead to loss of financial support and undermine project economics.

Overall, growth in renewable energy requires stable, long-term policies to provide certainty to developers and investors. Sudden policy changes or failure to uphold incentives can negatively impact the industry. Renewables will likely struggle to expand without consistent regulatory support.

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