Why Don T We Use Renewable Energy All The Time?

Why don t we use renewable energy all the time?

Renewable energy comes from natural sources that are constantly replenished, such as sunlight, wind, water, plants, and geothermal heat. The five most common renewable energy sources used today are biomass, hydropower, geothermal, wind, and solar.

Renewable energy provides sustainable energy alternatives that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Using renewable energy can help combat climate change by generating electricity while emitting little to no greenhouse gases. Renewables are also abundant and limitless in supply.

However, despite the benefits, renewable energy accounts for only about 11% of total U.S. energy consumption and 17% of electricity generation as of 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/renewable-sources/). So why don’t we use renewable energy sources all the time?

High Upfront Costs

One of the biggest barriers to adopting renewable energy sources like solar and wind on a wider scale is the high upfront costs compared to fossil fuels. Installing solar panels or building a wind farm requires major investments in equipment, land, and labor before any energy can be generated. Fossil fuel power plants have lower startup costs in comparison.

For example, building a 100 megawatt solar farm can cost over $100 million in upfront capital, not counting ongoing maintenance and operating expenses [1]. Fossil fuel power plants cost around $1 million per megawatt of capacity, so the same 100 megawatt plant would be around $100 million as well, but have lower maintenance costs over time.

Without government incentives and subsidies to help defray the initial investment, adopting renewable energy would be cost prohibitive for many utilities and consumers. This high barrier to entry slows the transition from fossil fuels despite renewable energy’s other advantages.


One of the biggest challenges with renewable energy sources like solar and wind is their intermittent nature, meaning they only produce energy when conditions are right (e.g. when the sun is shining or wind is blowing) [1]. Unlike traditional fossil fuel plants which can generate constant power 24/7, solar and wind generation varies based on external factors outside of human control. This intermittent power supply from renewables can make balancing electricity supply and demand on the grid more challenging [2].

For example, solar power drops off when the sun sets or is blocked by clouds, necessitating backup power sources in the evenings. Similarly, wind power fluctuates daily and seasonally based on wind patterns. This unpredictability requires grid operators to have excess generation capacity ready to come online when renewable production dips. Integrating extremely variable renewable sources beyond 20-30% of total generation can become difficult without storage technologies or dispatchable power plants to smooth out the fluctuations [3]. Overcoming intermittency is a key obstacle to scaling up renewables to reach 100% penetration on power grids.

Storage Limitations

One of the biggest challenges with relying entirely on renewable energy is that we lack sufficient storage capacity to capture enough renewable energy for when it’s needed. Solar and wind power are intermittent sources – solar is only available during daylight hours and wind power fluctuates based on weather conditions. This means that much of the renewable energy generated may be unusable if there is not enough storage capacity to capture and hold it until needed (Fisher 2021).

According to one analysis, the amount of energy storage needed to run the U.S. electric grid entirely on renewable energy would require 25-50 times the currently deployed battery storage capacity (Advances in Battery Technology Engineering for Energy Storage Breakthroughs 2022). Building out storage on this scale using current lithium-ion battery technology would be prohibitively expensive. Significant advances in grid-scale battery storage technologies are still needed.

Without sufficient storage capacity, renewable energy generation would frequently exceed electricity demand during peak production times while coming up short during high demand periods when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing. Relying entirely on renewables would also require vastly overbuilding capacity to ensure enough excess generation during peaks to meet demand in troughs. The intermittency and storage limitations of renewable sources mean that realistically, other sources like natural gas or nuclear plants are still needed to meet round-the-clock electricity demand until storage capabilities improve.

While battery technology continues to advance rapidly, storage limitations remain one of the biggest obstacles to transitioning fully to renewable energy generation in the near future. Until economical grid-scale energy storage is developed, renewable sources need to be complemented with other more reliable power generation.


Current energy infrastructure like electrical grids were designed mainly for fossil fuel energy sources like coal and natural gas. As we transition to more renewable sources like wind and solar, the grids need major upgrades to handle the unique nature of these intermittent sources (Wu, 2021). Renewable sources generate power at inconsistent times, whenever the wind blows or sun shines. This is very different than traditional baseload power plants that provide steady and reliable output. Electrical grids have to be extremely flexible to handle the variability of renewables.

Upgrading grids requires enormous investments to add transmission lines, energy storage, and advanced software to balance power supply and demand. The intermittent nature of renewables also requires building excess capacity to avoid shortages when the wind dies down or clouds block the sun. For example, a bill in Maine aims to improve infrastructure to support more renewable generation and hopefully reduce costs for residents (Maine Legislature, 2021). Modernizing grids is essential but very capital intensive. It’s a major reason why the transition to 100% renewable energy is gradual rather than immediate.

Regulations and Policies

Currently in the United States, many regulations, subsidies, and policies favor fossil fuels over renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Fossil fuels receive substantial direct and indirect subsidies that help make them cheaper than renewables. For example, a 2015 study estimated that subsidies for fossil fuels in the U.S. totaled $649 billion, compared to only $15 billion for renewables. Some of the ways fossil fuels are supported include tax breaks, royalty relief, low-cost leasing of federal lands, and loan guarantees.

Fossil fuel infrastructure also benefits from longstanding policies. For instance, a little-known provision in a 2007 law requires all new and renovated federal buildings to be fossil fuel-free by 2030. However, this section was never implemented and most federal buildings continue using natural gas. Additionally, permitting processes for pipelines and infrastructure favor fossil fuels over comparable renewable projects.

Many renewable energy sources face regulatory hurdles as well. For example, distributed solar power is limited by policies like net metering caps which restrict the amount of excess power that can be exported to the grid. Renewables must also contend with some local zoning laws and regulations not intended for them. Overall, while renewables are gaining ground, current regulations and policies tend to reinforce fossil fuel dominance rather than ease the transition.

Technological Improvements

One of the major limitations of renewable energy is the ability to store and distribute the electricity that is generated. However, improvements in battery and energy storage technology could help overcome these challenges. For example, lithium-ion batteries have become much cheaper over the last decade, making large-scale energy storage more affordable. Companies like Tesla are developing utility-scale batteries that can store solar or wind energy and release it when needed (source). Emerging battery chemistries like lithium sulfur and zinc air have the potential to dramatically improve energy density and lower costs further.

Additionally, new technologies like flow batteries and compressed air storage are being developed to store large amounts of energy. With improved energy storage, the intermittent nature of renewable sources becomes less of an issue. Renewable energy can be captured and released as needed, making 100% renewable electricity grids feasible (source). While costs are still high, continued innovation and scale production of storage technologies will enable greater adoption of renewables going forward.

Public Perception

Public perception and lack of education on renewable energy sources have been major barriers to wider adoption. Studies show many people have limited knowledge about renewables and hold misconceptions. For example, a 2018 survey found only around half of Americans supported transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2050 (Hamilton, 2018). Another 2022 study revealed 56% thought transitioning away from fossil fuels would be “bad for the economy” (Thomas, 2022). These views persist despite evidence showing renewable energy investments produce economic and job growth.

Lack of exposure also shapes public perceptions. Research in the Rocky Mountain region found people living near wind installations held more favorable views of renewable energy compared to the broader public (Hamilton, 2019). This “familiarity effect” highlights the need for more direct public experience with renewables to overcome misconceptions and build support.

Powerful Interests

Fossil fuel companies have long lobbied against regulations that would support the transition to renewables. Groups like ExxonMobil and Chevron spend millions each year on lobbying efforts to influence lawmakers and protect their profits (The Guardian, 2021). These companies use a variety of tactics to block or delay climate action:

  • Lobbying politicians directly to oppose regulations on greenhouse gas emissions or incentives for renewable energy
  • Funding think tanks and advocacy groups that question climate science and downplay the need for urgent action
  • Mounting legal challenges against environmental protections and clean energy support programs
  • Running misleading PR and advertising campaigns promoting fossil fuels as “clean” energy
  • Making campaign contributions to key political figures in order to gain influence

Essentially, powerful fossil fuel interests work to distort facts, downplay risks, and maintain public and political support for their products. Despite most companies now publicly supporting emissions reductions, their declared climate commitments still fall far short of what’s needed (Center for American Progress, 2022). Overcoming the influence of these interests remains a major challenge in the transition to renewables.


While renewable energy has immense promise, overcoming some key barriers is crucial for wider adoption. As discussed, high upfront costs, intermittency issues, storage limitations, inadequate infrastructure, and regulatory hurdles all hamper greater renewable energy use. With powerful interests invested in fossil fuels, public perception must also shift to demand clean energy. However, the rapid improvements in renewable technology combined with steadily falling prices provide hope. With the right policies, investments, and public pressure, the obstacles can be surmounted. If we make renewable energy a priority, a clean energy future is within reach.

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