Why Renewable Energy Cannot Save The Planet?

Fossil fuels still dominate global energy supply

According to the Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels supplied around 80% of total global energy demands as of July 2021 (https://www.eesi.org/topics/fossil-fuels/description). This includes coal, oil, and natural gas. The International Energy Agency reported that fossil fuel production increased 2% from 2018 to 2019, indicating continued reliance on non-renewable energy sources (https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-balances-overview/world). Most projections estimate fossil fuels will continue meeting over 70% of the world’s energy needs through at least 2040, even with growth in renewables. Challenges transitioning to renewable energy include upfront capital costs, intermittent supply, and lack of sufficient storage and transmission infrastructure.

Intermittency of renewables

One of the biggest challenges with renewable energy sources like solar and wind power is their intermittent and variable nature. Solar power relies on sunny weather and wind turbines need windy conditions to generate electricity. This means they don’t produce power consistently around the clock like conventional baseload power plants.

According to the Scientific American, the intermittency of solar and wind “disrupts the conventional methods for planning the daily operation of the electric grid” (source). The output from these sources varies based on weather and time of day, making it difficult to integrate large amounts of renewable energy without impacting grid stability.

The limitations of energy storage technology also exacerbate the intermittency issue. Batteries and other storage methods cannot yet cost-effectively store the massive amounts of electricity required to smooth out renewables’ variable generation profile. This means grid operators have fewer tools to balance supply and demand when working with lots of intermittent renewables.

Overall, while solar and wind will play a major role in decarbonizing the grid, their intermittency poses challenges in relying on them entirely unless breakthroughs in energy storage and grid flexibility are achieved.

High upfront costs

The costs for renewable energy technologies remain high compared to conventional fossil fuels. According to data from Our World in Data, in 2020 the levelized cost per MWh for onshore wind was $44, offshore wind was $99, solar PV was $50 while gas was $42 and coal just $33 (Our World in Data). While renewable costs have fallen rapidly over the past decade, they remain high upfront compared to the mature and entrenched fossil fuel technologies.

Securing financing for renewable energy projects also remains a challenge. Most projects rely on debt financing, but the long payback periods of 15-25 years deter many lenders. Government subsidies and incentives have helped alleviate these constraints, but political uncertainty around policy support also acts as a deterrent. The intermittent nature of wind and solar resources adds a further layer of risk versus the steady output of thermal plants.

The high upfront capital costs and long payback periods continue to limit the speed at which renewables can scale up to displace fossil fuel generation capacity. Until levelized costs reach parity across technologies, the growth of renewable energy will remain partly constrained by higher comparative costs.

Land use conflicts

One of the biggest challenges for renewable energy expansion is the amount of land required, especially for large-scale wind and solar farms. Fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines, wells, and plants require relatively small land footprints compared to sprawling wind and solar installations.1

Estimates show that wind farms require around 0.5 acres per megawatt (MW) of installed capacity, while solar photovoltaic farms need around 7 acres per MW. In comparison, natural gas only needs 0.06 acres per MW.2 This means that at scale, renewable energy projects start competing for land with agriculture, conservation, and other uses.

Siting large renewable installations has already run into opposition from farmers, indigenous groups, and environmentalists in some areas. Solar and wind farms can disrupt wildlife habitats and migration corridors. There are also concerns around soil health if solar panels are installed directly on croplands. Finding the right balance between renewable energy expansion and other land uses will be an ongoing challenge.

Raw material constraints

Renewable energy technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries rely heavily on rare earth metals and minerals. However, supplies of key materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and neodymium are limited globally. Extracting and refining these materials is also highly concentrated in certain countries like China, Chile, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, raising concerns about stable access to raw materials as demand rises.

A 2022 McKinsey report found that under a rapid decarbonization scenario, demand for lithium and nickel could increase by over 4000% and 25 times respectively by 2040. Cobalt demand could grow 21 times by 2040. This raises concerns about potential supply shortages that could hamper the transition to renewables.

Control over the supply chains for these minerals is also concentrated in a few countries. For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo produces over 70% of the world’s cobalt. Chile controls over 50% of the global lithium production. China controls nearly 60% of the rare earth metals processing industry. This geopolitical concentration of raw material supply chains poses energy security risks as the world transitions towards renewables.

Grid and storage challenges

developing countries face barriers to adopting renewable energy including lack of infrastructure and financing.

One of the key challenges of scaling up renewable energy is upgrading transmission infrastructure to handle the influx of wind and solar generation. Many prime renewable energy sites are located far from population centers, requiring long-distance transmission lines to transport the electricity. However, grid infrastructure was not designed to accommodate large amounts of intermittent generation, leading to congestion and curtailment issues.

Large-scale energy storage can help mitigate the intermittency of renewables and reduce curtailment. However, grid-scale storage technology remains expensive. According to a National Renewable Energy Lab report, the overall capital cost for a 4-hour lithium-ion battery storage system is projected to be around $245-403/kWh over the next decade.[1] IRENA estimates global average costs for utility-scale lithium-ion batteries at $300-600/kWh.[2] Pumped hydro storage is cheaper but dependent on suitable geography. Breakthroughs in grid storage tech and dramatic cost reductions will be needed to balance high renewable penetration.

Political and regulatory hurdles

One major obstacle facing renewable energy is the influence that the fossil fuel industry holds over policymakers. Fossil fuel companies receive enormous government subsidies which they leverage to lobby politicians and fund misinformation campaigns about climate science and renewables. This distorts energy policy in their favor.

The fossil fuel lobbying machine aims to maintain the status quo by securing continued subsidies and weak climate policies. As renewables become more competitive, the industry wants to slow their growth using lobbying power. Fossil fuel interests donate heavily to politicians to shape energy policy.

Another challenge is the policy instability and constantly changing regulations in the energy sector. Energy markets and incentives are often subject to political whims. The uncertainty around renewable energy policies deters long-term investments and commercialization.

Until fossil fuel influence wanes and consistent, long-term policies provide more certainty, the energy transition will continue facing political and regulatory obstacles.

Developing world energy demand

Developing countries are expected to drive most of the growth in global energy demand in the coming decades. According to projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA), developing countries will account for over 90% of net energy demand growth through 2040.[1] This is driven by rising populations, urbanization, and economic development.

Many developing nations still rely heavily on cheap but polluting fossil fuels like coal to meet their energy needs. This is especially true in major emerging economies like China and India that have abundant domestic coal reserves.[2] Developing countries face barriers to adopting renewable energy including lack of infrastructure and financing. Building out electricity grids and transmission networks requires substantial investment. As a result, developing nations are projected to account for over 75% of the growth in global coal demand through 2040.[1]

Behavioral and cultural inertia

One significant barrier facing renewable energy is resistance to changing energy consumption behaviors and psychological attachment to the status quo. People tend to stick with their habitual energy usage patterns and are reluctant to alter their lifestyles, even if renewable options may save money or have other benefits. There is a cultural inertia that makes shifting away from fossil fuels difficult.

For example, despite the growth of electric vehicles, many consumers still prefer gas-powered cars and are hesitant to switch. This resistance is partly psychological – people associate gasoline engines with freedom, power, and the status quo. There is comfort in continuing behaviors that feel normal and familiar.

According to a study by the Energy5, a lack of awareness and understanding of renewable energy benefits also perpetuates inertia. People may be unaware of new options or incorrectly believe they are inferior. Overcoming inertia requires education, exposure to new technologies, financial incentives, and persuading consumers that change is worthwhile.

Cultural values and norms also shape energy behaviors. In regions like the American Midwest that culturally identify with oil and gas, it may be harder for renewables to gain acceptance. Changing social attitudes takes time. With consistent messaging and positive renewable energy examples, these cultural barriers can gradually be overcome.


While renewable energy technologies like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power offer enormous potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, the road to transforming our energy system is filled with challenges. The intermittent and variable nature of renewables makes integrating them into the grid difficult. High upfront capital costs also inhibit adoption, especially in developing nations. even if costs continue to fall, renewable energy projects still face issues like land use conflicts, raw material constraints, lack of transmission infrastructure, and lack of political will in the face of fossil fuel incumbency.

Despite these hurdles, renewables have an indispensable role to play in building a carbon-neutral future. They may not be able to singularly deliver the deep emissions cuts needed, but renewables must be rapidly deployed as part of a diverse energy mix that also includes nuclear power, carbon capture systems, energy efficiency improvements, and other technologies. The renewable transition will also require large investments, policy changes, upgraded grids, cultural shifts, and technological innovations.

With commitment, creativity, and determination, renewables can be part of an energy solution that sustainably meets human needs while restoring the planet’s ecological balance.

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