Why Renewable Energy Won’T Save Us?

Fossil fuels still dominate energy supply

Why renewable energy won't save us?

Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas still make up over 80% of global energy supply as of 2019 according to the International Energy Agency (IEA, World Energy Balances: Overview, 2019). Coal accounted for 27% of energy supply, oil 34%, and natural gas 24%. The remaining 20% came from nuclear, hydroelectric, and other renewables.

This heavy reliance on fossil fuels persists despite their contribution to climate change. Developing nations like China and India are still rapidly building coal power plants to meet energy demand (Ritchie, Energy Mix, 2023). Moreover, existing fossil fuel infrastructure has decades-long lifespans. The world will continue depending on fossil fuels without accelerated efforts to transition grids and enact supportive policies.

Limitations of renewable energy

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar have some key limitations. One major limitation is intermittency – the fact that they only generate power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. According to a report from the Cato Institute, wind and solar power are only generated 25-34% of the time over the course of a year [1]. This intermittency creates challenges for relying on them as steady sources of electricity.

The intermittent nature of renewables also creates storage challenges. Effective storage solutions are needed to capture the energy when it is generated and deploy it when needed. However, utility-scale storage technology is still underdeveloped compared to demand [2]. Without storage, renewables cannot provide reliable baseload power.

In addition to intermittency, most renewable sources have low capacity factors compared to fossil fuels. The capacity factor refers to the average power generated divided by the rated peak power. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wind turbines have capacity factors around 35-45%, while solar PV is generally 15-30% [2]. Fossil fuels can operate at 85-95% capacity.

Not enough rare earth metals

Many renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries rely on rare earth metals. These include neodymium and dysprosium used in permanent magnets for wind turbines, and lithium used in electric vehicle batteries.

According to a recent report, global demand for rare earths could increase by 400-600% over the next few decades due to the growth in clean energy. However, current global production may not be enough to meet this demand. In 2021, the total rare earth production was only around 240,000 tonnes.

The world has enough identified rare earth reserves to meet demand in the short-term. However, production is currently concentrated in China, which accounts for over 60% of global output. This concentration raises concerns about supply disruptions. Diversifying production across more countries could improve supply resilience for these critical minerals.

Renewables have land use tradeoffs

The large-scale deployment of renewable energy sources like wind and solar can have significant impacts on land use. Utility-scale wind and solar farms require vast amounts of land area. According to one study, generating 20% of U.S. electricity from wind power would require land area equivalent to the state of West Virginia (https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/Solar_elec_tradeoffs.pdf). Solar farms at this scale would take up land equivalent to Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

This massive land use can negatively impact wildlife through habitat loss, fragmentation, and disruption of migration routes. For example, some solar projects in California were halted due to concerns over impacts on desert tortoises, a threatened species (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2666278723000144). Wind turbines can also kill birds and bats through collisions. Careful siting and mitigation strategies are needed to minimize biodiversity impacts.

In addition, renewable energy competes for land with other uses like agriculture, conservation, and development. Finding suitable low-impact areas with access to transmission lines is a challenge. Land use tradeoffs should be carefully weighed when planning the large-scale expansion of renewable generation.

Upfront carbon emissions

While renewable energy systems like wind turbines and solar panels produce little to no carbon emissions when generating electricity, their manufacturing process still relies heavily on fossil fuels and results in substantial CO2 emissions. According to https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/11/21/building-green-energy-facilities-may-produce-substantial-carbon-emissions-says-study/
building enough solar and wind facilities to meet global energy demands by 2050 could generate up to 4.8 gigatons of carbon emissions from the manufacturing and construction process alone. The emissions from manufacturing come from the energy-intensive mining and processing of rare earth metals and other materials, as well as the carbon-heavy industrial processes used to fabricate the panels, turbines, batteries etc. There can be a significant “carbon debt” associated with renewable power systems that takes years before the avoided emissions from their operation cancel out the upfront emissions from their creation.

The challenge is that many of the heavy industries involved in renewable energy manufacturing like steel, cement, and chemicals are very difficult to decarbonize. As noted by https://normative.io/insight/reduce-manufacturer-carbon-emissions/, these sectors rely heavily on fossil fuel combustion and process emissions. Complex industrial processes developed around fossil fuels cannot easily transition to 100% clean energy. While renewable energy adoption is crucial, the manufacturing stage serves as an example of difficulties in fully decarbonizing the broader industrial and energy complex.

Insufficient pace of progress

While renewable energy is growing rapidly, it still makes up a relatively small share of global energy supply. In 2021, renewables accounted for 29% of global electricity generation and just 12.6% of final energy consumption according to the IEA (IEA, 2021). Fossil fuels still dominate, providing nearly 80% of primary energy demand.

The share of renewables in new power capacity continues to increase, reaching over 80% in 2021 according to the IEA (IEA, 2022). However, this new capacity is barely keeping pace with rising electricity demand globally.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries pledged to limit global warming to well below 2°C. Achieving this target will require renewable energy to supply 65-85% of electricity by 2050 according to analysis by the IPCC (IPCC, 2018). At current growth rates, renewables are not projected to reach these levels in time.

Ramping up renewable energy deployment will require mobilizing massive investment and infrastructure upgrades. Progress needs to accelerate to align the energy system with climate goals.

Challenges upgrading grids

Integrating large amounts of variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar poses challenges for electricity grids that were designed around more controllable conventional power plants. Grid operators have to balance electricity supply and demand instantaneously. But the output from renewables can fluctuate depending on weather conditions. This makes it harder to maintain the frequency stability of the grid.

New transmission infrastructure is needed to connect remote renewable generation with load centers. Long distance high voltage direct current lines can help bring renewable power from sunnier and windier regions to cities. But building new transmission lines faces siting, permitting and cost obstacles. Upgrading existing infrastructure also requires substantial investment.

The rise of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar and battery storage at the edge of the grid creates additional complexity. Two-way flows of electricity complicate monitoring and control for grid operators. Clear market rules and updated grid codes are needed to enable system integration.


The challenges of connecting renewable energy to the U.S. power grid

Developing nations prioritize access

According to the United Nations Development Programme, around 1 billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity. Many developing nations are focused first and foremost on providing basic energy access to their populations, rather than transitioning to renewable sources. Fossil fuels like coal and natural gas often provide the cheapest and quickest way to scale up electrification.

Building renewable energy systems like solar microgrids can be prohibitively expensive for developing nations without outside aid and financing. Even with funding support, it can be challenging to construct and maintain renewable microgrids across rural areas and remote communities. While renewable energy is critical for climate change mitigation, near-term priorities for developing countries are expanding energy access and lifting populations out of poverty. This often necessitates continued fossil fuel usage in the absence of affordable low-carbon alternatives.

Behavioral and cultural inertia

Despite the urgency of transitioning to renewable energy, entrenched lifestyles that depend on fossil fuels present a major barrier. As the IEA notes, “Our energy consumption at home is shaped by ingrained habits that are hard to change, due to factors like inertia or a subconscious preference for the status quo” (source). People naturally resist changing their consumption habits and daily routines, even if they understand the rationale for change.

To enable a successful transition, broad participation across society is required. However, overcoming this inertia is difficult. As one study found, “the degree of involvement in pro-environmental behavior affects the willingness to pay more for renewable energy” (source). Deeply entrenched cultural norms and expectations pose additional obstacles. Fossil fuel use is deeply intertwined with modern lifestyles, making the prospect of transitioning feel threatening to many.

While rational arguments highlight the need to transition, they often fail to inspire sustained changes in behavior. As researchers note, “to foster resident participation, it is imperative to first overcome psychological inertia” (source). Overcoming cultural inertia requires going beyond facts and figures to connect with people’s values, identities, and aspirations.

No silver bullet solution

Transitioning to renewable energy alone will not be enough to combat climate change. There is no silver bullet solution. A diverse portfolio of options will likely be required, including nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency improvements, and reductions in overall energy usage. While renewable sources like wind and solar can make important contributions, they cannot fully displace fossil fuels by themselves.

Analysis by the International Energy Agency suggests that a successful transition requires rapidly scaling renewables in combination with reductions in energy demand of over 5% by 2030 to keep global warming under 1.5°C. This necessitates wide-ranging changes in both energy supply and consumption. Renewables have limitations in terms of resource constraints, intermittency challenges, storage capabilities, and land use tradeoffs. Even with rapid growth, they may only supply 20-25% of global energy needs by 2050.

Pursuing multiple paths simultaneously provides more options to overcome weaknesses of any single solution. This likely requires continued use of nuclear power, which offers constant low-carbon electricity. It also means scaling carbon capture systems, which can offset emissions from existing fossil fuel plants during the transition. And crucially, improving efficiency and conservation can curb energy demand growth. Renewables have an essential role to play, but fully transforming the global energy system will demand a comprehensive portfolio.




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