It’s time we fix that broken record on the debate over renewable energy. Reports on the climate emergency are playing on repeat as different studies all arrive at the same conclusion: human activity is warming the planet and fossil fuels are the main cause.
We have the solution – we’re just reluctant to act on it.
A new review from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) analyses over 600 peer-reviewed articles on 100 percent renewable energy systems. “The main conclusion of most of these studies is that 100 percent renewables is feasible worldwide at low cost,” the report determines.
100 percent renewable energy systems are feasible
Going back to the first 100 percent renewable energy system analysis in 1975, the report from IEEE looks at nearly fifty years of such studies.
Most of the studies center on solar energy and wind power being the driving forces of the system with limited input from bioenergy, hydropower, and geothermal activity. In all 100 percent renewable energy systems, there is no use of fossil fuels nor nuclear energy.
While the studies differ in methodology, “they consistently find that a global 100 percent RE system can be achieved by mid-century.”
The systems provide benefits beyond reduced GHG emissions. Reduced air pollution, reduced stress on water systems, added jobs in the energy system, and greater energy security are among the co-benefits of a 100 percent renewable energy system.
What are the critiques of renewable energy systems?
Aside from the fossil fuel lobby efforts that reject renewables purely on the sole basis of advancing their own financial interests, there are legitimate questions and concerns about renewable energy systems.
A lot of the pushback against renewables is that they aren’t economical. They may be too expensive or the return on such investments is not sufficient to compete with fossil fuels.
Energy return on investment (EROI) is a metric that divides the energy returned, by the sum of the investments to obtain that energy. The IEEE review posits that the EROI of fossil fuels is overestimated. In its golden age the EROI of fossil fuels may have been as high as 100, the review notes, but due to depletion and the number of different inputs needed before final end use, that figure is now likely below 10.
By comparison, the EROI of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems can be, “in the range of 15-60 for a technical lifetime of 30 years.” As well, the input costs of solar energy are continually dropping.
PV technology is continuing to advance, resulting in longer lasting, more efficient systems that cost less.
Another critique of going all-renewables is that the energy is variable. On a cloudy day, solar energy output will be low, the same for a calm day in a wind energy system.
This critique is substantive, but there are several solutions to mitigate the variability problem. Renewable energy systems could employ oversized capacities, improve the ability of energy to be transferred within a grid, delay non-vital usage to times of low energy demand, employ energy storage options, or use power-to-x technologies where excess energy is converted to another feedstock like hydrogen for later use.
“With every iteration in the research and with every technological breakthrough in these areas, 100 percent RE systems become increasingly viable,” the IEEE review states.
Another valid critique is that the raw materials needed for renewable energy systems will run scarce. There are concerns that with the acceleration of electric vehicle (EV) production, critical components of those batteries like nickel and lithium may reach their limits.
Producing batteries in a way that they can be 100 percent recycled will help mitigate this problem. As well, developing technologies could make lithium extraction from ocean water more affordable, where there is over 5,000 times more lithium than on land.
As raw materials become scarcer, there will be a need to develop components using more abundant minerals.
Widespread adoption is needed
Although governments are announcing their plans to transition to net zero emissions, they are slow to embrace the 100 percent renewable energy system research. The IEEE report suggests that large institutions are, “prone to institutional inertia,” and it can be difficult to persuade them to adopt new positions.
Even notable organizations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are lagging in their approaches to support 100 renewable energy systems.
“The latest progress for the IPCC and the IEA indicates a shift in the right direction, although there is still a long way to go.”
Of course, institutions need to embrace the movement to renewable, but it goes all the way down to the individual. Everyone needs to embrace the clean energy transition.
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Andrew Kaminsky is a freelance writer with no fixed location. He travels all corners of the globe learning about the different groups that call this planet home, seeing natural wonders, and sharing laughs with the people he finds along the way. An alum of the University of Winnipeg's International Development program, Andrew is particularly interested in international relations and sustainable development. In his spare time you are likely to find Andrew engaging in anything sport-related, or finding common ground with new friends over a craft beer.