Our recent interviews with outrageously inspiring people from the renewable energy front line (see our podcast episodes with the founder of UK’s Bulb Energy, Hayden Wood and Selco India’s founder, Harish Hande), have got us thinking more and more about renewable energy! Renewable resources, climate change, sustainability, fossil fuels, clean energy: These terms get tossed around a lot these days and it’s easy to lose the sight of their meaning. We are entering what scientists refer to as a “global energy crisis” due to reliance on non-renewable, quickly disappearing resources to power our world. So, given the importance of this up and coming new sector, we wanted to step back and make sure we were all clear on what renewable energy actually is!
Currently, much of global society relies upon four major sources of non-renewable energy: crude oil (petroleum), natural gas, coal, and uranium (nuclear energy). The former three are commonly known as “fossil fuels”, so named because they formed from remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago, 150 million to 300 million, to be exact. The latter category is not considered a fossil fuel, but uranium ore is still finite in its amount and ability to be reproduced.
Not only are the methods of acquiring fossil fuels environmentally detrimental, but they also pose the daunting question, “What happens when they run out?” In just over 200 years, we have consumed a vast percentage of the world’s fossil fuels. Estimates based on known deposits and reserves have placed tentative depletion deadlines on these non-renewable resources. Oil, of which we consume 11 billion tons annually, may only last until 2052. Gas and coal, of which we have more remaining but will go more quickly once oil is depleted, are slated to last until 2060 and 2088, respectively. This isn’t to say new reserves won’t be found before those critical dates, or that our consumption rates will not slow, but the fact remains, it’s not slowing quickly enough.
Renewable energy is an exciting answer to the energy crisis. The difference between renewable and non-renewable energy forms ultimately boils down to what scientists refer to as “replacement time”. If non-renewable energy is generated from materials that have inconceivably long replacement times, renewable energy is that which has short replacement time. In other words, it’s constantly renewable, time and time again! Renewable energy is that which comes “from an energy resource that is replaced rapidly by a natural process”. Harvesting energy from renewable energy sources (RES) does not deplete them or prevent future harvesting.
There are five major categories of renewable energy: biomass, geothermal, wind, hydropower, and solar:
- Biomass is organic material that comes from plants and animals. These solid materials (e.g. wood, agricultural waste, animal manure) are turned into energy in two ways:
- It can be burned directly to produce heat energy. So that nice wood burning stove? That’s renewable energy. Special organic waste burning power plants and trash incinerators mimic this on a large scale.
- Food, wood, and yard waste can be composted, which serves several purposes. First, composting yields nutrient rich humus, capable of amending soil and growing new plants. The decomposition process can also yield a secondary biogas, which can then be converted into biofuels like ethanol. Ethanol, used for vehicle fuel, is created from the fermentation of agricultural waste, like corn and sugar cane. Even hazardous waste like sewage and animal feces can be composted using vessels called “digesters” to yield biogas.
- Hydropower and wind power both generate electricity through the movement of turbines moved by water and wind, respectively. Wind is especially efficient, as one wind turbine can generate enough electricity to power 1,400 homes over the course of a year. Since that statistic comes from the U.K. (almost one-third of which is powered by RES as of 2017), you can think of it in terms of boiling 230 million cups of tea!
- Geothermal energy is heat from the very earth itself (e.g. natural hot water springs which have been used for bathing since Paleolithic times). Since the earth’s core generates an estimated 42 million megawatts of energy, there’s plenty to be harnessed. By planting devices into the earth’s crust (the deeper the hotter!), that heat energy can be converted using heat pumps and is then used for various applications, including heating buildings.
- Solar energy is harvested from the sun’s rays by photovoltaic cells, aka solar panels. Solar energy is especially exciting because it is virtually inexhaustible, short of the sun burning out (in which case, we’re going to have bigger problems). Better yet, collecting it is pollution free, noise free, hands free and eventually (once the costs of the solar panels are paid off), free free. Just mount your panels on your roof, connect them to an energy storage receptacle like a battery, and let the trickle charge begin! As of 2011, solar technology “produced only one-tenth of one percent of the world’s energy supply”, but this is changing fast due to falling prices and gains in efficiency. According to National Geographic, if harnessed at maximum efficiency, one hour of sunlight could supply the world’s energy needs for an entire year.
Not only does RES harvesting eliminate reliance on finite resources from the earth, but the means of energy production are “cleaner”. Unlike burning coal and oil, they do not give off environmentally dangerous CO2 emissions and greenhouse gases (or at least not nearly as much in the case of geothermal power). Consider Paraguay’s Itaipu Dam, a hydroelectric power plant that in 2008, provided 87% of Paraguay’s electricity and 19% of Brazil’s. That one plant alone is estimated to displace 67.5 million tons of CO2 emissions each and every year
From a consumer perspective, if we were to add up the amount of money spent filling our gas tanks or paying energy bills over the years, well, we’ de probably rather just not… Renewable energy, however, has the remarkable benefit of being both financially and environmentally sustainable. Renewable energy may cost a bit more upfront, but is virtually cost-free after that, aside from some occasional maintenance. Think about it: If you generate your home’s electricity by personal solar panel, there is no need to pay city electric bills. Imagine having the little extra cash in your pocket at the end of each month and it’s easy to see how RES can quickly pay for themselves. Consider this detailed breakdown of a typical southwest home in the USA, equipped with a 5000W solar system: The cost for a complete setup runs about $15,000, before federal and state tax credits. Even factoring in maintenance and part replacement over 25 years, that home would save an estimated $84 per month in electric bills, leading to over $14,000 of savings over 25 years.
If you’re not in the market for solar panels, switching to a renewable energy provider will probably also be cheaper that your regular provider. We recently spoke to renewable energy retailer, Bulb Energy in the UK, who explained further why renewable energy costs are coming down and why renewables are really coming into their own.
What’s more, on a widespread economic scale, renewable energy creates five times more jobs than the fossil fuel industry and has been creating incredible opportunities for social enterprises to drive real change in developing economies.
In 2016, the entire country of Portugal went into fossil-fuel detox and ran on RES alone for 107 straight hours. Iceland, small though the population may be, generates 100% of their energy using geothermal power and hydroelectricity. Denmark predicts being free from fossil fuels by 2050 and Sweden publicly announced the same goal.
While Europe leads the world’s energy revolution, the United States is quick to follow, with massive solar plants popping up all over California and other spacious western states. Still, obstacles litter our path to a renewable future. Big oil corporations obviously have vested interested in fossil fuels and deep-pocketed lobbyists are out to keep funding with fossils. Non-renewable energy receives four times the public funding as renewable energy harvesting, mostly through soft loans and government subsidies from G20 nations (the top 20 leaders in industry and economics). According to the Guardian, on average between 2013 and 2015, $71.8 billion of public finance went toward fossil fuels and only $18.7 billion to renewable energy.
Reliance solely on fossil fuels roots us in a rapidly vanishing past. It’s time to move forward and diversify our imagination along with our energy supply. RES implementations are virtually limitless. As far back as 1990, a solar powered airplane, called the Sunseeker 1, set a world record by flying across the United States using NO fuel. Renewable technology has only progressed and grown more efficient since then. We are entering an entirely new age, rich in technology but free from dependence on expensive, environmentally damaging materials. Imagine the possibilities…