Power To The Planet: What Is Renewable Energy?
Renewable energy, climate change, fossil fuels, carbon tax, energy transition…oh my!
These terms get tossed around a lot these days, and it’s easy to lose sight of their meaning.
Since we’re now in the middle of a global energy crisis, we thought it would be an ideal time to get clear on the first one—renewable energy.
It’s a topic we’ve pondered a lot since our podcast interviews with outrageously inspiring people from the renewable energy front line—like founder of UK’s Bulb Energy, Hayden Wood, and Selco India’s founder, Harish Hande.
So, what is renewable energy, exactly, and why is it so important to find clean alternative energy sources?
1. What Is Renewable Energy?
To fully understand what is a renewable energy source and what isn’t, and why renewable energy is important, let’s start by looking at the opposite—non-renewable energy sources.
What Is Non-Renewable Energy?
Currently, much of global society relies upon four major sources of non-renewable energy:
- crude oil (petroleum)
- natural gas
- uranium (nuclear energy)
The former three are commonly known as “fossil fuels”, so named because they formed from the 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 finite in its amount and ability to be reproduced.
Are Fossil Fuels Renewable?
Nope. Fossil fuels are finite (as opposed to infinite) resources.
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 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.
This isn’t to say new reserves won’t be found before those critical dates or that our consumption rates won’t slow, but the fact remains, it’s not slowing quickly enough.
So, what is the difference between renewable and non-renewable energy sources?
Ultimately, it 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 a short replacement time.
What Is The Definition Of Renewable Energy?
The United Nations defines renewable energy as “energy that is derived from natural processes (e.g. sunlight and wind) that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed”.
Harvesting energy from renewable energy sources (RES) does not deplete them or prevent future harvesting, which makes them an exciting answer to the energy crisis.
Let’s take a look at some examples of renewable energy sources and see how they stack up.
2. What Are Renewable Energy Sources & Examples?
Now that we know the renewable resources definition, what is a renewable energy source, specifically?
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:
First, 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.
Second, food, wood, and yard waste can be composted, which serves several purposes.
Composting yields nutrient-rich humus, capable of amending soil and growing new plants.
The decomposition process can also yield secondary biogas, which can then be converted into biofuels like ethanol—a vehicle fuel created from the fermentation of agricultural waste, like corn and sugarcane.
Even hazardous waste like sewage and animal feces can be composted using vessels called “digesters” to yield biogas.
Hydropower & Wind Power
Hydropower and wind power both generate electricity through the movement of turbines by water and wind, respectively.
Wind is especially efficient. One wind turbine can generate enough electricity per month to power 940 average US homes.
More powerful turbines can surpass that. The United States’ first large-scale offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts recently powered up. When the planned 62 turbines are fully operational, they’ll generate enough electricity to run 400,000 homes.
Geothermal energy is heat from the 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 used for various applications, including heating buildings.
Solar energy is harvested from the sun’s rays by photovoltaic cells, AKA solar panels.
It’s one of the best renewable energy sources because it is virtually inexhaustible, short of the sun burning out (in which case, we will 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), financially free.
To see for yourself, mount some portable solar panels on your roof (or on the roof of your RV), connect them to an energy storage receptacle like a battery, and let the trickle charge begin.
While there are some interesting points regarding the sustainability of solar panels to consider, we can safely say that they’re a cleaner, green energy source than fossil fuels.
Solar PV is powering ahead, reaching a record increase in 2022 and overtaking wind for the first time.
Its future is bright, considering that, if harnessed at maximum efficiency, one hour of sunlight could supply the world’s energy needs for an entire year.
3. What Is The Best Renewable Energy Source
So, out of the above five RES, which renewable energy is the best?
That depends. If we’re talking about the best of the best renewable energy sources on a consumer level, solar power takes first place. It’s relatively easy to install a couple of solar panels and start reaping the rewards.
In terms of efficiency, wind power, particularly offshore wind farms have huge potential. In 2022, 26.8% of the UK’s electricity came from wind power.
As for which renewable energy resource is currently used the most, that would be hydropower.
However, there are valid concerns regarding the impact of droughts as well and the environmental impact damming has on waterways.
There really is no single best form of renewable energy, as what’s right for one location or project might not be a good fit for another.
We dive into the pros and cons of different types of renewable energy examples elsewhere, but suffice to say, if we’re going to replace fossil fuels, we need a mix of renewable energy sources.
4. Benefits Of Renewable Energy
Environmental Benefits Of Renewable Energy
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, renewable energy is sustainable energy.
This means it does not give off environmentally dangerous CO2 emissions and greenhouse gasses (or at least not nearly as much).
Consider Paraguay’s Itaipu Dam, a hydroelectric power plant that, in 2022, provided 86.40% of Paraguay’s electricity as well as 8.72% of Brazil’s. That one plant alone is estimated to displace a whopping 87 million tons of CO2 emissions every year.
Economic Benefits Of Renewable Energy
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’d probably rather just not…
Renewable energy solutions, however, have the remarkable benefit of being both financially and environmentally sustainable. They may cost a bit more upfront but are virtually cost-free after that, aside from some maintenance.
Think about it: If you generate your home’s electricity with personal solar panels, there is no need to pay city electric bills. Imagine having a 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.
In the US, homes with a 6kW system installed could save up to $1,500 a year—not to mention the associated tax breaks one might qualify for.
If you’re not in the market for solar panels, switching to a renewable energy provider is one of the best ways to conserve energy at home.
While it might not currently save you money on your bills, that’s only because of how the energy market is structured.
In the UK, the price of electricity is currently tied to the price of gas, which means the overall cost of electricity is still high despite the transition to more cost-effective renewables.
Ultimately, the markets for renewables and fossil fuels need to be separated.
All this to say that renewable energy is a no-brainer.
5. The Future Of Renewable Energy
Promisingly, there has been enormous growth in the use of renewable energy in recent years. Green energy is the new political black. Don’t believe us?
- According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables will make up 35% of the global power generation mix by 2025.
- Last year, the entire country of Portugal went into fossil-fuel detox and ran on RES alone for six days.
- Iceland, small though the population may be, generates 85% of its energy using geothermal power and hydroelectricity.
- Denmark predicts being free from fossil fuels by 2050.
- Rooftop solar has on occasion, met 100% of South Australia’s electricity needs and two-thirds of Victoria’s.
- In 2022, renewable sources of energy provided 22.5% of the energy used in the EU.
- In the first half of 2023, 25.11% of the US’s power generation came from renewable sources.
The ratios are shifting, but are they shifting fast enough?
As hopeful as that list is, since 2015, the UK has still given fossil fuels £20 billion more in support than renewable energy.
Time is of the essence, and multiple factors affect how quickly the energy transition can take place—namely big oil corporations with vested interests and deep-pocketed lobbyists out to keep funding fossils.
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Final Thoughts On Renewable Energy
RES implementations are virtually limitless. As far back as 1990, a solar-powered airplane, 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.
While obstacles still litter our path to a renewable future, we can help the clean energy movement along by spreading the word about why it’s so beneficial—so please, pass this article along and encourage your friends to get behind the renewable revolution.