Why is it so damn hard to make renewable energy?
It seems like I am always hearing new stories about the potential of renewable energy.
Wind, solar, hydro, biofuels… surely one of these technologies should be able to compete with oil and gas right?
Then why does renewable energy make up such a small percentage of our total energy use?
Jeremy Shere sheds some light on this subject in his book Renewable. He tells stories of countless innovators, inventors, and businesspeople who attempt to develop renewable energy technologies that compete with oil and gas. Shere shares our history of renewable energy in a non-technical way that is easy and enjoyable to read.
Top 5 Takeaways:
1. People have been trying to make renewable energy technology for a long time
When we think of renewable energy, we usually think of arrays of solar panels, towering wind turbines, and massive hydro dams.
This gives the impression that these technologies are new and have only been around for the past few decades.
While this is true for some renewable energies, some have been around for a long time.
In 1979, president Jimmy Carter unveiled solar hot water panels on top of the white house.
That was over 40 years ago.
In 1919, a journalist wrote that we would soon need to replace gasoline with alcohol as an alternative fuel source.
That was over 100 years ago.
In 1888, the first electric windmill was built.
That was over 130 years ago.
You get the point. We’ve been doing this for a long time.
While there have been exciting developments in renewable energy like offshore wind farms and biofuel plants, we have been trying to find alternatives to coal and gas for a long time.
2. Many people have tried to make renewable energy practical, most have failed
If you look at our track record of renewable energy attempts, it doesn’t look great.
On one hand, renewable energies have grown significantly over the past few decades.
On the other hand, renewable energies still make up a tiny fraction of our energy usage.
There is no shortage of stories of people who attempt to make it work. Most of these attempts are on small-scale projects for a short period of time. Unfortunately, most of the time renewable energy has not been cost-competitive with coal and gas.
3. The main barriers to renewable energy technology are cost, availability, and storage
Why is coal or gas, such a good fuel source?
Let’s take coal for example.
It is very cheap to produce since it is found in many places and easy to mine. It is extremely energy-dense. Meaning that for a given mass of coal, you can get a lot of energy out of it. This also makes it cheap to transport. Coal energy plants also have the ability to be turned up or down based on demand. Need more electricity? Simply throw some more coal on the fire.
Let’s compare with renewable energy.
There are very few situations where renewable energy is cost-competitive with coal.
The other big challenge is in the lack of availability and storage of renewable energies.
With solar energy, the amount of sun dictates the amount of electricity you generate. If demand goes up, you have no way to increase your electricity generation. If you have too much electricity generation from solar energy, it is usually wasted unless you are able to store it. Large battery banks can be used to store electricity generated from solar, but they are costly to build and further increase the costs of electricity generated from solar.
4. Although renewable energy technology has increased, we still have a long way to go to compete with oil and gas
There have been huge developments in solar, wind, and biofuels in the past few decades.
Even so, they still make up a relatively small portion of our global electricity generation, roughly 10%.
Hydro is currently our biggest winner of renewables, sitting at 16%.
Coal, oil, and gas still make up 63% of our global electricity generation.
Even with huge technological developments in renewable technologies, they are simply too expensive to compete with others.
5. The only way to increase renewable energy usage, is through government policies and regulation
It seems that letting renewable technologies compete in the market with coal and gas hasn’t worked quite the way we want it to. Coal and gas are simply too inexpensive and convenient be beat by renewables.
So how can we increase the feasibility of renewables?
The only way to do so is with government policies.
Government intervention in the energy business can tip the scales in the favour of renewables to help drown out coal and gas. One example of this is with a carbon tax. By taxing companies that contribute significant amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, they can increase the costs of running coal and gas plants.
This makes renewable energies more likely to be cost-competitive.
In Renewable, Sphere covers the historical challenges in developing renewables.
He tells stories of people who have dedicated their lives in search of alternative energy sources.
Shere paints a clear picture of how far we have come, and still how much farther we have to go.
And he does it in a way that doesn’t bog you down with the technical details.
Have you read Renewable? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!