Our energy system is a big contributor to the climate crisis. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, energy accounted for 72% of global manmade emissions in 2013, and a large proportion of these emissions comes from the electricity and heat we use to power our homes.
Energy is such a huge source of emissions because our current system relies on the extraction and burning of coal, oil, and gas. Using these resources as the basis of our energy system isn’t just bad because of the large amount of carbon that is released when we burn them, it’s also bad because we will inevitably run out of these resources, and because the process of extracting these resources causes water pollution, air pollution, and habitat destruction.
Relying on this system will only become more problematic as our population grows, increasing our demand for energy. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that worldwide energy demand will increase by 50% by 2050. Luckily, there’s an eco-friendly, cost-effective alternative: renewable energy.
Renewable energy is expected to grow alongside our population and energy demand. The EIA predicts that by 2050, renewable energy will be our predominant source of energy.
Renewable energy is a pretty straightforward concept- instead of relying on non-renewable resources like coal, oil, and gas for our energy, we rely on renewable resources like wind, water, and sunlight. Because they’re renewable, there is no fear of us running out. In addition, unlike coal, oil, and gas, these resources have very low rates of greenhouse gas emissions
Renewable energy accounts for 15% of current energy production worldwide. Hydropower is the most popular source of renewable energy, followed by nuclear, wind, and solar energy.
Hydropower harnesses the energy that is within moving water. Electricity is created by collecting water in a reservoir, controlling the output of the water from this reservoir with a dam (or a series of canals), and then using this water to turn a turbine that generates electricity. The water within this reservoir can be reused.
Hydropower results in very little pollution or emissions, aside from when the infrastructure is built. The construction of this infrastructure can cause pollution, and the infrastructure itself can disrupt habitats and fish migration patterns if not done with the environment in mind.
Hydropower accounts for around 17% of worldwide electricity production, and there is potential for growth into areas in Latin America, Africa, India and China. The main barriers in using hydropower are the money, time and construction required to build the reservoirs and upstart the system.
The creation of nuclear energy requires splitting a uranium atom through a process called nuclear fission. This process releases a lot of energy that is then harnessed in nuclear power plants, resulting in a steady stream of energy. These power plants have low levels of emissions, create a lot of power, and are relatively inexpensive once they’re up and running
The downsides of nuclear energy include the high cost of plant construction and the fact the plants create radioactive waste that has to be carefully disposed of. In addition, there is always the potential for nuclear disasters as a result of an accident or terrorist attack, although the chances of this are slim.
Nuclear energy is often considered to be renewable because of the low levels of emissions, but many argue that it shouldn’t be considered renewable because the amount of uranium that we have on earth is finite. Others argue that the amount of uranium we have available is so large that it shouldn’t matter.
Electricity is created from wind through the use of wind turbines. These turbines spin as the wind blows, creating mechanical energy that then spins a generator to produce electricity. These turbines can be large or small and can be located on land or offshore. This process of electricity generation results in very few emissions, is cost-effective and can be built on existing farms and ranches.
There are very few downsides and challenges to using wind power as long as the turbines are installed in the proper locations to avoid harming wildlife and disturbing local communities. The main challenge in using wind power is garnering the public desire to install the turbines, instead of using the land for alternative purposes.
There is also concern that because the presence and strength of wind is variable, that wind turbines won’t provide a consistent source of energy. There are ways to store excess wind power generated for later use, which solves this issue of intermittency. However, the technology for this energy storage is still being developed to be applied on a large scale.
Solar energy is created by using solar panels to capture the sun's energy and then turn it into electricity. These solar panels are made out of silicon solar cells.
Solar panels are sustainable because of their low rates of emissions and their use of the sun, a renewable source of energy, rather than fossil fuels or oil. Solar panels can also allow homes to be independent and self-sufficient energy producers, as the panels can be installed on rooftops. The price of solar is also rapidly declining as it becomes more popular.
The drawback of solar is its issue with energy storage. Currently, most panels are poor at storing the energy is harnesses for the sun, meaning they only produce energy when the sun is actually shining. This becomes an issue on cloudy and stormy days. However, a lot of development and research is being done to develop the technology of solar batteries that will allow the panels to store energy, so this will no longer be an issue in the near future. There is also some concern about the environmental impacts of creating and disposing of a solar panel.
All of these renewable energy sources have their pros and cons, but the important thing to remember is that they’re all better in the long run than our current energy system. Transforming our energy system to run on renewables like these rather than oil, gas, and coal will drastically reduce rates of greenhouse gas emissions, and could even result in job creation and economic development.
Is the blog manager for Zero Waste Club, combining her love for writing with her passion for all things environmental sustainability. She is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is studying journalism, environmental studies, and food studies in hopes of building a career in environmental activism. You can find her on Instagram as @kaylaguilliams.