Renewable energy comes from a source that will not deplete. Two common examples of this type of energy are solar power and wind power. Geothermal power, hydropower, biomass, and tidal power are additional forms of renewable energy that produce power for our planet right now.
The primary advantage of renewable energy is that fewer potentially harmful emissions are released into the atmosphere. Although fossil fuels are used to create the products that allow for this power to be produced, most forms of renewable energy can become carbon neutral in 5 years or less.
The disadvantage of renewable energy is that it can be costly. Although wind power and solar power have become cost-competitive with coal-fired power and nuclear power in some communities, some forms are not cost-competitive globally yet when the cost per kilowatt hour is compared. In 2015, the lifetime cost per kilowatt hour of conventional coal was 9.5 cents, while the cost of offshore wind was 15.8 cents.
There are additional advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy to consider as well.
What Are the Advantages of Renewable Energy?
1. It is safe, abundant, and clean to use when compared to fossil fuels.
Even clean-burning natural gas is at a disadvantage to what renewable energy sources can provide. Enough sunlight comes down on our planet every day that if we could harvest it with solar panels and other forms of collection, we could power everything for an entire year. Because wind is created by the warmth of the sun, it is also virtually limitless. Fossil fuels, in theory, are a finite resource because of how they are created.
2. Multiple forms of renewable energy exist.
Diversification within the renewable energy sector has exploded since the 1970s. From dams that provide hydropower to solar strips that are strong enough to handle the weight of a vehicle and can be turned into roads, we have numerous methods of creating power through the collection of renewable energy. There is greater diversity in this sector when compared to fossil fuel resources.
3. It provides the foundation for energy independence.
Many nations rely on fossil fuels for their society to function under the “modern” definition. These fuels come from a handful of countries that work to control pricing and availability. By developing renewable energy resources, countries can work toward energy independence with a diversified portfolio of energy to access. Although these resources take time to develop, it should be remembered that the current fossil fuel infrastructure has more than a century of development behind it.
4. Renewable energy is stable.
When renewables are creating energy, the power produced is stable and usable, just like any other form of “traditional” power. It is a dependable resource when an infrastructure is available to support it. Jobs are created within the sector as well, creating stability within local economic sectors at the same time. The power created can be distributed through existing grids, which can limit installation costs for some communities.
5. It is a technology instead of a fuel.
Coal must be mined and refined to make it useful. Natural gas must be released and transported. A fossil fuel is created from natural resources, whereas renewable energies are created thanks to the use of technology. For this reason, the pricing of renewable energies will continue to go down as improvements in technology occur. Fossil fuels can see price reductions through mining and refining efficiency improvements, but there will always be an underlying labor cost that will affect pricing and availability.
What Are the Disadvantages of Renewable Energy?
1. Not every form of renewable energy is commercially viable.
Many forms of renewable energy must be collected at a specific location, which means distribution networks must be setup to take advantage of the power that can be generated. These networks require a massive fossil fuel investment that can take generations to neutralize with the use of renewable energy. From tidal power to geothermal, the commercial viability of many renewable energy resources is not available right now.
2. Many forms of renewable energy are location-specific.
Even solar energy has limited potential in some locations. In Seattle, Washington, just 71 days per year are classified as “sunny,” or having a cloud cover that is less than 30%. Northern cities may go prolonged periods without any sunlight during the winter months. Because renewable energy is often location-specific, it may not be available for every community to use.
3. Many forms of renewable energy require storage capabilities.
With traditional power resources, a home or business is connected to a local distribution grid so that it can be accessed 24/7. When using a renewable energy resource, back-up and storage resources must be included with the power generation opportunity. Sunlight doesn’t happen at night. Wind speeds are not always consistent. The storage capabilities that are required can push the cost of a new renewable energy system beyond what the average person or community can afford.
4. Pollution is still generated with renewable energy.
Renewable energies are cleaner than most fossil fuels, but “cleaner” and “clean” are very different terms. A resource like biomass still burns waste products and puts pollution into the atmosphere. This includes carbon and methane, which are classified as greenhouse gases. The technologies and facilities that are used to build renewable energy resources require fossil fuels, as do the transportation and distribution networks. In many instances, renewable energy relies on fossil fuels, whereas fossil fuels do not rely on renewables.
5. Renewables often require subsidies to make them affordable.
In the United States, an emphasis on biofuels and renewable energies led to the creation of ethanol as a crude oil replacement. Despite taxpayer-funded subsidies in place for this corn-based fuel, only 430,000 barrels per day were produced in 2007. That was enough to replace 2% of the oil that was being consumed while corn prices skyrocketed because of the crops being funneled into this renewable fuel.
6. Some forms of renewable energy require a massive amount of space.
To product 20 megawatts of energy, current solar technologies require 100 acres of space. In comparison, the footprint for a nuclear power plant is 1 square mile to produce 1,000 megawatts of energy. Solar is therefore 45 times less space efficient compared to nuclear power. Solar is even worse, requiring up to 360 square miles to produce the same energy as one nuclear power plant.
The advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy show us that this technology has great potential. We have yet to realize its full potential, however, because of certain limitations that come with renewables. With more investments into this technology, prices can be lowered, jobs can be created, and the transition toward the consumption of fewer fossil fuels can happen.