Summary: Renewables


Renewable energy is the future. There’s simply no denying that we have to stop burning fossil fuels if we want to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. However, renewables have their limits.

Solar PV, wind, and battery technologies are all made from loads of different metals. As such, many of the components’ production processes are polluting and energy intensive. Some of the metals – arguably the most important ones – are also quite rare and are listed as ‘critical’ commodities. Unfortunately, we can’t just build millions of solar panels and wind turbines to solve the energy production problem for the next 100 years. These technologies have expiration dates, and combined with poor recycling, that means we need to keep extracting and smelting minerals to produce these ‘clean’ energy technologies. These limits help explain why solar PV and wind [combined] accounted for less than 8% of the global electricity mix in 2019. Solar thermal has yet to make an impact at the global scale.

Hydrogen-based technologies also face numerous challenges, ranging from infrastructure, overall efficiency, and hydrogen production’s high costs and energy requirements. With an overwhelming majority of industries using steam-methane reforming to produce hydrogen, the lightweight fuel is far from clean right now. Meanwhile, hydrolysis has its fair share of obstacles to overcome before it can start taking a more significant role in hydrogen production worldwide.

Geothermal, like hydroelectric energy sources, just aren’t options in many parts of the world. Hydroelectricity continues to dominate energy production amongst renewables, but isn’t scheduled for a significant increase in energy production in the coming decade. Hydroelectric dams also damage surrounding biodiversity and indirectly emit methane as decaying organic matter accumulates on the reservoir floor. Lastly, dams are at the mercy of precipitation, which is becoming increasingly problematic since climate patterns are becoming less predictable.

Biomass and renewable natural gas can both be great options to convert waste into energy. However, that’s really as far as it should go. Intentionally cutting down vegetation for that purpose just doesn’t make much sense from a carbon emission perspective.

While all these renewable energy sources/technologies will be necessary to phase out fossil fuels, they each have their limits. To reduce our energy consumption’s impacts, it’ll take more than just switching energy sources. We’ll need to reduce our consumption significantly to help the energy mix make a quick transition from a domination of fossil fuels to a majority of renewables.

For people living on the grid, it’s usually best to avoid purchasing individualized solutions. Instead, reducing consumption while demanding change at larger scales [e.g. governments, businesses] is a much more effective solution.