Energy: The big switch
Can the world really switch to an energy system based solely on renewable energy? Can the world's reliance on fossil fuels actually shift to be fulfilled by sustainable sources? Much of the world looks on without question of whether this transition is the right choice, fully aligned with the need for smarter solutions, but how do we get there? With some estimates seeing global fossil fuel supplies fully depleted in as little as four decades, there needs to be action. And it needs to be swift.
Renewable vs. sustainable
Derived from natural sources that are constantly replenished, renewable energy is ordinarily processed directly from the sun or from heat generated deep within the earth. In contrast to fossil fuels, which largely are concentrated in a limited number of regions across the world, renewable energy sources exist over wide geographical areas, maximising access and availability.
Some of the main types of renewable energy include:
Solar - the generation of electricity from sunlight
Wind - electrical energy obtained from harnessing the wind with windmills or wind turbines
Marine - utilising tides, salinity and ocean temperature to generate energy
Geothermal – a thermal energy generated and stored in the earth from radioactive decay and continual heat loss from the earth’s formation
Biofuel – living or recently living plant or animal materials which can be used as a fuel
Hydropower – energy derived from the movement of water, harnessing the kinetic energy it creates
Whilst technically renewable, hydropower and the production of biofuels have attracted considerable controversy over their sustainability, raising many questions about whether they are methods of renewable fuel supplies the world should be exploring and investing in.
The United Nations Development Programme defines sustainable energy as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In effect, we will never be able to use it all up and it should have no impact on the physical environment around us.
Coal and oil are two of the major fossil fuel sources that produce 97% of the world’s carbon dioxide, an instrumental factor in the increase of global warming – however, sustainable power technologies have significant environmental benefits. Unlike fossil fuels, they can generate energy without releasing significant quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, into the atmosphere.
Technology and economics
Unquestionably critical to a wide-scale roll out of sustainable energy solutions, technological advances are required to implement sufficient infrastructure for farming, storage and distribution of energy supplies. The more investment in technology capable of providing these solutions, the more efficiencies the energy industry and thus the end consumer will benefit from.
The cost of sustainable energy sources have rapidly decreased over the years and continue to fall – but the roll out of these solutions are still very much in their infancy - and unless significant enough investment continues to be made, the rapid advancements required to be able to provide sustainable energy options to the degree the world needs, in the time before fossil fuel supplies deplete, simply cannot happen.
Solar panels are a great example of how significant advancements in technology can help to create the infrastructure needed to make more sustainable methods more accessible. Once expensive and inefficient, they simply were not a realistic proposition for most businesses and households; now relatively economical and comparatively extremely effective, their presence is quite commonplace.
Social change and consumption
Aesthetics is an often-popular point of criticism when discussing sustainable energy sources; solar and wind solutions most commonly cited in such reproval. The technological advances in infrastructure are allowing for better opportunity to unobtrusively integrate energy tools into their design; solar panels on motorways that double as noise barriers, for example or high-spec building cladding that are fully solar efficient. As the investment continues to be made, these clever and innovative programmes will undoubtedly further advance.
The sustainable nature of green energy supplies means over time, as efficiencies are maximised, and infrastructure is in place, it has the potential to drive down the cost of energy to businesses and consumers, putting an end to the fuel poverty we frequently see today.
Whilst a huge focus on the shift change in the way energy is supplied is imperative to achieving sustainability, it also requires monumental change to the way that energy is used too – including reducing the amount of energy required to power goods and services.
In 2017, global energy demand grew by 2.1%, and carbon emissions rose for the first time since 2014. There is the need to reduce the demand growth to enable sustainable energy sources and production the opportunity to make a significant impact. Without this critical move and the massive behavioural change that comes with it, from businesses and consumers alike, attempting implementation of sustainable programmes anywhere in the world will be a losing battle.
Renewable energy and energy efficiency have to co-exist in any successful sustainability policy, and whilst huge scientific and technological advancements have been made in attempting to tackle the impending energy crisis, there is still such a long way to go before the world is at the point of having significant impact.
Is there the chance to shift the world’s reliance on fossil fuels for sustainable sources? Absolutely.
Will it happen overnight? Categorically not. It will take many, many businesses, consumers and governments to make many, many significant changes, on a permanent basis, to happen at all.
So will it happen? We can all do our bit to make sure it does.
edie Live 2019
Taking place on 21-22 May at the NEC Birmingham, edie Live is the only UK event connecting energy, sustainability and resource professionals with the information, ideas and suppliers they need to make their business more sustainable, including the Energy Theatre that will shine a light on critical energy issues; from discussing key energy policy updates and strategic insights, through to low-carbon technology case studies and operational best practice.
edie Live attracts thousands of visitors to meet hundreds of innovative exhibitors and take part in hours of information-packed seminars, interactive products trials, one-to-one advice clinics and great networking. For more information, see here.