The era of renewables, the era of regeneration
Updated: Jan 27
As hurricanes, heat waves, floods, and droughts begin to become the new normal it is a frightening signal that significant changes are already in motion globally. Scientific information continues to pile up correlating humanity’s period of industrial development and gluttonous energy consumption to unprecedented increases in greenhouse gasses. Weak spots are beginning to appear in ecosystems that threaten the stability of the food chain such as the bleaching of coral reefs and the burning of rainforests. For humans to mitigate the damage we are causing to the environment it will take an efficient and systematic reorganization of the way society produces the keys to growth: food, water, and energy. The good news is that all of the tools required to enact the required transition exist; the question is whether they will be implemented quickly enough. No tool can single-handedly fix the climate crisis, rather each tool complements the others creating a mesh of interdependent technologies that help round out the weaknesses of the other tools.
The bulk of greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from two sectors: electricity generation and transportation. Renewable energy offers the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of both simultaneously. Trends such as the electrification of vehicles can slash the carbon footprint of the transportation as long as it is simultaneously linked with a build-out of carbon-free energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, nuclear and hydropower. By replacing the heaviest carbon emitters such as coal plants first, these renewables can help transition to an electrically focused energy system. Without a rapid construction of renewables to meet electricity demand, electric vehicles will not solve the problem since the electricity will ultimately come from fossil fuels. In contrast to that, if properly implemented, electric vehicle battery storage does offer an untapped potential to balance some of the limitations that renewable energy sources have such as intermittency, leading to the need for storage to address dispatchability concerns.
Energy storage will play a pivotal role in addressing climate change. Pumped hydropower is the global leader with respect to energy storage, although the technology comes with significant scalability issues due to environmental concerns and limited viable locations. Lithium-Ion battery storage is rapidly scaling although, until the levelized cost of energy drops, this technology will still require subsidies such as feed-in tariffs. A promising alternative is the generation of hydrogen using renewable energy that may otherwise be curtailed or disconnected from the grid. Hydrogen has the potential to efficiently produce energy using fuel cell technology which can be used for transportation and power generation. The advantages of hydrogen include the ability to use existing gas pipeline infrastructure and the dispatchability. With significant support and focused development, hydrogen will play a significant role in the middle to later stages of the energy transition.
What the world needs now is the rapid deployment of proven technologies such as wind and solar photovoltaics. Both of these renewable energy sources have reached a price parity with fossil fuels, and in some parts of the world they have actually reached a lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE). Wind power is rapidly scaling, particularly off-shore. New larger turbines, HVDC transmission lines, and higher capacity factors are driving rapid growth in the industry with project pipelines growing globally. Off-shore wind will see an additional boost as floating turbine technology matures and reaches the commercial market. Wind turbine technology significantly offers a distinct advantage over solar since each turbine represents significantly more installed power. Off-shore wind comes with its own challenges such as maintenance and installation costs. The on-shore wind is a mature market and is rapidly approaching the LCOE price parity. Unfortunately, on-shore wind development is often slowed by the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon where people are resistant to having wind farms near their homes.
Solar photovoltaics are an equally promising alternative to wind power. Solar has two distinct paths: distributed and centralized. Centralized solar photovoltaics operate similarly to a traditional power plant, while distributed generation is owned and operated by the everyday people on their residences. The opportunity to generate your own electricity gives people power to take control of their energy usage and potentially profit from their installation. Solar provides the advantage of abundance in lower latitudes with generally predictable generation periods. Solar photovoltaic panel prices have dropped drastically as the scale of economies have driven down manufacturing costs and supply chains have matured while research and development has been slowly increasing the efficiency of mono- and polycrystalline silicon cell panels.
Renewables like wind and solar can provide the bulk generation while their intermittency will require a build-out of storage to allow deeper penetration into the grid energy mix. Smart grid technology to shift baseload and reduce demand to help concentrate energy using during periods of large renewable energy generation. Smart home technology can largely reduce energy use at an individual level by improving energy efficiency within your home which will help overall demand at the same time.
All of the listed technologies represent their own sector and group of benefits. One without the others will not be a viable solution. Innovation in each individual sector will help boost the ability of the others. This innovation will help build jobs and is an opportunity for enormous financial growth for the leaders who recognize the potential and benefit from contributing to stopping the climate crisis. If the world stays on the current path it will create global ripples of consequences that are unprecedented. Systematic change is required, the question is whether the world will make this change before or after the worst of the consequences. Let's try to do it!