Gloria Spittel presents the key factors driving the renewable energy movement
In the context of climate change, there’s hardly a discussion that could or would find energy generated from fossil fuels as the preferred choice. So drastic are the environmental changes affecting the planet that the pivot to renewable energy sources is no longer an option but a reality in the making.
While climate change and the disastrous effects of fossil fuels on the Earth’s environment are definite drivers of the renewable energy movement, they’re certainly not the only or most important factors to lead to the current level of interest – and investment in, and support of – utilising renewable energy.
In fact, the present fervour for renewable energy is a result of several contributing factors.
One of the earlier proponents of identifying, harvesting and utilising renewable energy sources was dwindling fossil fuel resources. Fossil fuels are a finite source of coal, oil and natural gas that formed over millennia unlike renewable energy, which uses the sun, wind, water, ocean and others as its source because the rate of consumption far exceeds the available fossil fuel resources.
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016 (which is based on 2015 production levels and known fossil fuel reserves), there was sufficient coal, oil and natural gas left for approximately 110, 52.5 and 54 years respectively at the time.
Naturally, this makes for a worrying outlook as most of the world’s energy requirements for economic development and daily life are met by the utilisation of fossil fuels. For instance, oil remained the leading source of energy and accounted for a third of global consumption, according to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2017.
Meanwhile, global energy consumption increased by one percent in 2016, the report reveals.
Undoubtedly, limited fossil fuel resources were and continue to be a push factor in the drive to new investments (as well as innovation) across the oil and gas industries, and related academic fields. The resulting technological innovations in oil and gas exploration have served the purpose of increasing the pool of available resources as the technologies are now capable of retrieving the required materials for consumption – for example, through shale oil production.
However, new technologies for extracting and using fossil fuels have commensurate negative effects on the environment.
To prevent further environmental degradation as well as limit – and eventually reduce – the effects of climate change on our planet, governments across the world and large international NGOs have written, passed and implemented policies supporting the development and use of renewable energy. This is another factor contributing to the rise of renewable energy.
The use of renewable sources for energy production will have the net effect of diversifying energy supplies, reducing the dependence on fossil fuels and lowering carbon emissions.
Policies and subsidies implemented by governments have also benefitted the everyday consumer. As consumers become more aware of the current threat of climate change, and make different choices that would reduce carbon emissions and their personal carbon footprints, the demand for fossil fuel generated energy will continue to decline – and of course, renewable or cleaner energy will be in greater demand.
As a combination of these factors, the technology for extracting, storing and utilising energy manufactured by renewable sources has grown in type and efficiency, so much so that renewable energy has become cheaper to harvest and use.
Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have empowered consumers by providing them with an opportunity to generate their own requirements, and become suppliers to national grids. This is an option that’s available to consumers in Sri Lanka too. However, the buyback rate for energy supplied to the national grid could be raised so as to act as an incentive.
The other advantage of renewable energy is that it can be generated in various locations depending on the prevalent source – such as sunlight in the desert or dry zones – and provided to unconnected localities without the need for costly investments in infrastructure.
As it currently stands, renewable energy represents a global movement with no clear international geopolitics tied to its supply, production and distribution (as in the case of certain fossil fuels such as oil) and local politics (e.g. coal production in the US). Of course, there are emission reduction and renewable energy goals that signatories to international treaties have to meet. But control of the renewable energy supply could remain distributed.
Yet, there are concerns on the practicality of renewable energy. Two of these relate to the use of arable land for the development of renewable energy farms, and the growth and use of plants such as corn for biomass, rather than for food and backward compatibility. But as the technology used in renewable energy develops further – and becomes increasingly available to consumers at the individual and community levels – as with solar panels and wind turbines respectively, it will gain in popularity and usability.