What is Renewable Energy?

by John Brian Shannon

It may surprise you to know that there are only two kinds of energy; Renewable and Non-Renewable.

Renewable energy is a kind of energy, one that is automatically replenished by the environment, such as the accumulated rainfall collected behind hydroelectric dams which is used to produce hydroelectric power.

The Sun’s light and heat is employed (directly) to produce solar power and (indirectly) for wind power production, and heat in the Earth’s crust is used to generate geothermal energy. Another type of renewable energy used around the world is biomass.

By 2050, it is expected that worldwide energy demand (including transportation) will reach 28 Terawatt years (TWy) of energy, up from 2009’s total energy demand of 16 TWy.

Please view the graphic below, to see the world’s total available energy from all sources.

One row displays Renewable Energy, while the other row displays Non-Renewable Energy.

We can see that in 2009, the total world energy demand from all sources, including all forms of transportation worldwide, amounted to 16 Terawatt years of energy — including all forms of transportation — which itself accounted for one-third of all energy demand on the planet.

Planetary energy graphic energy-resources-renewables-fossil-fuel-uranium
Planetary energy graphic. © R.Perez, K.Zweibel, T.Hoff. Comparing finite and renewable planetary energy reserves (Terawatt ‐ years). Total recoverable reserves are shown for the finite resources. Yearly potential is shown for the renewables. Image courtesy: Perez and Perez 2009a

For 2009 we can see from the graphic that solar power could have produced 1437.5 times the world’s total energy demand.

In 2050 even with the increased energy demands of our civilization solar power alone will still be able to provide 821.4 times the world’s total energy demand if we choose to employ it.

Amonix solar modules mounted on Sun tracking system. Image courtesy: Amonix.com

The Sun will continue shining regardless of our decision on the matter. If we don’t, it’s simply wasted energy that will continue to hit the Earth every day for the next 11 billion years.

Solar energy can easily provide all of our energy.

Of course, wind power could supply all of our energy needs between now and 2050. The renewable energy from wind power alone is equal to the energy required to power our entire civilization.

Other types of renewable energy such as Biomass, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), and Hydroelectric power, are important, but even when exploited to their maximum potential they are nowhere near being able to satisfy world energy demand.

Nor do they need to. They can complement solar and wind power, adding clean, reliable power to our national electricity grids.

Another type of energy which can be considered renewable energy (but only when the proper production processes are employed) is the energy we get from from biofuels like bio-ethanol or biodiesel (when made from algae + water) or ethanol/methanol (when it is made from a combination of organic waste material + enzymes + water).

Some biofuels are made from plants but require more inputs of water, fertilizer, and pesticides to grow them than the final product is worth — which is why it is very important to select the right plants to create biofuel or it isn’t a sustainable energy solution.

When the optimum plants aren’t selected for biofuel processing, massive subsidies must then be employed to make the economics work.

Algae, camelina, jatropha, millettia, and switchgrass are sustainable choices for biofuel production.

Good results have been proven with biomass and enzymes to make methanol, which is a very pure and clean-burning gasoline substitute, and it can be blended into regular gasoline at any proportion.

If you add ordinary organic waste + water + enzymes (after processing, the result is) very pure gasoline + very pure CO2 for carbonated drinks + distilled water. Image courtesy: CORE biofuels

Renewable energy’s new price-parity with conventional energy

Due to the fierce competition in solar panel manufacturing since Chinese manufacturers entered the market, solar panels have dropped in price — so much so, that electricity produced at solar power plants is now at price parity with the electricity produced at conventional power plants.

solar vs coal price 2011-2020
Utility-scale power plants. Chart shows solar photovoltaic (PV) levelized cost of electricity vs. coal 2011-2020.

Wind turbines also have fallen in price dramatically and now compete against conventional energy, with or without subsidies, in many parts of the world.

To properly compare renewable and non-renewable energy it’s important to examine two different variables; Subsidies and Externalities


Both renewable energy and non-renewable energy benefit from various subsidy schemes.

  • The U.S. federal government subsidizes energy producers with vastly different subsidy rates for each energy type.
  • The various U.S. state governments subsidize energy producers with vastly different subsidy rates for each energy type AND subsidy rates vary considerably between the different states.
  • Sometimes a subsidy in country “A” (to promote extraction of petroleum for example) will have another subsidy added to it in country “B” which imports that petroleum (one subsidy on top of another subsidy) which helps bring down the price at the gas pump.
  • To make biofuel from corn (a poor choice of plant for biofuel production) farmers and producers were subsidized until January 1, 2013, by the U.S. government at $0.60 per litre.
  • Over time, subsidies can add up to many billions of dollars per year.
  • Please see the chart below, which shows the yearly subsidies enjoyed by the different energy producers in the U.S.
  • From the chart, we see that Oil and Gas receives $4.86 billion per year on average, from the U.S. government.
  • From the chart we see that the Nuclear power industry receives $3.5 billion per year on average, from the U.S. government.
Annual energy subsidies in the United States. Image courtesy: DBL Investors What Would Jefferson Do?

How were these numbers arrived at?

In the case of Oil & Gas, DBL Investors took the grand total of subsidies paid to the Oil and Gas industry from 1918 – 2009 and divided it by 91 years, which equals $4.86 billion per year.

In the case of nuclear, DBL Investors took the grand total of subsidies paid to the nuclear power industry from 1947 – 1999 and divided it by 52 years, which equals $3.50 billion per year.

Similar calculation methods are applied to Biofuels 1980 – 2009 and Renewables 1994 – 2009.


Whatever the kind of energy, there are always externalities to deal with.

  • In the case of wind turbines, they can create noise, and for some people the noise is uncomfortable. And, they are either a source of wonder or an eyesore — depending on your viewpoint.
  • Hydroelectric dams dramatically lower fish stocks in rivers, although there have been some notable programmes designed to mitigate this in some river systems.
  • In China, the externalities from burning fossil fuels cause 410,000 deaths per year.

“China faces a number of serious environmental issues caused by overpopulation and rapid industrial growth. Water pollution and a resulting shortage of drinking water is one such issue, as is air pollution caused by an over-reliance on coal as fuel. It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.” – Common Language Project

  • This problem doesn’t stop at the borders of any country for it is a worldwide externality.
  • The polluted air in China doesn’t stay in the country but circulates around the northern hemisphere, taking 5 to 7 days to reach the western coastline of North America.
  • Similarly, the polluted air from North America takes 4 to 6 days to reach Europe.
  • And then there is the depleting ozone layer and oxygen levels in the Earth’s atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels — along with dramatically increasing CO2 and CO2-equivalent gases which increase the solar insolation value of the atmosphere (trapping heat in Earth’s airmass) thereby increasing the average worldwide temperature.
  • Scientists say that for each 1 C degree of global warming it costs governments, businesses and citizens, 1 trillion dollars per year to mitigate those effects.
Climate action vs. Climate inaction.

According to 97 percent of the climate scientists giving sworn testimony in the United States Congress in April of 2012, most of the global warming measured since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is anthropogenic — meaning that it is caused by humans.

Profoundly, it is in our best interest to make the switch to renewable energy.

Massive spending reductions will be the result of switching to renewable energy, as the costs to human health (the national health care systems externality) and the costs of mitigating the damage caused by climate change (the agriculture, property, and emergency management externality), will drop dramatically.

Some estimates place the global fossil fuel externality cost at $2 trillion per year.

Not to mention the billions of dollars of savings when conventional energy subsidies end. In 2014 alone, the global fossil fuel industry received taxpayer-funded subsidies of some $600 billion dollars.

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