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Renewable Energy

by John Brian Shannon

What is Renewable Energy?

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

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 renewable solar power and (indirectly) for renewable wind power production, and heat in the Earth’s crust is used to generate renewable geothermal power.

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

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

We can see that in 2009, the total world energy demand from all sources (including all forms of transportation) amounted to 16 Terawatt years.

Renewable Energy - Planetary energy graphic - Perez and Perez
Comparing finite and renewable planetary reserves in Terawatt/years. Total recoverable reserves are shown for the finite resources. Yearly potential is shown for renewable energy. Image courtesy: Perez and Perez 2009a Image courtesy of: Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction. Planetary energy graphic. © R.Perez, K.Zweibel, T.Hoff.

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

In 2050 even with the increased demands, solar power alone could provide 821.4 times the world’s total demand if we choose to employ it.

Renewable Energy - Amonix-solar-module-record
Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction. 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, the Sun’s solar power will be wasted renewable energy hitting the Earth every day for the next 11 billion years.

Renewable Energy - Did you know the Sun provides enough energy in one minute to supply the world's energy needs for an entire year?
Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction. Renewable solar power can easily provide for all of our energy needs.

Of course, renewable wind power could supply all of our energy needs between now and 2050.

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 will be nowhere near satisfying total global demand.

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

Solar Thermal is another type of renewable solar power, one that uses the Sun’s solar rays to heat water which is usually in a black painted metal containment called a manifold. The solar energy striking the black painted metal can get hot enough to boil water — to heat narrow pipes in some types of flooring (radiant heat) or to heat a swimming pool, for only two examples.

Another type of energy which can be considered renewable (but only when the proper production processes are employed) is 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 renewable fuel 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.

Renewable Energy - CORE Green Gas Refinery - Vector2
Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction. 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 power producers

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.

Renewable Energy - Solar vs coal price 2011-2020
Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction. Chart shows solar photovoltaic (PV) Levelized Cost Of Electricity (LCOE) vs. coal 2011-2020.

Wind turbines also have fallen in price dramatically and now compete against conventional electricity rates, 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

Subsidies:

Both renewable 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 oil extraction) will have another subsidy added to it in country “B” which imports that oil (one subsidy on top of another subsidy) which helps bring down the price at the gas pump.
  • To make biofuel from corn (corn is a poor biofuel choice) 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, showing 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.
Renewable Energy - What Would Jefferson Do? subisidies chart from DBL Investors
Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction. 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 calculations are applied to Biofuel 1980 – 2009 and Renewable Energy 1994 – 2009.

As we see, the subsidies paid to renewable solar and renewable wind power barely register during the years studied.

Externalities:

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 a source of wonder, or an eyesore, depending on your view.
  • Hydroelectric dams can 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 degree Celsius of global warming it costs world governments, businesses and consumers 1 trillion dollars per year to mitigate those effects. (Not including healthcare costs!)
Renewable Energy - Comparing Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction chart
Comparing Climate Change: Action vs. Inaction chart.

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 begin the switch to renewable energy in earnest.

Massive spending reductions will be the result of switching to renewable solar and wind power — as the human health cost and the cost of mitigating damage caused by anthropogenic climate change, will drop correspondingly.

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

The IEA reported the global fossil fuel subsidy cost was $550 billion dollars for fiscal year 2014 alone.


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