Renewable Energy, access to a sustainable world

Paris Agreement, the fastest climate accord to be ratified within a year of its adoption – has undoubtedly set off ‘possibilities’ to strengthen concerted global effort to address climate change with the goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and keep global temperature rise below 2 C. At present, human activity is polluting our atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions, which trap heat, slowly raising the global temperature, and causing harmful impacts on our climate, economy and health.

Solar Panels. Photo Courtesy: Google Images
Solar Panels. Photo Courtesy: Google Images

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that our increasing dependency on non-renewable sources of energy such as – coal, natural gas and oil – for power generation – accounts for 56.6% of the global total anthropogenic GHG emissions. In 2014, IPCC reported that there were a more than 95% certainty that the main reason behind global warming is anthropogenic GHG emissions. According to International Energy Agency (IEA), two-thirds of emissions causing climate change arises from the energy sector.

Thus, a move from the traditional coal-fired power plants to produce electricity is vital to reduce human produced global warming. We may think, a reduction in global warming and entrapment of GHG from atmosphere could be reduced with new technologies, but we should also bear in mind that a complete climatic sustainability is only attainable if we switch to renewable energy (RE), which is cost-effective, unlimited and eco-friendly unlike fossil fuel based energy that takes billions of years to form and may run out very soon if we keep burning them for power.

Brazos Wind Farm, Fluvanna, Texax, Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia
Brazos Wind Farm, Fluvanna, Texax, Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Sources of RE – solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, and biomass – could be replenished continuously, World Energy Outlook 2015 (WEO) report shows renewables contributed to almost half of the world’s new power generation capacity in 2014 and have already become the second-largest source of electricity, after coal.

According to data aggregated by the International Panel on Climate Change, life-cycle global warming emissions associated with renewable energy—including manufacturing, installation, operation and maintenance, and dismantling and decommissioning—are minimal.

Costs for renewable energy technologies have fallen drastically over the recent years making it increasingly competitive with conventional fossil fuels. Solar photovoltaic (PV) modules in 2014 cost up to 80% less than at the end of 2009, while wind turbine prices declined by almost a third over the same period, according to a report by The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Solar PV has made significant contribution in electricity generation in many countries. The rapidly falling costs have made solar PV-generated electricity cost-competitive with fossil fuels in an increasing number of locations around the world.

Wind energy is the most cost effective option for new power generating capacity in an increasing number of locations with new markets emerging in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Asia remained the largest market for the seventh consecutive year, led by China, and overtook Europe in total capacity. Wind power meets more than 20% of electricity demand in several countries, including Denmark, Nicaragua, Portugal, and Spain.

According to Global Renewable Reports 2016, hydropower generated 16.6% of the world’s total electricity and 70% of all renewable electricity in 2015. 150 countries produce hydropower each year, with the Asia-Pacific region generating 33 percent of global hydropower in 2013, and China is the largest hydroelectricity producer. The hydro station consumes no water, unlike coal or gas plants, making it cost effective and competitive source of renewable electricity.

Typical Hydroelectric Power Generation. Photo Courtesy: The USGS Water Science School
Typical Hydroelectric Power Generation. Photo Courtesy: The USGS Water Science School

Another important source of RE, geothermal energy is thermal energy generated and stored underneath the Earth. In 2010, Geothermal Agency reported United States as world leader in producing geothermal energy with 3,086 MW of installed capacity from 77 power plants. According to the report, the Philippines is the second highest producer, with geothermal power making up approximately 27% of Philippine electricity generation.

With all goodwill and efforts for renewable energy deployment, the question of sustainability arises: Is RE a solution to climate change crisis to move towards a sustainable future?

By definition, a sustainable future allows for the needs of man to be met without endangering the ability of future generations to meet their needs. For an energy source to be sustainable, it has to be naturally replenished, improve efficiency with technology, and be available for a long time.

Since, RE is produced from sun light (solar power), heat from inside the Earth’s core (geothermal), water power (hydroelectricity) and wind – it is replenishing and will always be available. RE sources have an unlimited amount of power to provide – this is also an issue when it comes to distributing this unlimited power from RE. According to an article published in Inverse, Germany and China are dealing with, because their grids can’t handle all that power. However, with more grids installed this problem can be solved, suggesting technology can enhance power generation from RE sources.

Along with environmental benefits, RE boosts the economy of a country and creates ‘green job’ opportunities. Power plants built using RE, are always located to the nearest area from the source, therefore there is no import costs involved, unlike fossil fuel fired power plants. Also, for RE stations, man-power is a prerequisite, which in turn creates job opportunities for the people living nearby and contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals set by UN to achieve a sustainable future within 2030.

It is clear that renewable energy is the most effective alternative to solve climate crisis, unlocking the door to a ‘sustainable world’ where we will combat global warming and leave our successors a green future.

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Shaila Mahmud is working in the field of Climate Change and Development.

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