What is Sustainable Energy?
Sustainability, at its core, is about satisfying the needs of society in the present without compromising on providing the same benefits for future generations.
Over the past few decades, it’s become increasingly clear that traditional methods of meeting our need for energy through burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are devastatingly unsustainable. Their disastrous impacts on the environment are already causing severe issues which will only get worse if continued.
For one thing, fossil fuels are finite resources, meaning that there is only so much available and the more we dig into that supply the less there will be in future years.
Additional consequences of fossil fuel reliance are the destruction of natural habitats, devastating oil spills, debilitating air pollution and the international conflict evoked by unequal distribution and market powers.
Of course, fossil fuel burning also carries a hefty carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is the total amount of green house gas (GHG) emissions produced by a given entity or practice, and these emissions warm the Earth by absorbing and reflecting solar energy.
While some GHG emissions occur naturally (e.g. through fires, volcanoes and wetlands etc.), human produced GHGs are major contributors to climate change and the severe threats it poses to the wellbeing of our global society and its future generations.
Sustainable energy on the other hand would, in an ideal world, provide equal and abundant opportunity for meeting human needs across economic, social and environmental development without compromising the availability of these opportunities for centuries to come.
In the rest of this post I’ll be discussing some of our options for ‘sustainable energy’ and the various trade-offs they bring.
My hope is that this will help you better understand and assess the decisions you make around energy while highlighting where future development should and could bring us further towards that ultimate end goal.
Renewable energy is defined as that which comes from sources which are plentiful and self-reproducing, meaning they will be consistently available for use by future generations.
There are a number of renewable energy sources being developed today, with notable examples being solar (sunlight) power, wind power, hydro (water) power and biomass (organic plant and animal waste) fuel.
The common benefits shared by renewable energy sources go beyond their infinite nature. The initial costs of researching and scaling renewable options are beginning to decline.
With several Governments now providing subsidies and other incentives towards transitioning to renewable energy, this decline looks set to continue, meaning that renewable energy is an increasingly cost-effective option.
State support also means that the industry for renewable energy is growing, providing new jobs and opportunities for further research, development and refinement.
Resources such as sunlight, wind, water and organic waste are not just consistently available – they are also widely available. This means that countries across the globe which have traditionally relied on, or been subject to violent conflict over, the fluctuating market for fossil fuels may be able to reach a position of ‘energy security’. Energy security means having independent control over their own capacity to provide energy to all citizens.
Renewable energy also carries a significantly lower carbon footprint than traditional fossil fuel burning.
However, it is important not to fall into the trap of believing that renewable energy is fully carbon-free.
Different sources of renewable energy emit different volumes of GHG. For example, the construction and transportation of solar panels or wind turbines contributes to their carbon footprint, as does the building of dams, roads or power lines involved in producing hydro-power.
Biomass fuel involves the burning of organic waste, which does produce GHGs but is more sustainable than the burning of fossil fuels as the carbon emitted is that which has been previously absorbed in natural growth, and will then be reabsorbed during ongoing growth. This process also removes pressure from landfill, as ‘waste’ is cycled back as energy rather than being disposed of.
However, biomass fuel relies heavily on livestock and land clearance, both of which are harmful to the environment in terms of deforestation, biodiversity loss and methane emissions. Fuel must also be transported, emitting additional GHGs. Furthermore, the burning process generates air polluting smoke, similar to those produced through burning fossil fuels.
As well as GHG emissions in their production and usage, there are limitations on the availability of most renewable energy sources.
For example, reliance on solar power fails at night-time or on dark days. Similarly, wind power suffers when there is not enough wind. At these times, power grids revert to providing energy from traditional sources and the GHG emissions they entail.
Recent studies have found huge differences in the GHG reductions of using renewable energy depending on whether power grids are assessed by hourly or annual measures. There is concern that this has led to the savings promoted by renewable energy being vastly overestimated.
With this in mind, it is encouraged that energy users try to consume energy at optimum ‘clean’ times, when they can be sure that their power is being generated by their chosen renewable source. This will vary by location and by the variable factor of the specific renewable technology.
Development is also underway to improve the technology for saving renewable energy and storing it for later so that it can be used even when supplies are low, however the currently available methods come with high financial costs.
Although renewable energy is undoubtedly more sustainable than oil, coal or gas, each source has its own pros and cons, and none are as well-established as the traditional burning of fossil fuels.
For example, despite hydro-power being thought to have the lowest CO2 emissions of all contemporary energy sources, its infrastructure involves intervention in nature with changing water levels and velocity affecting the biodiversity of water-based ecosystems.
Similarly, wind power boasts an impressive 90% smaller carbon footprint, 500x lower water usage than coal production, and provide additional income to farmers willing to give up part of their land.
Yet, turbines are dangerous to wildlife with average highest estimates claiming that they kill around 573,000 birds per year and are further criticised for their noise and aesthetic.
These criticisms fail slightly when compared with the higher number of birds reportedly killed each year by oil fields, and it can hardly be suggested that coal and oil plants are attractive to the eye.
Solar power is one of the fastest growing renewable resources, making it an increasingly cost-effective option.
While all energy sources involve substantial initial investment, this might make solar power among the more persuasive options when it comes to convincing the world to give up on currently established, yet disastrously unsustainable, options.
Of course, nothing is without its faults. The production of solar panels produces hazardous waste and requires a substantial amount of initial energy and the use of high-temperature, carbon-emitting furnaces.
Furthermore, many solar panels take a long journey between their production and installation, and this transportation produces GHGs. Though they last up to 30 years, solar panels are difficult to recycle safely – but this will hopefully be improved with increased commitment to sustainable design.
Each renewable energy source requires land, which has the potential to disrupt or displace local communities. Land clearance can also cause soil degradation and biodiversity loss, both of which have severe environmental implications.
Offshore windfarms somewhat escape this problem, and in fact are thought to boost ecosystem development in their surrounding waters. However, they may be more temperamental out at sea with high winds posing the risk of dangerous breakages.
When discussing sustainable energy, nuclear power should at least be mentioned.
There is some controversy over whether nuclear should earn the ‘renewable’ label, but I’ve chosen to give it its own little section.
This is because nuclear power generally comes from mined uranium, which is a finite resource of our planet.
However, with research and technological development, it is thought that the extraction and use of uranium from seawater could be scaled as an alternative source of nuclear power – which would indeed be renewable.
Nuclear power does have its benefits in that produces energy more efficiently than coal or mainstream renewables.
It also has a very low estimated carbon footprint of just 12g CO2/kWh, slightly higher than that of wind power but lower than solar, biomass or (of course) traditional fossil fuels.
Despite these benefits, there are significant consequences to nuclear power which, in my personal opinion, remove its justification as a sustainable energy option.
Nuclear power plants are extremely dangerous and when things go wrong, as in the cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, people and planet pay the price.
Nuclear disasters can result in immediate fatalities, as well as ongoing health and environmental problems.
There is also the issue of toxic waste released from nuclear plants, which devastates surrounding ecosystems. Attempts to tackle this problem are still in development with little proof of their lasting success, as we see the concrete ‘coffins’ built to contain waste starting to show signs of wear and tear.
Another proposition for producing sustainable energy involves the use of carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is when organisations or individuals continue to engage in GHG emitting practices but invest in external schemes which promise to protect the equivalent energy elsewhere.
These schemes have some benefits but, predictably, also some negatives.
Carbon offsetting allows immediate action, which should not be underestimated in the urgent context of our current climate situation.
The practice is easily understood by governments and corporations used to dealing in market trade terminology, which further helps their immediate implementation.
Where carefully thought out, carbon offsetting schemes can be extremely beneficial to the environment.
For example, the Yarra Yarra Biodiversity Corridor project in Australia is estimated to have removed 2 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere for the next 100 years, while simultaneously providing new employment opportunities (which is hoped to include indigenous communities) and increasing biodiversity.
On the other hand, carbon offsetting schemes are criticised for essentially providing countries and organisations with permission to continue engaging in environmentally destructive practice with the excuse that consequences are being balanced out elsewhere, normally in less powerful locations.
Critics also suggest that carbon offsetting acts as a distraction from research into more efficient, long-term solutions to GHG emissions, as a sense of complacency is introduced.
In addition, not all carbon offsetting schemes are equal, and there have been tragic cases where indigenous communities have been displaced or had their livelihoods taken away by the takeover of offsetting programmes.
For example, the Kenya Forest Service was responsible for burning the homes of 15000 indigenous peoples in brutal neglect of basic human rights.
Poorly thought out schemes might also have negative consequences for biodiversity such as in projects which plant just one type of tree and create monocultures where ecosystems cannot truly thrive.
Finally, carbon offsetting rests on the belief that CO2 can be measured and predicted on a like-for-like basis. This is not scientifically sound, as it is impossible to know for certain how much carbon will be conserved by different schemes, particularly when taking into account the possible impacts of fluctuating weather conditions.
There is a difference between biological and geological carbon. Geological carbon, is sequestered by fossil fuels over millions of years, while biological carbon as absorbed by trees is on a cycle of a few hundred years at most. These two cycles cannot be measured or exchanged on a one-for-one basis, and therein lies the problem of calculating offsets.
New organisations are coming to the forefront in auditing and certifying offsetting schemes, ensuring their maximum efficiency and compliance. Carbon offsetting can certainly be a good way to do something, though I would argue that it should never be fully relied upon in attempts to transition to sustainable energy.
Choosing a scheme based on its assessment by these regulatory processes is an important way to ensure maximum benefit is being achieved.
Carbon Capture and Storage
Recent developments are investigating the potential for capturing, moving and storing CO2 from traditional fossil fuel-based power plants. The idea is to store carbon in underground geological formations, thus removing its environmental consequences.
These developments are still in their early days, and there is concern over their slow take-off with many projects going past deadlines and budget estimations. They require high initial investment costs, and there is great variation in the price and efficiency of technology.
The idea is criticised by some, as it essentially promotes and justifies the ongoing use of fossil fuels. On the other hand, fans argue that such methods would allow for the continuous benefit of round-the-clock energy provided by fossil fuels as opposed to weather or time-dependent renewables.
I must apologise if this post has seemed pretty negative. I have, after all, pointed out flaws in each of the energy sources discussed.
As written here by Alice Masili, the unfortunate truth is that
“No human activity is environment neutral”.
But this doesn’t have to be defeating.
I believe it is important to be critically aware of the problems that remain within our promised solutions. In being aware, we give ourselves the chance to improve and empower ourselves to make decisions based on our values and the trade-offs we are willing to make.
Innovative improvements are made every day. New sources of renewable energy are in development, and more mainstream ones are being refined, scaled, regulated and made more accessible.
Through learning and understanding the nuanced difficulties of sustainable energy, we have the opportunity to make it a reality.