Beginning in the late 19th century, fossil fuels were the primary source of almost all of our economic and personal activities. We use coal, petroleum, and natural gas to heat homes, cook, and light our streets. Before this time, we were using products like wood or whale oil to meet these needs. When hydropower and solid biomass became available, it allowed us to start taking the first steps toward renewable power.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that solar would join biomass and hydropower as a feasible renewable energy solution. Wind, geothermal, and biofuels are now part of that mix, and global consumption of them continues to rise. The Energy Information Administration estimates that renewables provided 11.5 quadrillion BTUs in 2018, accounting for 11% of American energy consumption, with 56% of that amount going toward electricity generation.
A transition to renewable energy plays a critical role in our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The combustion of fossil fuels is one of the significant contributors to carbon dioxide generation.
With its use doubling from 2000 to 2018, now is an important time to review the critical advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy.
List of the Advantages of Renewable Energy
1. We have multiple ways to generate energy from renewables.
The renewable energy sector is just as diversified as our fossil fuel industry. We can produce electricity from solar collectors, wind turbines, geothermal installations, and hydropower facilities. Innovative options for the renewables marketplace include tidal energy development, wave energy and power, and biomass options that sometimes include sewer and wastewater that can’t be recycled otherwise.
There is enough sunlight that shines on our planet every day to ensure that we never run out of energy. When we develop solutions that include renewable energy, then we create a resource for power that will never go away in our lifetime. It sets the stage for future generations to create their own civilizations.
2. Renewables give us a continuous source of energy to use.
The primary advantage that we receive with renewable energy is that it provides us with a continuous resource to use. Fossil fuels, by their definition, are a finite option that could eventually run out. Current estimates on most of our natural gas, crude oil, and similar options suggest that we have less than a century of use available before we need to transition to something else.
We know that the sun isn’t going to stop shining, which means the wind will keep blowing. That also means the water will keep moving, and we can harvest all of these for energy.
3. Renewable energy offers competitive reliability.
Nuclear energy might offer the highest efficiency rate at over 90%, but renewable resources don’t make the same impact on the environment. It creates competitive reliability because we can generate electricity from multiple sources that still works well with our current grid. It is possible to combine wind, solar, and more to give us access to the energy that we need every day. Although the efficiency rates will never be as high, the impact and risk factors to the environment will always be lower.
4. We don’t treat renewable energy as a commodity.
Did you know that you can do a simple Google search to find out what the current price of crude oil is for today? At the time of this writing, the current price of WTI crude oil is $58.52. When you look up the price of solar power, then you’ll receive a quote per watt of installation, which is somewhere between $2.57 to $3.35 in the United States. When Hoover Dam generates electricity, you don’t trade what happens on the futures exchange. That’s why renewables have an advantage. Their pricing is more stable and predictable than the physical products we combust to generate power.
5. Renewable energy creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewable energy allows us to create a lower greenhouse gas emissions profile from a long-term perspective than fossil fuels allow. Almost every resource in this category provides net savings in five years, and we can start reducing our emission levels at the 10-year mark. Although capital investments using fossil fuels are necessary to complete the manufacturing work for the components to generate renewable fuels, the future world can be cleaner and healthier because of the work we are doing today.
6. Energy independence is possible with renewable energy.
When each community has the capability of producing its own electricity, then we can create a world that is truly independent. If we continue to rely on other nations to supply us with the fossil fuels needed to create power, then those suppliers are the ones that dictate how we can live our lives. If we could maximize our collection of solar power by itself, then we could generate 173,000 TW of energy from this one renewable resource. When you add in wind, hydropower, and the other available options, then the massive potential of this resource becomes apparent.
7. Tax breaks are sometimes available for renewable energy solutions.
Federal and state tax incentives are sometimes in place in the United States for businesses and homeowners who decide to invest in renewable energy. If you decide to install photovoltaic panels on your roof, then you might be able to claim up to 30% of the installation costs against your income when filing your tax return for the year. Some countries don’t supply this advantage, so it is essential to review what might be possible if you are interested in getting involved in the renewable energy industry.
8. Renewable energy solutions can reduce individual carbon footprints.
The average household in the United States produces about 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually. That means the average person is responsible for over 3,500 pounds. If you were to switch your family to solar power instead of using a traditional energy resource for your electricity and HVAC needs, then you could reduce your footprint by 80%.
That means an investment of about $15,000 can give you a 20-year reduction in personalized greenhouse gas emissions. Since the electricity that you generate could go back into the grid for a profit, you can save money, make some, and help the environment all at the same time.
9. Most renewable energy solutions require very little maintenance.
Whether your renewable energy preference is for solar, wind, water, or geothermal, you don’t need to worry about massive ongoing maintenance requirements to maintain your installation. Most of the systems that are available in today’s market have an average lifespan of at least 20 years. Some products, such as a wind turbine, have twice that long of a life expectancy. Although annual inspections and some routine maintenance are still necessary, you won’t need to deal with the extensive work that fossil fuel installations require.
The reason for this advantage involves the lack of combustion required to generate electricity. If you use solar power to generate heat, then there’s no need to remove the creosote from a chimney.
10. Renewable energy is possible in almost any climate.
The diversity that is available in the renewable energy sector makes it possible for almost any community to generate power without the use of fossil fuels. If you were to live in Torshavn in Denmark’s Faroe Islands, then solar power wouldn’t be your first choice because the city only receives 840 hours of sunlight annually. The persistent cloud cover wouldn’t impact your ability to generate wind power.
Some communities can thrive on geothermal energy. Others focus on wave energy and power. The solutions might be variable, but the outcome remains the same. It is possible to move away from fossil fuels in almost any location.
List of the Disadvantages of Renewable Energy
1. Reducing drilling activities could have an adverse impact on the economy.
The United States currently has enough natural gas and oil resources in non-wilderness and offshore areas to heat 100 million homes for the next 25 years. We could use those resources to fuel 50 million cars for that same amount of time. These areas are considered to be off-limits because of federal government rules. The Trump Administration worked to reduce this issue starting in 2016, although not much movement has happened in this area.
If we transition to renewable energy, there could be economic repercussions from that activity. Although new jobs in solar, wind, and geothermal could develop, we would lose high-paying positions in the fossil fuel industry.
2. Renewable energy has the lowest efficiency rates for power generations.
The efficiency rate for nuclear energy was 91% in the past year, making it the clear winner when compared to other forms of energy. Natural gas production averages an efficiency rate of 50%, while clean coal processes have risen to almost 60% in the past 12 months. Solar power operates at 45% in optimal conditions, and then wind energy functions at a 32% efficiency rate. When looking at this disadvantage, even wood stoves have a better efficiency rating than some renewables.
Until we can correct the issues that create this disadvantage, there will always be a debate about the benefits of investing in this sector.
3. Some renewable energy resources can’t produce around-the-clock.
Solar energy is a popular resource to use, but we can only produce electricity from it when the sun is shining. Wind energy gives us a lot of flexibility from an installation standpoint, but we are unable to maximize low-speed or high-speed movements. Most turbines only operate when the wind is above 5 mph or below 35 mph. Hydropower and geothermal energy are always there, but it is the fossil fuels that we use right now that provide us with our baseload of electricity.
Until there are meaningful energy storage options available for the average household to purchase, we will consider renewable resources as a supplemental option instead of our primary commodity.
4. Changing weather patterns can impact our energy production.
Renewable energy resources often rely on specific weather conditions to produce power. This trait can impact the reliability of a constant supply. Generators for hydropower need enough rain to be available so that the reservoir is behind a dam can replenish local supplies. Wind turbines need the breeze to blow so that the blades can continue turning, while solar requires skies that are clear enough to obtain the sunlight or heat that is needed to generate electricity.
The difference between a solar installation in Miami and one in Seattle involves over 100 days of sunlight. That means the potential for renewable energy changes based on your geographic location.
5. There are still cost considerations that we must manage with renewables.
Although the cost of renewable energy continues to decline, it is still cheaper for a majority of households to use electricity that comes from fossil fuels. When we compare the kilowatt-hour prices, using power that comes from coal is almost half of the price that it takes to use the same amount of energy from offshore wind. Since geographic locations dictate what renewable energy resources are possible, there is a certain level of unpredictability that exists in this market still today.
Even in the United States where hydropower has almost a century of support, only three states (Washington, California, and Oregon) produce half of the nation’s current capacity.
6. The renewables infrastructure is aging rapidly.
Solar and wind are providing new renewable energy resources, but their share of electricity generation is minimal compared to what hydropower provides in this arena. The average age of a hydroelectric facility is 64 years old in the United States. The 50 oldest electricity generating plants in the country are all in the renewables industry. Each one of them has been in service since 1908.
Of the nearly 200 GB of total capacity added in the previous decade, only 1.7 GB has been conventional hydropower, and more than half of that came from Washington State.
7. Some forms of renewable energy are not economically viable.
The problem that we have with renewable energy is that it is a location-based resource. When you install a photovoltaic panel to collect solar energy, then you can’t move it to another location. It stays at the home, business, or power farm. When you build a wind turbine, then you’re not going to dismantle it. That means we must carefully research each potential location to see what its maximum potential will be before investing in the building process.
If the maximum amount of energy we can produce doesn’t reflect the investments made into it, then the renewable sector will struggle to become a commercially viable solution.
8. There can be spatial issues that we need to solve.
If we want to generate electricity on a massive scale with renewable energy, then it requires a significant amount of space that is solely dedicated to its use. Although wind turbines are an exception to this rule, the installation footprint of a 100-acre facility for solar power might create 20 megawatts of energy. If we were to take that same space for nuclear power, then we could produce 2,000 megawatts or more. The spatial inefficiency of this technology requires us to make environmental sacrifices that don’t always get taken into account.
Hydropower is another example of this issue. Hundreds of millions of people have been displaced by the damming of rivers to create reservoirs. We can use the new lakes for recreational purposes and tourism, but it can no longer be farmland or useful in other practical ways.
9. Some forms of renewable energy still produce pollution.
We talk about the pollution-saving potential of renewable energy, it is often in the context of solar or wind. When we burn biomass, then particulates can still escape into the atmosphere in the same manner that coal-fired power plants experience. The manufacturing processes we use to create products releases methane and heavy toxic minerals into the environment. Even when we consider hydropower, the death of organic materials under the weight of a new reservoir produces greenhouse gas emissions that we must consider.
We must understand that the ability to generate power comes with a pollution cost. Renewables might be cleaner than fossil fuels, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are safer to use.
Photovoltaic panels and the development of wind energy solutions helped the renewable energy sector grow by 8% in 2018. The figures for 2019 should hit similar figures. That means our transition toward sustainable power generation continues while we still benefit economically from the continued use of fossil fuels.
Over 90 countries now produce at least 1 gigawatt of renewable power, and 30 nations currently have more than 10 GW of installed capacity to use. Over 100 GW of new solar photovoltaic capacity was installed in the last 12 months globally, which is enough to meet almost one-quarter of the electricity demands in France.
As we review the advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy, the obstacles of cost and access continue to disappear. Some sectors are cost-competitive with traditional resources already. It proves itself to be reliable every day, and we can successfully integrate it into our grid operations. That’s why we will continue to see an emphasis on completing the transition away from fossil fuels in the future.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.