Technology

Sourcing Sustainable Energy: A Global Perspective on Renewable Energy Options

The story of energy in the 21st century looks set to be one of transition. The UN has collectively agreed to limit global warming to an average of just 1.5C – which means slashing emissions to net zero by the middle of the century.

This will be achieved through a combination of measures. Carbon capture technology and large-scale tree planting might help to limit the damage, for example. But the more essential change is the phasing out of fossil fuels as a source of energy, and the phasing in of renewable, alternative sources.

Worldwide Renewable Energy Options

There are three main renewable, sustainable energy sources. These are solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. We might also consider geothermal and biomass-based alternatives.

Solar Power

Solar power works, in the main, through photovoltaic cells. When solar radiation passes through these cells, it generates a small electric charge. By arranging many cells in solar panels, and many panels into a large facility, a significant amount of energy can be generated.

The major challenge here stems from the intermittent nature of sunlight, and the environmental and economic costs of manufacturing and installing the panels. Also, there’s a problem with waste that will arrive when newer, more efficient panels are brought in to replace the ones now being used. The older models have the potential to cause significant harm to the environment, if improperly disposed of.

Wind Power

Wind provides an abundant source of energy. It’s harvested using turbines, the most efficient of which are placed well offshore, where there’s no land to slow the wind down. This is an area where coastal and island nations will find themselves at a natural advantage.

Wind power suffers from intermittency problems, however – which means that any effective transition to a grid based on wind will need to provide sufficient energy storage, and manage the demand such that power is drawn from where the wind is blowing.

Hydropower

A hydroelectric power plant turns gravitational potential into electric energy. As water flows downward, it runs through a set of turbines, which generate the electricity.

Of course, we’re restricted in where we can build hydroelectric facilities. A suitable site must be found. This means finding not only a river but also a location where a dam can be built without disrupting the local ecosystem.

Geothermal

Geothermal energy involves extracting heat from the Earth. Occasionally, heat will come up through the crust in a hot spring, and this energy can be harnessed to produce electricity. There’s a lot of luck involved in sourcing geothermal energy, and thus it’s not a form of energy that gets much attention. However, in places where it’s viable, it can be extremely useful.

Biomass and Bioenergy

Biomass energy relies on plants being grown and their oils being extracted for burning. Since the plants in question are constantly replanted, this is sustainable in a way that fossil fuels aren’t. However, it does require that vast tracts of land be used to grow the crops. This creates an opportunity cost, as this land then can’t be used for forests or habitat development.

Sustainability and Feasibility Comparison

Different forms of renewables are likely to be viable in different countries. Where sunlight is abundant, solar panels are to be favored; where the wind blows constantly, a few turbines might be in order.

Generally speaking, a mixture of the various technologies might help to create a more resilient grid, and stop any given nation from becoming wholly reliant on any one technology.

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