disadvantages of renewable energy

Written by G.N. Mahar 10:46 am

Disadvantages of Renewable Energy: The Untold Story

In the shift from non-renewable to green energy sources, human beings have ignored the disadvantages of renewable energy. The author explains that while the energy generated by solar panels, wind turbines, and biomass farms, is renewable, the raw materials used for the construction of equipment or structures to harness it, is not. The author further asserts that in our efforts to tackle climate change, we have been more focused on preserving our way of life than protecting the planet responsible for sustaining it.

Introduction

In the climate change debate, green energy mostly tops the list of changes that the world can implement to save the blue planet from the rising temperature-threatening pace. However, when we consider renewable energy as an alternative energy source, we often forget to take into account its disadvantages.

Nonetheless, world leaders and international organizations are paying more and more attention to climate change these days. They’ve realized that for a sustainable future, we need to reduce our greenhouse gasses emissions. Now whether they use renewable energy sources for it, keeping in mind their disadvantages, is a separate question.

According to a recent climate change prediction report, There is at least a 20% chance that the average global temperatures will temporarily increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2024 (Carrington, 2020). After the report, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said, “Humanity is waging war on nature and this is suicidal—nature always strikes back and it is already doing so.” (Harvey, 2020).

The climate crisis is becoming a hot topic in mainstream media, we have seen many analysts and climate alarmists talking about the need for the world to shift to renewable sources—solar, wind, and biomass, etc.—to mitigate rising temperature.

This paper analyses these solar, wind, and biomass renewable energy sources at the commercial level, and their carbon footprint and efficiency. It also talks about what most analysts fail to mention—the disadvantages of renewable energy. The paper does not argue that renewable energy is a bad thing, it argues that while it is good for the environment, it has disadvantages too like most things.

It’s believed that in 2050 the world will be 100% renewable. Much is said about greenhouse gases (GHG). In short, certain gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases—that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases. Some greenhouse gases are more effective than others at making the planet warmer and “thickening the Earth’s blanket.”

The massive carbon dioxide share in GHG gives rise to an energy shift from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy sources; these sources contribute to the creation of the so-called green or renewable energy. We are so desperate to accept the idea that sounds renewable that we avoid looking too close into the green energy that is inculcated in our minds. We fail to realize that it not as we thought. We don’t bother asking, “what will happen if we fail to displace fossil fuels?” or “what if the portrayed renewable energy is an illusion and its disadvantages are hidden behind the “green” label?”

The Paris Climate Agreement

In December 2015, world leaders gathered in Paris and reached a consensus on a strong effort needed to tackle climate change; as a result, 195 nations adopted the Paris Agreement (“Paris Agreement,” 2015). Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. The implementation of the agreement requires countries to use the best available science and technology for economic and social transformation.

After 5 years of the cycle, those countries have to report the ambitious climate actions which were carried out. Unfortunately, after 3 years of delay, in June 2017, the former US president, Donald Trump, called climate change an “expensive hoax” and formally announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, despite the fact that America emits 15% of the global greenhouse gases emission (Briggs, 2021).

Global Energy Consumption

Before moving on to the analysis of renewable energy and its disadvantages, our current energy consumption will be analyzed. Global proved oil reserves were 1,734 billion barrels at the end of 2019. At the current consumption rate, the daily oil consumption is at nearly 100 million barrels per day. So, we will run out of crude oil in 2070.

Moreover, there are 7020 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves in the world as of 2019. The annual natural gas consumption worldwide is nearly 3.9 trillion cubic meters, which means that we only have 51 years worth of gas left in our reserves. 

World coal reserves in 2019 stood at 1,070 billion tonnes, if we maintained the current consumption rate then it will last 133 years (World Energy, 2020). The world’s electricity consumption amounted to approximately 23,398 billion kWh or 23,000 terawatt-hours (Sönnichsen, 2021).

Solar and wind energy combined give less than 5% when they are expected to be game-changers. Our huge dependence on fossil fuels is increasing day by day. With 37 billion tonnes of carbon emitted annually, how will we displace fossil fuels which make up 85% of our energy? No doubt solar and wind are renewable energies but one of the most dangerous things is the illusion that the raw materials used for manufacturing, of both solar panels and wind turbines, are also renewable. In this illusion lie the disadvantages of renewable energy.

Solar Panels Manufacturing

According to Ozzie Zehner, a scholar at UC Berkeley Northwestern University, the raw material used in the solar panel manufacturing process is silicon metal which does not exist in a metal form so it is extracted from high-quality quartz by fossil fuels dependent heavy machinery. Solar panel companies claim that the silicon they use is extracted from the sand. However, extraction of silicon metal from sand is expensive because sand contains impurities.

The process of silicon extraction begins by heating quartz with coal in the furnace at a temperature of up to 1,800 degrees Celsius. The products of the process are silicon metal and carbon dioxide. To get silicon, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere due to fewer regulations in place.

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Besides releasing carbon dioxide into the air the manufacturing process also utilizes electricity—about 120 kW per hour for every kilogram of elemental silicon produced— which is either produced by a coal/fossil dependent power plant. Solar companies also faced protests for releasing toxic chemicals in rivers. The world seeks cleaner energy; it is obvious that from extraction to solar cell manufacturing, CO2 is released into the system instead of de-carbonizing it.

It leaves the question of displacing fossils fuels unanswered. Many giant firms are installing solar farms to show that they are 100% green energy supporters. Ironically, these firms cut down trees to make space for their solar farm installation. Yet, what is strange is that on paper, they are 100% renewable but in reality, they are connected with the main grid. At present solar panel recycling suffers from a “chicken or egg” problem but what is the planning for future recycling? (Nunez, 2014).

Solar Panel Efficiency

The amount of solar energy that strikes the Earth’s surface in 1 hour is enough to meet a one-year global energy need. Putting it in numbers, the Earth receives 173,000 TW (1Terawatt= 1,000,000,000,000 watts) of solar energy per hour. As per the 2017 report, the annual human energy consumption was 160,000 TWh.

This figure includes not just energy used to generate electricity, but also the energy used directly for heating by burning firewood, coal, oil, or gas, used for transport—mainly petrol, diesel, and aviation fuel—and the energy used in industrial processes. The total amount of electricity consumed in 2021, so far, is approximately 23,398 TWh. 

Undoubtedly, it sounds catchy but when it comes to harnessing all of the striking solar energy, we haven’t developed the technology for it. Recent developments have enabled us to collect only 15-20% of the energy that strikes the surface of a solar panel. So, how many solar panels will be required to meet the average home electricity need?

The standard panel has a maximum efficiency of 300 watts. Suppose that one solar panel produces 300 watts and its dimensions are 5.4 by 3.25 feet, which is equal to 17.55 sq. feet. Since, a 1-acre area is equal to 43,560 sq. feet, if it is lined with panels, not allowing for tilt angles and shadow mitigation, 2,482 solar panels can fit in the field. We’ve established that each solar panel, at its peak, produces 300 watts; hence, 2,482 panels will produce a total of 744615 watts or 744 kilowatts.

The average American home consumes around 30 kilowatts daily or 900-kilo watts monthly so. Whereas, the global current electric consumption is 23,000 terawatts per hour. The International Energy Agency has stated that by 2050, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems will produce 16% of the world’s energy (Pozzebon, 2014). At the current rate, the energy production by PV systems does not surpass the global energy consumption demand.

Therefore, It is not the best move to bring the whole world on a 100% solar dependency without improving the efficiency as well as the size of the panels. Despite this, many experts are urging to convert the Sahara desert into a solar farm. Few support the idea however, many are still against it because the distribution and transmission to remote areas will make it futile.

Biomass 

The term “biomass” is fairly new but the idea is ancient. Our ancestors used to get energy by burning wood and organic materials. Now, biomass has gained popularity because the United Nations, European Union, and some developed countries have started to call it a renewable source of energy. It can be used to gain heat, generate electricity, and biofuels.

The industry justifies cutting trees by arguing that when trees are cut down they eventually regrow, At first blush, the idea possesses considerable intuitive appeal but on closer examination, it fails. Firstly Between 2015 and 2020, the rate of deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares per year and the deforested land has not been replaced by new forests.

Secondly, carbon constitutes approximately 50% of the dry mass of the tree and when a tree is cut down to make wooden products—furniture, pellets, and paper, etc.—the stored amount of carbon will remain intact in that particular product until it either burns or decays. Current studies indicate that if a forest is cut down and used for biomass energy production, it means the stored carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

It will take more than 4 decades to store the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is clear that biomass is neither carbon-neutral nor renewable. On the other hand, biofuels—biodiesel and ethanol—are also not the solution we are looking for. Firstly, because biofuels are subsidized by fossil fuel-run agriculture, and secondly, we do not have enough land to grow crops that can only be used as feedstock for biomass on a large scale. Now, the question is, how would the biofuel run world look? Here is one analyst’s projection:

“Each person in the world would need about 2.6 hectares (6.5 acres) of land for growing only biomass to provide for their liquid and gas consumption (in the form of ethanol net, not primary energy amount). To provide the anticipated 9 billion people on Earth by 2060 we would need 24 billion hectares of biomass plantations. The world’s total land area is 13 billion hectares, and the total forest, cropland, and pasture add to only about 8 billion hectares, just about all heavily overused already” (Pyke, 2017).

This isn’t possible because an area three times the Earth’s landmass will be needed to grow biomass feedstock; smaller-scale biomass projects will prevail only if they are subsidized. It has become obvious that on a small scale, it may sound renewable and sustainable but on a commercial scale, we can’t afford burning of our natural carbon sink.

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Until humans can find a way to geo-engineer themselves out of the climate disaster they’ve created, we must rely on our natural carbon sinks, such as oceans and forests, to suck out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So far, humans have only contributed to the disaster and made it worse, instead of alleviating it.

Wind Turbines

Wind power has been in burgeoning demand since 2000. The larger the turbines, the cheaper the [ower they create. Hence, the commercial-scale turbines are often placed on 100-meters towers. The blades of these turbines may be over 50 meters long, rotating in a 100 meters diameter. Wind turbines are getting taller, even exceeding the length of a football ground. The tip of the blades on the tallest US onshore turbine reaches as high as 574 feet in the air (Roberts, 2019).

Like biomass energy, energy generated by wind turbines is not a new idea. Humans have been utilizing wind, by the conversion of kinetic energy into mechanical energy, for pumping water and grinding the grains for many decades. Now wind turbines are generating electricity by converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. This seems easy but at a commercial level, it isn’t if we take a few factors into consideration like average power density, location, recycling, and environmental impact.

Power Density 

The power density—the rate of energy generation divided by the encompassing area of the wind plant—in wind turbine farms is low as compared to fossil fuel plants. The official efficiency rate for a wind turbine in New York is only 24%, and the combined capacity of 3 county wind factories amounted to 128 MW for 40,000 acres. However, the real figure is 30 MW because it was 100 times overestimated by energy experts.

The huge investment in the manufacturing and installation of a wind turbine makes it less affordable, mainly because a wind turbine is composed of 80% steel, 16% fiberglass, resin, or plastic, 5-17% iron or cast iron, 1% copper, and 0-2% aluminum. The President of EverPower wind revealed, “It will take 2 decades to breakeven the initial cost of a wind turbine” (Engstrom, 2017).

Location 

Wind energy is more reliable and consistent than solar energy but it is only suited to the coastal regions which receive wind throughout the year to generate power. Therefore, countries that do not have any coastal or hilly areas may not be able to take any advantage of wind power. Inconsistency is a big challenge equally faced by both wind and solar panels. Furthermore, fluctuation in airspeed is inevitable and disappoints investors. causing this industry to be highly subsidized by governments.  

Recycling 

The picture is not so rosy when the time comes to recycling wind turbines. The average life of s wind turbine spans 20-30 years. To make rotor blades lighter and robust, composite materials are mostly used and it is extremely difficult to recycle them at present. It is estimated that 50,000 tonnes of rotor blade material will arrive as a waste center in 2020 (“Wind Turbine Blades,” 2018).

Environmental Impacts

Two controversial issues faced are being faced by the wind industry, the mortality of birds and bats, and noise pollution. It is claimed that wind turbines are not wildlife friendly due to the rotor blades. The blades spinning in 100 meters diameter have resulted in many incidents of bird-killing—140,000 – 328,000 birds each year are killed in the US wind farms (Hogan, 2020).

Although the total figure of incidents is not accurately reported, the mortality of birds and bats can cause food scarcity because birds and bats eat destructive insects. This provides billions of dollars for economic benefits to any country’s agricultural sector each year. 

Noise pollution is another issue protested by the local community. However, the reported level of 40 decibels can be substantially decreased with technology. Nevertheless, wind turbines do contribute towards surface warming by actively mixing the atmosphere near the ground and aloft, while simultaneously extracting from the atmosphere’s motion.

Can Renewable Energy Make Inroads in the Energy Mix?

In short, yes, but only a small proportion will be displaced because we want to displace every unit of energy produced by fossils with the same amount of unit produced by these renewables. According to a calculation by a Professor at the University of Oregon, “Displacing one kWh of fossil-fuel electricity would require over 11 kWh of electricity from alternative sources” (York, 2012).

The global temperatures and energy demand are rising simultaneously. Therefore, the search for sustainable fuel sources is more urgent now than ever. But how can renewable energy possibly scale up to replace the vast quantities of oil and gas we consume? It is likely unattainable if our current consumption prevails in the future. In that case, a massive expansion of renewable energy sources will be required to significantly suppress fossil-fuel use.

Even though solar has been in the energy sector for the last 7 decades, it has not significantly impacted fossil fuels. Hence, we have to progressively switch to fewer carbon fuels because our current energy infrastructure is fossil fuel locked; a sudden switch will leave us in a blackout. We need to rein in our abilities to consume, yet, that becomes more difficult when there are unrestrained resources.

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A 2006 UN report disclosed the contribution of transport and cattle rearing in total GHG emissions. The whole transport sector emits 13% GHG. Whereas, cattle rearing is responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gasses, particularly methane, emissions. Methane gas is 25 times more effective than CO2, can be contained by introducing new taxes on greenhouse gases.

Despite all media hype on climate change, at present GHG emissions caused by transportation vehicles, operating on fossil fuel consumption, are responsible for 28% of the US’ CO2 emissions (“Carbon Pollution,” 2019). The US is just one example, for developing countries, this percentage is even worse. If left uncontrolled vehicles will emit more than 2.5 billion metric tons of CO2 each year   

Sunlight and wind are both intermittent resources. You can install solar panels or you can build a wind farm, but if it’s cloudy or not windy, no electricity will be produced. The solution usually proposed for this is, building excess storage capacity, even though our current available global storage is 50 Giga BTU when our energy use stands at 1,496,000 Giga BTU.

Recommendation on Energy Storage 

Growing concerns about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels are forcing engineers and policymakers to turn their attention to the energy storage solution. Indeed it helps to address the intermittency of solar and wind but it also responds immediately to fluctuation in demand. So, there should be huge energy storage to power our energy demand—according to which, an average home requires 30kwh/day.

Firstly storing 1 kilowatt-hour in a lithium-ion battery costs more than the common price of a kilowatt-hour. Secondly, lithium can present environmental hazards if it is not disposed of or recycled properly. These are the reasons why we need new inventions that improve our ability to store energy cheaply and efficiently. There are millions of inactive oil wells. What if they are given a second chance to play their role in energy?

They used to accommodate oil, now they can be converted into “electron reserves” by pumping water in them to fill the spaces, pores, and cracks previously held by oil. When the pressurized water is released, it acts like a spring; as it races through a turbine-generator above ground, it powers it to produce electricity. The storage capacity in abandoned oil wells is huge with minimum technical changes which makes them cost-effective and environmentally friendly energy reserves.  

We can also scale up gravity-based electricity storage. It is based on a vertical shaft up to 1,500 meters deep with weight configurations ranging from 500 to 5,000 tonnes. Raising the weights charges the system while lowering the weights discharges the electricity back to the grid. it can store 10MW energy, which can power more than 13,000 homes for two hours, for more than 25 years with no loss of performance. 

Conclusion

The bottom line is that we have to take concrete measures and not desperate ones because rather than solving the problem, they will exacerbate the situation. Our entire focus is on saving our way of life, not our planet. Our minds are manipulated by power illusions. Instead of looking for narrow solutions, we have to face the truth that it’s not the carbon dioxide gas destroying the climate but rather us human beings. It is apparent that sooner or later nature is going to hit back at us if we do not bring ourselves under control.


 Bibliography


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About the Author(s)

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G.N. Mahar has a bachelor's degree in Petroleum Engineering from Mehran University of Engineering and Technology.

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