Issue of the Month

THBT Renewable Energy is the Future

A quick reminder of the different types of renewable energy

Solar
Using energy from the sun, solar panels can convert sunlight into electricity or use it to heat water. The process does not create greenhouse gases and has very few negative environmental impacts. However, lots of space in very sunny places is needed to generate a large amount of energy.

Wind
Wind turbines are tall structures with propellers which generate energy when pushed by the wind. Large groups of turbines, or ‘wind farms’, are often built just off the shore so as to disrupt as little natural habitat as possible and cause minimal noise pollution.

Biomass
Energy stored in plants and trees is released when the materials are burned, either in the form of heat or gas. Lots of companies are already working on creating cars and other engines that can be run directly on organic materials.

Hydropower
Turbines built beneath the surface of the sea can use the movement of waves to push turbines and in turn generate energy. Water used in this process is never used up and is therefore 100% renewable with no waste material produced.

Context

There are currently two big issues with how energy is produced:

  1. Most of the sources which we use, like coal and oil, will eventually run out. These are ‘non-renewable’ forms of energy.
  2. The way that energy is currently produced contributes greatly to global warming, releasing lots of heat into the earth’s atmosphere. These rising temperatures will lead to increasingly severe environmental effects, including rising sea levels and extinction of wildlife.

One solution to these issues are renewable energy sources.

Can renewable sources produce as much energy as non-renewable sources?

Historically, almost all of the world’s energy companies have used non-renewable sources like coal, oil and gas. Power plants already exist with the technology and equipment needed to convert these sources into energy but we will need to completely change these if we are to switch to a 100% renewable system. This will probably be very expensive and might take a long time to complete.

On the other hand, lots of projects have begun across the world that are able to produce enough energy to power the local area. The recently opened large-scale solar farm in Madhya Pradesh, India, has a 750-megawatt capacity. Google has also put lots of money into researching more efficient solar panel technology which produces far more units of energy from the same amount of solar rays as current panels.

So is it better to stick with what has always worked (non-renewables) or take a chance on newer sources with potentially less productivity?

Are renewable sources more expensive?

Some people argue that renewable sources are not as cost-efficient as traditional sources. Many are worried about the hours of inactivity at wind farms, which simply do not work if there are not strong winds. Similarly, solar panels are only able to convert energy during daytime hours and sit idle for hours during evenings or over-cast days, reducing the efficiency and costing companies money.

There have been fewer concerns about the cost of renewable energy in recent years, with the overall price of wind, solar and other renewable energies falling below that of non-renewable energy. In West Texas, new wind farms can be built for $22 per megawatt-hour. Solar projects in Arizona and Nevada cost less than $40 a megawatt-hour. Compared to the average of $52 for natural gas and $65 for coal plants, renewable energy sources are profitable.

What do you think is most important – saving money or saving the environment?

Who would be affected by this debate? (The stakeholders)

Governments
The Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries, is a deal which aims to slow down global warming and combat the sources of climate change. Legally, governments do not have to stick to the deal, but many have still looked towards renewable energy sources as a way of meeting the targets set out in the agreement.

In July 2017, the French environment minister stated that the country would not use coal to produce energy after 2022 and that no petrol or diesel cars would be produced after 2040. This should mean that renewable energy sources and the electronic car market will grow to meet demand in their absence. However, can we trust all countries to follow this lead and move towards renewable energy if the terms of the Paris agreement aren’t legally binding?

Private Companies
Two of the most famous technology companies, Apple and Amazon, are moving towards renewable energy. To meet their aim to become 100% fossil-fuel free, Apple bought a solar farm in 2015, and Amazon invested in a huge wind farm in West Texas in 2016.

For the energy companies themselves, the move towards renewable energy could be a disaster. They are likely to lose out to new, smaller companies who have invested in new technologies. This could lead to large-scale worker lay-offs and power stations being closed down. While some might say that more diverse competitors in the market is a good thing, the immediate effects on current energy companies could be incredibly expensive, so what would this mean for them in the future?

Local communities
Lots of the new renewable energy projects have provided a much-needed employment boost to local areas. The Ouarzazate Project in Morocco has hired 2,000 workers from the community surrounding the site for the initial construction of the site. New roads have been built too, which as well as providing access to the plant, have helped children get to school and local communities get better connected. Water pipes for the site have also provided 33 villages with a clean supply.

These positives do not come without their setbacks, however many of the jobs generated by renewable energy projects are only temporary. There are also environmental effects such as noise pollution and droughts that can be created in the area surrounding these sites. Given these problems, is the overall effect of renewable energy on local communities positive or negative?

So what does the future hold for energy production?

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