Climate change is a result of a variety of influences, a major one being energy. The energy we generate
and consume accounts for 73% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally. We heavily depend on burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and fossil gas (or natural gas) as a source of energy. Despite the movement towards more sustainable energy sources, both carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with global fossil fuel production and use continue to increase. Globally, 61% of our energy comes from fossil fuels and 39% of energy comes from what is known as ‘low-carbon’ sources, such as nuclear or renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro-power and biomass. Let’s look at what are the main types of energy we use, what are the hindrances towards adopting cleaner energy plans and why the transition has not been accelerated despite climate activists calling for this drastic change.
Types of Energy
Solar PV (Photovoltaic) systems convert photons into electricity using panels as seen on rooftops or in solar farms and solar thermal systems which convert light and infrared radiation into heat. The PV technologies have most solar modules made with silicon. On average solar panel efficiency ranges between 15-20%, however new technologies in commercial labs are claiming up to 47% efficiency.
Wind is the primary non-hydro renewable energy because it generates almost as much as all the other renewable energies combined as of 2020. A single wind turbine can power about 12,000 homes while small scale wind turbines can also be found to power small communities or even an individual home. Wind turbines can be onshore or offshore (out in the ocean) and recently they can even be floating and doubling as places for reefs to grow.
Geothermal energy is energy derived from the earth’s crust and its affordability depends on the local geology. Tech for deep drilling exists, and research is happening fast into where this energy source is best used. The perk of this type of energy is it can simultaneously generate energy for electricity and heating and cooling applications. For example ground source heat pumps which use shallow earth temperature to either heat or cool buildings, sometimes even providing hot water.
In theory, nuclear energy can be generated via fission or fusion, however all nuclear power is produced through fission. It involves splitting atoms to release energy while fusion is the process of fusing atoms, which is how energy from the sun is generated. This however is a process we have yet to achieve but is on-going in nuclear research. In terms of carbon emissions, nuclear energy is clean as there is no greenhouse gas emission other than in the construction of plants. However, nuclear waste management remains a problem for some such as the U.S. On a global scale nuclear energy has been losing popularity, mostly due to costs in time and funding to build infrastructure. That being said, France is planning to build 14 new nuclear reactors by 2050 and Germany and California are announcing closures of their nuclear power plants.
When considering hydro power as a solution, large dams provide cheap electricity to millions around the world, however they cause deforestation, biodiversity loss and human displacement, sometimes the costs of large dams outweigh the benefits they present. But mini and micro-hydro projects or smaller scale water systems can power small-scale grids and provide a water reservoir during dryer seasons- this is ideal in hilly areas.
Biomass energy is energy derived from organic matter, either plant or animal waste. Plant biomass is considered sustainable because plants absorb carbon dioxide, when burned they emit the same amount of carbon dioxide back into the air, making it in theory carbon neutral. Approximately 10% of global primary energy is biomass, majorly used in rural areas in developing countries that still rely on charcoal, animal dung and other biomass to perform household tasks. Around 830 million people in India still rely on biomass as fuel due to the unaffordability of LPG for many households in rural areas The health impacts on the population dependent on open flame fire stoves is primarily through prolonged exposure to smoke, which is estimated to cause more than 4 million premature deaths globally of which 1.2 million are in India. Deforestation is yet another consequence of the firewood dependent population, a factor to consider in climate change.
The shift towards cleaner energies has indirect effects, for example, the impact on mineral supply chains and consumption is important. PV plants, wind farms and electric vehicles need more minerals to build than fossil fuel plants. An electrical car takes up to 6⨉ the minerals to make than a conventional car, and wind plants require up to 9⨉ more mineral resources than gas fire plants. With all these offered solutions the question remains: is 100% clean energy possible? It is, however, subject to geographical, economic, political and social factors.
Political and Economic Issues
Public and private interests play a large role in the adoption of renewable energies. Several governments around the world offer special energy incentives to accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in the form of direct subsidies, tax breaks, loan guarantees, fixed feed-in tariffs and other types of support. However what is less known is the extent to which governments are subsidizing fossil fuel production and consumption. A study found that reallocating as little as 10-30% of fossil fuel subsidies to renewable sources would significantly drive a transition to clean energy. Barriers to renewable energy in the political and legal system exist in the form of fossil fuel companies lobbying and investing against the uptake of cleaner alternatives.
Taxes act as a tertiary consequence, for example in India an estimated 25% of central government’s revenue and 13% of states revenue comes from taxation on fossil fuels. With a switch to renewable energies, governments will have to find a way to account for the lost revenue stream, a practical issue yet to be tackled. This is of course most apparent in “petrostates” characterised by having high fiscal dependency on oil and gas revenue. Countries where jobs rely heavily on fossil fuels will have a larger part of the workforce specialised in a declining field. At the same time, the upcoming renewable energy field would require a work force. However, there will be little to no overlap between those specialised in the fossil fuel industry and those in the renewable energy field- due to the specialised nature of each field.
Fast growing economies are under pressure to create clean energy, India has gone from having a low supply of power to producing more energy than they can consume with 97% of households throughout the country are connected to the grid. Organisation and distribution of this energy is still underway, however, the progress made in recent years sets an example for cleaner energy.
According to the World Resource Institute’s report, increasing biofuel cultivation can take away land for food production that ambitious bio-fuel targets could even lead to an increased food gap.
65% of India's electric power is coal generated and most cooking, industrial or transportation energy is met using fossil fuels.
While the government has pushed liquid petroleum gas (which is derived from natural gas or fossil gas)
Political pressures delay or alter legislation that limit fossil fuel use requiring established monopolies to re-invest tremendous amounts in order to implement infrastructure for renewable energy sources.
Not to forget the energy inequality that the world faces: availability and access vary drastically from country to country. Where the average person from Congo consumes 100kWh, which is less than 1 percent of the average Canadian, Australian, Norwegian and many more which consume above 10,000kWh per person.
“Modern bioenergy sources include:
● Solid fuels like torrefied wood pellets or briquettes
● Biofuels, which include:
First-generation fuels from food crops (ethanol and biodiesel)
Second-generation fuels from lignocellulosic biomass
Third-generation fuels from algae
Fourth-generation fuels like electrofuels and photobiological solar fuels—these are still experimental systems.”
Efficiency considering Energy
Storage is a crucial issue for renewable energy sources because short term storage for minutes or hours is achievable but long duration storage across days and seasons is harder and more
A potential solution for storage is hydrogen, this is how it would work: using solar or wind energy for electrolysis, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. At periods of decreased solar and wind resources stored liquified hydrogen can be used to power fuel cells to generate electricity. In the past, energy production simply aimed to match demand, however to become more energy efficient and sustainable a change would need to be made to our energy demand. Another challenge facing the industry is the transmission of energy, the transportation cost and the energy loss due to transportation of energy and the environmental impact of infrastructure. The “smart grid” solution is a modernization of electricity networks to enable a two-way flow of electricity and data, a grid that can intelligently switch between energy sources per environmental behaviour, i.e., cloudy but windy would mean a smart grid switches to turbine energy to carry the lack of solar energy.
In order for real sustainable and renewable energy goals to be achieved it is more than simply changing the source but addressing variables such as grid management, new laws and standards, new regulations and new market structures, even new technologies to ensure efficiency and efficacy.
1. The main challenge for global energy systems in terms of climate change is meeting the development needs to improve access to modern energy services. Decarbonising the energy system would solve climate change, Energy transitions to cleaner sources are taking place globally but at drastically varying results in different places.
2. Cleaning of the energy source is the greatest lynch pin for climate change through the energy sector. Without this climate change is impossible to affect. We must achieve 90-100% clean energy systems by 2050 and ideally even sooner.
3. Implementing clean or smarter grids is another important factor for the “electrify everything” movement we have seen in the global market. Storage and transportation of energy as well as usage and two way communication of need and availability will alleviate the demand pressure on energy which is driving climate change negatively.
4. Cleaner energy solutions already exist and are presently highly cost effective, in terms of generating solutions we have: solar, wind, geothermal and small hydro and small biomass energy systems. More controversial and larger scale systems also exist such as large scale biomass, large hydropower technologies and nuclear power.
5. Some technical challenges arise when running a grid system using variable sources of electricity, such as solar and wind power. The solution is to build something known as a Smart Grid. It combines clean energy generating sources with effective storage from hydrogen, having an effective demand response and “smart” communications technologies allowing the supply to switch between renewable resources that best match the environmental and weather conditions.
6. In order to achieve 100 percent clean energy systems there are market, regulatory and policy challenges. There are some new market and incentive structures in the world, such as the US. This issue is highly specific to local contexts and legality of existing systems.
7. There are very important tertiary issues such as political and justice issues involved in building of clean grids. Access to energy, subsidies, employment loss and generation, mineral supply are a few of such challenges having a tertiary concern in the climate change effort through energy.