Updated: Mar 29
By: Eliana Zhang
Fossil fuels can be found in nearly every aspect of life, and it is likely that they power the electronic device you are reading this on. As much as society depends on these energy sources, not only are they being used faster than they can regenerate, but they have also caused human carbon emissions to skyrocket. People in the future may be left to scramble for another energy source while dealing with the consequences of excessive atmospheric carbon. Governments and companies alike are searching for sustainable alternatives and have found their answer in renewable energy, which comes from replenishable sources, but have yet to come to a satisfactory result in that regard. Renewable energy sources are needed to decrease carbon emissions and are highly varied in strategy, but they are also difficult to implement.
Atmospheric carbon plays a role in the greenhouse effect, which is when greenhouse gases such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane absorb heat and increase Earth’s average temperature. Water vapor has the most influence in the greenhouse effect but atmospheric carbon present in carbon dioxide and methane play a large role as well. As a consequence of the exponential increase in human carbon emissions, the greenhouse effect intensifies and Earth’s climate grows more unstable. People clearly need to reduce carbon emissions. Luckily, renewable energy can help that; according to a recent study published in Nature Sustainability, replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar power reduces carbon emissions regardless of the location (Fell and Johnson). If less fossil fuels are used, carbon emissions would decrease, so renewable energy can directly help people reduce atmospheric carbon levels. Furthermore, since people are using fossil fuels faster than the Earth can replenish the supply, renewable energy is more reliable because it can be used indefinitely.
There are also a number of ways one could harness renewable energy such as in the forms of solar thermal, wind power, geothermal power, hydropower, bioenergy, and tidal power. These sources have different ways of producing electricity but most rely on naturally-occurring heat or mechanical power to generate electricity: solar thermal collectors use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and heat to generate electricity-producing steam; wind power is variable and uses wind turbines to provide mechanical power for electric generators; geothermal power is generated by extraction of the Earth’s heat; hydropower utilizes the movement of water to spin electricity turbines; bioenergy uses the chemical energy stored in organic materials; and tidal power uses a tidal generator to convert tidal flow energy into electricity. When making use of renewable energy, multiple systems can be used at once, like in the case of the variable wind electricity generation, which must be used with other sources to be reliable. People essentially not only have an array of options for renewable energy, but they also are not restricted in the number of sources they implement. Unsurprisingly, these renewable energy sources are in high use across multiple sectors.
Despite their advantages, renewable energy sources are difficult to implement. James Lee, an associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says, “The primary challenge for all types of alternative energy is cost, and in particular it's cost relative to conventional fossil fuels… Even though the source of the energy is often free, the processing required to convert it to a usable form is often expensive due to the cost of equipment, limited production scale, etc” (Industry Week). Even though renewable energy sources are abundant, such as sunlight in regards to solar thermal energy, they are often not as cost-effective as fossil fuels. For the same amount of money, more power could be generated from fossil fuels than from renewable energy sources. In the end, renewable energy sources are an option for most companies but they are not efficient enough to be implemented, as companies seek profit more than anything else—even the reduction of carbon emissions.
Renewable energy sources may seem simple at first glance, but there is a reason why people have not all converted to them. It is a common belief that companies continue to use fossil fuels simply because old habits die hard. Even though it could help save the planet from the pitfalls of climate change, current renewable energy is not as efficient as people think and there are difficulties in implementing it. Despite this, individuals can use their knowledge of renewable energy to alter the way they use energy and interact with the environment. In the end, we need to acknowledge the energy problems present in society. Renewable energy is definitely going to make an appearance as a solution to that in the future.
What did you learn?
Why is renewable energy needed?
It is needed to reduce carbon emissions and to supply a long-term reliable source of energy. Many people currently rely on fossil fuels, which cannot be replenished fast enough to meet demands and release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere when converted to energy. Fossil fuels are going to run out in the future and people need to implement other energy sources that won’t run out, i.e. renewable energy sources. The atmospheric carbon also results in climate change due to absorbing heat, so reducing carbon emissions is of the utmost importance. By utilizing renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, carbon emissions decrease.
What are some flaws of renewable energy?
They are not as cost-effective as traditional sources of energy. While they may be freely abundant as opposed to the hard-to-find fossil fuels, it is more expensive to actually convert them into usable energy. As a result, people hesitate to use them even if they want to decrease carbon emissions. Many of them cannot spare the extra money needed to generate power from renewable energy sources as opposed to fossil fuels.