Clean energy: looking beyond wind & solar

The sources and actions to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

More than 190 countries adopted the Paris Agreement back in 2015, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, that aims to keep a rise in global temperatures well below 2°C from pre-industrial levels and reach net-zero by 2050. However, of the 10 biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, only Japan, Canada and the EU have legally binding net-zero commitments. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions account for around 80% of all anthropogenic emissions (or 34 billion tonnes Gt per year); our ability to meet net-zero is intrinsically linked to our consumption of fossil fuels. Subsequently, renewable energy will play a major role in reducing our carbon emissions and meeting global targets.

About the 'Fix Our Climate' Earthshot

Renewable energy is simply energy that comes from a source that isn’t finite. Unlike fossil fuels, renewables are natural sources that are self-replenishing and usually have a low or zero carbon footprint. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are non-renewable sources that take millions of years to form, and when burnt emit harmful GHG emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the electrification of the global economy combined with the rapid decarbonization of the grid are the key priorities for keeping global warming under 1.5°C-2°C. The use of renewable energy offers both positive environmental and social results; reducing carbon outputs, cheaper production costs and creating three times the job opportunities.

The 5 key sources of renewable energy

  • Solar – Solar energy is the most abundant energy of all resources. The rate at which solar energy is intercepted by the Earth is about 10,000 times greater than the rate at which humans consume energy. Solar technologies convert sunlight into energy either through mirrors that concentrate solar energy or through photovoltaic panels. When solar panels were first produced, they were extremely expensive to produce, but since manufacturing costs have been reduced, they are now the most affordable renewable energy source.
  • Wind – Wind energy harnesses the kinetic energy of moving air, either offshore in the sea, or onshore on land. Wind energy is a by-product of the sun; the combination of the earth revolving around the sun, while the sun’s rays heat the uneven surfaces of the earth, creating currents of wind. The wind turns the propeller-like blades of a wind turbine, creating energy which is then stored in the turbine’s generator. Since this process occurs naturally, the wind is in plentiful supply and will remain so, as long as the sun heats the planet. Wind turbines have advanced over the last 10 years, making the potential electricity generated enough to power the global grid if significant wind farms were deployed.
  • Geothermal – Geothermal energy is the heat that is generated within the Earth. ‘Geo’ means ‘Earth’, and thermal means ‘heat’ in Greek. This type of heat is produced deep in the Earth’s core, around 2,900 kilometres below the Earth’s crust with many countries having developed methods to tap into and harness this heat. There are different levels of geothermic heat, depending on the location underground and the temperature of the core there. For example, low-temperature geothermal energy can be found in most areas just a few meters deep and can be used to heat greenhouses or homes using a nearby ground source system. The benefit of geothermal energy is that some form of it can be accessed anywhere in the world, and once the plants for harnessing this energy are established, they can last for decades, if not longer.
  • Hydropower – Hydroelectric power is one of the oldest sources of renewable energy. It harnesses the natural flow of moving water by using the elevation differences created by a dam or division to generate electricity. It can be generated from reservoirs and rivers. Reservoir hydropower plants rely on stored water in a reservoir, while run-of-river hydropower plants harness energy from the available flow of the river. Hydropower reservoirs often have multiple uses – providing drinking water, water for irrigation, flood and drought control, navigation services, as well as energy supply. Similarly, ocean energy technology uses the kinetic and thermal energy of seawater from waves or currents to produce electricity or heat. However, these ocean technologies are still in the development process – they are extremely promising and theoretically could provide us with enough energy to exceed present human requirements.
  • Biomass – Bioenergy is derived from a range of organic materials; these are called biomass. These materials include food waste, crops, charcoal, dung, and wood. There are two main types of bioenergy: ethanol, which is commonly produced through the fermentation of crops that are high in sugar, and biodiesel, which is produced from used cooking oils or animal facts through the process of transesterification. Both processes can be used for heating, electricity generation and fuel transportation. Unlike the sources of renewable energy, biomass does produce some greenhouse gas emissions, however, these are at a much lower rate than burning traditional fossil fuels. For this reason, most governments still consider biomass a renewable energy source. Given this, biomass energy should only be used in limited quantities, given the environmental impact if implemented on a large scale. 

The 5 critical actions to accelerate renewable energy

Given the range and accessibility of renewable energy sources, there is no reason that renewable energy sources cannot, in time, replace the majority of fossil fuel sources. Fossil fuels still account for 80% of global energy production, with renewables supporting 29% of all electricity. The U.N Secretary-General outlines five critical actions the world needs to prioritise now to transform our energy systems and speed up the shift to renewable energy – “because, without renewables, there can be no future.”

  1. Renewable energy technology must be made available to all, not just the wealthy. Access to the technology and information around existing and new renewable data needs to be shared globally and intellectual property rights need to be addressed to prevent growth barriers.
  2. Improve global access to components and raw materials, so that the resources to build the infrastructure needed to generate renewables are easily accessible.
  3. Increase policy support for a renewable transition and reduce market risk to enable incentive investments to streamline the planning, building and regulatory process for renewables. To reach 1.5°C targets, global renewable energy production must increase from 29% to 60% by 2030. To do so, Nationally Determined Contributions must align targets by creating clear and robust policies with transparent processes to accelerate the uptake of renewable technologies.
  4. Fossil-fuel subsidies are one of the biggest financial barriers hampering the world’s shift to renewables –the development around renewables must be subsidised. In 2020, The International Monetary Fund reported that $5.9 trillion was spent on subsidising the fossil fuel industry, which equates to roughly $11 billion a day. If even half this amount went into shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, global emissions would be reduced dramatically, jobs would be created jobs, and there would be an overall greater shift to a more circular economy structure.
  5. Triple the investment in renewables to get close to meeting global 2030 targets. To do so, greater commitment and accountability are required, especially from the global financial systems to align their portfolios with the global transition. In the words of the Secretary-General, “renewables are the only path to real energy security, stable power prices and sustainable employment opportunities.”

About the author:

Georgina Murrin is a ESG Analyst in Itriom’s London Office.

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