How Renewable Energy is Changing the World
From running cars, cleaning up the air and water, heating homes and factories to creating jobs, renewable energy is showing its versatility
If your great grandfather used a twig to brush his teeth, drew water from the well, walked to the fields, took a bullock cart or a horse-drawn carriage to commute, and ate dinners by candlelight, he was, rightly, in harmony with renewable energy.
What about us? Are we in harmony with renewable energy?
Our rampant use of fossil fuels over the last 150 years to power our lifestyles, industries, and businesses has led to climate change and global warming. As industrialization got into the superfast lane, we turned to drill and mining the earth for its finite resources of gas, oil, and coal, which, while helpful, have nevertheless harmed the environment. Every time we use a non-renewable energy source, we increase the greenhouse gas effect (GHG).
The quality of the air we breathe, the food we grow and eat, the water we drink, our trees, rivers, forests, mountains, and the lives of all animals and co-creatures on the planet have been compromised by our use of fossil fuels. The less we use renewable energy, the more we release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, speeding up global warming. The changing weather phenomena worldwide have unleashed unprecedented natural disasters – floods, storms, hurricanes, forest fires, droughts – that confirm the warnings of environmental experts.
The last two decades have been a glaring example of the need to save the planet by adopting more sustainable ways of living. The United Nation’s historic Paris Agreement binds its 191 member countries to scale back GHG emissions and focus on renewable energy as they move towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
It would be foolish to continue using finite resources that produce side effects when there is an endless supply of renewable energy to be found on the planet.
What is Renewable Energy (RE)?
It is the energy inherent in the planet’s naturally recurring resources such as the sun, wind, ocean tides, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal heat. Nature replaces all these forms of energy, and using them continuously does not lead to a supply crunch as in the case of fossil fuels which are depleting and cannot be replaced. The most significant advantage of renewable energy is it does not have a negative environmental impact.
There is no big reveal about the good effects of renewable energy. We had known its advantages all along when we sailed across continents in ships with the wind in their sails when we lit a fire using the sun’s rays and tilled the earth using energy from the windmills.
What is the Renewable Energy portfolio?
Solar energy: The sun’s billions of years old energy is a boon for the planet. Through the centuries, we have used this energy for various purposes in our daily life. Today, we use solar energy ate heat and electricity in homes, buildings, industries, solar thermal power plants, run gadgets, light outdoors, cook, heat swimming pools, power batteries, etc.
Top solar power farms in the world:
- Bhadla Solar Park, Rajasthan, India: 2,245 MW.
- Huanghe Hydropower Hainan Solar Park, China: 2,200 MW.
- Pavagada Solar Park, Karnataka, India: 2,050 MW.
Wind energy: Another abundant natural resource is a hundred percent clean, accessible, and efficient. Historically, wind farming has been in use in many countries. It harnesses electricity from wind through the motion of wind turbine blades, feeding the energy into the local or national grid.
Largest wind farms in the world:
- Jiuquan wind Power Base, China: 20GW
- Jaisalmer Wind Park, India: 1,600 MW
- Alta Wind Energy Centre, United States: 1,548 MW
- Muppandal Wind Farm, Tamil Nadu, India: 1,500 MW.
- Shepherds Flat Winds, Eastern Oregon, United States. 845 MW
Hydro energy: Also called hydroelectric power, it is harnessed from the energy of flowing water to generate electricity. This renewable energy has been in use through civilizations. Water dams in many countries generate hydropower. The biggest example is the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest hydropower plant, setting a record output in 2020 at 103.1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.
Top hydroelectric dams in the world:
- Three Gorges Dam, China: 22,500 MW.
- Baihetan Dam, China: 16,000 MW.
- Itaipu Dam, Paraguay, Brasil: 14,00 MW
Tidal energy: The energy from the ocean’s tides converted into power is called tidal power. It is fully renewable energy as tides are a constant natural phenomenon wherever oceans exist on the planet.
Top tidal power projects in the world:
- Sihwa Lake Tidal Power Station, South Korea – 254MW.
- Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, United Kingdom – 240MW.
- MeyGen Tidal Energy Project, Scotland – 86MW.
Geothermal energy: The heat inside the earth’s crust is termed geothermal energy, a renewable resource. It is tapped from the water and steam that rises to the Earth’s surface. Geothermal power is used to generate electricity to heat homes and buildings. Geothermal reservoirs can be located by drilling the earth’s crust and testing the temperature.
Top geothermal power projects in the world:
- Geysers Geothermal Complex, California, USA: 1.2 GW
- Larderello Geothermal Complex, Italy: 769MW
- Cerro Prieto Geothermal Power Station, Mexico: 720MW
- Makban Geothermal Complex, Philippines: 458M
Biomass energy: Biomass is biological material used to generate power as heat or electricity. It comprises plant- and animal-derived material waste such as wood and all kind of wood waste, crops and agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, organic garbage, animal manure, and human sewage. The wood fire is the earliest example of biomass energy. This material is put through processes to generate electricity as renewable energy.
Top biomass power plants in the world:
- Ironbridge, UK: 740 MW.
- Alholmenskraft, Finland: 265MW
- Toppila, Finland: 210MW of electrical energy and 340 MW of thermal power.
- Dangjin plant, Seoul, South Korea: 105 MW
Are we moving towards renewable energy?
Over the last decade, there has been a discernible shift towards using renewable energy. Though it is not a uniform pattern, with developed countries showing more evidence than the rest of the world, it is still a matter of cheer that the world is waking up to the dangers of fossil fuel dependence.
The year 2020 enhanced this awareness. Call it circumstances or nature’s will, but the pandemic revealed new choices for us in our energy outlook. Due to the all-around disruptions caused by the coronavirus, countries vigorously pursuing clean energy mixes and renewables speeded up plans. Other countries grew new faith in renewable energy and began to take small steps.
The result? Decarbonizing is now more fact than theory.
The planet is blessed with abundant natural blessings like the wind, sun, and water to provide renewable energy, and countries have woken up to this reality over the last decade. Here are some cheerful facts:
- Wind and solar are the top REs today, closely followed by geothermal heat and biomass.
- Double delights: According to the BP 2021 statistical review, wind and solar capacity more than doubled during 2015-2020, increasing by around 800 GW, which amounts to an average annual increase of 18 percent. In 2020 alone, the increase in renewable power amounted to 358TWh (Terra Watt-hour), the biggest ever.
- Rising percentages: The International Energy Agency (IEA) says renewable energy is expected to make up 30 percent of the world’s energy by 2024. Global Energy Review 2021 states that global use of renewable energy went up by 3 percent in 2020.
- Renewables are raring to go. “China alone should account for almost half of the global increase in renewable electricity in 2021, followed by the United States, the European Union, and India.”
Pandemic was no obstacle for RE: The Renewables 2021 Global Status Report also confirms the renewables energy sector’s ability to push ahead despite the pandemic. “Global investment in renewable power capacity withstood the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling USD 303.5 billion in 2020. This 2% increase over 2019 marks a significant rebound, particularly given conditions at the start of the year.”
The resilience of renewables: In 2018, more renewables capacity was installed globally than fossil fuel and nuclear capacity.
Though experts urge acceleration, the resilience of renewables is a vote of confidence in a highly unpredictable pandemic environment.
How are countries making the switch to Renewable Energy?
Scotland is a vigorous example of how to switch to renewable energy. The government aims to use low carbon heat technologies to produce 35 percent of heat for domestic buildings and 70 percent of heat and cooling for non-domestic buildings.
It is also setting up a world-first system in Dunbar, East Lothian, to convert landfill gas into green vehicle fuel and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scotland is also moving to hydrogen-powered trains, ferries, and buses, with the city of Dundee in Tayside home to the UK’s largest electric taxi fleet.
What is the RE mix? Onshore wind is the largest component, followed by wave/tidal energy, solar, landfill gas, energy from waste, and hydro.
Sweden is aiming for 100 percent renewable electricity production by 2040. The country tops the European Union, with almost 56 percent (2019) of the energy used coming from renewable sources.
What is the RE mix? Nuclear power, hydroelectric power, modest use of solar energy.
Costa Rica: This small country in Central America is big on renewables. According to its government, in 2019, 98.84% of Costa Rica’s power came from renewable resources.
What is the RE mix? Hydroelectricity, wind turbines, geothermal energy, and biomass.
Denmark: Known as the renewable energy laboratory, Denmark has been speeding past milestones in alternative resources since the impact of the oil crisis in the 70s. Aiming to be fossil-fuel independent by 2030, Denmark has 50 percent of its electricity supplied by wind and solar power.
The country is at the forefront, sharing its know-how, with giant economies like China. Though its economy has grown 80 percent over the last four decades, its energy consumption has almost remained the same.
What is the RE mix? Wind and solar power.
China: This superpower is racing ahead with its renewable energy plans and aims to be carbon neutral by 2060. In the first half of 2021, it boosted its renewable energy-fired power generation capacity by 4%, compared with the end of last year, to 971 gigawatts. This year, it also raced past the UK as the world’s largest installed offshore wind capacity operator. China generates the largest solar power capacity globally at 254,355 MW as per the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 2020 report.
What is the RE mix? Solar power, wind power, hydropower.
India: It’s the most significant contributor to GHG emissions after the US and China, but it is working to ramp up its renewable energy levels. It aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 33-35 percent of its 2005 levels by 2030 and have 40 percent of its total installed power generation capacity from renewables by 2030. India is the world’s 3rd largest electricity consumer and the world’s 3rd largest renewable energy producer with 38% (136 GW out of 373 GW) of total installed energy capacity in 2020 from renewable sources.
What is the RE mix? Solar, hydroelectricity, biofuels, onshore and offshore wind power, biomass/biofuels, and geothermal energy in that order.
USA: In 2020, renewable energy sources accounted for about 12% of total U.S. energy consumption and about 20% of electricity generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
What is the RE mix? Wind, hydropower, solar, biomass, geothermal.
How will renewable energy improve our lives?
It will enhance our quality of life across the spectrum.
The impact of renewable energy to boost humanity’s health, global economy, and the environment are natural and present. Across the world, people live in cities with air and water pollution leading to health problems, habitat loss, threatened wildlife, and greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t have to be this way. We deserve a cleaner planet and using renewable energy will get us there.
Let’s see how these benefits can accrue for us.
The use of fossil fuels in modern transportation has led to decades of air pollution across the planet. In many developing countries, people breathe toxic air, with devastating health consequences.
According to a study in Environmental Research:
- A global total of 10.2 million premature deaths annually are attributable to the fossil-fuel component of PM2.5 (a measure of the density of air pollutants in the form of fine Particulate Matter that is 2.5 microns in size).
- The most significant impact is seen in countries with high PM25, such as China (3.9 million deaths due to air pollution), India (2.5 million), and parts of the eastern US, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
“Fossil fuel component of PM2.5 contributes a large mortality burden,” says the study. The shift to electric cars is a significant advantage. The International Renewable Energy Agency IRENA’s 2021 report Renewable Energy Policies for Cities Transport says there is room for ethanol- and biodiesel-run road transport growth. “Already in 2016, 26% of the electricity consumed by electric vehicles worldwide was renewable. Fuel cell electric vehicles can be fuelled by green hydrogen.”
Norway posted nearly 80 percent sales in electric cars this year. The top auto markets, China, the US, and Europe, have all shown bold increases in sales of electric vehicles. All this means just one thing: we can move towards a cleaner, greener way of commuting and lead healthier lives thanks to renewable energy.
We compromise indoor air quality too with the use of coal, kerosene, and wood. A World Health Organization (WHO) report says nearly 3.1 billion people still use polluting fuels for cooking. Household air pollution accounts for 3.8 million premature deaths, particularly in low and middle-income countries, says a UN report.
The use of renewable energy such as solid biomass fuels, biogas, solar cooker (that uses solar energy), and liquid biofuel are practical alternatives increasing adaptability and use. For example, the World Bank’s Efficient, Clean Cooking and Heating (ECCH) Program’s lending portfolio totals more than US$400 million across 21 countries. The ECCH Program “has helped nearly 20 million people in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Mongolia, Senegal, and Uganda get access to cleaner and more efficient cooking and heating solutions between 2015-2020.”
Economy and Employment Opportunities
IRENA’s Renewable Energy Benefits, Measuring the Economics report says, “Accelerating the deployment of renewable energy will fuel economic growth, create new employment opportunities, enhance human welfare, and contribute to a safe climate future.” It will grow global GDP by 1.1 percent by 2030, create 24 million renewable jobs by 2030, and open new markets in trade due to the transformation of new energy systems.
According to the UN Environment Programme, “Around 80% of global energy and 66% of electrical generation are supplied from fossil fuels, contributing approximately 60% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions responsible for climate change.” Increased use of renewable energy will help cut the GHG rates and clean up the environment. This reduction will directly impact the economy with reduced healthcare costs and climate change impacts that strain a country’s systems.
Our planet is a blended marvel of finite and infinite resources. We must learn to see the difference between the two and move towards a more sustainable future. We must protect the planet to protect ourselves, and this means we must stop using convenient but harmful resources such as fossil fuels. Instead, we must consciously turn to the other timeless gifts of nature, such as wind, sun, water, biomass, tidal energy, etc., to design healthier, more productive, and ethical lifestyles in accordance with the laws of nature.
People, communities, and governments need to take a conscience call and implement grass-root action to make this shift happen.
Our future depends on it.