[dropcap]A[/dropcap]dopting green energy sources on a global scale has always been dismissed by detractors because of the high cost of transitioning to renewable energy. Now that the technology for renewables has improved, the game is about to change.
To many of us, green energy is an exciting idea. Yet, for those of us who are advocates for green energy, we have been facing a number of obstacles and there is one criticism that we can’t escape. Green energy hasn’t been sustainable. Take note of the past tense.
The problem with green energy
Rather than burning coal and oil or splitting uranium, we can just harness renewable resources using power from the sun, wind, and water currents. Sounds like a cool idea, right? Well, it’s not that simple.
While renewable energy sources do provide a great alternative to coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power, it’s a far more complicated process. Solar panel outputs reduce by 0.8% every year, while wind power turbines degrade at a rate depending on the wind conditions they’re subjected to. A good rule of thumb would be to replace solar panels every 25-30 years and wind turbines every 20 years. The average life of a coal plant, in comparison is 30 years.
But the real major issue is that green energy is intermittent. It’s subject to natural conditions. Solar panels cannot harness energy at night. As a result, they require fossil fuel factories to be on standby to supplement power grids when they become inactive. The same applies for wind turbines when there is no wind.
The good news is that the costs of green energy, which has effectively been the biggest obstacle to a global shift to renewables, are reducing rapidly. Peter Orzag says in Business Day that at $20 per person per year, it would be possible to make the United States carbon neutral within 30 years. He reports on an analysis by Geoffrey Heal of Columbia University which shows that it would cost only $6bn a year for the US to move to carbon-free electricity generation by 2050.
“Even if the precise numbers are off, Heal is right to emphasise that the transition to cleaner energy is much less costly today than it used to be. Three forces are changing the math,” writes Orzag. “Multiple forces have driven costs down, including ongoing improvements in technology and lower capital costs.”
He also speaks about the subject of storage, which has been a major problem, not only due to the price of lithium ion batteries, but also their capacities.
“Second, the cost of storing renewable energy is also falling,” he says. “The challenge with wind and solar energy is that they are intermittent, so they require either supplemental conventional power, such as combined-cycle natural gas, or enough storage to smooth the variation relative to demand. As storage becomes more affordable than supplementation, the share of energy production based solely on renewable power can expand.
“Here too, there is good news: storage technologies are evolving rapidly and costs are plummeting. The costs of lithium-ion battery technology are declining especially fast compared with other storage technologies.”
It just doesn’t make sense not to go green.
Orzag also points out that “many power plants are nearing the end of their useful lives and need to be replaced one way or another.” Most coal-fired plants in the United States were nearing their retirement age way back in 2013.
This means that the US are now left with the option of transitioning to green energy at the cost of $6 billion a year or to rebuild their coal infrastructure at Heal’s estimate of $41 billion a year. The US also produces 10,877.218 Megatons of CO2 a year and should they become carbon neutral it’ll go a long way towards fighting the global climate crisis.