10-03-2022 | | By Robin Mitchell
Green energy has been pouted to be the future of energy generation in a world concerned with climate change. Still, rising energy costs and poor planning is creating a perfect storm for an energy collapse. What did green technology promise, why has the move to green energy been a disaster, and can we sustain the move to green energy?
The 20th century saw unbelievable technological advancements, including the development of vaccines, the invention of the transistor, the moon landings, and the birth of the Internet age. However, this rapid development of technology also resulted in greater demands for energy production, which led to the mass construction of power plants whose energy sources mostly came from fossil fuels.
Coal and oil are incredibly abundant, have excellent energy densities, and are easy to obtain. The power stations built around them are easy to construct, their decommissioning does not involve the disposal of hazardous waste, and every country in the world can afford them. But such power stations are also extremely harmful to the climate and environment, not just with the CO2 they release, but the cancer-causing particulates creating smog, acid rain, and release of heavy metals.
Renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal were seen as the ideal energy of the future that could remove our dependency on fossil fuels while also helping to revert environmental damage. The lack of CO2 production was touted as the solution to reverse climate change. The lack of mining operations would prevent the displacement of indigenous peoples and remove the damage done to habitats. The fact that renewable energy sources are incredibly abundant would meet all of our energy needs.
There is no doubt that green energy suppliers have their challenges, which has been acknowledged even by those who advocate its sole use. One of these is that not every site is suitable for renewable energy gathering; some places have little wind, some places have little sunlight, and only a few places in the world have accessible geothermal activity.
However, there are new challenges faced by green electricity that is now threatening everyday life. The biggest by far is the poor switch over to green energy sources without having the proper infrastructure in place. A good example is Germany which has entirely moved away from nuclear (a green source of energy) and jumped feet first into solar. However, it quickly became apparent that the energy output from solar renewable energy is unreliable, and the nation has now built coal plants in an age where most places are closing them down (there are 30 operational in Germany compared to only 2 in the UK). So ironically, the attempted move to solar has actually resulted in more coal being burned.
Another major problem faced with the move towards renewable energy is the idea that fossil fuel extraction should be stopped. This has led to nations having some fossil fuel plants in operation, but their fuels are obtained from other countries. Any fluctuation in renewable green power output drastically affects energy prices, as does the state of international affairs.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict perfectly demonstrates this. As many countries worldwide depend on Russian gas and oil, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia saw mass sanctions, including the stopping of oil and gas. The result is that the price of fossil fuels shoots up, and considering that the war has happened during the winter when gas demand is at its highest, energy prices have dramatically risen.
Energy storage companies worldwide are working hard to develop ideal methods for storing energy from renewable energy sources, whether it is the use of pumped hydro, stacking concrete blocks with cranes, using large lithium-ion batteries, or using molten salt. While this will help solve the challenges of renewable energy intermittency, it will do little to help solve the social-political problems associated with the current implementation of renewable energy.
If countries truly switch over to renewable energy, it must be done so full-heartedly without the unusual half-half measure of some renewable and some fossil. A lack of renewable energy combined with the dependency on foreign nations leaves us open to wild energy price fluctuations and possibly even the need to reopen coal plants as Germany is doing.
But what is very unusual is the widespread resistance against nuclear energy when considering that it is one of the safest forms of energy regarding lives lost (ironically, solar is one of the highest as installers do fall off roofs). There are concerns regarding the spent nuclear waste, but if climate change (and the environment in general) really are under serious threat, then going nuclear makes the most sense.
Of course, there is one other alternative to becoming 100% renewable; become 100% fossil fuel. As strange as it may seem, some believe the best thing to do is to go all chips in on fossil fuels and focus on accelerating technology with extremely cheap fuel prices, widespread mass production, and consumerism to the max. The idea behind this is that such a society may be able to crack exotic sources of energy (such as fusion) faster, and this would, in turn, lead to more rapid decarbonisation of everyday life.