Energy is at the heart of our society. To date, the developed world has relied predominantly on fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and nuclear power for energy. Inevitably these will run out and we will need to turn to other sources of energy as the world’s population and global demand for energy increases: energy consumption is predicted to more than double by 2050.
Burning fossil fuels releases gases that damage our environment. Most notable are carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which accumulate in our atmosphere and have begun to change our climate on a global scale. While nuclear power does not release greenhouse gases, many current UK power stations will be decommissioned over the next 20 years and there are questions about nuclear power’s safety and how to dispose of its waste.
Defined by their natural and continual recurrence in the environment, renewable energy (RE) sources include wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, hydropower, biomass and landfill gas and energy from biodegradable waste. These sources will never run out and do not contribute to global warming: they either do not release any emissions at all or are ‘carbon neutral’ with the amount of carbon emissions released equal to the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed as new plants grow.
Revolution in energy sector
Renewable energy sources are alternatives to fossil fuels and nuclear power and are therefore billed to revolutionise the energy sector over the course of this century. Not only will they address environmental issues and contribute to energy security through diversity but they could also reduce the need for energy transmission over long distances and thus support rural development. They could help address the ‘energy inequality’ that exists between industrialised countries and the developing world. Currently one third of the world’s population does not have access to electricity. The localised nature of many renewable sources could help many countries ‘leapfrog’ fossil fuels and move directly to more sustainable alternatives.
The growing demand for renewables presents huge business, export and employment opportunities for companies developing, manufacturing, installing and maintaining RE technologies. By 2020, the global RE market is estimated to be worth £500-£1500 billion.
Developments over the past 25 years are really only just beginning to make an impact. In 2001, just 2.6 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from renewables and about half of that came from ageing hydroelectric power stations, many of which are at least 40 years old.
In the UK and further afield, there are still considerable barriers to implementing RE. Some sources can be expensive compared to fossil fuels if the technologies are not yet commercially mature or do not benefit yet from the economies of scale that widespread implementation brings (e.g. solar power). The power provided can be intermittent and there may be other environmental issues and economic issues that can make it difficult to obtain planning permission (e.g. wind power).
There are also still barriers to distributing the electricity generated from often small RE generators. Even where advances have overcome these barriers, public perception of the expense and problems with renewables can prevent their uptake. If renewable energy is to make a real difference, major technological and organisational innovations will be needed.