Pro and Cons for Renewable Energy
Renewable energy may need high costs and investment, but
the rewards are strong, argues John McBurney
Renewable energy refers to resources
for which there is a
long term, unlimited supply that
is not decreased by our use of it for energy
generation. Recognised examples
include solar, wind, hydro, geothermal
and biomass. More recent developments
include tidal or wave energy. The
debate over the pros and cons of renewable
energy has become more signifi -
cant in recent years. This is due to the
increased concern about global climate
change and the increasing cost of crude
oil. We have spent 200 years learning
how to extract coal and oil relatively
cheaply, but we have not yet developed
cheap technologies for using renewable
energy. Presently, renewables supplement
our energy needs, but do not replace them. The most popular pros concerning renewable energy are based on protection of the environment. The prevailing cons have typically been the capital costs of renewable energy.
The first, and most popular, advantage of switching to green energy is the protection of our environment and reduction of carbon emissions. In addition,
coal and oil tend to have high sulphur (and sometimes higher chlorine) that requires more sophisticated pollution controls. Acid rain is caused primarily by the combustion of coal without sophisticated combustion and pollution control technology.
A second argument for renewable energy is that fossil fuels are an important
feedstock for pharmaceuticals and plastics. Products made from petroleum
include ink, bubble gum, deodorant, eyeglasses, tyres and heart valves. The
use of fossil resources as a fuel, and burning them, is a terrible waste.
The third advantage of switching to renewables is decreased reliance on
foreign sources of energy. Interruptions in petroleum supplies during the last
ten years have been due to war, civil unrest, political upheaval and weather.
35 years ago Brazil launched a campaign to decrease its reliance on foreign
oil, and began development of its sugar cane based fuel-ethanol program.
This is less energy intensive than maize based ethanol. Hence it is more efficient. Brazil has signifi cantly reduced its dependence on foreign oil. This was achieved because of a visionary government plan.
The fourth benefi t of renewable energy is long term cost savings. After consideration of the high upfront investment costs, the costs for operation
are much lower than for fossil fuels.
The reason is that solar, wind, hydro and geothermal fuel is free. The only
costs are usually for maintenance. For some biomass systems, the fuel is free.
Biomass systems typically have higher operating costs because of the labour
required. These long-term savings more than offset the upfront costs. Investors must understand the ROI will require longer than the return on a fossil fuel fired system. As the cost of a barrel of crude continues to increase, the return on these investments will improve.
A popular argument against renewables is the intensive capital cost for
these systems. There are also environmental problems. Wind turbines cause
noise pollution and threaten wild birds.
Some people complain of “visual pollution” resulting from a field of wind
turbines. Hydroelectric dams reduce water flows downstream and can disrupt
habitats where land is flooded.
This results in the displacement of human populations, plants and wildlife.
Use of biomass requires combustion, which can result in air pollution. It can
also lead to exhaustion of resources through deforestation where there are
no programmes for replanting trees.
Another problem for renewables is that each one requires resources, which
are hard to collect. Wind and solar require large tracts of land. Biomass is
harvested from agricultural residues and forests. Geothermal supplies are
limited to certain parts of the world.
Our economies are based on the development of large centralised powergenerating stations which use easily transported fossil fuels. Renewable resources will require new approaches to supply large numbers of consumers.
Another problem for renewables is the absence of logical systematic implementation programmes. This is driven by the absence of cutting edge technologies.
While the effi ciency of operation of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and
biomass have improved, there have not been massive developments. In the
next generation this will change. Also there has not been suffi cient economic
incentives for widespread investments in renewable energy systems. Rising
oil prices will likely reverse this.
So is the use of renewable energy simply a feel good programme or does its use have merit? The supply of fossil fuels is fi nite, so we must commit to
increasing the renewable use to secure our energy future and to protect the environment for future generations.
John McBurney is president of McBurney Corporation, an Atlanta-based engineering and construction company with 96 years of experience in industrial steam and power systems.
The Diplomat/Wolf Theiss Experts Platform is a monthly essay written by an international or local expert on current topics of the day.
The opinions expressed herein are not reflective of any opinions of The Diplomat and Wolf Theiss as to agreement/disagreement or otherwise.