Can renewable energy help global warming?

The earth is heating up at an alarming rate. The visceral effects of global warming are clear for all to see: melting ice caps, destructive hurricanes, severe flooding. Climate change denial is rapidly becoming a moot point. Amid the warnings is a growing clamour to install renewable energy solutions for climate change. But can these actually solve global warming? PIF explores the pros and cons of green energy to find out.

How does renewable energy benefit the environment?

We have 12 more years to restrict global warming to the desired maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, according to a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Why is that figure, which by the way is at the most ambitious end of the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C to 2°C target, so important?

Well, the UN’s scientists have extrapolated that that seemingly miniscule extra 0.5°C could lead to the complete decimation of the world’s coral reefs, a third of the planet experiencing extreme heatwaves at least once every five years, and sea levels rising by as much as 10cm by 2100. According to the report, without urgent and widespread changes we are currently heading for a global temperature rise closer to 3°C.

Clearly, something needs to be done…and fast. Can we harness renewable energy for climate change? Let’s look at some of the arguments against renewable energy and weigh those up with the counter-arguments in its favour.

Cost of renewable energy for climate change

Against: Historically, developing renewable energy has been a costly old business. Factoring in research and development costs and bringing new equipment online like photovoltaic solar panels and giant wind turbines, renewable energy has long struggled to gain a foothold against more established energy sources, like coal-powered plants. At the moment, government contracts reputedly assure renewable generators a guaranteed price for any power produced, which skews the figures.

For: Government subsidies notwithstanding, the cost of producing renewable energy is reportedly falling. So much so that it could actually become cheaper than fossil fuels by as soon as 2020, that’s according to a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). They say the cost of generating power from onshore wind farms has dropped by as much as 23 percent since 2010 and that the cost of solar power has decreased by a massive 73 percent over that same period.

Renewable energy and global warming are interdependent on weather

Against: As we all know, many renewable energy solutions for climate change – particularly solar panels and wind turbines – are beholden to the whims of the weather for the pre-requisite sunshine or wind power needed to produce their energy. Furthermore, adverse weather conditions like lightning, hailstones, flooding and high winds can all inflict major damage to renewable energy installations. Perhaps ironically, the changing weather conditions resulting from global warming pose a significant threat.

For: There are various storage solutions for when the weather isn’t playing ball. Battery storage is common in solar and wind applications. Compressed air storage is another option, whereby excess wind power is stored in tanks for use at a later date. Heated molten salt is one current method being used to store solar energy at large-scale solar farms. The Gemasolar station, for example, is the first 24-hour station and produces 60 percent more energy than a station without storage capacity.  

Renewable energy solutions for climate change need space

Against: To produce large amounts of energy, vast swathes of hillsides, rivers and fields are needed for the installation of hydropower stations, wind farms and solar stations. In fact, one study claims that solar and wind power need around 40-50 times more space than coal and 90-100 times more space than gas. Much like the communities displaced for infrastructure like dams, will there come a time when farmland is reclaimed from farmers? And who will make these decisions?

For: With a growing global population, the demand for space is only going to increase. However, there are solutions already at play. Rooftop solar panels are an obvious choice in an increasingly urbanised world and the cost of photovoltaic (PV) panels is steadily decreasing. Offshore windfarms are another innovative use of space that don’t impinge on human land requirements. As are desert solar farms, like the vast Noor Complex in the Moroccan stretch of the Sahara.

Conclusion

Can we use renewable energy for climate change? Yes, we undoubtedly can. The technology is ready and production costs are dropping all the time. The fact of the matter is that humans will inevitably need to compromise and adapt – and who amongst us likes change? However, the status quo will have to change, which means as a race we face some tough choices moving forward.

Renewable energy can play a massive part in our efforts to arrest global warming. It’s now just a question of whether governments are serious about meeting the Paris Agreement’s targets and are willing to invest in low-carbon energy sources with some urgency and at scale. The cost of doing nothing and continuing to prop up the fossil fuel industries could ultimately prove too big a price to pay.

Renewable energy is a hot topic right now and is likely to remain high up the agenda for some time to come. If you’d like to gain a deeper understanding of the current state of play in renewable energy, why not check out our ‘Top 10 Renewable Energy Facts’ blog for more fascinating insights.

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