Renewable energy technology becomes better, cheaper, and easier to access every year. Yet, renewable energy sources are only responsible for 20% of our global energy consumption3. There are challenges for renewable energy introduction to our daily use.
Thankfully, we can identify these challenges. This is the first step towards the innovation needed to take renewable energy from a subject of wonder to a norm in every home.
Many people imagine that there is an energy shortage on our planet. But the sun that fuels our earth provides much more energy than we could ever need. And that’s one source.
Renewable energy sources also include wind and solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, and more. We need only to harness these resources to meet all our needs.
Technologies for renewable energy are trending upwards. A range of new and disruptive developments and inventions in the green energy industry means that it is rapidly transforming our energy supply systems around the globe.
This is great news for the sustainability and survival of our planet. To achieve our energy production goals and rid ourselves of polluting fossil fuels, we must face the challenges in our way. The issues explained below provide a great starting point in the pursuit of net-zero emissions to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.
The first of the seven challenges to consider is the issue surrounding efficient, affordable, and reliable energy storage. Historically, one of the major problems with renewable energy generation is that supplies are far more variable than other means of energy generation.
Fluctuations in sunlight levels and wind mean that supplies are less consistent than those derived from fossil fuel plants. Owners, therefore, require batteries to store energy for later. And to even out discrepancies in the energy supply.
We have made amazing strides in this arena in recent years. Advancements in battery technologies have brought prices down significantly. Energy storage has become less of an issue as batteries have improved and battery prices have come down.
However, there is progress ahead of us. Further innovations and roll-out of existing technologies over the near future will surely continue to tackle this challenge moving forward.
But the sustainability challenges remain – and there are questions to ask surrounding the environmental costs of technology; mining the precious metals and rare earth minerals that battery technologies require to even out the power grid supply.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by the renewable energy sector is economics. Specifically, the financial issues involved in bringing renewable technologies and renewable energy to the masses.
New business forces are dramatically increasing investment in the sector. Yet the transition from the carbon and fossil fuel industry is a massive shift and, like any major shift, comes with a huge financial cost.
Over the last few years, investment in renewables has resulted in a surge of innovation and emerging technologies. But economic pressures do still stifle innovation. And a lack of financial backing from large organizations and governments unwilling to change as quickly as required, or introduce incentives, can often slow the progress we need to see.
Sometimes alternatives are sought, such as crowdfunding renewable energy, whereby startups and even more mature companies are turning to a volume of smaller investors to get project implementations off the ground.
Inextricably linked with economic concerns are the political challenges of the transition to renewables. Political posturing, isolationism, popularism, and anti-science rhetoric threaten the renewable energy sector. As authorities in certain countries continue to take great strides in the right direction, other jurisdictions are being left behind.
Politicians also face immense and complex pressures as they struggle to reconcile the requirements for rapid and immense change with the reticence of the voting public to make the needed changes.
Public perception of renewables is increasingly positive, and most people are aware of and support the need for an urgent response to the climate emergency. But self-interest, uncertainty as to the costs and benefits, and other concerns in daily life can sometimes push renewable energy further down on the political agenda.
Wholesale, widespread use of renewables to meet the energy demand is essential. But the transition will be harder to achieve due to the lack of reliable large-scale energy grids in several developed nations. In the Western world, there is a huge and troubling infrastructure gap. Like other forms of infrastructure, energy infrastructure is, in many regions, shockingly underfunded, poorly maintained, and insufficiently stable or resilient to meet the demands of the future.
As the requirement for renewable energy continues to grow – due to growing domestic use, increased electric vehicle uptake, and industrial transition – the insufficiency of many electric grid systems will become an ever more apparent barrier to renewable energy uptake at scale.
One of the other challenges for the renewable energy sector is balancing the demands for energy with other land-use requirements1. In a world where natural resources are increasingly strained, land use is often a significant point of contention. Which land should we use for farms full of solar panels and wind turbines? How can we balance this need with the need for land for housing, food production, flexibility, etc.?
Using agricultural land for wind power generation is certainly not without contention. Yet the most valuable land is often optimal for energy generation. Increasingly, in the coming years, the renewable energy sector must find ways to balance the need for power with the need to make optimal use of land. Offshore wind installations have made strides to address this, yet costs are higher than on land. This has been and continues to be a major challenge within the industry.
The problem in decarbonizing the industry is that energy transition pathways are not yet clearly defined. Things are changing – fast. Air pollution and environmental pollution in various forms continue to degrade our ecosystems. We strain our land and resources as never before.
The industrial sector is an economic powerhouse on a global scale, and yet also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The decarbonization of the industrial sector is crucial to meeting the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement and limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial temperature.
Manufacturers have scaled up solar photovoltaic modules and other renewable energy technologies, thereby reducing their costs in recent years. Industry, by comparison, lags far behind. Less innovation and cost reduction have taken place in this arena, with the majority still relying on fossil fuels or natural gas, so the path forward is far less clear.
Yet this is not the only challenge posed by industry decarbonization. Technical reasons also make it more difficult to reduce CO2 emissions within this arena. We cannot alter 45% of emissions from feedstocks by a change in fuels, only by changes to processes.
Using alternative fuels such as zero-carbon electricity to generate the high temperatures required for the processes in the target sectors would be difficult. It would need significant changes made to the furnace design.
Industrial processes are highly integrated, so any change to one part of the process would have a knock-on effect and require further changes. Since production facilities have long lifetimes, changing processes would require extensive (and costly) rebuilds or retrofits.
Energy is central to industry decarbonization. Completely decarbonizing the industrial processes in the main industrial sectors will, of course, have a major impact on the energy system.
Research by McKinsey estimates that it would require around 25-55 EJ per year of low-cost, zero-carbon electricity. At present, in a business-as-usual world, the industry only needs 6 EJ per year. It is clear that decarbonization would lead to a significant increase in long-term electricity requirements.
A collaborative approach from the public and private sectors is what has resulted in economies of scale, progress, cost reduction, and scale-up in renewable energy development. We now require the same thing for industrial decarbonization. The energy transition and industry decarbonization must go hand in hand. It is also clear that this will be one of the major challenges for the renewable energy sector moving forwards.
Economic realities further add to the challenge of the decarbonizing industry. Cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene (the industrial products that account for the majority of carbon emissions) are commodity products, and the cost is a decisive consideration in purchasing decisions.
There is not currently a willingness to pay more for sustainable products, so companies that decarbonize will be the ones who have to foot the bill, finding themselves at an economic disadvantage.
This brings up the last of these major challenges for the renewable energy sector: public perception. Public willingness not only to intellectually agree with but to financially support the energy transition for industry and utilities towards renewable electricity is crucial.
With these challenges for renewable energy in mind, it may seem difficult to foresee a future with clean energy. However, it is possible if we all take a collaborative approach. Countries like Iceland and Paraguay are already at 100% renewables. We can replicate these results globally.
Only through a concerted effort, not only from politicians and businesses but also from individuals and communities, can we find a pathway through the energy transition.
|Blaschke T, Biberacher M, Gadocha S, Schardinger I. 'Energy landscapes': Meeting energy demands and human aspirations. Biomass Bioenergy. 2013;55:3‐16. doi:10.1016/j.biombioe.2012.11.022|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.