100% Renewable Energy: Can we Live without Fossil Fuels?

When we talk about energy production and consumption, we inevitably have to talk about Fossil Fuels and renewable energy. The impacts of coal and oil on our planet is undeniable and the search for viable alternatives is still ongoing. Over time, the dream of being independent of depletable Fossil Fuels and to switch to potentially endless environmental resources like water, solar, and wind has grown significantly and becomes more realistic every day. Today, some countries and regions are already utilizing 100% Renewable Energy, but is that a realistic goal for all of us? What would it take to realistically ditch Fossil Fuels and bank on 100% Renewable Energy?

From Fossil Fuels to Renewables

The world runs on Fossil Fuels. While the kind of fuel may differ, almost all countries rely heavily on coal, oil and natural gas in some capacity. While those fuels do differ in the kind of impact they have on us and our environment, they do have another limiting factor – they will run out. Ironically, the dirtiest of them all, coal, is the one resource we have the most of, but as discussed in a previous article, the coal industry is slowly dying anyway.

In fact, most countries are ramping up their investments in Renewable Energy and already utilize a certain percentage of energy produced through hydro, solar, and wind. The long-term goal is a deep decarbonization of our energy production, but to do that, we need to significantly reduce and eventually get rid of Fossil Fuels entirely. But just how realistic is that?

The Professional Opinion

100% Renewable Energy is almost impossible for many regions. At least that’s what many studies say right now. The problem with these studies, however, is that they make a few assumptions that are subject to change. The whole energy industry is tuned to Fossil Fuels, so within that system, 100% Renewable Energy seems unattainable and rightfully so. If we think back just a decade, the deployment of Renewable Energy at all seemed like the wet daydream of a green party representative after excessive recreational smoking sessions.

Fast forward to today – solar and wind power are very cheap and sustainable options to produce at least some of our energy demands. The moral here is – the future is very hard (if not impossible) to predict. What we deem unattainable or impossible now by a long shot, may be more or less viable in just a few years. Keep an open mind and keep investing in Renewable Energy and we may get very close to a high percentage of Renewable Energy in our power mix very soon.

The Obstacles on the Road to 100% Renewable Energy

The main issue with power demand and power supply is quite simple – one grows and needs to be met by the other one in a reliable manner. As our population grows and lives change with the more frequent use of technology (take an increasing amount of electric cars for example), power demand will inevitably grow as well. That means our power supply will not only have to meet that demand, it also needs to be reliable and deployable when we need it. That is precisely the biggest issue we have with Renewable Energy at the moment.

Renewable Energy is dependent on several environmental factors that define if they are viable options and even then they are inherently variable in their output of energy. Some regions that are already utilizing 100% Renewable Energy are often lucky enough to be close to a Renewable Energy source that is less variable in its output like hydro and geothermal. If you have geothermal activity and/or a good water supply you can harness for energy, combined with a limited population, 100% is a very feasible thing to obtain.

Location and Population are Limiting Factors

Unfortunately, if you have too many people to sustain and are not in the position to harness an equal amount of mostly steady energy, 100% Renewable Energy becomes a big problem to reach realistically, at least at this point in time.

The two main players of Renewable Energy that can be deployed in most cases are wind and solar energy, however, while these are a bit more flexible in terms of location, they are highly variable depending on both location and weather. Solar and wind have issues going both directions with possible under- and overproduction throughout the course of days, weeks, months or even years. The basic question is what do you do when the sun isn’t shining or the wind doesn’t blow?

Distribution of Renewable Energy

There are basically two issues we have to solve. One is about distribution, as obviously not every location within a country will be close or even viable to produce enough energy with renewables. The larger the network, the more reliably can the grid react to variations in energy production. It’s more like the principle of “the wind will blow somewhere at some point” and then making sure that energy is transferred across the grid to a region that has a sub-par energy production at that moment in time.

However, we do not yet have such a high capacity grid which would mean a very high investment if we wanted to build one. Even then, what we would need to figure out is a way to lose as little energy as possible while transferring power from one point to another, as current technologies lose a vast amount of energy when transported long range.

Transportation aside, what if power demands spike, what if we have a drought or a volcanic eruption that blocks sunlight for a significant amount of time or even more unforeseeable environmental conditions? How can we ensure power supply while banking on renewables that may very well be unusable for weeks or more on end? With Fossil Fuels we have the luxury and necessity to just turn them on or off depending on actual demand. That means we do not lose energy to overproduction when it’s not needed, nor do we need to worry what happens if one part is not available – we can switch it on or off at our convenience.

New Batteries to Complement Renewable Power

Renewable Energy doesn’t work that way yet, but we are getting there. Apart from a better grid, we would need high-power batteries that would work as demand and supply that we could switch on or off depending on the need of the system. If we have a sunny and windy day, we could funnel excess energy into storage and flick them on when the grid needs additional power.

Unfortunately, we do not have the necessary technology to pull that off on a big scale yet. The US, for example, does save some energy in pumped hydroelectric storage where power is used to pump water upwards and storing it just to release it downwards through generators, generating energy when needed. However, all these generators, if it comes to it, wouldn’t even be able to supply the US with enough power for an hour.

The future here lies with lithium batteries as are used in cars and aggressively pushed by Tesla. While, again, we are not there yet – the more batteries will be produced the cheaper and more advanced they become.

The Road to Success: Innovate and Improve

The whole endeavor of harnessing Renewable Energy rests firmly on innovation and investment. Solar and wind have become incredibly cheap because, apart from an initial investment to build it, the energy it produces is basically free and only involves minor costs and maintenance. The more is built, the cheaper it becomes and the more proficient we will get. The same goes for batteries and our power infrastructure – the more we are investing and pushing it, the higher the chances that we may get very close to 100% Renewable Energy. The key phrase here is “close” though because chances are we won’t quite make it there without the help of Fossil Fuels and Atomic Energy.

100% Renewable Energy is a nice phrase and a lot of hope is attached to it, but realistically speaking, we probably won’t quite make it due to previously mentioned issues with renewables. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, it is just very unlikely. We will have to rely on Fossil Fuels to some extent to even out issues in power supply with renewables both in the transition phase and beyond.

Mixing Good and Bad

Studies suggest that, as we come closer to 100% Renewable Energy, the cost-effectiveness will go down drastically. No matter how nice 100% Renewable Energy is, it has to also be a cost-effective solution on top of everything else. The pro-side of the argument is that, as Fossil Fuels get partly replaced by renewables, we can pick the parts we want to keep. We can lean more heavily into natural gas and eliminate coal like it’s already happening, or we could embrace atomic energy by eliminating all but the safest of the plants already in existence, as they still have the least environmental impact compared to coal for example.

The most important thing is, that we keep our eyes on Renewable Energy. Even if we further use Fossil Fuels to compensate for the downside of renewables, we need to make sure we are able to discard natural gas when we do not need it anymore for example. We cannot become reliable like we’ve become reliant on oil and coal in the past, in order to move forward and as close as possible to the 100% Renewable Energy goal.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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