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Renewable energy

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Renewable energy sources are energy sources which are replenished faster than they are consumed on a human timescale. In other words, while "renewable energy" may not be infinite, they are practically unlimited. Arguably, this is a misnomer and the name "ambient energy" is more appropriate.

Solar energy[edit]

Solar energy is the energy of the Sun shining on the Earth, originating from entropic fusion reactions at the heart of the star. It can be tapped in many different ways, directly and indirectly.

Direct methods usually refer to either solar panels or passive heat absorption.

Indirect methods would include hydroelectric power, wind power and energy crops. With hydroelectric systems, the sun provides the energy to make the water evaporate, so it can begin its travel anew by raining down on a high ground. With wind power, solar radiation is the ultimate energy source that drives the Earth's weather and climate, including the winds harnessed by turbines. Plants also utilize solar energy in order to perform many energy costly chemical reactions, which later in the food chain are broken down by life for energy.

Direct solar[edit]

Solar power rises above the goo burning mediocracy.

There are two main ways of directly getting useful energy from sunlight: either directly converting it to electricity with photovoltaic cells, or using it to heat stuff in various ways.

For now, both kinds of methods are limited by the vagaries of a planet's surface, including cloud cover (curse you, water vapour!), varying amounts of sunlight (curse you, axial tilt!) and the day-night cycle (curse you, planetary rotation!). Space-based solar collection systems that don't suffer from these limitations have been proposed, but these are unlikely to be built in the foreseeable future.[1]

Photovoltaic cells, a.k.a. "solar panels", convert solar radiation into electricity through the use of the photovoltaic effect. Although the Earth's surface receives daily about 4.2 kilowatt-hours per square meter, most solar panels are not perfectly efficient (and they can never be for thermodynamics reasons) and in reality most of them struggle to get over 20% efficiency (8%-15% being more common, even for commercial uses).

The PS10 Solar Tower in Spain, rated at 11MW.

Heat collection cells take many forms. The one encountered most often is used for heating water for domestic use,[2] which might look like Solar Panels, but in reality at no points is a conversion to electricity taking place. Other forms of heat collection are greenhouse structures, as well as passive heating architectural schemes making use of either controlled glazed surfaces or a material's native thermal capacity. Since such systems only try to convert into heat (so any "heat losses" are actually aiding them), for their specific applications they are actually far more efficient than solar panels with conversion rates of over 60%. (The reason for this being that they don't work equally well in the entire spectrum).

Concentrations towers are essentially a specialized heat capturing system where a lot of mirrors aim thermal energy into a central point, essentially utilizing the same mechanism Archimedes did when he (allegedly) burned a Roman fleet. In a solar tower's focus point there is usually some kind of heat absorbing liquid, which is heated and used to turn turbines, similar to the way conventional power plants generate electricity. The advantages of that approach is that, while solar panels are expensive objects, each and everyone one requiring electrical installations and maintenance, mirrors are ... just dumb mirrors which you could clean with a hose. In addition, because the important energy conversion takes place en masse at the central focus points, such facilities only have to improve on that one, whereas photovoltaic ones which would have to do so over their entire area. Heat storage strategies can also allow such a plant to maintain generation during brief interruptions (ie, clouds) or even for a significant part of the night.

Experimental installations like this are already in place in the Southwestern desert in the United States, which are in reasonably close proximity to large cities in California and Nevada. Were the US to switch into a centralized solar generation from sunlit states, it would require the overhauling of the current, decades old energy distribution systems. A first step towards that would be a nationwide direct current backbone.

Project Desertec[3] is a similar scheme involving huge solar arrays in the Sahara desert which would then transmit low-loss DC power to Europe.

Advantages of direct solar[edit]

  • The Technology is proven at this point, and continues to improve. It is rapidly becoming cheaper, yet more robust with each design iteration.
  • Relatively very little maintenance is required.
  • Daily variations in power output are mostly predictable.
  • Can be deployed on top of existing buildings, allowing for lots of expansion in the consumer space.
  • It is the technology with the most appeal to the Greens.
  • The Scalability is very good. This allows large scale solar farms to be reasonable, and for solar panels on homes to lighten the load on the grid.
  • Also works pretty well for low-powered devices where a grid connection is impractical.
  • Does not require any additional energy for a "black start", i.e., restarting an electric grid from nothing.
  • Photovoltaic solar power has very low water usage, and thus does not compete with farms or homes when it comes to using water and can be used in drier climates effectively.
  • A rough estimate for the time it takes to create energy equivalent to what it took to create a solar panel is about 1.5-2 years, depending on model, after that it's green energy baby!
  • Solar panels on roofs block much of the sun from directly hitting the house, slightly reducing the amount of electricity needed for AC, Which is one of the largest pieces of energy usage.
  • Many modern solar panels are guaranteed under warranty to output at least 90% of the initial wattage after 25 years.
  • Direct heating from solar energy (it's not turned into electricity) is particularly cost, and energy efficient.
  • Solar concentration towers allow for continuous 24 hour power output, with the use of thermal energy storage.
  • Works really well for powering communications satellites.

Disadvantages of direct solar[edit]

  • Photovoltaic cells degrade over time, they have a non-infinite lifespan and will eventually have to be replaced. This is improving however, with several manufacturers guaranteeing 90% of original efficiency after 25 years.[4]
  • Photovoltaic cells require the use of toxic chemicals for their manufacture. - Depending on the type of cell and the employed process this can be greatly diminished if not eliminated[note 1]
  • Solar cells also require a lot of rare earth metals, and we might not have enough. Given human history, we humans might resort to small scale wars over precious mineral rights, couched in various BS justifications for why we have the right to kick people off their land. Recycling might mitigate this, yet we currently don't recycle all of our old electronics. [5]
  • Photovoltaic solar power plants do not have any output at night. However, electricity demand tends to be lowest at night.[6]
  • Unfortunately, in colder climates the peak demand for electricity doesn't occur around noon, but in the mid to late afternoon, whereas solar energy peaks at noon and may only be producing a minimal amount of energy when it's needed most. However, some warmer climates have peak demand at noon due to air conditioning. This means that any solar-heavy grid will need to be paired with a large amount of storage capacity.
  • Many highly populated parts of the world don't get consistent high levels of sunlight. This is a problem especially in countries where peak power use is during the winter (which it usually is). This could be remedied in some areas from switching to heat pumps from resistive heating[7]. Even still this could be resolved by using HVDC lines to transport power over long distances efficiently[citation needed].
  • Photovoltaic solar outputs 10-25% of it's normal energy output when it's cloudy. Solar concentration power doesnt have as big an issue with this, as thermal energy is stored and can keep producing electricity for up to 24 hours after not receiving light.
  • Low power density (a lot of land is needed per unit of power), but higher than wind[8] or biofuels. Though to be fair, the amount of land needed for 100% solar electricity in the US (assuming 100% efficient storage and transmission) is not even a third of that currently used for corn ethanol.
  • Solar collectors (whether PV or thermal) require the occasional cleaning, though not as much as people tend to think. While they use much less water than, say, coal, that doesn't mean they use no water. Displacing coal with solar power would reduce water use, but building new solar power plants where there are no power plants at all will increase local water usage slightly, which is a problem when the best spots are the areas with the least cloud cover.
  • Although solar energy plants do not emit CO2 when operated, they require a lot more to set up — This is partially due to chemical reasons, Silicon is refined from SiO2, commonly known as Quartz, The other partner in the reaction are carbon anodes, which "burn" up, creating CO2. On the other hand, Silicon can be recycled quite well nowadays and the amount of obsolete electronics filling the trash every year is a huge almost entirely untapped source for fresh Silicon. Most Modern solar panels will produce the amount of energy it took to create them within 1.5 - 2.5 years.[9]
  • Third-party owned (TPO) residential systems are common in some parts of the United States, and there is no evidence that they add value to the house or save people money in the long run. This is in contrast to homeowner-owned residential systems which cost a lot upfront but do add value to the house. TPO sales tactics can be high-pressure and rely on fear, uncertainty and doubt.[10]Third-party ownership and decades-long contracts can create real headaches.
  • Solar panels absorb heat better than sand; The whole plan to coat the Sahara with solar panels would probably not end very well. Coating the Sahara with solar panels could lead to unintended warming of the area around them, and thus heat nearby ocean currents.[11] This of course means warmer water will make its way to the arctic, which is... y'know... pretty bad.
  • Space-based solar which could get around most of the problems of solar requires infrastructure we just don't have and is unproven (so we can't depend on it). It also isn't technically direct solar since it converts sunlight into microwaves so maybe it shouldn't be mentioned here, but that's not going to stop us. Also, we probably shouldn't mention that any satellite "accidentally" aimed at anything other than a solar collector is an orbital death cannon. (Or maybe we should mention that; if ending our dependency on fossil fuels is a side-effect of another arms race, it might be for the best)

Hydroelectric energy[edit]

China's Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest power plant of any kind.[12]

Hydroelectric power, or water power in general, involves taking advantage of water that has been raised due to evaporation by the sun, and deposited on high ground. As it then flows back towards the ocean, its potential energy can be tapped by turbines or water wheels, which are usually built into dams to increase the drop.

Many hydroelectric schemes are also designed to store energy, as water is pumped into the dam when energy is cheap at night and then allowed to run out when demand is higher during the day. Although not particularly efficient, it is perhaps the only commonly used method of "storing" significant amounts of electrical energy. Sometimes an artificial upper reservoir is constructed - the facility generates no net power and is dedicated to energy storage.

Advantages of water power[edit]

  • On average, it's by far the cheapest source of energy. And "by far", we are talking less than a third the cost of fossil fuels.[13]
  • It is relatively clean, once the equipment has been built and installed
  • The technology is relatively simple and very robust, meaning it doesn't require anywhere close to the maintenance and knowledge base required for, say, a nuclear plant.
  • If you need a flood control dam it is very cheap and low impact to add electricity generators to it (at least compared with leaving the dam without turbines)
  • Creation of artificial lakes upstream of the dams, to be used for recreation, wildlife preserves, or potable water supplies
  • Can slow erosion, such as the case of Niagara Falls, where the falls are "turned off" when the tourists aren't watching and diverted to the hydro plant
  • Effectively supplies power on demand (actually about the most responsive major power source on any grid). With the reservoir, virtually 100% of electricity produced by other renewables can effectively be used at any hour of the day, up to the total consumed at any given hour. E.g., if the inflow to a dam's reservoir is only capable of sustaining 100MW of average production, a town is consuming 200MW, and wind is producing 180MW, the dam will reduce to 20MW and the reservoir will fill up, and when wind is producing only 50MW the dam will produce 150MW.
  • In addition to simply producing energy whenever it is needed, by installing pumps that return water upstream, the dam can act like a gigantic battery for the hours when renewables produce more energy than is consumed - in fact this is the cheapest, most reliable and most efficient large scale energy storage in existence. In the above mentioned example, if the wind is producing 250MW but the town only needs 200MW, normally the dam can't go below 0 MW produced and the wind turbines will have to be shut. Instead, all 250MW will be used and even more water will be available for later use. This is incidentally one of the major uses for artificial lakes in the Alpine countries and Scandinavia (Europe has an interconnected high voltage grid, allowing electricity to be moved from Denmark to Italy without catastrophic transmission losses)
  • Doesn't need significant electricity or power to start, making it useful for black starts.[note 2]
  • The only renewable proven to be able to take significant market share away from fossil fuels. Technically, fossil fuels took market share away from Hydro, not the other way around, considering the first commercial power plant in the US was a Hydro plant located at Niagra Falls.
  • Old mine shafts can be used as reservoirs for pump based water power (primarily used for energy storage)

Disadvantages of water power[edit]

Egypt's Aswan Dam, which has significantly impacted the Nile ecosystem.
  • Flooding of landscapes, causing a disruption of ecosystems.
  • Displacement of residents and burial underwater of important cultural landmarks. This a serious enough issue in the developed world, but in a country where the wounds of inter-ethnic violence are still fresh, this can become a huge issue.
  • Limited by geography. In most developed countries, all the good spots are already taken.
  • The flooded vegetation and soil decomposes anaerobically to methane, a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. which causes further global warming. Of course cutting down trees before flooding and similar measures can somewhat reduce that, but it is rarely done.[14]
  • The failure of a dam can be disastrous. Large dam failures rank among the most deadly industrial accidents in history, with the Banqiao dam failures of 1975 killing around 100,000 in China. Dams are also targets for military or terrorist activity, though in fairness, the larger dams are thick enough that you'd need explosives on the equivalent of tactical nukes to do more than scratch the paint.
  • Hydroelectric dams pose barriers to migrating fish. This can be remedied to some extent by constructing fish ladders.
  • As any Geo-scientist worth their salt will tell you: Artificial lakes tend to silt up. Depending on the amount of sediment the river brings from upstream, this can be an alarmingly rapid process (as is the case with Lake Nasser on the Nile) or hardly perceptible on human timescales. Eventually the river "wants to" fill up all artificial lakes to the level of the dam.
  • Large mostly stagnant bodies of water can be breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other bugs. Mosquitoes are vector for some of the deadliest diseases known to humanity, including Malaria, Dengue (for which neither cure nor vaccine exists),Yellow fever or West Nile. Also Zika now that it spread to important countries the media started paying attention to that.
  • The sheer weight of the water in a reservoir may have an effect on earthquakes. Though this field needs more study, although the dams do cause the Earth to rotate slower. Barely.[15]
  • As mentioned earlier, hydroelectric power refills slower in the winter months, as there's less precipitation and what's there is usually in the form of snow/ice that won't fill up the reservoir until it melts. At the same time, the winter months often have higher demand for electricity. It's not too much of a problem if managed properly, but the turbines can't run at max capacity indefinitely and so another power source is needed. Wind, which produces more electricity in winter but needs storage, would pair well with hydro, except that the hilly terrain that's ideal for hydro tends to have very limited locations for wind.

Wind energy[edit]

This is one of the more developed forms of renewable energy and major projects are underway worldwide.

Although only 5% of the world's power comes from the wind, some European countries produce a lot more. The heaviest user is Denmark at 48% in 2019[16], followed by Irelands's 36.3% in 2020 [17]. In general, annual wind power growth in Europe is a surprising 32%.[18] However, it should be noted that the wind-heavy countries have among the highest electricity prices in the EU.[19] In recent years, China has also gotten into the game and (as with other things like high speed rail or photovoltaics) come from behind to overtake the rest of the world and sweep up the floor with them. In 2019 the total installed wind capacity of China was 236,402 Megawatts, more than double that of runner up USA at 105466 MW and nearly Quadruple that of third placed Germany at 61,406 MW. [20] In 2019 alone, China added 26,155 new Megawatts of wind energy capacity, which not only equals slightly over 43% of the worldwide added capacity of that year but is also more than a third of the whole world's wind output capacity.

Advantages of wind power[edit]

  • Once the infrastructure is in place, it is very clean.
  • The technology is well-established.
  • Land between the wind turbines can be used for farming or pastures.
  • Can realistically be built on water, reducing land usage and, with it, a number of the below-listed disadvantages.
  • ...which is especially useful as wind is much higher over the water (no hills to block it) and the majority of people live near the coasts.
  • Has shown to produce more energy in the winter, when consumption is higher in most temperate countries.
  • On the most basic level only abundant materials[note 3] and "low tech"[note 4] are needed - this is especially advantageous for developing countries, plus this reduces the risk of complicated geopolitics and conflicts over scarce resources such as rare earths or uranium, oil, cobalt, lithium, etc. Unlike gasoline (or solar, potentially), it's unlikely anyone will be forced into a war over the supplies needed to sustain wind energy.

Disadvantages of wind power[edit]

  • Output that is difficult to accurately predict,[note 5] due to the power in the wind varying as the cube of the wind speed; many turbines are required over a large area to compensate for this (even with many turbines over a large area, the total power will sometimes drop near zero) [21]
  • Less intuitively, wind turbines must be shut down and their blades feathered if there is too much wind, since this can damage their gearboxes or in extreme cases cause them to catch fire.[note 6]
  • Due to the relatively unpredictable output, other sources of energy are needed to back up wind power. In the obvious case, you need extra power to come online when the wind is not high enough to meet demand; but in the less obvious case, when more electric power is available than is demanded, you need extra power to go offline. Coal and nuclear plants are not flexible enough for this, so in practice wind power displaces hydroelectric and natural gas. Furthermore, dams generally are expected to provide or withhold water for many conflicting needs, such as flood control, irrigation, and salmon migration as well as baseload power production, and balancing wind production is another conflicting need. [22] This also makes wind power unsuitable for baseload power. In theory, this could be mitigated with better energy storage systems, but on a scale capable of powering a large region only pumped-storage would be cost effective, which by their nature are limited to hilly or mountainous areas that generally aren't ideal for large scale wind farms.
  • Depending on where the wind farm is built and site management practices, land use change might release more CO2 than the wind farm will save, even ignoring the carbon cost of construction (peat bogs are an especially bad location) [23]
  • Low power density: 2 W/m2, meaning large amounts of land are required [24] This can be mitigated somewhat with VAWT (vertical axis wind turbine) in addition to HAWT (horizontal axis wind turbine), though these take up more space and are less efficient due to being in the slower, low to the ground winds. At least they are easier to repair, since you don't need a crane to access the gearbox. Of course, if you are filling your fields with VAWTs, this makes it a bit difficult to use the land for grazing or crops, so VAWTs may be limited to wastelands.
  • Land between the wind turbines is less desirable for human settlement due to risk of turbine blades breaking away, ice throw, and noise - however it is rather desirable for farmers owning the land and prevents them from selling it for development leading to yet more urban sprawl and squeezing out even more farmers, so in many ways this isn't a bug it's a feature.
  • Wind turbine blades have been known to be a cause of avian and chiropteran mortality, though to what extent is still unknown. [25] Chances are, however, it's still less than from coal or what would happen if significant Climate Change occurred... Furthermore any significantly tall structure will on occasion kill birds that fly against the windows. Most reports in the media of bird fatalities from wind turbines come from the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in California, which happens to be located in the middle of a flight path and uses turbine designs which are now long obsolete for practical reasons as well as being deadlier to birds than more modern designs. Essentially the latter is the wind power equivalent of Chernobyl. Let's also note that those anti-wind advocates who appear so concerned with the well-being of birds are oddly silent on the issue of the domestic housecat - cats kill billions of birds a year compared to the hundreds of thousands (at most) estimated by wind turbines. Meanwhile, air pollution - which fossil fuels are a large contributor to - contributes to one in six premature human deaths [26]
  • Wind turbines are generally designed to last about 20-25 years, generally lasting even longer, but afterwards, well, they aren't easily scrapped. The metal within the generator is easy enough to recycle as we've been recycling metals since the Bronze Age, but the composites and special materials, like fiberglass and carbon fiber, used for the blades are not.[27] This means that those blades will find their way into a landfill, and they aren't exactly biodegradable. There is now at least one company recycling the fiberglass into boards, and injection-mold-able pellets, [28]Though, given that much of the current recyclable materials are, well, not recycled, the blades will likely still pile up.

Fake disadvantages of wind power[edit]

See how the wind turbines destroy this beautiful landscape of an open pit coal mine? Right there in the right hand background! Incredible how ugly this stuff is!
Most "anti wind power" groups, however, tend to focus on the following, which aren't particular good reasons against wind power, but they're easy to understand.
Turbines are killing birds by the billions!
  • Visual impact; wind turbines have to be built in highly exposed locations, while conventional power plants can be placed anywhere with decent road access, including being integrated into existing industrial developments. This one comes closest to being a legitimate concern since it is very rare even the most perfunctory efforts are made to made the wind turbines look like they actually belong where they are, they are generally painted high-gloss white and look like they just escaped from an airport. However beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and in some areas wind turbines have become part of the character and charm of the landscape, just as windmills have in centuries past.[note 7]
  • Wind Turbine Syndrome.
  • Wind turbines rising up to crush humanity

Plant-based energy (biofuels)[edit]

Plant-based energy consists of allowing plants to fix carbon in sugars and cellulose via sunlight, and then to either produce liquid fuels (such as alcohol) from them or burn them directly.

Advantages of plant energy[edit]

  • It's carbon neutral in the long run
  • It can produce convenient, high energy density liquid fuel, which is very useful in cars and planes
  • Can use waste products that would otherwise have to be thrown out
  • As an available alternative, it provides a price cap at which gasoline prices will struggle to rise above. In the US, this is a little over $4/gallon.[29].

Disadvantages of plant energy[edit]

  • It competes with food production and has led to significant price increases and food shortages.[30] To counter this there are attempts to produce biofuel from crops on marginal soil, or from the ocean, where it would not interfere with farming.[31][32] But these are likely to be much more expensive than using wood or grains.
  • Some systems, such as making ethanol from corn, are very inefficient and might even have an energy return below 1% and may release more CO2 than just burning petroleum directly. To meet the energy demands for the U.S, an area 5 times the size of the land area of this planet would be needed. Currently, the US dedicates 66,000 square kilometers for just corn ethanol alone, twice that needed to power the US with just solar, yet it only provides 4% of transportation fuel.[33] However, the fact that Iowa, a state that grows substantial amounts of corn has the first caucus in the presidential nomination process has of course nothing to do with that [citation NOT needed]
  • Often, plant matter is harvested without proper concern for replenishment - which is quite ironic, considering the word "Nachhaltigkeit" (German for sustainability) was first used in a 18th century treatise on forest management, i.e. renewable plant based biofuels in modern speak.
  • In some cases tropical rain forest is being cut down to grow biofuels [34]
  • Where wood is burnt directly for heat it can present a fire risk[citation NOT needed]
  • Traditional stoves pose significant risks through smoke, carbon monoxide and other pollutants. While more efficient stoves are rather cheap[note 8], they are often inaccessible to the poorest of the poor who mostly depend on biomass for heating and cooking[note 9]
  • Relatively low power density, compared to most fossil fuels
  • Heavy fertilizer use to grow crops may increase nitrogen-associated pollution (algal blooms, NOx emissions etc.)[35] Nitrous oxides are even more climatically relevant per molecule than methane.
  • Speaking of fertilizers, the fertilizers themselves are a less-spoken-of part of the problem of global warming. Synthetic fertilizers use the Bosch-Haber process to create ammonia from methane, which has the net effect of taking carbon out of the ground and pumped into plant biomass, before being broken down one way or another into carbon dioxide. This would mean that anything relying on such fertilizers are most definitely not carbon neutral.

Fake disadvantages[edit]

  • The anti-GMO crowd likes to fear-monger about "genetically modified" corn being used for biofuels
  • While mono-cultures (vast expanses with only one crop on them) do pose valid problems and concerns, they are not necessarily associated with biofuels. In fact, biofuels can also be extracted from biologically diverse forests or even lawns[note 10].

Waste-based energy[edit]

Human civilisation is constantly producing waste of one type or another, providing a renewable resource for many things including energy. Much like plant-based energy, waste-based energy relies on producing a combustible material. With waste the composition of said material may be adjusted via sorting mechanisms to optimise the energy density of the fuel. Prominent examples of this are biogas from bacterial degradation of waste and Energy-from-waste incineration. This is part of the energy recovery option in the waste hierarchy and thus is most sustainably benefited from where the waste cannot be prevented or recycled.

Biogas[edit]

Biogas, a fuel consisting of mostly methane, is typically produced during anaerobic digestion (microbial conversion in the absence of oxygen) of waste that is high in organic content in waste processing facilities or less controlled anaerobic degradation of such waste in landfills. While landfills produce biogas we can use, they are also a source for releasing the methane into the environment under degradation of organic waste, which is dangerously combustible and constitutes a severe greenhouse gas. Generally the more controlled facilities are preferred for management of organic waste.

Advantages of biogas[edit]

  • Convenient, high energy density fuel. Very useful in transportation as internal combustion engines can easily be adopted for gas as well as fluid fuels
  • A way to recycle some types of waste and thus get more value out of our products
  • Burns relatively cleanly, and with a relatively small carbon footprint
  • Methane is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2, and burning up any that would've otherwise leaked out into the atmosphere is a massive improvement for the environment
  • Waste is a pretty reliable resource
  • Sludge from wastewater can also be anaerobically digested
  • The digestate product of anaerobic digestion is useful as fertilizer in soil

Disadvantages of biogas[edit]

  • Requires a certain amount of organic content in waste (at least on the level of municipal solid waste) and sometimes it is not feasible to produce
  • In the case of solid organic waste, composting is usually cheaper and deals much more efficiently with lignocellulosic material (like wood)
  • In the case of solid organic waste, it is difficult to separate plastic contamination out which reduces the quality of the digestate product

EfW incineration[edit]

Energy-from-waste incineration is the most common method of direct energy recovery from waste and involves directly burning the waste. It is used, or should be used, to recover some value from different kinds of waste where other resource recovery methods have already had their share. In the past this method used to produce by-products irresponsibly and puff them into the surrounding area, like dust or heavy metals; these also included extremely hazardous substances like dioxins and furans. With current engineering standards and properly managed by-products, however, this is no longer a significant problem.

Advantages of EfW incineration[edit]

  • Incineration close to where waste is generated/collected
  • No long-term liabilities
  • EfW now has a track record in many countries
  • Produces biologically sterile ash with a tenth of the volume and a third of the weight of original waste
  • Emissions are controlled
  • A way to reclaim value from some types of waste
  • Bottom ash can be reused as aggregate in construction
  • BPEO (Best Practicable Environmental Option) for some hazardous wastes
  • Waste is a pretty reliable resource

Disadvantages of EfW incineration[edit]

  • Air pollution close to source of waste (similar to fossil fuels)
  • Extremely high costs and long pay back periods
  • Needs long-term waste disposal contracts
  • Needs high calorific value wastes
  • Needs constant emissions monitoring against dioxins and furans
  • Forces redesign of commercial products; if consumer products are toxic when burnt, e.g. styrofoam packing peanuts, they would need to be phased out.
  • Production of ash residues requiring disposal
  • Building new plants has high political costs due to NIMBY concerns

Fake disadvantages of EfW incineration[edit]

Groups that are anti-incineration tend to be of the "act first, think later" variety, like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, and some of their arguments reflect that:

  • Generates carbon dioxide. While technically true, it's displacing other energy sources that also produce carbon dioxide, and more importantly, biological waste in landfills break down into methane, a gas which is far, far worse than carbon dioxide. As far as the carbon cycle goes, converting plants into various products which are eventually burnt for energy is carbon neutral.
  • Resources are being lost by incinerating waste. This argument is ignorant of the fact that EfW incineration is so low on the common waste priority pyramid that only the waste from which nothing more can be derived using other methods is supposed to go through it. This also ignores the fact that resources are being recovered by converting waste to energy.
  • Incineration is incompatible with recycling. Again, it is more complementary to recycling than incompatible.
  • It unsustainably produces toxic substances that we have to live with. As mentioned above, times have moved on and nowadays problematic by-products are prevented, minimised or controlled by modern engineering standards.

Geothermal energy[edit]

Geothermal technologies tap the temperature difference between the surface of the earth and shallow or deep underground regions. Alternatively they may make use of high-temperature hot springs in geologically active areas. The primary source of the temperature difference is the decay of radioactive elements, so in some sense it is a form of nuclear power.

A ground source heat pump is often confused with geothermal energy but is not actually geothermal but a way of making heat pumps more efficient than air source heat pumps since most of the heat is actually from the sun or from the heat pump have been operated in the other direction in the other season (in summer pump heat from the house into the ground, then in winter pump heat from the ground into the house).

There are various types of heat pumps, according to the different loops of pipes used; for instance, closed-loop systems gather energy directly from the earth. Several configurations exist, such as horizontal or vertical heat exchangers. The drilling direction can be radial or directional, and they can be installed around a pond or a lake. On the other hand, open-loop systems require more sophisticated resources to exploit, such as aquifers or groundwater [36].

Also, it is possible to tap the much higher temperatures hundreds or thousands of meters below the earth's surface via boreholes.

Advantages of geothermal energy[edit]

  • Very high energy densities may be naturally available
  • In practical terms the environmental impact is low
  • Minimal land usage
  • Some volcanic areas are already densely populated due to rich volcanic soils, thus this form of energy is often available close to its users (e.g. Japan, Indonesia, Hawaii)
  • Inexpensive compared to fossil fuels if conditions are right[37]
  • Relatively less than expensive on certain islands (i.e. Azores, Montserrat, Dominica) in place of imported fossil fuels[38]
  • As we discover better ways to dig deep underground, more and more spots become economically viable

Disadvantages of geothermal energy[edit]

  • Drilling can cause man-made earthquakes [39]
  • Very few good known resources, with only Iceland currently using geothermal for a significant amount of power (and even then hydro dominates there)[40] There may be more resources out there, but lava pools even relatively close to the surface are difficult to detect.
  • If energy extraction is too fast, it is no longer renewable
  • Deep geothermal is effectively fracking for power and is likely to be subject to the same objections if ever adopted on any large scale.
  • The use of geothermal energy may require living close to volcanic and seismically active areas near hot spots and plate boundaries, though many people already do that and have been for centuries as volcanic soil is very rich in nutrients.
  • Smells bad, due to underground sulfides, and can release toxic chemicals.[37]

Tidal and wave energy[edit]

This relatively new technology is designed to obtain energy from tidal movements or from waves. Although the concept seems simple few commercial installations are in place. The Rance Tidal Power StationWikipedia opened in Brittany, France at the mouth of the Rance river in 1966, but the significant environmental impact seems to have discouraged later schemes.[41] The world's largest tidal power project is now the Sihwa Lake Tidal Power StationWikipedia opened in South Korea in 2011, using a barrage built for flood control, land reclamation, and other purposes.[42]

If efficient systems could be built they could provide significant predictable power (at least from tides).

There are essentially two ways to "trap" tidal energy - to build generation plants that are run by large amounts of water flowing in and out of large estuaries, and to build open ocean devices that somehow tap the energy by letting the tides (and perhaps waves, too) force a floating object up and down relative to an anchored one. The Aguçadoura Wave FarmWikipedia is an example of the latter technology.

Note that, while tides are driven by the moon's gravity (and to a lesser extent by the sun's gravity), waves are driven primarily by the wind. This means wave power is a kind of wind power, and is thus ultimately a form of solar power.

Advantages of tidal and wave energy[edit]

  • Whatever we build will provide energy until the moon "runs down"
  • Power generation systems can be built into, or merged with, flood control systems that protect large cities located on major estuaries, such as London and the Thames; this generates the energy close to a large need for it
  • Larger waves cause more erosion,[43] and by harvesting wave energy, erosion can slow down.

Disadvantages of tidal and wave energy[edit]

  • They would need to be shown not to interfere with fish stocks or fisheries
  • Tidal barrages could have environmental impacts including loss of tidal habitats and possibly buildup of harmful contaminants due to less flushing action, as seems to have happened at Sihwa Lake[44][42]
  • The local energy output will wax and wane from maximum to virtually zero four times a day, and this time slowly changes from day to day. This can, however, be mitigated by dammed mill pond type systems. In certain bodies of water like the North Sea, this can be mitigated simply through an integrated grid, to bring electricity generated at a high rate to where it is currently being generated at a low rate (high water in Rotterdam, Netherlands is hours away from high water in Sylt, Germany for example).

Miscellaneous[edit]

Piezoelectric generators[edit]

Piezoelectric materials generate voltage when deformed (the opposite is also true - when voltage is applied, they deform). This can allow them to act as potential "free" and renewable power sources in certain applications. For example there are proposals for piezoelectric floors in dance clubs[45], or piezoelectric sections in roads to power nearby street lights regardless of the grid's status. Usually the amounts of electricity generated that way / cost ratio are pretty underwhelming. However things are better when it comes to small scale applications. For example, piezoelectric fibers woven in someone's clothing could allow them some day to trickle charge their gadgets via their daily activity.

Thermoelectric generators[edit]

Thermoelectric generators use materials which generate voltage from heat differences using the Seebeck effectWikipedia (the opposite is also true - applying a voltage will generate a heat differential, known as the Peltier effect). Because of their low efficiencies, they are rarely encountered in anything but small scale uses, such as temperature sensors and Soviet kerosene-lamp-powered radios.[46] A notable exception are radioisotope thermoelectric generators, the likes of which have been used in deep space exploration probes, making them independent from the fading sunlight in the far reaches of the Solar System. As the name suggests, in RTGs the heat is provided by the decay of radioactive materials,[47] which automatically makes them a non-renewable energy source. Some forms of radioisotope generators were also once used as batteries for pacemakers, as it is essential that a pacemaker battery be replaced as seldom as possible, however real and imagined concerns about radiation as well as the advancements in chemical batteries have rendered this application very rare.

Earth batteries[edit]

Earth batteries[note 11] create voltage by placing two rods of dissimilar metal into the soil. Functionally, they are no different than sticking two electrodes in a potato, and like any other galvanic battery, they are not eternal, although due to the changing soil conditions they might end up "recharging" themselves. The voltages generated this way are usually too small for any practical use. A notable exception was their use as an energy source for signal amplifiers in early telegraph installations.[48] Larger installations might also tap into Earth's natural telluric currents.[49]

Energy storage/transmission[edit]

While not electricity generation itself, an extremely closely related topic is that of energy storage and transmission. The largest issues with using solar, tidal or wind power as the backbone of an energy grid are that 1) they are not on-demand energy and 2) they can be limited in location. How would you be able to store solar power in order to provide electricity at night, or wind power from when the wind blew too hard to the times it isn't blowing at all?

Note that these issues are not unique to renewable energy, just more pertinent as wind, solar and tidal power will produce what they produce when they produce it, regardless of how much we need or when we need it.

Pumped Energy[edit]

By far the most common form of large-scale energy storage, this involves using spare electricity to raise a very large amount of mass to a decent height, effectively converting the electricity into potential energy. When electricity is needed again, the potential energy is converted back into electricity. Practically, this involves pumping water up a hill, and then using the water as hydropower when needed.

Advantages of Pumped Energy[edit]

  • Once built, very little maintenance is required
  • The most efficient and cheapest form of large-scale energy storage
  • It is very low tech; the bulk of construction does not require a complicated supply chain involving the high-pollution and intensive processing of rare materials
  • Some locations such as abandoned mines are already pre-dug out, reducing the need for additional construction costs or disturbing the landscape

Disadvantages of Pumped Energy[edit]

  • Limited by geography to areas with hills or mountains. Not so much a problem for, say Switzerland, a country that's basically a series of mountains, but is simply unavailable for the Midwestern United States, which is so flat and in such long distances that literally 3/4 of all tornadoes worldwide happen here.
  • As with all forms of energy storage, the Laws of Thermodynamics are a bitch and the generators do not recover all of the energy. About 1/3 of the electricity used in pumping the water is lost.[50]

Electrical batteries[edit]

A more conventional type of battery, y'know, it usually zaps you if you lick it. Some common varieties are, Nickel-Cadmium, lead-acid, or lithium-ion. Like many other types of energy storage this works by creating an energy difference between two locations with chemical energy, in this case directly pumping electrons into half of the battery, and when you bridge the gap between them, with something conductive (like your tongue) the electrons try to reach equilibrium. Chances are, you have one a bit too close to your genitals in your pocket right now.

Advantages of electrical batteries[edit]

  • The energy is already in a form capable of entering the grid without may other complex mechanisms.
  • The energy is stored in a form that is portable, as to provide energy directly where it's needed. IE; Electric cars.
  • The technology behind it is rapidly advancing, the energy density improves year after year.
  • Losses are some of the best in class, with 90%+ of stored energy able to be discharged (when the battery is between 20% and 80%).
  • As batteries wear out, they can be repurposed for lower wattage purposes.
  • If batteries reach a point of becoming unusable, the material within is HIGHLY recyclable.[51]
  • Constantly becoming cheaper, to the point where electric cars are expected to reach the same price as ICE cars by 2024[52], and are expected to continue to fall in price afterwards.

Disadvantages of electrical batteries[edit]

  • Lithium-ion batteries, the most common design used today, degrade far too quickly for long-term large-scale grid power storage. As mentioned above, old car batteries may be used for this purpose, but even so they still degrade and even if every single car was electric the yearly "harvest" of replaced car batteries may be insufficient storage for a country relying (non-hydro) renewables alone. A new generation of cheap/efficient batteries are needed but they are not yet available at the time of writing.
  • Even ignoring toxicity, those materials aren't particularly abundant, and the sourcing of the lithium is rapidly becoming a major political issue.cough cough There's already talk of mining the ocean floors for the lithium needed, which could have environmental impacts that take far longer to recover from than even open-pit mining.
  • Speaking of open-pit mining, one of the more common metals used for batteries is cobalt, which mostly comes from the DRC. From excessive pollution to child slavery, cobalt represents just about every possible social ill you could think of.[53]
  • Per watt-hour, batteries are very expensive to create.
  • Batteries are supposed to remain between specific points kind of with a low and high buffer to extend the life of the battery, essentially handicapping the battery to about 60% capacity if you want it to not degrade quickly. (Do this for your phone battery too!, try to keep it between 80% and 20%, that 80% will be as much as 100% if you charged it to 100% every night.)
  • Charging takes time, it can be inconvenient to do so, though there has been talk of "battery swap" locations where your battery could be swapped for a full one within a few minutes, and the battery could be charged and stored ready to go.
  • The power inside of them is no more green than the power that was used to charge them. When you add 100 KWH of electric demand on the grid, solar and wind farms don't produce more energy to power your car, it's probably being filled by increased natural gas and coal production.

Flywheel storage[edit]

Actually a pretty old tech. Spin a disk, and the energy is stored as rotational energy. The energy is used to generate mechanical or electrical power on demand. It's found on a lot of old early industrial era machinery to "even out" any erratic power inputs. However, the old stuff only stores energy for a short while, as the wheel will slow down due to friction and air resistance and so forth. Hence today they are typically used for very short-term fluctuations lasting seconds or minutes, rather than e.g. overnight storage.[54] Heavy-duty electric storage involves a more high-tech solution; magnets to suspend the flywheel, and encased in vacuum sealed tube.

Advantages of flywheels[edit]

  • Capable of being used as the primary power source of vehicle, if we were desperate
  • Already used in some of the fancier race cars as an additional source of power, storing the energy from braking and used to provide a short burst of power greater than what an internal combustion engine alone could
  • The simpler ones are extremely robust, and can outlast most other pieces of machinery
  • The simpler ones also use relatively common and cheap materials, even worthless lead could make up the bulk of the flywheel if you don't need the thing to be portable, so widespread adoption would not result in new geo-political headaches over scarce resources... for the stationary, cheaper flywheels anyway.
  • Capable of converting stored energy into electricity or mechanical power extremely rapidly, with some systems capable of power outputs in the gigawatt range, for those situations where you need a huge amount of energy to be delivered in a tiny amount of time. E.g., experimental fusion reactors, particle accelerators, roller coasters, aircraft carriers, railguns, lasers, mass drivers and other hypothetical methods of non-rocket space launches...

Disadvantages of flywheels[edit]

  • The simple ones lose energy rather quickly for anything other than very short term storage
  • The more complex ones are much more expensive to produce and maintain
  • Existing systems have much lower capacity than alternatives like pumped storage[54]
  • A flywheel can store a LOT of rotational energy, and when damaged that energy can be released all at once in the form of a huge disk of shrapnel. For this reason, a lot of flywheels are buried under dirt or sand, both to reduce the chance of damage and to reduce the damage done if it breaks. There have been occasional accidents such as in an experimental system at Quantum Energy Storage in southern California, which injured 4 workers in 2015.[55] However it's not clear that flywheels are more intrinsically dangerous than other methods of power storage involving large amounts of water, flammable metals (lithium), etc.

Compressed Air[edit]

This is really two related ways of storing energy. The first method is to compress air, which can later be used to drive a piston. The second method is to temporarily store the energy from air compression, and then recover much of it back as electricity as the air is expanded.

Advantages of Compressed Air[edit]

  • Similar to lithium-ion batteries in terms of energy density and cost, but doesn't require toxic chemicals or exotic materials to produce
  • The lack of exotic materials makes old compression units very easy to scrap and recycle
  • Assuming an airtight seal, the compressed air will not lose potential energy over time
  • Can be used as a primary energy source for vehicles, if we find that we simply don't have enough lithium for an all-electric fleet as we get off oil

Disadvantages of Compressed Air[edit]

  • Still relatively expensive, as with all forms of portable energy storage.
  • Compressed air does not like to stay compressed, which is an issue if the storage unit is damaged such as from a car accident. One word for high pressure gasses rapidly decompressing is "explosion".

Transmission[edit]

The further electricity has to travel from its origin, the larger the transmission losses will be. This has been reduced in recent years by the adoption of "High Voltage Direct Current" (HVDC), which effectively creates electrical "regions" fairly independent of international borders, with electricity being constantly transported between countries. With greater voltage comes greater responsibility lower current, which results in greater capacity and lower transmission losses. While years ago HVDC required prohibitively expensive equipment, the manufacturing costs have come down as technology moves forward. When a spike in demand (or generation) occurs somewhere, power plants relatively far away from the site can provide the electricity for a lower cost than turning on another power plant would.

There's been recent investment into (unimaginatively named) "Ultra High Voltage Direct Current" (UHVDC). Such an improvement to a grid enables electricity to be "shipped" across entire continents with only minimal losses. As usual, the biggest investment in such an improvement to has been occurring in China, with the creation of a three THOUSAND kilometer long transmission line with the capacity of 12 gigawatts[56] For perspective, that's around 25 times the amount of electricity that New York City alone requires, from as far away as Dallas.

The US has seen some recent development too into UHVDC, namely in Oklahoma[57]; being in the windiest part of the only country on Earth to have a tornado season, Oklahoma is capable of producing far more electricity from wind than it could possibly use, so why not export it and make a small fortune? Other regions in the Midwest are likely to follow suit. Improvements to the grid would enable the bulk of the US to be much more closely interconnected, which solves one of the biggest legitimate issues with renewables; how do you produce electricity when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing? The wind is always blowing somewhere, and the sun still shines on other parts of the world while your part is still dark. A large scale UHVDC grid would enable wind and solar (as well as some of the more minor forms of renewables) to be combined with various hydro projects in more mountainous regions (and maybe nuclear for some extra heavy lifting), so it's not impossible to have a low-carbon electric grid.

Persuading people to support renewable energy[edit]

Many conservatives in the United States are resistant to suggestions that climate change is real. Giving renewable energy a positive spin can work.

If [discussing renewable energy with conservatives] you deliver the message of energy freedom, energy choice, competition, national security, innovation, all of a sudden, you will have a receptive audience and they will listen to you. If you lead off with climate change they’re not going to pay a bit of attention to anything else you say. They’ve been brainwashed for decades into believing, oh, we’re not damaging the environment…[58]

Many forms of renewable energy are getting steadily cheaper and are getting steadily better at competing with fossil fuel. Optimists hope consumption of coal and oil could stop rising after 2020.[59] Compared with fossil fuels and nuclear energy, renewable energy consumes much less freshwater yet creates substantially more jobs.[60]

It is a rapidly growing and profitable market.[61][62]

Notes[edit]

  1. Silicon after all is not a dangerous material
  2. I.e. when a power grid needs to be started from nothing. Power plants based on boiling water to create electricity, such as coal, gas or nuclear, require some electricity or other energy to run the pumps or prepare the fuel in order to begin, and may have a (relatively inefficient) diesel generator for black starts.
  3. e.g. steel or wood for the mast and concrete for the foundation
  4. though more advanced wind turbines use neodymium magnets and other advanced technology to "milk" a further half percent of efficiency or so
  5. Weather forecasts are only accurate up to seven days.
  6. Modern wind turbines are therefore optimized for as wide a range of wind speeds as possible
  7. To cite a specific example, a severe hindrance to implementation of a wind farm in Colebrook, ConnecticutWikipedia has been the impact it would have on Rock HallWikipedia, a building which Addison MiznerWikipedia designed and built. Even though Colebrook is one of the most empty pieces of godforsaken nothingness anyone could imagine, because Rock Hall is on the NRHP a condition of wind farming in the area is that it can't disrupt either the visual or acoustic experience of (the maybe 5 annual, on a good year) visitors.
  8. One B. Franklin of C-Note fame invented a more efficient stoveWikipedia, for instance
  9. Where are you Bill Gates and Jimmy Carter?
  10. the most common and least productive irrigated crop in the US is grass; using even a fraction of it for biofuel would pose obvious upsides and few downsides
  11. They are really cells, it takes more than one to make a battery

References[edit]

  1. New Scientist Space energy
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_water_heater
  3. http://www.desertec.org/
  4. https://www.cleanenergyreviews.info/blog/most-efficient-solar-panels
  5. [1]
  6. http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk/
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J52mDjZzto
  8. land needed for solar power
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/energy-payback-time
  10. What Happened When I Bought a House With Solar Panels by Esmé E. Deprez (February 14, 2019) Bloomberg.
  11. https://www.inverse.com/science/why-turning-the-sahara-into-a-giant-solar-farm-could-damage-the-global-climate
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Three Gorges Dam.
  13. Average power plant expenses
  14. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7046-hydroelectric-powers-dirty-secret-revealed.html
  15. Three Gorges Dam's effects on Earth's rotation
  16. https://www.statista.com/statistics/217804/wind-energy-penetration-by-country/
  17. https://windenergyireland.com/latest-news/5315-wind-energy-powers-ireland-to-renewable-energy-target
  18. http://www.cleanpowernow.org/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=202
  19. http://www.finfacts.ie/irelandbusinessnews/publish/article_10006575.shtml
  20. https://gwec.net/global-wind-report-2019/
  21. The Capacity Factor: Uptime & downtime
  22. [2], OregonLive
  23. See this report, section 7.6.14. for relevant charts.
  24. Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, I.4: Wind, p. 32
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  26. [4]
  27. wind energy has a waste problem, NPR, 2019/09/10
  28. https://resource-recycling.com/plastics/2019/03/27/company-expands-wind-turbine-recycling-operation/
  29. Biodiesel
  30. Biofuels and Grain Prices: Impacts and Policy Responses, Mark W. Rosegrant
  31. Marginal soil can make for good biofuel crops, Phys.org, Oct 23, 2015
  32. Scientists Hope To Farm The Biofuel Of The Future In The Pacific Ocean, NPR, Aug 22, 2017
  33. [5]
  34. http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg18825265.400
  35. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_case_against_biofuels_probing_ethanols_hidden_costs/2251/
  36. GreenMatch: Types of Ground Source Heat Pumps
  37. 37.0 37.1 Geothermal Energy, National Geographic
  38. [https://www.thinkgeoenergy.com/geothermal-energy-as-solution-for-the-energy-demand-of-islands-around-the-world/ Geothermal energy as solution for the energy demand of Islands around the world ]
  39. Popsci: Does Geothermal Power Cause Earthquakes?
  40. "Data Repository | Energy Data". Retrieved 22 Dec 2015.  - in 2014, hydroelectric generation was 71.03% and geothermal generation was 28.91% of total generation.
  41. La Rance: learning from the world’s oldest tidal project, Power Technology, Oct 29, 2019
  42. 42.0 42.1 Technology case study: Sihwa Lake tidal power station, Hydropower Pro, International Hydropower Association, 2/8/16
  43. [https://news.mit.edu/2020/wave-power-coastal-erosion-0316 MIT
  44. Environmental impacts of tidal power schemes, J Wolf, IA Walkington, J Holt, R Burrows, Natural Environment Research Council, 2009
  45. http://inhabitat.com/green-a-go-go-at-londons-first-eco-disco/
  46. http://blog.modernmechanix.com/kerosene-lamp-powers-radio/
  47. See the Wikipedia article on Radioisotope thermoelectric generator.
  48. See the Wikipedia article on Earth battery.
  49. See the Wikipedia article on Telluric current.
  50. Science direct
  51. https://jalopnik.com/evs-are-gaining-steam-heres-what-will-happen-to-all-th-1846172272
  52. electric cars are coming sooner than you think
  53. The dark side of Congo's Cobalt Rush, New Yorker
  54. 54.0 54.1 See the Wikipedia article on Flywheel storage power system.
  55. 11K pound flywheel caused Poway explosion, ABC 10 News, Dec 10 2015
  56. Abb wins contract for first 1100 Kv UHVDC
  57. Huge transmission line in Oklahoma to be built
  58. Tea Party Co-Founder: Want to Win Over the GOP on Renewable Energy? Never Mention “Climate Change”
  59. Electric cars and cheap solar 'could halt fossil fuel growth by 2020' The Guardian
  60. Renewable Energy Saves Water and Creates Jobs. Scientific American. August 7, 2018.
  61. Offshore Wind Is Likely The Next Big U.S. Renewable Sector. Forbes. July 30, 2018.
  62. US Corporate Renewable Energy Procurement Hits Record High. Clean Technica. August 10, 2018.