Sustainable energy’s potential looks positive

The energy from the sun that comes into contact with the Earth (5000Q) in a year is 10,000 times more than the total energy consumption on Earth in the same time period (0.5Q). The energy from the sun hits the Earth as light in a range of wavelengths. This energy, alongside interactions between the Moon and Earth, provides energy which is harvestable via renewable energy sources: wind, solar, and water.

We would only need to harvest a tiny proportion of this energy to become sustainable. Each country needs to individually determine the best forms of renewable energy to suit their weather patterns: in Britain, it seems that wind and hydro are the most promising choices, however, in a sunnier country, solar may be more promising. It seems governments throughout the developed world are starting to recognise renewables’ potential: the numbers for 2017 are in and green is proving to be a feasible energy solution.

The proportion of the UK’s energy powered by coal has fallen from around 50 percent a decade ago to just 2.1 percent in the second quarter of 2017. 50 percent of energy generation was low-carbon with 30 percent being from renewables; a 4.6 percent rise in the figure from 2016. These are positive signs for the future of renewable energy in the UK.

Close shot of wind turbines at a wind farm Image: Winchell Joshua

It is clear, though, that not everyone is convinced. One of the most common retorts to green energy is that it simply ‘isn’t enough on its own’, and many still favour this view; however, the data from 2017 is starting to disprove these doubts. We are producing as much energy as we need, and CO2 emissions from its production are falling. According to the National Grid, between 21 June and 22 September, the carbon intensity of the grid – as measured in grammes of CO2 emitted per kWh of power generated – was more than halved from its level over the same period four years ago. This reduction was mainly made possible by increases in solar and wind energy with some nuclear energy also in the mix.

Despite these successes, the UK is in what is undoubtedly one of the tougher areas of Earth to produce energy sustainably. Britain is, as we all know, not the sunniest country and we also don’t have large amounts of unused open land. All around the world, larger countries such as the US have massive expanses of desert and arid land which come into contact with a large amount of sunlight and wind, and could easily lead to significant carbon-neutral energy production.

It is undeniable, however, that our largest current limitation is battery technology, which is seemingly lagging behind recent developments in renewable energy generation. It is unlikely that we will be able to fully sustain sufficient renewable energy generation throughout winter in mid-latitude nations such as Britain before developments in energy storage allow us to store a much larger amount of energy than is currently possible.

An example of hydroelectric power in British Columbia Image: Alterrapower

Everywhere we look, we can see the effects of global warming, from examples as mundane as lettuce disappearing from supermarket shelves due to drought, to the catastrophic hurricane season of 2017 that led to massive destruction in the middle Americas. Awareness is rising with the help of media such as Blue Planet II, a BBC programme which, this year, dedicated a whole episode to highlighting the risks posed to our oceans by climate change. Public opinion is steadily moving towards efforts to mitigate such risks. The most promising approach to slowing global warming, and hopefully ending it permanently, is the use of green, renewable sources of energy instead of fossil fuels. It finally seems that we are moving in the right direction

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