Renewable energy is a hot topic in today’s society. Proponents highlight the need to shift to renewables, while those opposed highlight the issues with the technology. But, with their reduced emissions, reduced human and environmental health impacts, and long-term viability, there is no question that renewables are the future. Oil and gas cannot be used forever, while renewables can, all while having fewer environmental impacts and decreased emissions.
That said, these technologies can, of course, be improved. While critics of a shift may highlight the issues with renewables and stop there, environmentalists need to acknowledge the problems and then figure out how to get around them.
The Time of Day Problem
Solar energy obviously relies on the Sun. So, it can only generate energy during the day. On the other hand, wind energy generates more power at night. This contrast establishes an important relationship between these two energy sources, as when one produces less, the other can pick up the slack. That is why having power grids with multiple inputs is essential, not just relying on one source.
However, there are times when these two sources working together may not be able to produce enough energy for the region’s demands. For example, a particularly windless night or a very cloudy day may cause energy demands to exceed production capacity. In this case, energy storage becomes necessary. Excess energy produced during very windy or sunny times can be stored for use during peak consumption hours. One way to do so is through batteries, which can re-release the energy when consumption is higher than production. There are harmful environmental impacts of making the batteries. However, these are more than offset by the reduced emissions from shifting away from fossil fuels.
Another way to store energy is through thermal storage, which heats a substance and then insulates it until the grid needs that heat to produce energy, during peak consumption times, for example. Mechanical storage is another option, which uses excess energy to lift water to the top of a hill. When power is needed, gravity can pull the water down the hill and through turbines, generating electricity. There are also other forms of mechanical storage. Both thermal and mechanical storage avoid the negative impacts of the mining and production process in making batteries.
Another exciting technology is solar panels which can generate power in the dark! This futuristic innovation uses solar panels’ nighttime cooling to generate energy at all times of the day, reducing or even eliminating the need for batteries. These panels can even be further augmented to absorb the energy from a water droplet hitting the surface and transferring it into electricity! These 24/7 panels reduce the need for wind energy, which can be helpful in areas with less wind or space for wind turbines.
There is a common misconception that wind and solar farms take up too much space and must operate far away from population centers. While it is true that you cannot put a wind farm in downtown Manhattan, they can easily be placed in agricultural areas, still close enough to cities, so that the energy does not have to be transported long distances. Governments can compensate farmers for the turbines on their land. Solar panels can be installed practically anywhere, from schools to single-family homes to skyscrapers. These panels reduce the strain on the grid by feeding electricity directly into the grid or supplying energy to the building they are placed on, reducing its consumption. Solar panels do not only have to be on rooftops – with a new technology that turns standard windows into fully transparent solar panels!
Wind and Solar can be effective at generating energy without using more land. The areas for wind and solar farms are already present through farms and cities. It is simply a matter of increasing the overall productivity of the already-used space. Creative new ways to implement renewable energy are constantly under development, and a mixture of traditional and outside-the-box thinking will help maximize energy production.
There are, of course, many other renewable energy sources, as well as other issues with wind and solar. However, these are two of the most prevalent renewable energy sources, and the problems highlighted are some of the most commonly referenced by critics of a transition.
Progress, Not Perfection
It is unfair to expect renewable energy sources to be perfect technologies without drawbacks. There is no reason to avoid their development and proliferation just because of a small number of minor issues. Fossil fuels present a much more significant threat, and society must transition away from them as soon as possible. That said, the problems with renewables are still something to work on eliminating or reducing. While we continue to transition to superior energy sources, there is no shame in continuing to improve the technology.
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