Despite the increased use of renewable energy, it is still unable to keep up with the growing demand for electricity. In 2020, 34% of global energy came from coal and 25% came from gas, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In comparison, renewable sources and nuclear plants accounted for 37% of energy that same year.
Clearly, fossil fuels are still relied upon for generating the majority of energy, though they are a dominant contributor to climate change. For instance, in 2018 fossil fuels, in conjunction with industry , were responsible for 89% of CO2 emissions.
The high carbon footprint of fossil fuels has signaled to the international community that we need to urgently wean off of traditional energy sources and transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The Paris Agreement is one of many efforts that push for the use of clean energy fuels to satisfy demand without further aggravating climate change and environmental decimation.
In fact, renewable energy should not only help us reach carbon neutrality, net-zero emissions, and a state of sustainability, but should also be a milestone towards the next step: regeneration. This means that we would try to regenerate the earth and our atmosphere in hopes that it will remain our home for the ages to come.
But if renewable energy isn’t ready to take on the world’s energy needs yet, how can we get there? How can we bridge the gap to the point where clean energy fuels are developed enough to accommodate the majority of energy spending? If you want the short answer, it’s through investment. To make something more efficient, we need resources pouring into its development.
But even today, many versatile green fuels show great promise. Let’s first quickly take a look at some hybrid solutions that we can use to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy before we go over the sustainable technology that’s either already available or almost ready to be used today.
The situation today
In a recent article on the causes of the 2021 energy crisis, I covered how our over-reliance on fossil fuels has put us in somewhat of a pickle. On one hand, fossil fuels are contributing to climate change due to the release of greenhouse gasses and other environmental disasters, but on the other hand, renewables aren’t ready for prime time yet.
According to an IEA report from July 2021, the worldwide demand for electricity was estimated to grow by 5% in 2021 and 4% in 2022, as the world “recovers” from the pandemic. However, it hasn’t been renewables or sustainable energy systems that satisfy this growing demand.
For instance, wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy have grown by 8% in 2021 and will go up another 6% in 2022, all of which is only enough to handle about half of the increased demand.
Rather, about 45% of the increased need for electricity in 2021 is estimated to have been covered with fossil fuel energy and will account for 40% of the increase in 2022. The rest is nuclear.
What all these numbers boil down to is another grim result: in only the first half of 2021, CO2 emissions from electricity rose by 5% compared to 2019. By June of 2021, the carbon emissions from the energy sector were 7% more than in June of 2019.
One question these numbers raise is - how does any of this factor into the Paris Agreement and the supposed global attempts to move towards carbon neutrality?
How to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy: hybrid energy
If renewables aren’t there quite yet, we need to make the road there as clean as we can. Though we will talk about fully sustainable energy systems in a bit, currently these solutions are still only suitable for small geographic areas with specific climates and limited energy expenditures.
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On a grander scale - globally, but also in industrial areas and big cities - the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy would require a hybrid model where cleaner forms of traditional energy are combined with renewables. The trouble is that no traditional energy source is clean, and the only way to make them "cleaner" is to optimize the production, storage, and transportation systems.
Another issue of the utmost importance is the lack of investment in renewable technology that can hinder the entire transition process. Although the optimization of traditional energy is integral to the transition to fully sustainable clean energy systems, it’s important that investment in renewable technology doesn’t stagnate. Now, let's get into the fuels that are primed for the transition stage.
The case for natural gas as transition energy
Natural gas is considered one of the cleanest fossil fuels as it has lower CO2 emissions than coal, diesel, propane, and gasoline. In fact, rather than carbon dioxide, natural gas releases methane, another greenhouse gas that stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter period than CO2. It’s also much more energy-efficient than coal. These are some reasons why natural gas is touted as a good crutch for renewables.
However, methane, one of the components of natural gas, is a major contributor to climate change and is dangerous for the environment. While this isn’t a problem in the burning of natural gas, leaks from the extraction and production processes release this dangerous greenhouse gas, which traps heat within the atmosphere.
It has 80 times the warming power of CO2 over a shorter period of time, which is enough to mess things up down here in the short term. It’s estimated that human-generated methane is responsible for 25% of global warming.
Experts suggest optimizing the pipelines, i.e. transportation, manufacturing, and extraction processes to minimize methane leakage. But even if we were to use natural gas as a transition fuel, experts worry that we would get too reliant upon it and forget the initial mission to shift the weight on renewables.
The case for nuclear energy
Nuclear energy is problematic because of the tragic events of WWII, disasters at nuclear plants, and the issue of storing radioactive waste. Still, some governments largely depend upon nuclear energy. About 70% of the total energy in France, for instance, is derived from their nuclear plants. In the US, it supplies about 20% of the total electricity.
Today’s nuclear energy is created through the splitting of an atom’s nucleus, also known as fission. But fission is what makes the process unstable and leaves behind radioactive waste, and not in the cool superhero origin story way we imagined as kids.
On the other hand, nuclear plants produce a lot of energy - especially compared to most presently available renewable technology - and it’s regarded as a reliable baseload electricity source, meaning it can handle the minimal electricity demands of a power grid. Plus, there are no carbon emissions except for in the process of transporting, mining, and refining the uranium used to generate this type of energy.
What’s more, you could make the case that nuclear energy doesn’t pollute the environment like fossil fuels - if you disregard the radioactive waste that needs to be very carefully stored and sealed away for decades and maybe centuries. There’s also the fact that if anything goes wrong at a nuclear power plant… Well, we all know what happens in those scenarios.
However, it’s exactly these what ifs that give nuclear energy cause for concern. Many climate and energy experts are strongly against the use of nuclear power plants because of the dangers they pose. Another issue is that uranium is not a renewable resource. So even if nuclear plant safety and radioactive waste storage were perfected, it’s far from a long-term solution. But hey, we’re talking about transition fuels until sustainable energy systems reach that needed breaking point.
The future outlook of nuclear energy: nuclear fusion
Unlike nuclear fission, nuclear fusion is a process that mimics the sun and entails the coming together, i.e. fusion, of two atoms’ nuclei. Nuclear fusion is eco-friendly and a zero-carbon process. There’s no dangerous waste, either, as the main byproducts are helium and sometimes tritium, which although slightly radioactive, has a very short half-life and isn’t dangerous. Plus, it’s much more energy-efficient than the power you get from nuclear fission. The downside? It’s still in the works. The first demo is set to be launched in 2040.
How can we move to renewable and sustainable energy systems?
Though we’re not fully there yet, there are reasons to be optimistic about renewables and clean energy systems becoming more dominant near-term and long-term, with enough investment, research, and focus. In 2018, 17.1% of the global population had access to renewable energy. What’s more, between 2010 and 2018, 411 million people had access to clean energy, and 200 million more used clean cooking fuels and tech. So, let’s take a look at popular renewables available today and some very promising up-and-coming technologies.
Photovoltaic systems, or solar panels, are being expanded and upgraded every day by inventive renewable energy startups. For instance, the buildup of dust and dirt on solar panels decreases their energy efficiency by 3% to 45%, which is a lot. So then you have startups like INTI-TECH, providing automated AI cleaners to photovoltaic systems owners. This lets the owners remotely ensure that they're getting the optimal amount of energy from their panels.
There are also companies providing solar energy systems for companies, communities, and homes. A drawback is that for a photovoltaic system to be useful, an area has to be exposed to a sufficient amount of sunlight. In general, solar energy is still used as a supplement rather than a main source of electricity in most areas, as it can easily be combined with other renewable energy sources to further reduce the carbon footprint.
Wind energy technology
Wind energy is the second most widely used renewable energy source after hydropower. In 2020, it produced more than 6% of the total global electricity. Wind energy technology is constantly improving thanks to investments, and today’s turbines are more energy efficient than turbines from even 10 years ago. The downside of wind turbines is that they take up a lot of space, and much like solar panels, they depend upon the weather to produce electricity.
Startups like Peak Clean Energy have branched out into both wind and solar energy sectors to provide sustainable energy systems that are compatible with a land’s climate.
Although hydroelectric power is the largest renewable energy source, accounting for 20% of global electricity in 2020, it’s last in this list of well-known renewables because hydroelectric dams can negatively impact fish populations and the physical characteristics of the rivers they are built upon. On the other hand, hydropower is very clean, with very little to no greenhouse emissions, and is also suitable for a broad variety of locations around the world - all you need is a river.
Microgrids as sustainable energy systems
So, what are microgrids? They are small, local, autonomous energy networks that store and supply electricity to an area. The microgrid controller connects energy sources with the load - homes or industrial/commercial complexes.
They are often used for remote, off-grid localities that don’t have access to conventional electricity. However, successful microgrid projects are an example of how communities, farmers, and industries around the world can transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, i.e. fully sustainable energy systems, using the resources of their land. Enernet Global is an example of a startup that sets up these decentralized sustainable energy systems for remote communities, corporations, and agricultural projects.
Promising sustainable energy systems
We’ve already waxed lyrical about nuclear fusion, so let's see what we can expect from other renewables in the near future.
Hydrogen fuel cell battery
Though hydrogen fuel cells are more in the category of green fuels or clean energy fuels rather than electric grids, the transportation and industrial sectors are still major pollutants. Making advances in these industries is just as important.
After years of investment and research, these batteries seem to be reaching a turning point. Hydrogen fuel cell companies like Hyundai have announced that they want hydrogen fuel cell versions of all their commercially available models by the year 2028. This ambition extends to developing batteries that cost as much as electric ones and improving the infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for commercial users.
In our recent top 10 list of sustainable startups in transportation, we discussed hydrogen fuel cell companies such as Riversimple that are effortlessly working on perfecting the battery and making it more commercially available. Riversimple, in particular, has partnered up with Siemens to launch their main model - the Rasa - into production in 2023. So far, only 5,000 vehicles are set to be released. As you can see, startups need help from big, established companies to fund research and development on renewable diesel technology.
Hybrid redox flow battery
Hybrid redox flow batteries are a promising, sustainable solution to stationary grid energy storage. They’re a much cleaner alternative to lithium-ion batteries, as they use more abundant materials like manganese that have longer life cycles and use more sophisticated technology.
Redox flow batteries could be an important part of sustainable energy systems, as stationary energy storage is still in the works. These types of batteries could store more excess energy from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, and store it over longer periods of time.
One incredible startup that’s developed this sort of battery is the Phosphopower Group. Their Ocean battery is designed to store energy for an entire grid or up to 250 homes with an 85% efficiency. The battery’s life cycle is 80 times longer than that of ion batteries and is renewable, made of eco-friendly materials, affordable, and scalable.
This means that combining more of these batteries could take care of larger grids. The company has so far worked with villages, mining sites, and industrial buildings to provide this innovative energy storage solution.
The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy
There is a theme that weaves its way throughout any and all renewable energy talks: investment of resources. Renewable energy is more popular today because of climate change and the subsequent urgency to switch to clean energy fuels, but even a decade ago it was still largely considered a niche field. If it hadn’t been pushed to the background for so long, renewable energy today would probably be more efficient and widely used.
So, how do we get to a world of sustainable energy systems? By investing in technology and the development of clean energy fuels. The tech is still lacking in energy efficiency, infrastructure, and availability, and it’s the sort of problem that you can actually throw money at. We see the same thing in attempts to decarbonize aviation - sustainable aviation fuels are still expensive because there are too few production runs, which keeps prices inflated.
What’s more, poorer developing countries don’t have the resources to invest in or don’t consider renewable energy a priority, though they’re considered to be the least responsible for climate change. At the last COP26 summit, it was reiterated that wealthy countries should help poorer ones to financially deal with the damages of climate change. Does this include investment in renewable technology? Time will tell. But there’s truly no sustainable - or regenerative - way forward that excludes a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.