Energy & Climate Change

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Renewable energy – a problematic buzzword?

Renewable energy is one of the most potent positive brands in the discussion about the environment and climate. It has become a problematic concept, however, because it has been used as a key term in policies related to climate change, for example.

How is it possible that I’m writing about the problems with the concept of renewable energy in a publication by a nuclear power company? I admit that this is an awkward situation. The fact is, however, that we should address the key concepts of the industry, especially if there are problems with them. We should also understand that the parties active in the renewable energy industry have not been able to influence the spreading of the term much.

The reason why I’m writing this article is down to academia, though. This is because the issue was brought into the discussion about energy policy by an article published in Energy Policy. Its authors are Atte Harjanne (the Green Party), who studies the impact of climate change and prepares his doctoral dissertation, and Janne M. Korhonen, who has a PhD in engineering.

Diversity of renewable energy

So, what are the problems related to the concept of renewable energy? Firstly, the term is not scientific or accurate, but it is nevertheless used in politics and public discussion like this was the case.

“Renewable energy” refers to a host of energy sources and fuels that are substantially different, such as solar energy, wind power, and geothermal energy, which comes from deep within the Earth. Renewable energy also includes a huge number of biofuels, all the different forms of hydropower, and a number of smaller energy sources that are still being developed, such as wave power and tidal energy. The combustion of waste is also considered a form of renewable energy, at least in some cases, even though most of the waste material has been manufactured by using fossil fuels.

Many of the environmental energy flows are renewable in the sense that they are based on the power coming to the Earth from the Sun. That is where the similarities end, however.

In addition to the renewables, we have fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, natural gas, and peat which is slowly generated in swamps that are in their natural state and which is biomass in principle, but which is still not considered a renewable energy source. Then there is nuclear energy – mostly uranium and thorium. They do not actually renew in the Earth’s crust but there are enough of these substances to satisfy the human energy needs for millennia or possibly several million years to come.

The Brundtland Commission, which launched the concept of sustainable development, also determined the breeder reactor technology as a renewable source of energy alongside the Sun and wind, but it was subsequently removed from the list of renewable energy sources.

Breeder reactors allow us to use the nuclear power within uranium and thorium even ten times more than when we compare the use to the current light water reactors.

Renewable energy is not always environmentally friendly

Solar and wind power require a huge amount of materials due to the infrastructure and the supporting functions required to account for the fluctuating nature of the production. Depending on the location and volume, the environmental and material impact of these energy sources may be very moderate – or not. This issue cannot be determined by simply labeling an energy source “renewable”; instead, lifecycle analyses are needed.

Sometimes when increasing the share of renewable energy is included as a climate policy and social objective, you get something you did not want. The most practical renewable energy source after hydropower is often biomass. It is based on fuel instead of energy flows that fluctuate depending on the weather conditions like wind or solar power, which means that satisfying society’s requirement of continuously available reliable energy is much easier. In many cases, when you order more renewables, you get more bioenergy instead.

Naturally, all properly informed westerners only purchase certified and harmless biofuels.  Many of them may overlook the fact that there is not enough bioenergy to go around, however. Some of the biomass can be used to produce sustainable energy, but if its use is strongly increased, the increased use will mostly come from the less environmentally friendly part, because the majority of the good raw material flows are already in use.

Images sell

The image of renewable energy is also being used to sell products other than renewable energy. Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, which is currently called Equinor, has had highly visible advertisements on natural gas being a perfect partner for renewables at the Brussels Airport for years now. Furthermore, once you have built the infrastructure for natural gas, it is not easy to get rid of it – not the least because the influence of the producers of fossil energy has continued to increase and society has become even more dependent on these producers.

Almost all of these problems are at least partially caused by the fact that energy sources are labeled good or bad almost solely on the basis of whether they are deemed renewable or not. Renewal is a poor indicator for the environmental and climate impact of any energy source, however. The characteristics must be investigated on a case-by-case basis and each indicator must consider both pros and cons.

If the goal is low emission energy production with as small an environmental footprint as possible, we should measure the amount of emissions and the environmental footprint instead of vague brands or trends.

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