The Advantages and Disadvantages of Renewable Energy

The Eco Experts

As more countries transition to a greener future, global renewable energy capacity is increasing year-on-year. In fact, the share of renewables in global electricity generation jumped to 29% in 2020 – up from 27% in 2019 (The International Energy Agency (IEA), 2021).

This momentum shows no sign of slowing down either.

The IEA estimates that renewables will account for almost 95% of the increase in global power capacity by 2026, with solar photovoltaic (PV) alone providing more than half.

With this kind of traction, there are clearly a lot of advantages to renewable energy – but are there any disadvantages?

solar panels on a farm

Summary: The pros and cons of renewable energy

ProsCons
It’s infinite High upfront costs
It’s environmentally friendlyNot always reliable
Reduces international dependence on fossil fuel-rich nationsLimited storage capabilities
Creates job opportunitiesGeographic limitations
Benefits public healthIsn’t always 100% carbon-free
Reduces energy pricesRequires a lot of space

The advantages of renewable energy

It’s infinite

There are lots of different sources of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower, to name a few – and there’s an endless supply of them.

Take solar energy, for example – 173,000 terawatts (TW) of the stuff strikes the Earth at any given moment. That’s more than 10,000 times the world’s total energy use during the same period of time.

Sunny countries like Spain, Australia, and some parts of the US can use this to their advantage.

The same goes for wind energy. There is an endless supply of wind – and particularly breezy parts of the world can utilise this. For example, Scotland’s energy mix was powered by 98.6% renewables in 2021 – 80% of this coming from wind energy alone, harnessed by only 5,500 wind turbines.

It’s environmentally friendly

Renewable energy is clean, free, and much less harmful to the environment than fossil fuels – one of its main selling points.

When renewable energy is captured and converted into electricity, no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are released into the atmosphere. And since greenhouse gas emissions are the key reason behind global warming, it’s crucial that we continue avoiding them.

Reducing GHG emissions, particularly nitrous oxide, will also prevent us from destroying the ozone layer – a protective layer around Earth's stratosphere, which absorbs most of the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

Fossil fuels also have a catastrophic impact on precious ecosystems throughout their lifecycle, from the moment they’re drilled (think of the many oil spills that happen) to their warming effect once they’re burned.

Of course, there are some aspects of renewable energy that aren’t 100% environmentally friendly – but more on that later.

Reduces international dependence on fossil fuel-rich nations

Having more renewables in the global energy mix could help some countries achieve greater energy independence, which means they won’t need to import as many (or hopefully any) fossil fuels.

The recent war in Ukraine has proven to many people just how important energy independence is, as Russia continues to threaten to cut off natural gas this winter to much of Europe.

However, if countries ramp up renewable energy production, they’ll be less reliant on fossil fuels, leading to more security and lower energy prices.

Creates job opportunities

Renewable energy sceptics often argue that green tech is ruining fossil fuel workers’ livelihoods.

Admittedly, people working on oil and gas rigs are likely to lose their jobs in the coming years, but the growth of renewables will also create a lot of new job opportunities.

In fact, a recent survey found that 82% of workers in the oil and gas industry said they would consider moving to a job outside the fossil fuel sector – with over half of them expressing interest in renewables and offshore wind.

Developing more renewable projects can make this happen, but the government will also need to support fossil fuel workers in getting the right training to make the transition work.

Health benefits

If we replace fossil fuel projects with green ones, we will have cleaner air, water, and soil – improving public health around the world.

We’re currently pumping out huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, carbon emissions, and other harmful pollutants, leading to premature deaths and severe health conditions.

The Lancet suggests: “Many carbon-intensive practices and policies lead to poor air quality, poor food quality, and poor housing quality, which disproportionately harm the health of disadvantaged populations”.

In fact, scientists have found that these carbon-intensive activities kill an estimated 7 million people worldwide each year. This is much more prominent in areas like India, where you can find the highest level of air pollution in the world, which is leading to more cases of lung cancer.

The impacts of climate change – such as droughts, wildfires, floods, and heatwaves – are also killing more people over time, especially vulnerable groups. The Lancet suggests that the number of people over 65 who have died as a result of extreme heat over the past 20 years has increased by more than 50%.

The faster we can phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, the better.

Can reduce energy prices

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted more people to question why we don’t ramp up our renewable energy production. Not only would this help countries rely less on Russia for energy, but it’s also much cheaper.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) stated that 62% of total renewable power generation added in 2020 had lower costs than the cheapest new fossil fuel option.

On top of this, the IEA claimed that solar power is now “the cheapest energy source in the world”. Wind power is also a cheap option – especially after the UK government secured a record 11 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable energy capacity, which will generate electricity four times cheaper than current gas prices.

family look at wind turbines

The disadvantages of renewable energy

High upfront costs

Like any energy construction project, renewable sites are expensive to set up.

For context, wind turbines cost between £500,000 and £1 million to install, while the cost of foundation installation ranges from £1 million and £1.5 million per unit.

In 2019, the average price of solar panel modules was around £200,000 per megawatt. If we apply this to Shotwick Solar Park – the UK’s largest solar farm – it would tally to around £14,440,000.

However, renewables are now overtaking fossil fuels as the world’s cheapest source of energy, so it’s worth the initial investment.

This goes for domestic and commercial-scale renewable energy. In fact, the UK’s existing pipeline of renewable energy projects could save households up to £3.9 billion in the future, or £140 off the average annual bill.

The price of green tech is also likely to continue decreasing over time. Since 2010, the price of solar panels has decreased by 80% – just imagine how cheap they’ll be in another decade’s time.

Not always reliable

Renewable energy is sourced from nature – whether it’s the sun’s heat, weather conditions, or a body of water. Sourcing energy this way is much less harmful than drilling the earth for oil and gas, but it means the energy provided isn’t always reliable.

Although solar and tidal power are both fairly predictable, since they work in seasons or cycles, they are still unreliable because there’s only a limited amount of time that they can produce electricity.

This can become a real issue if a nation relies heavily on that energy source. For example, the UK’s renewable energy supply plummeted in 2021 because there just wasn’t as much wind as the previous year.

Luckily, storage batteries can store excess energy, which means we can still rely on these energy sources, even when there’s not much of it about. Scientists are also trying to find innovative ways to harness energy during these low-productivity times – they’re even considering putting solar panels in space.

Limited storage capabilities

Batteries work by storing excess electricity and releasing it when supply is low. Having this storage would be essential if countries solely relied on renewable energy sources, but unfortunately, batteries aren’t quite advanced enough to deal with that amount of energy yet.

As it stands, storage batteries can be difficult to implement on a large scale – not to mention they’re very expensive.

Some experts have suggested that, if we want countries to run on 100% renewable energy, storage technology would need to cost roughly $20 (£16.73) per kilowatt hour – around 90% less than today’s costs.

Although this seems like a huge decline, it’s certainly possible. The price of lithium-ion battery cells has already decrease by 97% in the last three decades.

Our World In Data also suggests that the energy density of cells has also been getting better over time. In 1991, you could only get 200 watt-hours (Wh) of capacity per litre of battery, whereas today you can get over 700 Wh – a 3.4-fold increase.

There are geographic limitations

Since renewable energy is harnessed through nature, the amount of energy you can capture will depend on your surroundings. This means certain renewable energy sources won’t be suitable for every country.

Nations with regular sunny weather will thrive with solar power. Likewise, areas with plenty of breezy weather will be able to use window power to harness lots of energy.

Countries will have to play to their strengths if they want to run on 100% renewable energy.

It isn’t always 100% carbon free

Some people argue that renewable energy sources have a ‘hidden’ carbon footprint, which means they might not be as eco-friendly as they seem.

Let’s get one thing straight – wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal energy are all emission-free whilst operating. However, creating solar panels, wind turbines and other facilities can generate carbon emissions. This is mainly because the factories that create these parts, and the construction sites themselves, are usually powered by fossil fuels.

But just how carbon intensive is it to create renewable energy technology?

Well, the carbon footprint of an average solar PV system is between 14-73 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Although this sounds like a lot, it’s pretty harmless compared to the average emissions of burning oil – 742g of CO2e per kWh.

If solar panel owners want their panels to be carbon neutral, they'll only need to wait three years. After that, their panels will be having a net-positive impact on the environment.

Requires a lot of space

If we want renewable energy to power the planet, we’re going to need a lot of space to install the technology. And although this would provide us with a lot of clean energy, it will likely have a negative impact on local ecosystems.

However, if renewable energy is implemented in a smart way, we might not need to take up as much space as we originally thought. According to Forbes, solar panels covering a surface of around 335 km² would actually be enough to power the world – this would cover just 1.2% of the Sahara Desert.

Summary

Renewables have their fair share of pros and cons. On the one hand, they’re pretty pricey upfront and they aren’t always reliable, but on the other hand, they could create a healthier planet and provide savings on energy bills.

We don’t know about you, but for us, the advantages of renewable energy certainly outweigh the disadvantages. Renewable energy is our not-so-secret weapon in the fight against climate change.

Beth Howell Writer

Beth has a real passion for green living. She’s been absorbed in eco research for over three years, and has become quite the expert. Whether you’re after a new set of solar panels, a home energy improvement, or you want to catch the latest eco news, she’s got your back.

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