Three Non-Economic Challenges Facing the Renewable-Energy Transition

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Three Non-Economic Challenges Facing the Renewable-Energy Transition
  • Canada, as with many other environmentally conscientious governments, is pursuing an agenda of an energy transition: away from fossil fuels, and toward a society increasingly driven by wind power, solar power, and hydropower.
  • Costs of onshore wind power and commercial-scale solar power have declined to $36-$39/MWh, aligning with long-promised reductions. However, cost is only one obstacle to the wind-, water-, solar-powered future. Three other physical challenges remain.
  • The first challenge is the massive land consumption of wind- and solar-power generation. When measured in 2010, renewable energies generated 525 GW of power, but consumed 398,000 square kilometers. This contrasts starkly with natural gas power production, which generated 3,530 GW of power while consuming only 1,800 square kilometers of land area.
  • Another hurdle is land disruption caused by mining, coupled with the necessary increase in metal extraction, posing a significant barrier to the clean-energy transition. Massive new quantities of mining and refinement of metals and minerals will be required to produce and store wind and solar power at the larger scales of deployment envisioned by advocates of the renewable-energy transition. On average, building wind and solar systems needs over 10 times the material needed for hydrocarbon-based machines providing the same energy.
  • The third issue is “energy returns on investment” (EROI), which represents the ratio of energy delivered to society from one energy unit invested in obtaining that particular energy. Wind and solar power exhibit a lower Energy Return on Investment (EROI) than conventional electricity production, producing lower levels of electricity per unit cost. Societies that direct resources into lower-return endeavours, such as wind and solar power forsake the economic gains that would accrue from continuing to use energy sources that provide a higher economic return on investment, economic gains that are necessary for a society to prosper.

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