The world’s population is growing and the wealth of people worldwide is increasing, so there is a rising demand for electricity, particularly for those 1.3 billion who don’t have it.
According to the World Coal Association, coal is currently the most common source of electricity production. 41% of all electricity produced today comes from it. This is a non-sustainable source of electricity due to the high levels of pollution (water, air pollution during mining, and burning), and the often difficult working conditions for miners.
We often identify four sources of sustainable electricity when we look at them: hydro, solar, wind and biomass. Although each one is renewable, it doesn’t mean they are sustainable. Three different factors determine sustainability: economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability.
It doesn’t cause harm to the environment. To achieve this, we must have a positive energy balance. It’s not sustainable if a renewable energy device produces more energy than it costs to produce over its lifetime. There’s also a material side. While mining coal is harmful to the environment, it is also bad for the environment to mine neodymium or other rare earth metals for wind farms. We must not ignore the fact that any coal mined will cause destruction of entire ecosystems. We can only speculate if submerging entire ecosystems with hydropower dams is less harmful.
Social sustainability is complex and multifaceted. It involves ensuring that workers have healthy conditions and are paid decent wages. However, it is important to include aspects such as local welfare growth (in contrast to multinationals exploiting local areas). One thing is certain about social sustainability: we only have one planet that can provide enough food for all. It is crucial to use the planet’s resources efficiently and effectively.
It seems simple enough to determine economic sustainability. It is considered sustainable if a technology is sold without subsidies. However, fossil fuels are the most heavily subsidized in most countries. According to the IEA World Energy Outlook, fossil electricity continues to be subsidized at a staggering $100 billion. How can renewable energy technologies compete when subsidies for renewable resources are only 1/6? Which of these can be considered economically sustainable? Which one is the cheapest to buy?
Sustainability is a complicated term. We’ve only touched a few of the many aspects. How do we balance all of these aspects? Is it possible to balance the pros and cons of each aspect? How do we balance all the pros and cons?
We can use all the available renewable electricity technologies in a sustainable manner. All it takes is logic.
Are solar panels installed on sloped roofs but not being used? Yes, please! Are solar panels installed on Dutch polders to create an “energy landscape?” No! No! No! Are wind turbines built on land that is already in use, but have a limited impact on the environment? Yes, please! Are you looking for hydropower that can submerge entire villages and arable land in Brazil? Madness! We could use corn to produce energy, but we can’t make food or feed. Of course, no! Are biomass residues useful for electricity production? Yes, please! Is it possible to produce electricity from living plants, while simultaneously growing rice? Yes, please.
Problem is, we don’t usually use logic to decide which electricity source to use. We want it all. We want all electricity. It should be available at any time, anywhere, at a low cost and with minimal environmental impact.
What do you know? It’s impossible. Let’s determine what is most important, and use that as a starting point.
Start point 1: I want cheap electricity: This is your coal-fired power station. It offers all the benefits of cheap electricity but you shouldn’t be complaining when the Earth is dying or when you run out of coal.
Start point 2: I want the lowest price for renewable electricity: You have the option of either hydropower, wind power or solar power. Depending on the availability of local subsidies or providers, you may have one or more options. You don’t have to pick between “green electricity” from some electricity companies. You don’t need to ask about the sustainability of your renewable electricity. It’s inexpensive, it’s reliable, and you can forget the rest.
Start point 3: I want to generate sustainable electricity. Now, we’re talking. There are four options: hydropower, wind power and solar panels. Let’s see what applications can be combined on the same land, and what has the least impact on people and nature in the long-term. Although you might pay more than usual, you will still be able to get electricity for the long term.
We won’t stop climate changes if we all choose starting point 1. Smog will continue to be the leading cause of death in large cities. We will choose starting point 2. This will focus on low prices, which will be competitive with the sustainability of renewable energy sources. It is possible that we will end up using fossil resources for renewable technologies, without changing any of the final results.
I have chosen point three as my starting point. We might be able to move towards a sustainable electricity grid with minimal environmental impact and human health if you agree. We may actually reach a point when energy is cheap, plentiful, sustainable, and accessible to all. Does it sound too good to be true Try it and prove me wrong.