What is “Renewable Energy” and where does it come from? We all think we know and some of us may even be able to name some of the most prominent sources of renewable energy, but do we really understand the purpose of each type (such as how and where it is used), how much energy it can generate or its wider economic or benefits? Here, we attempt to cut through the fog and give a clear and decisive summary of the information presently available on renewable energy and associated technologies. Put simply, renewable energies are those generated from sources that do not have a finite end, or those that can be recycled, typically from natural sources – like solar power, wind power and water power. These are the examples that we think about most when we hear the term “renewable energy” but they are not the only sources.
We use energy every day of our lives – our electronic devices require electricity for power, our streetlights need the same for lighting, our vehicles require gasoline and diesel. We fuel our homes with domestic oil, propane or electricity from a national or local grid for lighting, heating and for powering our devices. You’re reading this article on a website that is hosted on a server that needs power, as does the computer with which you are viewing the site. The places we work use computers, phone networks, security systems and servers, as do our shopping malls, parking lots, sports stadiums, cars, airplanes and so on. All of these things require power from fuel.
To move forward, we also need to realize that there is only so much that can possibly be done in limiting GHG output as the human population only increases and puts more demands on our energy infrastructure. To further help the environment and secure the future of the planet for our children and their children, we need to move to renewable sources for our energy generation.
A History of Renewable Energy
It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that before the discovery of coal deposits around the time of the Industrial Revolution, most of the energy we used for lighting and heating was from renewable sources – with one or two exceptions. Then we discovered coal, which fueled the industrial revolution in the western world, and later still learnt to tap oil in greater quantities leading to an acceleration of technologies that would take us into the 20th century. Throughout most of human history and pre-history, we burned what would today be known as “bio mass”: plant material such as wood, grass, mosses and so on, to fuel our hearths and later, homesteads. It became an important fuel source, hence why the hearth and the fireplace was central to homes until relatively recently.
From one perspective, the discovery and utilization of fire is a history of civilization, and a history of the use of renewable energy. Humanity continued in that fashion for many thousands of years before the discovery of oils (though obviously in smaller quantities than later) in antiquity and the mass drilling of oil during the industrial age. Other uses of renewables in antiquity include animal power (using cattle to drive ploughs or turn millstones) and wind for the sail that has driven trade for some 8,000 years of human history. The use of water sources, such as creating dams to harness the power of the fluid motion of water, is not a new idea either.
It was in the 1970s that we began to look back towards some of these ancient methods and technologies to provide the power sources of tomorrow. Peak oil and peak coal was theorized as far back as the 1870s. Remarkably, even during the Industrial Revolution, some thinkers were theorizing on and developing concepts of solar technology to prepare for a post coal world. The reason may have changed, but the thinking has not as many of the modern developments are for a post oil world. We have known since early in the process of mass mining of coal and oil, that there would be a peak and a time when these resources ran out. Theories and investment in solar technology lasted until the outbreak of WWI. Even in 1912, a paper in Scientific hypothesized that soon, fossil fuels would run out leaving solar power our only option.
The concept of peak oil in the 1950s began a new drive towards renewables. Solar, hydro and others were seized upon by both environmentalists and industrialists. They were both equally concerned about the exponential growth in human population, in oil consumption, and realized that it is a finite resource and will run out regardless of the size of the supply today. A growing environmental movement, the development of environmental sciences and a push against pollution (such as the Clean Air Act in the US and equivalents in other countries most of which passed in the 1960s-1970s) meant that more than ever before, renewable energy became not just a scientific innovation for the future, but a necessity.
Since then, there have been successive debates about whether we have reached peak oil. Many experts agree that it happened around 2008. New pockets are getting fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller. Shockingly, demand has outstripped supply since 1986, spurring on economists, scientific researchers and environmental campaigners to hasten its demise by campaigning that what is in the ground to remain in the ground. Instability in oil-producing countries has led to fluctuations, particularly since the 1990s, and that has brought another issue to the world’s attention – energy security.
Energy security has been a major concern to world leaders since the end of the 20th century, but even more so since the beginning of the 21st century. The term refers to the link between each country’s national security, and the availability of that country to resources for energy production and consumption. If a country loses, or finds it has restricted access, to oil and other resources, instability is likely as energy is rationed. Energy security can be the result of armed conflict or political instability in gas or oil-producing countries, or a buying country having access restricted when a producing country deliberately cuts a supply.