The Rise of Renewables in 2019

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In the 1830s when scientist Michael Faraday first generated electricity by spinning a copper disc using the poles of a magnet, the electricity generation was hatched. Since then, humanity has come to rely heavily on coal, wood, gasoline, and other fossil fuel sources to power our lives. This has brought about some environmental challenges. The good news is that clean, renewable energy sources have already been born, and they are putting industry in position to grow the next power generation.

Renewables Are Outpacing Other Fuel Sources

While the science behind solar panels was discovered in 1839, solar panels were not commercially competitive or viable until 1954 when Bell Labs designed and used the first solar cell. Back then, solar and other renewable energy sources were cost prohibitive to produce and unable to meet global energy demands compared to fossil fuels.

In the past 10 years, that script has changed as global opinions have shifted towards conversations around environmental protection, energy dependence, and reducing fossil fuels.

A study completed by BP in June of 2018 details the energy landscape by fuel type normalizing by equivalent tonnes (or metric tons) of oil. The results show, from 2007-2016, global energy consumption went from 11.6 trillion tonnes of oil to 13.3 trillion tonnes, an average 1.7 percent increase per year. The study’s additional findings show renewables with astonishing growth, outpacing all other fuel sources.

Fuel Type

Per Year Growth Rate

Nuclear

-0.7%

Oil

1.1%

Coal

1.3%

Natural Gas

2.3%

Hydroelectric

2.9%

Renewables

16.2%

 

Weighing the Environmental Impact

Dr. James Hansen, Director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University said, “What has become clear from the science, is that we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without creating a very different planet.” This statement, from this renowned climate scientist, underlines the dangers of uncontrolled continuous burning of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil without consequences.

Looking at the numbers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains burning one barrel of crude oil (42 gallons) produces 0.43 metric tons of CO2. To put that figure in perspective, if a driver averages 15,000 miles per year at 25 miles per gallon, 6.14 metric tons of CO2 are added in the atmosphere every year. And that’s just from one driver.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2016 drivers in the United States accumulated roughly 3.2 trillion miles on public roads. That’s equivalent to 2.9 million metric tons of CO2 of emissions in one year. Simply put, it equals the weight of about 420,000 African elephants.

These statistics are alarming considering they include only the United States in just one year. With China and India industrializing rapidly with a growing middle class, these environmental consequences will only broaden.

The Future of Energy

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2022 we could see a global spike in renewables energy by 43 percent. The IEA states that China, India, and the United States are estimated to make up two-thirds of all global renewable expansion.

This rapid growth rate is attributed to leaps in photovoltaic (PV) solar panels technology and manufacturing processes making solar panels and cells more efficient and cost effective. This is attractive to large energy generating companies because the cost of maintenance is much lower than a fossil or nuclear plant, as seen below. 

Energy-Graph
Source: Shayanne Gal/ Business Insider

So if the current direction of cost per MWh continues to follow historical trends, there will likely be a migration from aging and expensive coal and nuclear plants to newer gas, solar, and wind fuels.

Public perception may also increase pressure to make environmentally conscious energy decisions. The choice to continue using fossil fuels will become increasingly difficult as societal pressure coupled with cost effectiveness make renewables overwhelmingly attractive.

It’s Time to Renew

With the seemingly daily advances in renewable energy technologies, today’s industries seem poised to pivot from the prehistoric fuels that launched the second industrial revolution to the high-efficiency, lower cost renewable energy solutions available to us now.

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The opinions expressed in this piece are solely the author's. They do not necessarily represent WESCO’s views.