Addressing Common Concerns with Renewable Energy
As the use of renewable energy sources in national electricity grids has grown over recent years, a number of common concerns from both governments and the general public have entered the debate. Some of these are on the technical side of things, relating to how, say, solar or wind energy is going to fit into the national grid, and some are related to more non-technical factors. In this blog, we’re going to take a look at some of the more common debates regarding renewables in general, and hopefully look into ways that these concerns can be mitigated. While some of the opinions regarding renewables are pretty subjective, there are a number of hard technical facts that give pretty strong arguments regarding their use in national electricity grids.
So, to start with, let’s look at the elephant in the room: what happens when the sun isn’t shining, or when the wind isn’t blowing? This argument is pretty common from some high-profile detractors of greater use of renewables in the electricity mix. Well, for starters, from a technical perspective the only time solar isn’t generating is at night! Even on a stormy day, there’ll still be some electricity coming from solar panels. There are a wide range of other technical solutions to address the concerns of uneven electricity flow from large-scale solar also: greater grid integration across countries is one. If the sun isn’t shining in the UK, for example, it doesn’t mean the sun isn’t shining in France or Germany. If we as a world are going to start addressing the climate change challenge, through reducing fossil fuel use in electricity generation, this kind of interconnection of electricity grids will be very useful. Battery storage technology is another useful addition: if the wind isn’t blowing one day, the stored-up electricity from when it was windy last week can be released. Batteries are another way in which the “lumpiness”, or lack of demand response more technically, of renewables can be mitigated.
There are two other high-profile arguments, and a couple of smaller ones, that need addressing. First of these is the cost. Around the year 2000, when solar really started to take off in the public consciousness, the cost was a massive issue. Solar panels were expensive at the time, and this perception that solar is really pricey at a large scale has persisted. Well, happily, this is no longer the case. Current prices for solar are around £1 per watt of installed capacity all-in, which is dramatically less than what it used to be. A real revolution in manufacturing and cost-effectiveness has taken place, but the public discourse hasn’t cottoned on to this yet. The same is true of a number of other renewable electricity technologies to a lesser extent: wind has come down in price dramatically also, although the overheads for offshore, where it is most effective, are still fairly high.
In the same vein as costs, operations and maintenance costs are often brought up as a counter-argument also. Looking at solar, there are a number of things that need maintaining: the panels need to be cleaned, there’s natural degradation of the photovoltaic medium, you need to address hotspots and cracking…all of this sounds pretty expensive, right? Well, compared to other power generating technologies, such as coal or gas plants, solar is actually much cheaper to operate and maintain. Estimates from 2017 in the US suggest that, depending on the type of panel used, total O&M costs for utility-scale solar are in the region of $20 to $26 annually per kilowatt-peak of installed capacity. That, frankly, is nothing in the grand scheme of things! However, the argument can be made for offshore wind with more validity: O&M costs typically amount to about 25% of the total lifetime cost of the project for an offshore wind farm. The industry is aware of this, however, and cost reduction activities are ongoing  . Payback periods are another argument used against renewables from a cost perspective: again, this argument is rooted in out-dated perceptions of the total lifetime cost of renewable energy installations. On a grid-scale solar installation with some degree of government support, payback periods are not much longer than a typical domestic installation these days, in the region of 5-7 years, if not less. Again, other technologies are slightly longer, but still well within project lifetimes.
Something that isn’t often considered, but is sometimes used as a counter-argument, is sustainable manufacturing and life-cycle emissions of renewable energy technologies. You’ve got to dig all that silicon out of the ground somehow, right? And transport it, and process it, and manufacture the panels, and so on. So broadly, there is an argument to be made that the manufacture of renewable energy technologies could be more sustainable in itself. This argument could also be levelled at, frankly, any consumer good. Renewable energy manufacturers are generally aware of this issue, and consumer and utility choice do matter in this regard. Countries with a high proportion of non-renewable electricity, such as China or the United States, for example, will generally have higher life-cycle emissions for their solar panels than other countries, such as France or the UK.
So, finally, onto the one argument that is, mostly, purely subjective. What about the landscape? The Yorkshire Dales are outstandingly beautiful, surely, we don’t want wind turbines all over them ruining the view? So, there are concerns about land use and the amount of space needed for renewable energy installations. In terms of “density” per kilowatt-peak of installed capacity, fossil fuel plants take up less space than say, solar or wind. The aesthetics of renewable energy, however, are the more commonly-used argument, and that is up for the reader to decide. There are ways and means to address this: site renewable energy installations in less-populated or visited areas, for example. Another commonly-cited “eyesore” is transmission infrastructure for renewables: big electricity transmission pylons are not seen as the most attractive thing. There are ways to address this too, however: underground transmission infrastructure is on, although this increases costs. The need to decarbonise the electricity grid, however, is backed by very strong arguments, and the solutions proposed above can address the vast majority of concerns related to greater renewables integration.