Articles

Renewable Energy- Is it just cheaper electricity bills?

Martina Mifsud, Malta – 23 years old

The first adjectives which come to mind (at least, I’m betting, for most people) upon hearing the phrase ‘renewable energy’ are probably ‘cheap’ (bills) and ‘clean’. This is in blatant comparison to how most of the earth’s energy is being produced at the present time- mostly through the irreversible consumption of fossil fuels. 100% renewable energy across the world is not only feasible, it is ideal.

You would create a surplus of 24.3 million job positions.

You would have less heat waste.

You would consume less energy.

You would produce zero emissions.[1]

But, the targets cannot be just those. We have to offset the damage already done, the emissions already up there. To do this, we need to strengthen the two pillars upon which climate action relies- the fight to STOP emissions, and not just reduce, and the effective removal of carbon from the atmosphere. The former is done through the implementation of effective renewable energy systems, whilst the latter is done through the use of carbon sinks, and bioenergy. [Bioenergy will be discussed in detail further on]


Stopping emissions.

Sticking to fossil fuels any longer will result in further irreversible damage to our atmosphere, and to our air; something which every single one of us can rely on to be affected by. And using natural gas won’t help either- as it is still a pollutant, albeit with less consequences compared to the hard fossil fuels. Its handling and processing results in methane leakages[2], and so, it can never be 100% emission free. The answer is simple- all fossil fuel consumption results in harmful emissions, ergo- no fossil fuel usage = no emissions. Essentially, we need to choke off the carbon sources.

But won’t the capital be higher with renewable energy?

According to a study carried out by Energy Watch Group and LUT University[3], 100% renewable energy across all sectors (i.e. power, heat, transport and desalination) is not more expensive than today’s energy system. This, however, is taking into consideration the long term implementation and running of renewable sources of energy. With regards to the initial investments, as according to Prof. Johan Rockström (Environmental Sciences), coal is, unfortunately, still cheap when compared to the capital costs required to implement an effective renewable energy network. The initial leap is what discourages individuals, insitutions and countries to make the change.

But, there is neough evidence that this is the future that the world needs. The options are there, and they are there for everyone. “European leaders can and should do much more for climate protection than what is currently on the table”- as quoted from Mr. Hans-Josef Fell; the president of the EWG.


Removal of Carbon from the atmosphere

The Science of Carbon Sinks

The concept of carbon reduction from the atmosphere is an interesting, but challenging one. The first step would naturally be to cease any ongoing emissions, and en route, we would create an offset of carbon- i.e. absorbing and removing the carbon in our atmosphere, without overcompensating for it through other sources of emission. To create this positive imbalanace, we need to ensure adeuqate carbon sinks. A carbon sink is a natural reservoir or body which absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide without emissions to counterbalance [6]. Two prime examples of carbon sinks are soil and ocean bodies.

Soil does sequestrate carbon dioxide, however more research is needed to determine how we can adapt the soil and manipulate it to our advantage, to absorb more carbon dioxide [8]. Another mode of effective sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would be the implementation of a bloom of plant life on the surface of the ocean. After absorbing all the carbon dioxide it possible can, this bloom will sink to the bottom of the water body, and stay there for more than 1500 years! [7] This is why a ‘properly equipped’ ocean would be called a carbon sink as it will only absorb carbon dioxide, and not give back. The problem would be however, if there isn’t enough plant life to carry this process out. This will result in an increase in carbon dioxide in the water body itself- resulting in ocean acidification, and therefore, deterring hard-shelled ocean animals (such as oysters) from producing strong exoskeletons [9]. This will be very problematic for all the ecosystem, meaning that we have to be cautious when considering an ocean as a boundless carbon sink, because it is not.


The Science of Biofactories

One form of renewable energy are bioenergy plants- BioFactories, as shown in Santiago, Chile. The ingenious work chain proceeds to treat wastewater, whose recovery from the sewer sludge generates electricity, natural gas and thermal energy. The plants transform carbon into biomethane and dry biosolids- resulting in a positive imbalance of carbon. Over 137,000 tons of these biosolids from these treatment plants are used as fertilizers to aid in growing crops. It is a circular bioenergy economy model which runs on energy which it itself creates[4]. We need to not only consider the 74% of the world’s inhabitants which have free access to drinking water, but also the ones who are living in a place having some sort of sewage infrastructure- of which there are only 40% of the people. On top of that, just 27% have water wastage treatment, as according to Narciso Berberana; The CEO of Aguas Andinas’ Biofactory. And so, a biofactory takes the solutions to all three problems and combines them, to prevent the loss of good wastewater whilst extracting any energy it can, therefore providing the optimal result through these biofactories.

But how does this tie back to human health? Would we benefit from emission free energy? Are our lives improving from the treatment of wastewater?

In short, the answer is yes.

As bioenergy, when treating wastewater, the plant prevents pollution from entering the river. Ultimately, clean water, usable for agriculture, is produced. this ensures that no contaminants prevail along the food chain, sequentially ending up on our plate.  Biosolids are utilised as fertilizers, and clean water is flowing through the river, minimising the risk of water-borne diseases 4.


And what about other renewable energy sources?

All renewable energy sources are emission free; meaning that the air we breathe has the potential to be 100% clean, pollution free[5].  The cost of air pollution damages attributed to fossil fuel consumptions and emissions in a country is the sum of mortality, morbidity and indirect health costs, like loss of visibility and lower agricultural output [1]. Without emissions, our cleaner environment would have a very positive impact on the general health of the public, and ultimately, the government will reduce the expenditure on redundant health services.

Renewable energy will impact the climate warming effect due to zero emissions, therefore no damage is incurred to the Ozone layer. People will experience less heat stress and strokes, lands will no longer undergo traumatic extremes such as forest fires and nationwide diseases will be reduced drastically. There will be gains in agricultural products, and therefore more food security [1].  People’s health will benefit. And if people are healthy, they can be agents of change.

The resources are enough. The technology is available. To implement something on this scale is no easy feat, but “we need to have challenges in front of us to change the way we think about things”, as according to Prof. Beata Kępińska, from the Polish Academy of Sciences. And we will change the way we think about things, as, with climate protection, everything is challenging.


[1] Jacobson et al., Joule 1, 108–121 September 6, 2017 ª 2017 Elsevier Inc. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2017.07.005

[2] https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/environmental-impacts-of-natural-gas#.XB1X0WhKjIU

[3] Ram M., Bogdanov D., Aghahosseini A., Gulagi A., Oyewo A.S., Child M., Caldera U., Sadovskaia K., Farfan J., Barbosa LSNS., Fasihi M., Khalili S., Fell H.-J., Breyer C. Global Energy System based on 100% Renewable Energy – Energy Transition in Europe Across Power, Heat, Transport and Desalination Sectors. Study by LUT University and Energy Watch Group, Lappeenranta, Berlin, December 2018.

[4] https://unfccc.int/climate-action/momentum-for-change/planetary-health/santiago-biofactory-chile

[5] Buonocore, J. J., Luckow, P., Norris, G., Spengler, J. D., Biewald, B., Fisher, J., & Levy, J. I. (2015). Health and climate benefits of different energy-efficiency and renewable energy choices. Nature Climate Change, 6(1), 100–105. doi:10.1038/nclimate2771

[6] http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg3/ar4-wg3-chapter9.pdf

[7] http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/proceedings/01/carbon_seq/p25.pdf

[8] Swift, R. S. (2001). SEQUESTRATION OF CARBON BY SOIL. Soil Science, 166(11), 858–871. doi:10.1097/00010694-200111000-00010 

[9] https://www.mdsg.umd.edu/onthebay-blog/will-ocean-acidification-create-%e2%80%9csuper-crabs%e2%80%9d-bay-maybe-not

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s