Renewable Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

Renewable Energy Explained: All You Need to Know

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Grace Smoot

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Experts predict the growth of renewable energy capacity will account for nearly 95% of the increase in global power capacity through the year 2026. Renewables could play a substantial role in the fight against climate change and helping to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations. So, we had to ask: What is renewable energy really, and how could it help us mitigate climate change?

Renewable energy (solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, tidal, wave, biomass) is an energy substitute for fossil fuels. It promotes energy independence, creates jobs, produces less CO2 than traditional fossil fuels (between 11 and 740 gCO2 on a life-cycle basis), and mitigates climate change.

Renewable energies make up an ever-growing amount of total energy consumption and play a vital role in combating climate change. Keep reading to find out all about what renewable energy is, its global capacity, its carbon footprint, its benefits and drawbacks, and how it can both combat and contribute to climate change.

The Big Picture of Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is an energy substitute for fossil fuels that comes from sources that are flow-limited, naturally replenishing, virtually inexhaustible, and limited in the amount of energy available in a set amount of time. 

How Is Renewable Energy Defined

Renewable energy is an energy substitute for fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) that can reduce the effects of global warming by limiting global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). It is infinite by definition because the resources naturally replace themselves over time. 

Renewable Energy: energy that is produced using the sun, wind, etc., or from crops, rather than using fuels such as oil or coal | types of energy that can be replaced naturally such as energy produced from wind or water”

Cambridge Dictionary

Renewable energy is mostly non-polluting, low-maintenance, and promotes the decentralization of energy supply. On the flip side, renewable energy can come with lower immediate quantities of energy compared to fossil fuels.

What Are the Different Types of Renewable Energy

The 7 most common types of renewable energy are: solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, tidal, wave, and biomass energy. 

  • Solar energy is the conversion of sunlight into electrical energy either through the use of photovoltaic (PV) panels or solar radiation concentrating mirrors. 

Solar Energy: energy that uses the power of the sun to produce electricity”

Cambridge Dictionary
  • Wind energy is the conversion of moving air into electrical energy. It is a form of solar energy that is caused by the uneven heating of the earth’s surface, irregularities of the earth’s surface, and the earth’s rotation. 

Wind: a current of air moving approximately horizontally, especially one strong enough to be felt”

Cambridge Dictionary
  • Hydropower energy is the conversion of moving water into electrical energy through the use of various types of hydroelectric facilities.

Hydropower: hydroelectric power (= the production of electricity by the force of fast-moving water)”

Cambridge Dictionary
  • Geothermal energy is the conversion of heat inside of the earth into electric energy. It is created by the decay of radioactive materials in the rock and fluid of the earth’s core. 

Geothermal: involving or produced by the heat that is inside the earth”

Cambridge Dictionary
  • Tidal energy is the conversion of the earth’s tides into electrical energy. It is created by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon coupled with the rotation of the earth.

Tidal Power: power that comes from the movement of the tide (= the rise and fall of the ocean that happens twice every day) and that can be used especially for producing electricity”

Cambridge Dictionary
  • Wave energy is the conversion of the up and down motion of waves into electrical energy. It is created when the wind blows over the surface of the water on oceans or lakes. 

Wave Power: electrical energy generated by harnessing the up-and-down motion of ocean waves”

Britannica
  • Biomass energy is the conversion of renewable organic material from plants and animals into electrical energy. Biomass sources include wood and wood processing wastes, agricultural crops and waste materials, municipal solid waste, animal manure, and human sewage.

Biomass: natural materials from living or recently dead plants, trees and animals, used as fuel and in industrial production, especially in the generation of electricity”

Oxford Dictionary 

These 7 types of renewable energy could play an important role in mitigating climate change, so let’s have a closer look at them next.

What renewable energy isRenewable energy is an energy substitute for fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas) 
What the different types renewable energy areThe 7 most common types of renewable energy are: solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, tidal, wave, and biomass energy. 
How renewable energy worksRenewable energy works by harvesting the kinetic energy of a specific renewable energy source, which turns a turbine and spins a generator to produce electricity. 
The global capacity of renewable energyGlobal renewable energy capacity is over 3,000 gigawatts. Only a few countries have renewables as their primary energy source, but capacity growth is expected to increase as more effort is put into reducing global GHG emissions to mitigate climate change.
The carbon footprint of renewable energyOn a life-cycle basis, the carbon footprint of renewable energy ranges anywhere from 11 to 740 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh (gCO2 equivalent per KWh) of electricity produced. 
The environmental benefits of renewable energyRenewable energy promotes energy independence, creates jobs, produces less CO2 than traditional fossil fuels, and mitigates climate change.
The environmental drawbacks of renewable energyRenewable energy can cause land degradation, habitat loss, threats to wildlife, earthquakes, and deforestation depending on the source.
Renewable energy and climate changeIn general, renewable energy combats climate change because it emits less GHGs than traditional fossil fuels. However, renewable biomass energy can contribute to climate change because it emits more CO2 than traditional fossil fuels.

How Does Renewable Energy Work

In general, renewable energy works by harvesting the kinetic energy of a specific renewable energy source which turns a turbine and spins a generator to produce electricity. 

How Does Renewable Energy Actually Produce Energy

More specifically, each renewable energy source is harvested in different ways.

Solar energy uses either photovoltaic (PV) solar cells or concentrating solar thermal plants (CSP) to produce electricity. The former absorbs energy from sunlight, creating an electrical charge which moves in response to an internal electric field in the cell, causing electricity to flow. The latter reflects and concentrates sunlight onto receivers that collect and convert solar energy into heat. 

  • Enough sunlight strikes the surface of the earth in an hour and a half to account for the world’s energy consumption in a year. Because solar energy has such a large electricity generation potential, it is important to understand how it works.

Wind energy is generated when wind turns onshore or offshore wind turbine blades, producing electricity

  • The global installed capacity of wind energy increased by a factor of 75 between 1997 and 2018, growing from 7.5 GW to over 564 GW. Because wind energy is one of the cheapest and fastest-growing renewable energy technologies with a low carbon emissions profile, it is important to understand how it works.

Hydropower energy is generated when run-of-river, storage, pumped storage, and offshore hydroelectric facilities use flowing water to produce electricity. 

Geothermal energy is generated when drilling down to hot water reservoirs up to a mile below the surface creates steam which is used to produce electricity.

  • Because geothermal systems have a life-cycle global warming emission of approximately 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, compared to 1.4-3.6 pounds for coal, it is important to understand how it works..

Tidal energy is generated when tidal turbines, barrages, and lagoons use the rise and fall of tides to produce electricity.

  • Because estimates for the life-cycle global warming emission of tidal energy are below 0.05 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, compared to 1.4-3.6 pounds for coal, it is important to understand how it works.

Wave energy is generated when float/buoy, oscillating water columns, and tapered channel systems use the rise and fall of waves to produce electricity. 

  • The market for wave energy is expected to reach $141 million by 2027. Because the generating potential for wave energy is so high, it is important to understand how it works.

Biomass energy is generated when wood, agricultural crops, biogenic materials, animal manure, and human sewage are burned to release stored chemical energy

  • Because biomass is still an important fuel source for the developing world and has become an important transportation fuel in the developed world, it is important to understand how it works.

What Is the Global Capacity of Renewable Energy

Driven by decreasing costs and improved technology, renewable energy capacity grew over 4 fold from 2000-2021, increasing from 754 gigawatts (GW) to 3,064 GW. This is as more and more effort is put into reducing global GHG emissions to mitigate climate change. 

Hydropower accounts for the majority of renewable energy generation at roughly 60%, followed by wind, solar, and other renewables (e.g. geothermal, biomass, wave, and tidal).

Illustration of modern renewable energy consumption
Our World in Data: Modern renewable energy consumption

However, only a few countries have renewables as their primary energy source, while the vast majority of countries still have a long way to go. Approximately 11% of global primary energy came from renewable energy technologies in 2019. 

Illustration of share of primary energy from renewable sources
Our World in Data: Share of primary energy from renewable sources

The 6 countries with the most primary energy coming from renewable energy are: 

  1. Iceland – 86%
  2. Norway – 71%
  3. Sweden – 50%
  4. Brazil – 46%
  5. New Zealand – 40%
  6. Denmark – 39% 
Illustration of share of primary energy from renewable sources
Our World in Data: Share of primary energy from renewable sources

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Renewable Energy

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the GHG emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

On a life-cycle basis, the carbon footprint of renewable energy ranges anywhere from 11 to 740 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh (gCO2 equivalent per KWh) of electricity produced. 

Have a look at the illustration below to compare the average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions from renewable energies to those of different types of energy.

Illustration of CO2 equivalent per energy source
World Nuclear Association: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

When discussing the carbon footprint of certain renewable energy types, we must take into account carbon emissions across the energy’s building, operating, and building back phases.

The life-cycle stages of renewable energyEach stage’s carbon footprint
Building of renewable energyConstruction of renewable energy power plants and electricity delivery mechanisms.
Operating of renewable energyLittle to no CO2 emissions or waste products
Building back of renewable energyCO2 emissions from decommissioning the renewable energy power plant and subsequent land restoration

Because renewable energy is becoming a greater part of our energy mix, it is important to understand what its carbon footprint is. And what its environmental benefits and drawbacks are.

How Environmentally Friendly Is Renewable Energy

The overall environmental friendliness of renewable energy depends on which specific type of renewable energy is being discussed.

Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

There are collective, as well as unique, benefits and drawbacks to renewable energy. 

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Renewable Energy 

All 7 renewable energies have the following two benefits:

  • Energy independence: Being able to produce our own electricity in the US without the aid of foreign countries is an important step to help us become more self-sufficient. Former President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, expand the production of renewable fuels (and confront global climate change). 
  • Employment opportunities: The renewable energy sector collectively employed 12 million people worldwide in 2020. Renewable energy jobs continue to increase as we start to realize just how beneficial renewable energy is for our environment. 

There are also specific benefits unique to each renewable energy type: 

  • Solar: Throughout its life cycle, concentrated solar energy produces 0.04%, PV roof solar energy produces 0.05%, and PV utility solar energy produces 0.06% of the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity that coal produces. 
  • Wind: Throughout its life cycle, wind energy produces 0.02% of the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity than coal produces. And after 3 to 6 months of operation, a wind turbine has effectively offset all emissions from its construction, which means it can operate virtually carbon-free for the rest of its lifetime.
  • Hydropower: Hydropower has the potential to reduce overall GHG emissions by 5.6 gigatons by 2050, which is equivalent to nearly 1.2 billion passenger vehicles driven in a year. This would also save around $209 billion in damages caused by climate change. 
  • Geothermal: Throughout its life cycle, geothermal energy produces 5% of the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity that coal produces. In the US alone, annual geothermal energy resources effectively offset the emission of 4.1 million metric tons (t) of CO2, 200,000 t of SO2, 80,000 t of nitrogen oxides, and 110,000 t of particulate matter when compared to conventional coal-fired plants.
  • Tidal and wave: Tidal energy produces 0.03% of the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity that coal produces, and wave energy also produces low levels of emissions. Tidal and wave energy could help reduce global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel electricity generation by around 500 million tons by the year 2050

Six of the 7 renewable energies have climate change mitigation benefits because they produce relatively low GHG emissions – especially as compared to coal, the dirtiest of all the energies. Although biomass also has a lower GHG emissions value than coal does, the environmental drawbacks (listed in the next section below) outweigh the environmental benefits. 

What Are the Environmental Drawbacks of Renewable Energy 

Each renewable energy type comes with its own set of environmental drawbacks that should be taken into account.

  • Solar: The scale of land degradation and habitat loss depends on the technology, site topography, and intensity of the solar resource. Siting large-scale solar farms on abandoned land and small-scale farms on top of buildings or homes can minimize negative environmental impacts. Water is used for the construction of PV components, and CSPs require water for cooling. Hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone are all used to manufacture PV cells. If not handled and disposed of properly, these hazardous materials could present a serious risk to environmental and public health.
  • Geothermal: Geothermal reservoirs occur deep underground and are not detectable from the surface. Areas where geothermal does come to the surface are only found near tectonic plate boundaries. Also, high-pressure fluid injections close to neighboring fault lines have the potential to trigger earthquakes. 90% of all earthquakes occur in the Ring of Fire, an area that coincides with the highest concentration of geothermal resources. 
  • Tidal and wave: The main environmental concern with tidal and wave energy is the impact on aquatic wildlife. Construction and operation of marine energy technology may negatively impact estuarine ecosystems via underwater noise pollution, habitat changes, and wildlife collisions with turbines. Because tidal and wave energy is a relatively new technology, more research needs to be done to fully understand this environmental impact. 
  • Biomass: Existing biomass power plants emit more CO2 from their smokestacks than coal plants. Developed countries that burn organic matter for heat and cooking release particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons, oxygenated organics, free radicals, and chlorinated organics, all of which are health hazards. Chopping trees to produce wood pellets that are burned for electricity speeds up deforestation and reduces the number of trees that can capture our CO2 emissions (decreasing carbon sequestration).

Overall, biomass is not as environmentally friendly as it appears to be at first glance. For biomass to be sustainable, the rate of harvest must not exceed the rate of forest growth. In reality, this rarely happens. Also, it could take anywhere from decades to well over a century before we start receiving the climate benefits provided by biomass, which is well outside the timeframe of averting our current climate crisis.

The easiest way to mitigate the environmental impact of biomass is to simply not rely on it in the first place. Biomass pollutes the air, leads to deforestation, and is not a sustainable energy source. Its combustion also adds to atmospheric CO2 levels and contributes to global warming.

Why Is Renewable Energy Important to Fight Climate Change

Fossil fuel combustion is the main contributor to atmospheric CO2 levels. Climate Change occurs when CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The current global annual temperature rise is 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. 

Using renewable energy (solar, wind, hydropower, tidal, wave, and geothermal) instead of fossil fuel energy causes less GHG emissions. And this helps mitigate the following negative effects of climate change:

  • Melting of sea ice: Since 1979, arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet. 
  • Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
  • Ocean acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. 

Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must cut current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050, as outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement

The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

How Does Renewable Energy Contribute to Climate Change

Biomass is often portrayed as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels with CO2 reduction benefits. But every year, per kWh, biomass power plants emit 150% the CO2 of coal and between 300% – 400% the CO2 of natural gas, making them a major contributor to climate change. The carbon found in biomass reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2. This warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket, and a warmer earth comes with a host of negative side effects including temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification.

Final Thoughts

Fossil fuels have been the world’s primary energy source for decades, but since 2000 there has been a push towards renewable energy. Harnessing the kinetic energy of renewables spins a turbine and power a generator to produce electricity. The capacity for renewable energy is great, but few countries currently source most of their energy from renewables. 

Renewables have a lower carbon footprint, combat climate change, create jobs, and promote energy independence, making them environmentally friendly energy sources. Any environmental concerns can all be mitigated by careful siting of power plants and proper disposal of any waste materials. Renewable energy benefits both our atmosphere and Earth’s biota.

Stay impactful,

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Grace Smoot

Grace loves to research and write about all things related to climate action and sustainability. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Biology and works as an Environmental Survey Technician. Outside of work, she loves to work out, play soccer, and take her dog for long walks.

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

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