Due to growing world population and increasing wealth, demand for energy – specifically electricity – is rising, especially for the 1.3 billion people who don’t have access.
The most commonly used source for electricity production today is coal; 41% of all electricity is produced from coal, according to the World Coal Association. Due to its high level of pollution (water and air pollution during mining and air pollution during burning) and often miserable circumstances for miners, we can conclude that this is not a sustainable source for electricity.
When looking at sustainable electricity resources, we commonly identify four: solar, wind, hydro and biomass. Each of them is renewable, but that doesn’t necessarily make them sustainable. Sustainability is determined by three different parameters: environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.
Environmental sustainability means that it doesn’t do harm to the environment. That means that we need a positive energy balance to start with. If producing a renewable energy device costs more energy than it produces during its lifetime, it’s not sustainable because we’re a net consumer of energy. But there’s a material side to it as well. Mining coal is bad for the environment, but mining neodymium and other rare earth metals for wind turbines is equally polluting. Let’s not close our eyes for what’s happening: anything that’s mined destroys complete ecosystems. And we can only guess if submerging complete ecosystems by building hydropower dams is less destructive.
Social sustainability is enormously diverse and complex. It entails healthy circumstances for workers and decent wages. But an aspect like local welfare increase (as opposed to multinationals exploiting local communities) should definitely be included as well. There’s one overarching aspect on social sustainability – we have one globe where we can provide enough food and energy for everyone. Using the planet’s effectively and efficiently is therefore crucial.
Economic sustainability seems easy enough to measure. If a technology can be sold without subsidies it is sustainable, right? But in most countries fossil fuels belong to the most heavily subsidized products. According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, fossil electricity is still subsidized for over $100 billion worldwide. So, how do renewable energy technologies compete with that when subsidies for renewable sources are only 1/6 of that? And which of these can be called economically sustainable? The one that can be purchased cheapest by consumers?
Sustainability is a very complex word and entails many aspects of which we’ve only scratched a few to illustrate its diversity. The question is: how do we deal with all these aspects? Can we balance all the pros and cons? And how do we do that?
What we can do, is use the full matrix of available renewable electricity technologies and use them in the most sustainable way. Just by using logic.
Solar panels on sloped roofs that are otherwise not used? Yes, please! Solar panels on Dutch polders instead of cattle to create an “energy landscape”? No! Wind turbines the North Sea with high impact on nature? No! Wind turbines on abandoned land with limited impact on nature? Yes, please! Hydropower with dams that submerge complete villages and arable land in Brazil?! Madness! Corn production for energy while we could produce food or feed? Off course not! Biomass residues for electricity production? Yes, please! Electricity production from living plants while the plant grows while producing rice on the same surface? Yes, please.
The problem is that we normally don’t use logic to make the decision which electricity source to use. We want it all. We want electricity for the whole world, at low cost, at low environmental impact, as soon as possible, with high return for the companies, with large local economic growth, with high shareholder value, easy to use for consumers, available always and everywhere.
You know what? That’s not possible. Let’s decide what’s most important and take that as starting point.
Starting point 1: I want cheap electricity: Here’s your coal-fired power plant. It has all the advantages of cheap electricity, but don’t complain when the Earth dies and when you’ve run out of coal.
Starting point 2: I want renewable electricity at the lowest possible price: You’ve got the choice of hydropower, wind power, solar power or biomass. Depending on local subsidies and providers, one or more of these options will be available to you. Some of the electricity companies will provide “green electricity” and you don’t even have to choose. Please don’t ask about the exact sustainability of your renewable electricity. It’s cheap, it’s renewable, forget about the rest.
Starting point 3: I want sustainable electricity: Now we’re talking. You’ve got the choice of hydropower, wind power, solar panels and biomass. Let’s check what can be combined with other applications at the same land and what has the lowest impact on nature and people on the long run. You might have to pay a bit more than you’re used to, but at least you’ll be assured of a long-term solution and availability of electricity without hampering the access to other resources for yourself or others.
If we all chose starting point 1 nothing will change, we won’t stop climate change and smog will be the number one death cause in large urban areas. If we choose starting point 2, we’ll focus on low prices that will compete with the sustainability of the renewable energy source. We might end up using fossil resources to produce renewable technologies and not changing anything in the end.
I’ve chosen starting point three. If you do too, we might have a chance of moving towards a sustainable electricity matrix with minimal impact on nature and people. In fact, we actually may get to a point where energy is abundant, cheap, sustainable and available to everyone everywhere. Sounds too good to be true? Prove me wrong by trying it.
Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here
Author: Marjolein Helder is Chief Executive Officer of Plant-e, a World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneer.
Image: A general view shows solar panels to produce renewable energy at the photovoltaic park in Les Mees, in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, southern France March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier