A lot of the news and coverage around renewable energy seems to be positive.
But, the reality is that is both positive and negative aspects (potential problems, challenges, etc.) of implementing this technology.
This guide outline the pros and cons of renewable and alternative energy, both now, and into the future.
Summary – Pros & Cons Of Renewable & Alternative Energy
As a brief description of renewable and alternate energy:
- Renewable energy might include solar, wind, water (hydroelectric, wave, tidal), and geothermal energy
- Alternative forms of energy might include nuclear, biomass and hydrogen
- Each one of these sources of energy has it’s own set of pros and cons, and these pros and cons get more specific on a country, state/province and city based level
In terms of the summarised pros and cons:
Almost Infinite In Supply
The Energy Source Can Be Free
There’s Huge Potential In Some Sources
Some Sources Have Great Power Density/Output
Some Sources Are Comparatively Cheap & Easy To Set Up, Run & Maintain
Some Sources Don’t Require Re-Fuelling
Some Sources Have No Operational Waste (although, there is end of lifespan waste – such as end of lifespan solar panels)
Some Sources Are Portable
Some Sources Can Be Used On Both Large Scale, & An Individual Or Household Level
Some Sources Give Individual Independence From The Grid
Some Sources Can Be Used In Urban Areas, & Also Rurally
Need No Water For Operation
Can Help Reduce Greenhouse Gases
Can Help Directly Reduce Air Pollution & Air Contaminants
Can Help Create New Jobs
Can Help Indirectly Address Ocean Acidification & Ocean Warming
Can Help Indirectly Address Water Pollution
Can Be More Beneficial Economically Than Fossil Fuels Across A Range Of Measures & Indicators
Some Sources, Like Hydropower, Can Store Energy
Some Sources Aren’t Geographically Available Everywhere
Some People Think That Renewable Energy & Electric Vehicles Are A Silver Bullet, When Decreased Consumption Might Be The Key Answer For The Future
Some Sources Don’t Yet Have The Power Density/Output Of Some Energy Sources
Some Renewable Energy Sources Are Variable & May Need A Complimentary Or Supplemental Power Source
Treating & Managing Nuclear Waste Can Be Expensive, & Potentially Harmful
Can Rely Heavily On Precious Metals & Resources, & Can Have Sustainability Issues
Can Increase The Price Of Electricity
Isn’t Always As Profitable For Manufacturers & Suppliers – compared to fossil fuels like coal. May have to rely on subsidies and grants in the short term
Can Be Many Challenges In Transitioning To Renewable & Alternative Energy On A Mass Scale, Especially Retrofitting Power Grids & Building New Infrastructure
Some Economies Are Massively Reliant On Fossil Fuel In The Short To Medium Term Future
Can Reduce Jobs In Fossil Fuel Related Industries
Some Sources Still Requires A Lot Of Money & Time For Research, Testing, Development & Economies Of Scale
Some Energy Sources Look Bad & Make Noise
Some Energy Sources Can Negatively Impact The Environment & Wildlife
Each Form Of Renewable Or Alternative Energy Has It’s Own Set Of Cons, Challenges & Problems To Address
* This guide is a generalisation. In reality, every source of energy has it’s own set of pros and cons in each individual urban or remote area, in different countries, states and provinces. How technology advances and provides new opportunities, social factors (like population growth, economic growth etc), and the information that continued research provides us will also impact the pros and cons of any energy source at any point in time, in addition to many other variables and factors. So, the pros and cons below are only a selection of many more broad and specific pros and cons.
Pros Of Renewable & Alternative Energy Sources
Almost Infinite In Supply – some sources such as solar and wind for example are almost infinite in supply (in comparison to fossil fuels which might be finite). The sun for example, has roughly another 5 billion years left before it’s hydrogen supply runs out
The Energy Source Can Be Free – a power plant might use coal to generate electricity, but that coal costs money to mine, process, refine etc. The same can be said for other fossil fuels. Renewable sources like solar and wind are free – sunlight and wind are available without any of the processing that fossil fuels require.
There’s Huge Potential In Some Sources – in both power output and supply. Tidal and wave energies for example have huge potential to capture the ocean’s energy and convert it to power. Nuclear may have far more supply potential than the uranium that can be mined from the ground if reactor technology advances and uranium slivers can be feasibly extracted from sea water.
Some Sources Have Great Power Density/Output – the power density or power per unit of nuclear energy for example is quite good compared to solar and wind.
Some Sources Are Comparatively Cheap & Easy To Set Up, Run & Maintain – such as solar panels. The good thing about solar panels is that they can be set up in as many or few panels as desired, and panels generally only need to be cleaned once or twice per year. They don’t have the ongoing costs like a big power plant might.
Some Sources Don’t Require Re-Fuelling – solar panels for example don’t require to be restocked with fuel like a coal power plant might.
Some Sources Have No Operational Waste – solar and wind are two examples of renewable energy generation that have no operational waste product.
Some Sources Are Portable – like small solar panels for example that can be taken camping, hiking etc.
Some Sources Can Be Used On Both Large Scale, & An Individual Or Household Level – like solar, wind, geothermal and hydro.
Some Sources Give Individual Independence From The Grid – such as solar. Solar panels can feed energy directly into the grid, or they can feed energy into a battery where the energy is stored for use later on (and the energy is independent of a grid).
Some Sources Can Be Used In Urban Areas, & Also Rurally – such as wind, solar and hydro (if a water source or stream is available nearby). Comparatively, fossil fuel power plants might not be able to reach some rural or remote areas.
Need No Water For Operation – unlike coal plants for example that need masses of water for cooling towers and other operational needs, renewable energy like wind and solar need no water for operation. In an 80 percent renewables future [in the US] … water use [from the power sector] would be reduced by 50 percent (ucsusa.org)
Can Help Reduce Greenhouse Gases – a big pro. While there are small carbon footprints associated with the manufacture of renewable technology, there’s no greenhouse gas emissions during operation (of solar and wind for example). Compare this to coal, oil and natural gas which all emit carbon. Renewable energy can obviously have a massive positive impact on our efforts to reduce the negative impacts of climate change and global warming. In an 80 percent renewables future, carbon emissions from the power sector would be reduced by 80 percent (ucsusa.org)
Can Help Directly Reduce Air Pollution & Air Contaminants – fossil fuels burned by vehicles and power plants emit various air pollutants into the air, with particular matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide being some of the main air pollutants. Clean renewable energy can significantly reduce the amount of air contaminants being released, which in turn helps keep air quality higher, and can reduce other side effects like acid rain
Can Help Create New Jobs – the renewable energy industries can create new jobs as they expand and develop
Can Help Indirectly Address Ocean Acidification & Ocean Warming – carbon emissions contribute to acidification and warming of the ocean. Cleaner energy means less emissions
Can Help Indirectly Address Water Pollution – mining of fossil fuels, waste water from fossil fuel related activities, and acid rain can all contribute to water pollution. Renewable and greener energy can obviously alleviate some of these factors
Can Be More Beneficial Economically Than Fossil Fuels Across A Range Of Measures & Indicators – As one example, renewable energy tends to produce more jobs per dollar invested, and more jobs per unit of electricity produced. Read more in these guides – The Economic Impact & Benefits Of Renewable & Clean Energy, How Many Jobs Renewable & Clean Energy Creates?, and Does Renewable & Clean Energy Create More Jobs Than Fossil Fuels?.
Some Sources, Like Hydropower, Can Store Energy – pumped hydropower has the ability to store energy when water is stored in the lower level, and pumped up to the higher level when needed for energy generation. In the future, pumped hydropower could run with renewable energy like solar and wind power for the pumping – making it cleaner and more sustainable (bettermeetsreality.com)
Renewable Energy Tends To Be More Efficient – Firstly, fossil fuels have to be processed, and the conversion process to turn fossil fuels into electricity involves a lot of waste. As a result, they can be an inefficient energy source compared to renewable energy which has very little waste and can actually produce more energy than the original input. Secondly, if we look at the external problems that fossil fuels can cause like greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution just as two examples, we can use even more energy (through technology like carbon sequestration) to address these problems. Thirdly, in a real energy system where we have to consider overcapacity of the power grid, different energy sources may not be able to run at 100% capacity (to maximise their efficiency) all the time. The cost of running fossil fuels and nuclear can place pressure on fossil fuels to be more efficient, where as renewable operating costs are low (because the fuel doesn’t have to be paid for), so inefficiency isn’t as much of a problem.
Cons Of Renewable & Alternative Energy Sources
Some Sources Aren’t Geographically Available Everywhere – for example, some Scandinavian countries have far more geothermal energy available geographically than many other countries. Another example is that a country like Australia gets far more sunlight and subsequently available solar energy than colder climates.
Some People Think That Renewable Energy & Electric Vehicles Are A Silver Bullet, When Decreased Consumption Might Be The Key Answer For The Future – simply saying ‘oh we have renewable energy and electric vehicles to address climate change and pollution’ can be an easy way out for some people and they think our future problems are solved. This is not the case. Increases in efficiency, more sustainably lifestyle habits and decreased overall consumption might be some of the other solutions.
Some Sources Don’t Yet Have The Power Density/Output Of Some Energy Sources – for example, solar and wind may not be anywhere near as powerful as nuclear on a power per unit basis.
Some Renewable Energy Sources Are Variable & May Need A Complimentary Or Supplemental Power Source – for example, the sun isn’t always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing. For these reasons, these types of energy might need a secondary or primary source of energy if they make up part of a city’s energy mix. This can increase the price of electricity if more energy sources are needed.
Treating & Managing Nuclear Waste Can Be Expensive, & Potentially Harmful – self explanatory. Compared to natural gas or coal, nuclear waste has some downsides.
Can Rely Heavily On Precious Metals & Resources, & Can Present Sustainability Issues – alot of renewable technology can rely on previous metals and resources. This might be a scarcity issue in the future if demand continues to increase and we aren’t able to find alternative materials, recycle or find new supplies. Some reports indicate that Germany’s renewable energy transition involves the unsustainable use of raw materials to make solar panels and wind turbines, and still requires fossil fuels. This is not even taking into account the waste created by end of lifespan solar panels. And, solar panels can also require plastic to make
Can Increase The Price Of Electricity – for various reasons, renewable energy can be more expensive for electricity than coal or other fossil fuel electricity.
Isn’t Always As Profitable For Manufacturers & Suppliers – compared to fossil fuels like coal. May have to rely on subsidies and grants in the short term. China is an example of a country where coal is highly profitable right now.
Can Be Many Challenges In Transitioning To Renewable & Alternative Energy On A Mass Scale, Especially Retrofitting Power Grids & Building New Infrastructure – China is an example. They are experiencing some issues in transitioning their renewable energy equipment into their existing power grid set up for coal.
Some Economies Are Massively Reliant On Fossil Fuel In The Short To Medium Term Future – such as China which has a lot of investment money tied up with coal power plants and infrastructure.
Can Reduce Jobs In Fossil Fuel Related Industries – transitioning to renewable can decrease the number of fossil fuel related jobs as coal and other power plants begin to close down, and less fossil fuels are mined and refined.
Some Sources Still Requires A Lot Of Money & Time For Research, Testing, Development & Economies Of Scale – renewable and alternative energy is still being researched and developed in a lot of ways (solar is one of the sources that is furthest ahead in terms of development). In terms of economies of scale, new technology requires consumer demand increasing in order to begin to make products and services cheaper and more accessible in the future.
Some Energy Sources Look Bad & Make Noise – such as some wind farms.
Some Energy Sources Can Negatively Impact The Environment & Wildlife – such as ocean based renewable energy, and hydroelectric plants. Even solar and wind farms can have their individual issues.
Each Form Of Renewable Or Alternative Energy Has It’s Own Set Of Cons, Challenges & Problems To Address – so they each need time and money to work through these issues. There’s no one size fits all approach.
Pros & Cons Guides Of Different Renewable & Alternative Energy Sources
You can find some relevant guides here:
- Wind Energy Pros & Cons
- Solar Energy Pros & Cons
- Hydroelectric Energy Pros & Cons
- Wave Energy Pros & Cons
- Tidal Energy Pros & Cons
- Geothermal Energy Pros & Cons
- Nuclear Energy Pros & Cons (technically not renewable, but is an alternative energy source to fossil fuels)
- Biomass Energy Pros & Cons (can be both a renewable and alternative energy depending on various factors)
- Hydrogen Energy Pros & Cons (an alternative energy source for cars, along with hybrid and electric vehicles)
* For the purposes of this guide, we left out electric cars, which are more of a secondary use of fossil fuel or renewable/alternative energy.
You can read more about the pros and cons of electric vehicles in this guide.