The most stubborn barrier is the cost of installation. Renewables are designed for simplicity, meaning solar panels and wind turbines are relatively easy and inexpensive to maintain, the initial price of the equipment to power companies and homeowners is not insurmountable.
What Is Preventing Some Countries From Making the Switch to 100% Renewables?
Megan Ray Nichols | Schooled by Science
The momentum behind renewable energy is strong, but even some of the most prosperous countries are dropping the ball when making the switch to 100 percent renewable energy.
Iceland probably doesn’t sound like an obvious hotbed for sustainable energy growth, since it has so little sunshine and wind, but the country is currently meeting all of its electricity needs with clean power. In the U.S., we’ll be lucky if we hit 30 percent by the year 2025.
Realistically, what are the barriers preventing other countries from joining Iceland in this endeavor? Most fall under the following five categories.
The most stubborn barrier is the cost of installation. Renewables are designed for simplicity, meaning solar panels and wind turbines are relatively easy and inexpensive to maintain, but the initial price of the equipment to power companies and homeowners is not insurmountable.
For residential purposes, the installation cost per kilowatt could be anywhere from $2000 to $3700. Wind farms carry a price of between $1200 and $1700 per kilowatt.
A natural gas plant? $1000 per kilowatt.
The technology responsible for generating clean power becomes more cost-effective every day, but the financial reality is still daunting. The relatively lower risk attached to "entrenched" technologies like natural gas — versus “riskier” ventures like solar and geothermal — tend to make more attractive investment targets for lending institutions.
Iceland compensated for its relative lack of wind and sunlight by investing in hydroelectric and geothermal energy — both of which now power households and businesses across the country affordably and sustainably. Other countries that have met or nearly met their 100 percent renewable energy goals include Norway, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Paraguay and Albania.
Since the repeal of the carbon tax in 2014, Australia has seen its emissions continue to rise alarmingly. Consequently, electricity in the country is less sustainable, and also more expensive, than ever. In that respect, Australia finds itself alongside the United States as a country with citizens who broadly favor renewable energies, but a government that does not.
In Germany, for instance, lawmakers recognized the twofold advantages of encouraging solar installations through financial incentives: promoting the growth of new types of businesses and helping Germany meet its Paris Agreement benchmarks.
Unfortunately, even more recently, the political barrier reared its head yet again for Germany when Conservatives and Social Democrats agreed their target of a 55 percent cut in emissions by 2020 is “unrealistic.”
In the U.S., the political barrier to 100 percent renewable energy takes the form of a hugely influential oil industry lobby and wasted, misguided efforts to prop up the failing coal industry instead of increasing government investment and incentives in clean energy. China has dramatically ramped up public spending on renewable energy and created rafts of new jobs and brand-new types of opportunity in the process.
The United States is not the most densely populated country in the world, but it is one of the most geographically diverse. The countries that have had the most success pivoting to renewable energies have been of generally smaller stature.
It’s worth noting that renewables like solar and wind are “decentralized” power sources, unlike nuclear and coal plants. This makes renewable power infrastructure far easier to scale as well as more modular and reliable than older sources of power.
Even so, geography remains a stubborn barrier when it comes to choosing new sites for renewable power installations. Even if the “farms" powering a country’s renewable grid are more resilient, they still require transmission lines to be designed and installed. Like older technologies, accomplishing this feat involves lots of moving parts — including site selection, community relations and financing.
Often, builders look for abandoned industrial or power generation sites. This can reduce some of the other complications but might come with its own challenges, such as environmental remediation for the site before ground can be broken on a new installation.
Suppose you find an ideal site somewhere in the U.S., in a predominantly sunny climate, where you’d like to add solar to a building or build a new solar farm. The lack of practical power storage solutions remains one of the most serious technological bottlenecks for solar power growth here and elsewhere.
The United States and other industrialized countries are adding battery storage capacity at a relatively steady clip, but growth is slow because of the technological limitations of lithium-ion and other battery technologies. The good news is that, according to Reuters, 2018 is expected to see the value of the energy storage and home battery market more than triple.
With politics, money and technology taken care of, the final barrier is misinformation. For a start, solar panels can generate power even in areas that aren’t known for their overwhelmingly sunny dispositions.
Too many business owners and homeowners in America’s more overcast regions assume solar installations have nothing to offer because they’re not accustomed to year-round sunshine like Florida and California — this is not so. It’s true that cloud cover doesn’t provide ideal results, but you needn’t live in a relentlessly sunny climate to benefit.
Other persistent myths include that solar power and other renewable installations are difficult or expensive to maintain for homeowners, or that solar panels are unsightly enough to lower property values. The truth is, home-seekers are often willing to pay up to $15,000 extra for a home with a photovoltaic solar array.
Despite these barriers, we're talking about a revolutionary technology. Renewable energy is going to significantly enhance the reliability of our shared electric grids and uniformly bring prices down for business and residential interests alike. As with any revolution, however, we can expect some growing pains.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
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