Green energy, renewables, offshore and onshore wind farms, solar energy… we’ve all heard about the new age of energy and the significance it has on the very survival of our planet. But who is driving this change, and what does that mean to us – the consumer?
With ‘renewable energy expected to make up 30% of the world’s energy by 2024,’ (Wartsila) we decided to take a deep dive into the data surrounding the evolution of energy generation and consumption. After all, climate change is upon us and now is the time to act; so, let’s better understand our world and the human impacts we have on it.
To truly understand the effect of energy generation on our planet, and to therefore understand the need to transition to green energy – one must first understand the role of traditional energy generation methods. The ones we now know have made catastrophic changes to the safety of our biological ecosystems. The likes of coal, oil, nuclear, biofuels, etc - see here for example, the biomass energy sites around the world
Coal energy for example, is a significant threat to our environmental survival, and for many reasons. Not only does coal combustion result in the emissions of: “Sulfur dioxide (SO2), which contributes to acid rain and respiratory illnesses. Nitrogen oxides (NOx), which contribute to smog and respiratory illnesses. Particulates, which contribute to smog, haze, and respiratory illnesses and lung disease.” (EIA) It also results in methane emissions. In 2018 alone, “methane emissions from coal mining and abandoned coal mines accounted for about 11% of total U.S. methane emissions and about 1% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (based on global warming potential).” (EIA)
Methane is considered to be a key contributor to global warming; so, any activity that drives the release of methane into our atmosphere is a worrying sight, when we have the data required to make necessary changes in our human behaviour. “Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25% of today's warming is driven by methane from human actions.” (EDF)
Some of the world’s most powerful countries dominate the coal energy industry, including the United States, China, Russia and Australia.
Here we can see a visualisation created from GPPD data showcasing the global distribution of power plants. Each grey badge symbolises a coal power plant from India across to Japan and down to Indonesia.
Here we then compare the visualisation above with the subsequent allocation of methane emissions around the world. Yellow shows significant emissions, and red shows intense emissions on a daily basis. This is based off forecast data via ECMWF / Copernicus.
The data tells a powerful story… so, on to a more positive energy story – renewables!
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Armed with the knowledge we have on harmful energy sources, it’s refreshing to hear the positive stories of powerhouse corporations the world over investing in green energy – including the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon – to offset their carbon emissions, and reduce their environmental footprint. “Renewable energy is expected to make up 30 percent of the world’s energy by 2024, according to the International Energy Agency, and most of this is driven by solar and wind projects that continue to be rolled out at a startling pace. This is a growth in the use of solar panels, which made up 60 percent of the renewable energy capacity installed in 2019. Even technology giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon have invested in solar.” (Wartsila)
Renewable energy includes the likes of solar, wind, marine, hydropower, tidal, bioenergy and geothermal energy; and according to World Energy Balances (IEA) data, since 1971 to 2018, renewables have grown the fastest across all major energy sectors worldwide. Versus the likes of Nuclear having more than halved in strength in that time.
We can also see in this visualisation that based on IEO2019 predictions; renewables will be the most used energy source by 2050. With petroleum, natural gas, coal and nuclear falling below it. The likes of Covid helped reduce global oil production in 2020, with World Energy Outlook stating that ‘the pandemic has erased almost a decade of growth in global oil demand in a single year.’ (IEA)
With renewables being the way of the future – let’s look closer at some kinds of renewable energy. First up, Solar Energy!
Solar energy is a form of renewable energy that has taken off at lightning speed – or should we say sunshining speed? Using the sun’s powerful rays to create clean energy has been a successful transition for many people, whether it be in the form of solar panels on your home roof to large scale plants and solar fields. Plus, an added benefit of solar energy, is it’s due to be 35% cheaper by 2024!
“Industry experts predict that the US will double its solar installations to four million by 2023. In 2018, the UK had over one million solar panel installations, up by 2% from the previous year and Australia reached two million solar installations in the same year. A big reason for this increased uptake is the fall in prices to install the panels.” (earth.org) This visualisation showcases the global solar energy power plants around the Atlantic region.
Another good example of driving solar energy generation is China, ‘where policies and targets for solar strengthened dramatically after 2007, putting China on a path to becoming a driving force for solar worldwide.’ (World Energy Outlook, 2020) Other countries who are driving solar energy are India – with ample sunshine hours and limited cloud coverage – Spain, and the United States. This visualisation clearly shows us the average daily sun hours around the Europe and African regions - with the lighter yellows and orange being the ideal locations for solar energy generation.
Wind energy is not only a great source of clean energy, in recent years it has dominated the renewable energy scene around the world. According to the Global Wind Report 2021, curated by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC): “2020 was the best year in history for the global wind industry showing year-over-year (YoY) growth of 53%. Installing more than 93 GW wind power in a challenging year with disruption to both the global supply chain and project construction has demonstrated the incredible resilience of the wind industry.” (GWEC) Let’s take a deeper dive into wind energy, which comes in the form of onshore and offshore generation.
Both onshore and offshore wind are important forms of renewable energy. But let’s start with onshore wind! Not only is a terrain slope required, but there must be a steady wind strength at 50-100 metres above ground. Places like Scotland offer ideal conditions for onshore wind farms, with consistently strong winds in the central belt and the right terrain slopes.
A huge advantage of using onshore wind turbines is that this is a proven technology that assists in generating clean energy. For example, in 2010 ‘onshore electricity provided about 7 TWh of electricity to the grid, approximately 25% of the renewable energy in the energy mix in the UK.’ (thegreenage) That number is thought to have been as high as 30 TWh in 2020 – showing a massive increase of electricity onshore wind is feeding to the UK grid.
According to EIA data, the top five countries in wind electricity generation, and their percentage shares of total world wind electricity generation in 2019, were:
- United States–21%
- United Kingdom–5%
So, it’s proven, it’s popular, it’s comparatively cheap – it’s actually the cheapest renewable energy source in the UK at 8p / kWh – and it’s quick to install. Long live onshore wind!
The potential for offshore wind, as with onshore, is huge. Requiring water depth of <50 metres for fixed installations, and a depth of <100 metres for floating installations; they only require winds of above 7 – 9 m/s. This opens up enormous possibilities for much of the world’s oceans to support offshore wind farms and renewable energy generation.
The ESMAP-IFC Offshore Wind Development Programme analysed just how immense the possibilities are of offshore wind generation, and in their Going Global report released in October 2019, they highlighted there is the potential for ‘3.1 TW of offshore wind technical potential in just eight emerging markets: Brazil, India, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Vietnam.’ (esmap) Here we see visualised in lime green, the areas of offshore potential - specifically North of Russia, Scandinavia and the East Coast of the UK across the channel to European shores.
Now, considering 1 GW alone can power around 500,000 homes, we’re talking BIG energy potential here. Big clean energy, and an essential step in the right direction to achieve net zero goals set out by the United Nations SDGs! This visualisation by comparison to the above showcases in lime green, another area of offshore energy potential - specifically North of Australia and South East Asia.
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A lesser-known form of renewable energy, but one that works off the dynamic nature of our planet, is geothermal energy. Generating energy from the earth’s inner heat is a renewable source that very few countries have access to, but those living along the tectonic faults are using this immense heat energy to their advantage.
This visualisation shows global deep geothermal energy production by country, and naturally the world’s biggest players in this sector sit where the mantle is hotter at a depth we can reach with our drills. That is as you can see, predominantly along the ring of fire, including Japan, the US West Coast and New Zealand, with the darker brown colour signifying the greatest level of production.
We can also see in this visualisation the geothermal potential around the world. The areas of bright orange are the areas with the greatest potential for future farming of this unique energy source. Highlights here include Indonesia / Philippines and Turkey.
So, there we have it. There are many sources of renewable energy that could greatly reduce our human impact on the planet, could reduce our carbon footprints, reduce fossil fuel production, slow down global warming, and re-stabilise our planet’s natural ecosystems. As major governments prioritise green energy, this will become an easier transition domestically in terms of cost and installation in our homes – but we are seeing positive steps around the world.