Renewable Energy: Our Opportunity to End the Fossil-Fuel Energy Crisis





November 2020
Written by: James Nielsen



85% of the world’s energy comes from nonrenewable sources, which include crude oil, natural gas, and coal. The environmental costs of the unsustainable extraction of these resources no longer outweigh the benefits, particularly for the process of oil fracking. The technique of hydraulic fracturing blasts large amounts of chemicals, water, and sand into “tight” or impermeable underground rock formations [1]. The rock cracks, allowing previously inaccessible natural gas or oil to flow to the surface and be extracted for use. Although effective, fracking is severely destructive, leading to groundwater contamination, methane pollution that contributes to climate change, air pollution, exposure to toxic chemicals, improper waste disposal, fracking-induced earthquakes, and infrastructure degradation [2]. But not only is the extraction of these energy sources detrimental, their transportation can have even greater environmental impacts. For example, the currently in-construction Keystone XL pipeline, which will run from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska, USA, will carry tar sands oil, which is thicker and more corrosive than traditional crude oil [3]. This tar sands oil increases the probability of pipeline leaks — in fact, the older keystone pipeline system leaked 12 times within the first year of operation. After spills, people and wildlife that come into contact with the oil will be exposed to toxic chemicals, and environmentally-sensitive areas such as the Ogallala Aquifer (in the U.S. midwest) could be contaminated, which would result in millions without clean drinking water. Additionally, tar sands oil is highly volatile, meaning that any spilled oil poses a large risk for explosion.





A Keystone pipeline leak in 2017 spilled 9,700 barrels of oil into South Dakota Farmland [4].

However, even if we attempt to look past the destructive properties of these nonrenewable energy sources, we are faced with the exceedingly apparent fact that their amount is finite. According to Stanford University’s Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, oil will run out by 2052. Gas will run out by 2060. Coal will run out by 2090 [5]. None of these power sources are expected to last until the end of the 21st century. But today’s Generation Z will likely live past 2100. We have a rapidly growing population with rising energy needs. And currently, the #1 contributor to greenhouse gases is the energy sector.


In 2017, 32.5 billion metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide were emitted into the atmosphere worldwide [6]. In 1900, only 5 billion metric tons were released [7]. This rapid increase is particularly detrimental, because carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas in determining earth’s temperature. With an excess of greenhouse gases, the sunlight reflected off the surface of the earth becomes more trapped in the atmosphere, heating the earth to damaging levels. The 0.8º celsius increase in average global temperature (since 1880) has caused the loss of Arctic sea ice (at a rate of 13% per decade), sea level rise that causes flooding and the destruction of coastal cities, severe droughts, heat waves, and habitat disruption (see Nasa’s webpage on climate change effects for more details) [8].





Average carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased about 50% in the last few centuries (~1850 - present). Previously, they had remained relatively constant for over 800,000 years [9].


It’s clearly time to rid ourselves of the nonrenewable energy technologies we invented nearly 2 centuries ago. With renewable energy possibilities in abundance, we must now implement the technology we have on a larger scale. Only 15% of the world’s energy consumption and 28% of global energy generation came from renewable sources in 2018. But with access to solar, wind, hydropower, tidal power, geothermal, and biomass energy, all of which are self-replenishing, we can move the world towards using 100% sustainable energy. By combining these technologies, such as designing a power grid that uses solar and wind during the day, as well as tidal and wind during the night, we can create energy that becomes increasingly affordable (as the supply of fossil fuels dwindles) and practical. And not only can we electrify large areas with renewable power grids, but we can provide energy effectively on a small scale, such as rooftop solar, which even allows for greater self-sufficiency.


A strong example of the implementation of sustainable energy technology is in Iceland, where renewable energy provides nearly 100% of electricity generation: about 73% hydropower and 27% geothermal [10]. Even 85% of homes are heated by geothermal energy. (Both these forms of geothermal energy work on the same principle: the ground absorbs almost 50% of the sun’s heat throughout the day, and that energy can be harnessed for electricity or household heating.) Iceland’s transition from fossil fuels to renewables provides a model that we can follow: establishing cohesion and collaboration between government and municipalities, empowering local leaders and encouraging public engagement, developing a favorable regulatory and legal framework, engaging in long-term planning for renewable energy, and showcasing success at each step of the way.



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