Before we get too far down the rabbit hole of the benefits of renewable energy sources over traditional energy sources, maybe we should explain exactly what it is we are talking about.
What are the traditional energy sources?
Australians spend about $50 billion on energy each year, while energy exports earn more than $24 billion a year. This is projected to increase by 50 per cent by 2020, and the energy industry has estimated that at least $37 billion in energy investments will be required by 2020 to meet the nation’s energy needs.
At the moment the vast majority of this energy is made up of natural gas, which gives us energy for cooking and heating, and electricity, which we use for lighting as well as cooking and heating and cooling.
Both of these traditional energy sources have a number of disadvantages. But the most important disadvantage to us as responsible Australian is that both energy sources are non-renewable. In both cases, they rely on burning resources to create energy, in the case of natural gas we burn the refined gas directly to create heat, while electricity is primarily created by burning coal in generators, which then produces the electricity for us.
In both cases, there are only a certain amount of natural resources available, and once they are gone, we can no longer produce energy from those sources. You will no doubt have seen the announcement recently from the gas companies that we are in fact already running low on natural gas reserves, and may face shortages this winter.
So we need to look beyond our traditional energy sources for a solution. And that solution is renewable energy sources. As you can see from the charts above, the rate of growth for coal-based solutions is estimated at around 1.1% in 2020, compared to Solar power at 3.0% and wind power at an amazing 14.8%!
What are renewable energy sources?
As the name suggests, renewable energy sources are sources which are infinitely renewable, like solar power, wind power and even water power in the form of hydro-electric schemes and wave power. So long as the sun keeps shining, the winds keep blowing, and the waters keep surging, these power sources will last forever. So let’s take a look at each of these renewable energy sources one at a time.
By far the best known renewable energy source, although not the most used, is solar power. Without getting too technical, solar panels, or more correctly PV (photo-voltaic) panels are placed anywhere where the sun can shine on them, and the panels convert the sun’s rays into voltage, or electricity. That electricity can then be used to heat or power a house, or even a whole town or city. It can also be stored in a storage cell in a similar way that your car stores electricity for later use.
In some areas, the local power companies even have a ‘buy-back’ system in place where the excess electricity produced by solar energy is ‘sold’ to the power company and fed into their power grid. Then the user can ‘buy back’ electricity from the power company when they need it, in times when the lack of sunlight means that the solar panels aren’t producing enough power.
What are the advantages of solar power?
Apart from the obvious one, the sun is going to keep providing us with almost free renewable energy for thousands of years, solar power is free from the emissions created when coal is burnt for fuel.
A recent report estimated that emissions from primarily coal-burning generators is costing the Australian public around $2.8 BILLION per year in increased health costs for respiratory diseases like asthma, which is in epidemic proportions. That would be almost eliminated if we switched over to fully renewable energy sources like solar power.
What are the disadvantages of solar power?
There are surprisingly few. Apart from the initial cost, there is the space taken up by the solar panels. But has been shown in large cities, these can be placed on home and factory roofs. In the outback, where the sun shines most consistently, it is possible to place large banks of these panels in spare paddocks which are unusable for farming, so providing farmers with an extra income as well as providing essential electricity.
The critics talk about the ‘intermittent’ nature of solar power, but last time I checked, the sun was still there, and not going anywhere else in the near future. And with the latest advances in PV technology, they have even be shown to be effective in London!
Less well-known, but becoming increasingly common in Australia as in other countries, is wind power. Simply, a series of windmills with large blades are built in areas of high wind, like the coastline of Australia. The wind blows and moves the blades, which are connected to turbines which produce electricity. Again, that electricity can then be used to power homes, factories, or even town and cities.
As we briefly mentioned above, wind power is estimated to grow to around 15% of our total power sources by 2020, and already states like South Australia and Western Australia are building vast wind farms along the southern and south-western coastlines of Australia.
What are the advantages of wind power?
Again, once the wind farms are in place in areas of constant winds, the renewable energy is basically free, more or less constant, and free of emissions, making it an attractive option for Australia.
What are the disadvantages of wind power?
Again, the initial cost of establishing the wind farms has to be met, but that argument also applies to coal-burning power stations, which is surprisingly never mentioned by the pro-coal brigade, including our current Prime Minister and Treasurer. But there is an initial cost to all power sources which has to be met.
The other criticisms raised by the anti-renewable energy brigade are the ‘intermittent’ nature of the wind, but common sense would dictate to build all of these power sources in the most efficient areas for the source. In the case of wind farms, the coastline is the most obvious place for them because of the almost constant wind, and in fact very little wind is required to produce power with the latest wind turbine technology.
Wave and River Power
We will lump these together because the technology is basically the same. The power of water, whether rivers or ocean, is used to drive a turbine, which creates electricity. As we have seen in Australia with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, these can be built in Australia and can be effective.
What are the advantages of water power?
Once again, once the initial cost of construction is met, the upkeep is minimal, and almost free power can be created forever. And once again, there are no emissions concerns with water power.
What are the disadvantages of water power?
Unfortunately, the costs of construction are enormous, and prohibitive in most cases for Australia. We have the resources for both river and wave power, but not the money needed to build this technology, so it will remain a small part of renewable energy sources for Australia for the time being. Overseas, in countries with much higher populations, the results are very promising.
Australia, for far too many years, has relied on cheap but non-renewable energy sources for our power. But those sources are plagued by problems like emissions, public health concerns, and now even supply. The coal and natural gas supplies are becoming more scarce by day, and because of that, the costs of raw materials are rising, and these costs will naturally be passed on to consumers.
We need to be looking to the future right now, and renewable energy sources, supplied by nature, is the obvious choice. Solar and wind power in particular are the way forward for Australia. While the cost of natural gas and coal-burning electricity will inevitably continue to rise, the cost of renewable energy sources are constantly dropping due to increasing demand and economies of scale in production so the sooner we all agree to switch over to the benefits of renewable energy sources the better.
If you wish to become part of the solution, but are not yet ready to completely go solar, you might want to check out the Better Power website for an easier solution. They can help you to choose a cleaner future and possible even save you money in the process.