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Can Renewable Energy Effectively Replace Fossil Fuels?

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The energy debate has been going on for a long time, and the question of whether or not renewable energy can replace the global dependence on fossil fuels has been circulating endlessly in the minds of those interested, like the blades of a wind turbine. It's often said that oil and other fossil fuels will run out fairly soon and that humankind better get its act together if it's going to progress into the mid-21st century and beyond. The problem with non-renewable energy sources like coal, natural gas, and oil is implicit in their categorization - they are an ultimately unsustainable form of energy. Renewable energy sources like wind, solar, or geothermal, on the other hand, will always be available as long as people live on this planet.

Depending on who you ask, fossil fuels will cease to be available in the next 50 to 100 years. Of course whether or not fossil fuels will be depleted in the (relatively) near future is a heavily politicized issue, and so some will tell you that the world won't have to worry about running out of reserves for hundreds of years. It's interesting to note that organizations like British Petroleum, who have a vested interest in fossil fuels, claim that we don't need to worry about exhausting these resources; on the other hand, new technologies have increased potential reserves because they've opened up previously inaccessible sources of fossil fuels. But reserves are not the only "cap" on fossil fuels - the world also has to think about the damage their combustion is doing to the environment (burning coal, for instance, produces carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas).

Can Renewable Energy Effectively Replace Fossil Fuels?

It does seem that the wide-scale adoption of renewable energy sources faces an uphill climb. The infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry is firmly entrenched. Established forms of energy production tend to have the upper hand; for instance, it took coal around 50 years to usurp wood. 95 % of contemporary forms of transportation require fossils fuels to run, and unless you expect everyone to start riding bikes, this is a problem. In addition, many forms of renewable energy remain expensive. And that brings us to the most important factor here: cost-effectiveness.

Like everything else, the question of whether or not renewable energy can replace fossil fuels is ultimately one of time and money. Whether it's logical or not, cost-effectiveness is going to define the rate of adoption of alternative energy sources. Are these technologies too expensive? Do some of them come with the baggage of adverse ecological effects? Of course, it's important to add that renewable forms of energy wouldn't be subject to inflation like fossil fuels are. In spite of this, some of the proposed types of renewable energy and their cost-effectiveness are considered below.

Solar Energy

One of the most popular sources of alternative energy is solar power, mostly powered by photovoltaic solar panels to been seen these days in many American neighborhoods. The Sun is an almost infinite source of energy (of course it will "die" in around 6.5 billion years, but this isn't something modern humanity needs to worry about) which powered the development of life on the planet. Ultimately, fossil fuels wouldn't exist without the indefatigable engine of the Sun to keep the life cycle going.

Of course, there are still some problems with the possibility of solar energy. The technology remains expensive to install. Even though the initial set-up cost is expensive, solar panels pay for themselves in the long-run, so this "con" does turn into an eventual "pro" (although it will take multiple years). The cost-effectiveness of installing solar panels depends on a handful of factors, such as how much energy an individual home uses and whether or not it's located in a sunny area. Apropos sunniness, another potential drawback is that if the area goes without sunshine, it just won't amass energy (imagine the people living in the notoriously cloudy United Kingdom!). Insulation powers photovoltaic solar panels - simply put, the sun needs to be hitting the panels! Battery technology needs to advance more so that power can be stored.

Wind Energy

According to Dr. Arjun Makhujiani, President of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research, potential sources of wind energy in 12 Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states could provide more than 2.5 times the amount of electricity output in the entire country. Of course, depending on who's being asked, wind power is either economical or uneconomical.
Wind energy faces the same problem as solar energy in that battery technology needs to advance. As Dr. Clive Best points out, society needs energy that's always available. He certainly has a point that if power in a city such as London were to go out for as little as twelve hours due to a sunless, windless day, there would be rioting and looting in no time.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy taps into heat and steam naturally produced underneath the planet's surface. For example, the state of California has 40 different geothermal plants, and this accounts for five percent of the state's energy needs. However, each of these plants is pretty expensive, costing tens of millions of dollars to the taxpayer. To produce such small amounts of the necessary energy at such high costs is certainly an issue which needs to be scrutinized.

Further Development is Needed

The truth is that these technologies need to be made more cost-effective. The development of batteries which can store energy gathered from wind and solar power is absolutely vital. The problem is that alternative energy and climate change have become politicized issues. Government investment is needed to fund further development. However, those who believe that fossil fuels will not be depleted any time soon, or don't believe in anthropogenic climate change (the two beliefs often go hand in hand, interestingly), don't see any need to start a costly or (what they see as) inefficient process of widescale adoption of renewable forms of energy.

Germany: An Example of the Success of Renewable Energy

Germany is a good example of a country which has shown that alternative energy can replace significant portions of traditional fossil fuel energy production. The central European country has had a high level of success with forms of renewable energy, as part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's "Energiewende" program. In fact, on May 8, 2016, so much energy was being produced by solar, wind, and biomass plants that energy prices went into the negative for a few hours! Germany has set a goal to have 45 % of its energy coming from alternative energy sources by 2030, so it's definitely a country to watch.

Renewable energy sources can absolutely replace fossil fuels - eventually. The question is whether or not it can replace them soon enough in order to avert irreversible damage to our planet. So, it will most likely happen, but the question is "when?" It really depends on public opinion and the influence of lobbyists on politicians, in addition to whether or not it can be made cost-effective. Some countries, however, have had success with financial incentives, such as feed-in tariffs. The truth is that, ultimately, alternative forms of energy could actually provide MORE energy than what we depend on now, so if we want to talk about cost-effectiveness, in the long-run alternative energy would be the best option. It's sort of like a macrocosm of the noble solar panel - expensive to get up and running (and requiring more research to improve), but saving more money and providing more energy in the long-run. Fossil fuels have had their time and done their service, for which the world should be thankful, but the human story is one of progress, and it's time to start the process of leaving them behind. Let's just hope the collective wallet of the world can be made to handle this transition.

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Yes, renewable energy can effectively replace fossil fuels
No, renewable energy will never effectively replace fossil fuels

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