Renewable Energy Life Cycle: Cleaner and Cheaper

Posted on December 24, 2014
Posted By: Jessica Kennedy

Results of a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) presents a life cycle assessment (LCA) on an array of electricity generation sources, from fossil fuels to solar power.  The conclusions indicate that renewable energy is cheaper, less environmentally damaging, and has more potential for growth in the next few decades than any conventional electricity generation source. Renewable energy can even power our entire grid by 2050, if we use our resources wisely.                                                                                           

The study is being hailed as the first ever global-scale LCA of a mix of renewable energy sources. Until now, studies have focused on one energy source at a time in LCAs, if they have been done at all.

A life cycle assessment is a method of study used to estimate the environmental impact caused by all stages of the life of a product, or in this case, energy source, from production to end-use. Finally, we have a better idea of how exactly renewable energy integration will affect our environment, electric grid, and energy bills. Surprisingly, we’ve never studied several renewable resources at once to find an answer. This data gives us solid evidence that renewable energy is fully capable of powering our grid and reducing pollution. The authors conclude, “Our analysis indicates that the large-scale implementation of wind, PV [photovoltaic], and CSP [concentrated solar power] has the potential to reduce pollution-related environmental impacts of electricity production, such as GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions…”

Green energy does come with some environmental impacts, which is why this LCA is so valuable.  For the first time, we have information that presents the combined environmental costs of materials, land, manufacturing, and related emissions in one analysis.  The raw materials required to manufacture renewable energy generation is not insignificant, but the authors find that materials, emissions, and pollution of renewable energy pale in comparison to the alternative,

The pollution caused by higher material requirements of [renewable] technologies is small compared with the direct emissions of fossil fuel-fired power plants. 

In terms of materials required, the study estimates that, only two years of current global copper and one year of iron production will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world's electricity needs in 2050.”

Demand Response for Renewable Energy

Renewable resources are intermittent in their ability to generate energy; that is always the main argument heard from opponents of wind and solar. The sun does not always shine and wind does not always blow. So, what will happen when a shortage of available power occurs? 

Maybe the same thing that happens today: utilities and system operators can trigger a demand response event.

If renewable energy can supply 100% of the world’s power by 2050, as the PNAS study claims, then demand response (DR) will be the best carbon-free asset we will have to keep power stable.

Demand response events are typically triggered during extreme heat waves because energy use spikes (mostly for air conditioning) and stresses the electric grid. But, what if we had DR events on cloudy days instead?   Weather radars can predict the extreme overcast conditions that cause solar panels to generate less power.  Wind power output could be similarly predicted since air pressure and changes in cold and warm front weather patterns are already monitored.  Currently, demand response events can be forecast days when extreme weather conditions are predicted. I don’t see why the same can’t be done for solar and wind power. Triggers for DR events would simply change in accordance with sustainable electricity generation patterns. This process wouldn’t be much more disruptive to the power grid than it is today, especially when you consider the fact that cloudy days are usually pretty windy.   

Demand response will get a technology upgrade too; by 2050 we’ll have better storage technology than we do now. Batteries can store any excess power generated by renewable energy systems. Such technology is already being developed; it won’t be long before it’s up and running.  This means even more grid stability. Batteries can replace generators for DR participants. Instead of firing up a diesel generator as backup power, facilities could switch over to batteries that store excess energy from on-site solar panels or windmills.     

Climate Change is Killer

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), without efforts to stop pollution, CO2 emissions from the energy sector will roughly double by 2050. Considering that the earth is already showing effects of climate change, that statistic is chilling. In a 2010 report, the IEA published a graph estimating the CO2 emissions poured into the atmosphere by 2050 if we do nothing (baseline scenario), versus the lesser amount if we act to stop carbon pollution (BLUE Map):


Graph depicting the CO2 emissions of the IEA’s estimated BLUE Map and Baseline Scenarios
Image credit: IEA Energy Technology Perspectives 2010

The baseline scenario will emit almost 60 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050. There’s no doubt that will wreak havoc on Earth’s climate, and all aspects of human livelihood.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vitally important, as we all already know. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us in its Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report that,
It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales, as global mean surface temperature increases. It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration. Occasional cold winter extremes will continue to occur.

Virtually certain environmental disasters should be enough to motivate us all to make some changes in how we think about energy. It’s time to shake up the electric grid and stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere before we reach the point of no return.

Authored By:
Jessica Kennedy has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned her master's degree in Physical Geography & Environmental Systems from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Jessica's primary area of study is environmental conservation and climate change. Jessica is also an avid reader, painter, and guitar player.

Other Posts by: Jessica Kennedy

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December, 25 2014

Ferdinand E. Banks says

Renewable energy supplying 100% of the World Power by 2050. Well, remembering my first Christmas in Sweden, a couple of centuries ago, that prediction does not sound so bad, because on that occasion Vietnam was already in my radar.

Anyway, as I pointed out somewhere, try to be in Canada, Australia or Russia when the parties start on December 31, 2049, because if the governments of other countries are serious about trying to get renewables to do something that they cannot do, somebody is going to be in bad trouble.

Malcolm Rawlingson says that Australia will probably not make the cut because of a shortage of fresh water, but having spent a couple of years in that country, I am not sure. Of course, unless I am mistaken, they have already started to clear the jungle away from nearby countries so that they can take charge of various potential immigrants on the run from things like Ms Merkel's blundering, however I cannot imagine that a talented energy industry worker and guitar player will not be welvomed.

One other thing. Fred Banks is polishing up the manuscript for his book ENERGY ECONOMICS: A MODERN FIRST COURSE, and it is sad to say that he has encountered beaucoup errors, but one thing is A-OK; renewables and the next generation of nuclear could be 'as Close as pages in a book', as it said in that marvelous song, and that could make a lot of people happy..

December, 27 2014

Malcolm Rawlingson says

Australia is a wonderful country and if there was ever a place where solar power and other so called renewables could work it is there. Most of it is arid desert with lots of sunshine. However it doesn't seem to me that they are hell bent on solar panels. They have an apparent dislike for nuclear power...although they seem to want all of the medical radio-isotopes that are produced from nuclear reactors. It seems they like the neutrons that produce medical improvements but not the neutrons that produce clean energy - lots of it. This odd behavious is quite remarkable - even for Australians. They dislike nuclear but apparently like belching out billions of tons of sulphur, nitrous oxides and Carbon Dioxide the cumulative effects of which will kill many thousands of people annually. Since most of their electricity comes from coal their point of view is really odd.

Unfortunately many people in the world are convinced that renewable energy can provide all the electrical energy the world needs. But of course they are not talking about the entire world (ie the two billion people that currently have NO access to electricity) or the three billion otrhers that have only sporadic access to it.

The numerical analysis of that claim needs to be substantiated. Based on simple calculations JUST to bring the two billion to a level of basic electricity supply will require a 1000MW power plant of any sort) to be constructed every single week of every single year for the next 50 years.

Not a chance that is going to come from renewables. I doubt if any source can meet that demand. Nuclear and coal come close but I have my doubts as to whether that is possible.

However if you are talking about the 1 or 2 billion of us then may be...but we will not be able to hear oursel;ves speak for the swish of windmill blades and every single piece of landscape will be covered in solar power plants and windmills.

Sad that people really think this is a practical and sensible way of making electricity.


December, 30 2014

Richard Goodwin, Ph. D., P.E. says

Please see following Total Levelized Costs [$/MWH] comparing energy generation from different technologies per USEIA Natural Gas [CCTG] 49.9 Wind 65.7 Advanced Nuclear 94.9 Conventional Coal 95.7 Solar PV 102.8 Based on the above the lower renewable option Solar PV is 200% greater than Natural Gas fired based loaded power plants. Per EIA Natural Gas will remain below $6/MMBYU until at least the next decade. Richard W. Goodwin West Palm Beach FL

December, 31 2014

Ferdinand E. Banks says

I'm glad that Bill Payne didn't begin his contribution with 'IF'. They are trying to make the impossible possible everywhere, and all of us except the rich are going to pay for it.

January, 07 2015

Richard Vesel says


If by "paying for it" you mean my monthly electric bill is going to go up $20, I am willing to pay for it. In fact, I just did. As of today, AEP supplies my 100% "green" electricity for 8.2 cents per kwhr (or so they claim!). Anyway, I bit the bullet, and as my last power agreement at 5.7 cent per kwhr expires TODAY, I switched to the AEP plan, even though I could find somewhat cheaper power elsewhere. Alas, my cable bill is going up too, lol. But to balance things off a bit, my community's natural gas supply contract just went down to $4.49 per mcf for the next two years. Replacing my 25-year old natural gas furnace (90% efficiency) with a new 95%+ efficiency one, but only because I am forced to due to a catastrophic failure in the old one.

We should view cheap natural gas as a bridge fuel only, as supplies will eventually become tighter over the course of a few decades. Alaska is considering a pipeline to move North Slope gas to markets now, since they currently have no way to utilize or sell the gas that comes up from the oil fields. I HOPE they are currently driving it back underground to enhance oil recovery... They would do well to consider local liquefication, and shipment by LNG tankers to Pacific rim customers, including Hawai'i. Just as green electricity from renewable sources is being added in and sold to customers at a slight premium, I would expect that refined biogas-based methane would soon enter the natural gas "grid" and be made available to customers at a slight premium. Again, this is something I would pay for, and I suspect many others would as well. It will probably take the gas companies another few years to work this into their delivery mix (I am speculating here, as I know of no current projects pointed in this direction.)

As pointed out elsewhere in comments on other articles, we are adding renewable power "capacity" at a rate double what Malcolm says is required to electrify the planet properly. How long can this be kept up - we can only make educated guesses right now. But the current rate of renewable additions is 108GW per year. This, combined with utility scale storage which will come online between now and 2030, should put a serious dent in the requirements to convert to non-carbon/low carbon generation. One other thing to consider is rooftop solar, with local storage and inversion systems. This would include residential, commercial, and industrial rooftops. Let's do a quick speculative calculation:


100 m^2 of rooftop per person in the industrialized nations (probably a very low estimate!)

Use Malcolm's 3 billion people for the affected population

Conversion efficiency of 150w/m^2 (this number is constantly improving)

5% of available rooftop space actually going into use (adjust upwards* if you like)

10^2 x (3x10^9) x (1.5x10^2) x (5x10^-2) = 2.25x10^12

That's 2.25 TW of "capacity" (*or more), which should be considered as about 50% "peaking power", and 50% daytime base-load, zero night time, even though we hope for on-site storage to make that look better.

Costs? At this scale, a figure of $3M per MW => $6.75T globally, over 20 years. Divide that into the affected population, and it comes like this:

($6.75x10^12) / 3x10^9 / 2x10^1 = $111 per year per person Again, this if for people in the industrialized nations - so it is affordable! It also does not include any payback from return on investment, so knock that number down even further, if you please, or use it philosophically to ignore maintenance/repair/replacement costs. This is half the cost of what I just voluntarily paid to buy "green" power from AEP.

So a daytime equivalent of 1.1TW replaces 2200 coal-fired 500MW baseloaded units. That's about four times the entire current US coal-fired fleet, and about equivalent to the current combined coal-fired fleets of USA+China+India. So, that's very likely to make an 80% reduction in power generation sector CO2 generation. Costs would be distributed, as much of this would be installed, presumably with government and/or utility incentives, by the private sector, on their own property. No new land required! Definitely a Grid 2.0 scenario, as a lot of adaptation would be required to handle so much distributed generation. But it is not a flight of fancy.


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