What does 100 percent renewable really mean?
It’s election season. And a number of candidates across the country are running with a 100 percent renewable energy platform. In Colorado, the Public Utilities Commission recently approved Xcel Energy’s ambitious plan to nearly double the share of electricity it generates from renewable sources. Xcel said the changes would reduce its carbon pollution in the State by 60 percent and increase its share of renewable energy to almost 55 percent, up from about 28 percent now. While the 100 percent platform is admirable, meeting those targets will be extremely challenging. And do we need more renewable energy to help reduce carbon pollution? Absolutely. But what does 100 percent renewable really mean? What can renewable energy truly replace?
People seem to believe that if we can reach the goal of 100 percent renewable, we will no longer need fossil fuels. However, at this point in time, renewable energy really only replaces power generation. It does little, if anything, for transportation – at least I am not ready to get on an airplane that runs on solar energy. It doesn’t replace at all the thousands of products we use every day that rely on fossil fuels for their manufacture and transportation. And what about other conveniences we all love, like gas cook tops and gas fireplaces?
Renewables are needed and necessary, but they are only one part of the larger energy picture. In the same way our bodies rely on multiple systems – nervous, circulatory, respiratory, etc. – to bring us the energy we need everyday, all forms of energy depend upon each other to supply our daily needs. None of us is going to wake up tomorrow morning and proclaim “Today I think I only need my brain and my lungs, everyone else can take the day off”. We all know that the lungs cannot perform the same functions as the heart and the brain can’t take over for our bones and muscles. In the same way, each energy source is needed and has a place in the larger energy picture.
The wind and the sun may be renewable sources of energy, but the capture and use of those sources is not a renewable process. Wind and solar use fossil fuels to not only build giant turbines and solar farms, but they use petroleum-based plastics, composites and other materials for solar panels and frames, wind-turbine blades, nacelles, generators and towers. In addition, heavy machinery is needed to remove tons of rock and earth to extract millions of pounds of lithium, cobalt, rare earth and other exotic ores for photo-voltaic panels, wind-turbine magnets and backup batteries. Many of the monitoring systems used in the production of fossil fuels use solar panels to power their equipment. Several oil and gas companies are now using electric rigs, which given Xcel’s move toward increased renewables, would then be powered with electricity generated from solar and wind farms.
The energy conversation is confusing, complex and emotional. But we need to start learning how to have an “and” conversation, not an “either/or”. Our energy use and sources will evolve over time, like most things do. Cars didn’t suddenly arrive on the scene with seat belts, rear view mirrors, airbags and other technological advances that we see today. They EVOLVED over time. And energy will evolve as well. But it’s up to us to start looking at energy with a more holistic point of view and to understand the costs and benefits of all forms of energy. Perhaps then, we can start having conversations that are realistic and productive, instead of polarizing and emotional.