Just like how solar doesn’t generate energy 24/7, it also doesn’t work too well in some places in the world compared to others. Trust me, coming from Canada, there are some months where you barely see the sun. It’s likely much worse in the Nordic countries and Russia—maybe that also explains the sizeable amount of heavy metal and vodka enjoyed up there.
But as mentioned in the previous part of this Future of Energy series, solar power isn’t the only renewable game in town. In fact, there are a variety of renewable energy options whose technology is developing just as fast as solar, and whose costs and electricity output are (in some cases) beating solar.
On the flip side, we’re also going to talk about what I like to call “wildcard renewables.” These are new and incredibly powerful energy sources that produce zero carbon emissions, but whose secondary costs on the environment and society have yet to be studied (and may prove harmful).
In all, the point we’ll explore here is that while solar will become the dominant energy source by mid-century, the future will also be made up of an energy cocktail of renewables and wildcards. So let’s start with the renewable that NIMBYs around the world hate with a passion.
Wind power, what Don Quixote didn’t know
When pundits talk about renewable energy, most lump in wind farms alongside solar. The reason? Well, among all the renewables on the market, giant windmills are the most visible—they stick out like sore thumbs along farmers’ fields and isolated (and not-so-isolated) seafront views in many parts of the world.
But while a vocal constituency hates them, in some parts of the world, they are revolutionizing the energy mix. That’s because while some countries are blessed with sun, others have wind and lots of it. What was once an umbrella-destroying, window-shuttering, and hairdo-ruining annoyance has been cultivated (especially over the past five-to-seven years) into a powerhouse of renewable energy generation.
Take the Nordic countries, for example. Wind power has been growing at such a fast clip in Finland and Denmark that they’re eating up the profit margins of their coal-fired power plants. These are coal power plants, by the way, that were supposed to protect these countries from “unreliable” renewable energy. Now, Denmark and Finland plan to mothball these power plants, 2,000 megawatts of dirty energy, out of the system by 2030.
But that’s not all folks! Denmark has gone so gangbusters on wind energy that they plan to phase out coal completely by 2030 and transition their entire economy to renewable power (mostly from wind) by 2050. Meanwhile, new windmill designs (ex. one, two) are coming out all the time that could revolutionize the industry and potentially make wind energy as attractive to sun-rich countries as they are to wind-rich ones.
Farming the waves
Related to windmills, but buried deep under the sea, is the third most hyped form of renewable energy: tidal. Tide mills look similar to windmills, but instead of collecting energy from the wind, they collect their energy from the ocean tides.
Tidal farms aren’t nearly as popular, nor do they attract as much investment, like solar and wind. For that reason, tidal will never be a major player in the renewable mix outside of a few countries, like the UK. That’s a shame because, according to the UK Marine Foresight Panel, if we captured just 0.1 percent of the Earth’s kinetic tide energy, it would be enough to power the world.
Tidal energy also has some unique advantages over solar and wind. For example, unlike solar and wind, tidal really does run 24/7. The tides are near-constant, so you always know how much power you’ll generate during any given day—great for predictability and planning. And most important to the NIMBYs out there, since tidal farms sit at the bottom of the ocean, they are effectively out of sight, out of mind.
Old school renewables: hydro and geothermal
You might think it’s odd that when talking about renewables, we don’t give much airtime to some of the oldest and most widely adopted forms of renewables: hydro and geothermal. Well, there’s a good reason for that: Climate change will soon erode the power output of hydro, while geothermal will grow less economical when compared to solar and wind. But let’s dig a bit deeper.
Most of the world’s hydroelectric dams are fed by large rivers and lakes that are themselves fed by the seasonal melting of glaciers from nearby mountain ranges and, to a lesser extent, groundwater from rainy regions high above sea level. Over the coming decades, climate change is set to reduce (melt or dry out) the amount of water that comes from both of these water sources.
An example of this can be seen in Brazil, a country with one of the world’s greenest energy mixes, generating over 75 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power. In recent years, reduced rainfall and increasing droughts have caused regular power disruptions (brownouts and blackouts) throughout much of the year. Such energy vulnerabilities will become far more common with each passing decade, forcing countries that depend on hydro to invest their renewable dollars elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the concept of geothermal is basic enough: below a certain depth, the Earth is always hot; drill a deep hole, drop in some piping, pour water in, collect the hot steam that rises, and use that steam to power a turbine and generate energy.
In some countries like Iceland, where they are “blessed” with a large number of volcanoes, geothermal is a massive generator of free and green energy—it produces nearly 30 percent of Iceland’s power. And in select areas of the world that have similar tectonic characteristics, it's a worthwhile form of energy to invest in. But most everywhere else, geothermal plants are expensive to build and with solar and wind decreasing in price every year, geothermal just won’t be able to compete in most countries.
The wildcard renewables
The opponents of renewables often say that due to their unreliability, we need to invest in large, established, and dirty energy sources—like coal, oil, and liquified natural gas—to provide consistent amounts of energy to meet our needs. These energy sources are referred to as “baseload” power sources because they have traditionally served as the backbone of our energy system. But in some parts of the world, especially countries like France, nuclear has been the base load power source of choice.
Nuclear has been a part of the world’s energy mix since the end of WWII. While it technically produces a substantial amount of zero-carbon energy, the side effects in terms of toxic waste, nuclear accidents, and nuclear weapons proliferation have made modern investments in nuclear next to impossible.
That said, nuclear isn’t the only game in town. There are two new types of non-renewable power sources worth talking about: Thorium and Fusion energy. Think of these as next-generation nuclear power, but cleaner, safer, and far more powerful.
Thorium and fusion around the corner?
Thorium reactors run on thorium nitrate, a resource that’s four times more abundant than uranium. They also generate way more energy than uranium powered reactors, produce less waste, cannot be turned into weapons-grade bombs, and are virtually meltdown-proof. (Watch a five-minute explanation of Thorium reactors here.)
Meanwhile, fusion reactors basically run on seawater—or to be exact, a combination of the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium. Where nuclear reactors generate electricity by splitting atoms, fusion reactors take a page out of our sun’s playbook and try to fuse atoms together. (Watch an eight-minute explanation of fusion reactors here.)
Both of these energy-generating technologies were due to come on the market by the late 2040s—way too late to really make a difference in the world’s energy markets, let alone our fight against climate change. Thankfully, that might not be the case for too long.
The technology around thorium reactors largely already exists and is being actively pursued by China. In fact, they announced their plans to build a fully functioning Thorium reactor within the next 10 years (the mid-2020s). Meanwhile, fusion power has been chronically underfunded for decades, but recent news from Lockheed Martin indicates that a new fusion reactor might be just a decade away as well.
If either of these energy sources comes online within the next decade, it will send shockwaves through the energy markets. Thorium and fusion power have the potential to introduce massive amounts of clean energy into our energy grid faster than renewables since they won’t need us to rewire the existing power grid. And since these are capital intensive and centralized forms of energy, they will be mighty attractive to those traditional utility companies looking to fight against the growth of solar.
At the end of the day, it’s a toss-up. If thorium and fusion enter the commercial markets within the next 10 years, they could overtake renewables as the future of energy. Any longer than that and renewables win out. Either way, cheap and abundant energy is in our future.
So what does a world with unlimited energy really look like? We finally answer that question in part six of our Future of Energy series.