Consumer demand and legislative action are driving rapid growth of renewable energy, despite some of the challenges associated with supporting carbon-neutral technologies.
A push to achieve a carbon-free energy supply has positioned renewable technologies at the forefront of consumer and industry demand as these technologies continue to replace fossil fuels across energy sectors. Consumer appetite for renewable technologies has become particularly acute in the past several years. For example, demand for renewable technologies overtook coal in 2019 (EIA, 2020), and the trend continued in 2020, when, in spite of all the pandemic-related challenges, renewable energy demand rose by approximately 45% according to a recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2021). This was the largest yearly rise in at least two decades (IEA, 2021) and was largely driven by growth in global wind capacity by 90% and in solar expansion. Beyond consumer demand, perhaps the most relevant shift driving the transition to renewables has been public policy. The Biden administration has set aggressive benchmarks to incorporate renewable technologies into the US infrastructure, which include rejoining the Paris Agreement and setting specific goals such as the development of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, among other initiatives – all moving toward the overarching goal to decarbonize the energy sector by 2035.
As consumer preference and legislative action evolve, renewable technologies and supporting industries are poised to advance in parallel. Although wind and solar typically garner most of the renewable energy spotlight, an array of technologies fit within the renewables definition of the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) – “electricity generated by fuel sources that restore themselves over a short period of time and do not diminish” (US EPA, 2021). For example, the first ocean wave energy testing center, known as the PacWave South Project, will be located approximately six nautical miles off Newport, Oregon (BOEM, 2021). The project, which recently received a federal lease, is led by Oregon State University and will aim to harness energy from moving waves, tides, and currents, then convert it to electricity that can be distributed through the existing grid to power homes.
Apart from engineering challenges associated with harnessing wind, ocean currents, tides, and waves, offshore energy projects will face challenges related to bringing the energy onshore, including environmental and human health concerns. For example, cables that transmit energy from offshore wind turbines to the onshore grid have been alleged to disrupt the feeding and migration patterns of marine life, as well as alleged to pose potential human health risks, via electric and magnetic fields (EMFs). These potential concerns, addressed in the article of this Trends issue “Electric and Magnetic Field (EMF) Considerations for Offshore Wind Projects,” highlight the complexity facing renewable energy projects at the nexus between terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
The rising demand for materials and the need to develop new infrastructure to transmit and store renewable-derived energy have led to questions regarding what a successful transition will look like.”
Along with advancements in energy generation and transmission, the widespread implementation of emerging technologies depends on the development of energy storage infrastructure since most renewable sources fluctuate, typically on daily to seasonal scales – wind and solar energy are only captured when it is blowing and the sun is out. Thus, storage systems at the utility grid scale are critically important to make renewable energy available during “off” times when sources are not producing but consumer demand is high. Additionally, storage systems may add to the resiliency of the energy grid and may serve to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events, such as what was experienced during winter storm Uri in Texas this past February. The drive to produce new storage capabilities is likely to reach into other aspects of production supply chains and material demand since components of these storage systems are highly specific. Metals such as lithium, nickel, vanadium, and cobalt – key components to certain rechargeable batteries – will be needed to meet rising demand. Potential environmental considerations regarding the life cycle of lithium in renewable technologies is discussed in the article in this issue “Surging Lithium Demand Creates New Environmental Concerns.”
As the transition to a carbon-neutral energy supply continues to gain momentum, the rising demand for materials and the need to develop new infrastructure to transmit and store renewable-derived energy have led to questions regarding what a successful transition will look like. For example, will existing oversight and permitting procedures be appropriate and sufficient for renewables development, can existing energy infrastructure be applied to renewable projects, how will legacy infrastructure be decommissioned, and will new technology create environmental and human health risks? Despite these considerations, the transition to renewable energy is moving ahead at a rapid pace.
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International Energy Agency (IEA). 2021. “Renewable Energy Market Update: Outlook for 2021 and 2022.” 29p.
US Dept. of the Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). 2021. “PacWave South Project (OCS-P 0560).” February 16. Accessed at https://www.boem.gov/pacwave-south-project.
US Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2020. “U.S. renewable energy consumption surpasses coal for the first time in over 130 years.” May 28. Accessed at https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=43895.
US EPA. 2021. “State renewable energy resources.” March 5. Accessed at