Renewable energy is broadly defined as “energy from sources that don’t run out.” There are a number of virtually infinite energy sources available: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy are all based on naturally occurring, cyclical phenomena. Likewise, biomass and ethanol fuels are renewable due to the fact that they come from plants, a resource that can be grown and re-grown. Renewable energy sources often have lower emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, but they are more recent developments in the energy industry, so they are also referred to as alternative energy to green energy sources. As emerging technologies, many alternative energy sources are not yet as efficient as they could be, and the entry costs can be very high.
Critics of renewable and alternative energy sources have made certain assumptions that have led to a variety of myths about renewable energy. These myths give the public a negative perception of the entire green energy field, and in the process negatively affect us all.
Myth #1: Renewable Energy is Unreliable
The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the ocean doesn’t always heave. These are undeniable truths. This doesn’t mean that the electricity generated from these sources will be unreliable. Power companies don’t quote the maximum output of energy from a wind farm or solar field. Instead, they estimate expected output based on the environment.
For example, wind turbines operate at about 30% efficiency on average. On a windy day they might produce more, on a calm day less. This means that the issue isn’t so much about how much energy is produced, but about storing excess energy until it’s needed. Batteries and fuel cells are growing more and more advanced every year.
Myth #2: Renewable Energy Is Expensive
This myth does have some basis in fact. It’s true that building a solar power plant, a wind farm, or a geothermal station is expensive. And it’s expensive to buy solar panels for a private home. What many critics forget is that it’s also expensive to build a coal-burning or nuclear power plant. Conventional energy sources still require facilities, equipment, and maintenance.
Conventional energy sources also consume far more material in the form of fuels such as coal, oil, or a nuclear fuel. Some alternative energy sources are actually cheaper than conventional energy sources. Hydroelectric power costs between 2 and 5 cents (US) per kilowatt hour. Coal and geothermal power cost about the same at around 10 cents (US) per kilowatt hour, and wind power actually beats both of them, though only by fractions of a cent.
Myth #3: The Power Plants Takes Up Too Much Space
Again, this comes from the truth that wind farms and solar panels take up large areas. That is certainly true. What isn’t mentioned is exactly what area is being taken up. Wind turbines need to be spaced out to work effectively. They can’t be side by side. This leaves large amounts of space between the turbines that can be put to other uses. The spaces are large enough to grow crops or to use as a park or recreation area.
Solar panels also take up a great deal of space, but solar power plants are best in places that aren’t typically used anyways. Deserts and other dry landscapes without much cloud cover are favorite locations for solar power. These facilities aren’t getting in anyone’s way in the middle of the desert. And it’s been estimated that a 100-square mile section of the Nevada desert can provide enough solar energy to power the entire USA.
Also, new technologies in geothermal power mean that a geothermal power plant can be as small as a two-story house. It can recycle water almost endlessly inside its own system. No pollution is produced at all, and it can plug directly into a local power grid.
Myth #4: The Government Is Wasting Money on Renewable Energy
In times of economic crisis, any “wasteful” spending is immediately demonized, often for political gain. Critics often attack the spending of taxpayers dollars on developing untested energy technologies. It is certainly true that these government programs help the development of alternative energy sources. It is a necessary step to the industry, however, a step that has also benefited what we now consider more conventional energy sources: fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydroelectricity. Notice that through investment, hydroelectricity is a renewable, sustainable, and extremely cheap source of power.
What many critics don’t point out is that conventional fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries are also heavily subsidized by the government. Government spending keeps the prices of coal and gasoline low to make it available, and spending on the alternatives are setting up the next generation of energy (as the previous generation did for this one).
One thing that critics have correct is that renewable energy isn’t viable yet. It’s the next step forward, but it still has a lot of room to improve. Costs for many forms of alternative energy are definitely higher than for conventional sources. But he first combustion engines were also expensive and inefficient. Now there are over a billion cars on the road. The next step will get those cars running of clean, renewable, inexpensive energy sources.