Take a step back, and renewable energy appears to be the perfect answer to alleviate the burgeoning climate change crisis, increasing energy consumption, and tensions over fossil fuel.
In an ideal world, clean energy is a no-brainer, but the world is not ideal. In the real world, ideals are obstructed by economics, politics, and feasibility constraints.
Let’s walk through three major roadblocks to the proliferation of renewable energy today; infrastructure barriers, efficiency and reliability Issues, and cost.
Renewable Energy Infrastructure Barriers
Most large-scale renewable energy technologies are highly location dependent. Wind farms work best with strong and consistent wind-speeds, solar farms work best with sunny locations, and geothermal plants can only be established where the earth’s fissures dictate.
While not always the case, these locations are often far away from existing infrastructure and adequate staffing. An example of this is in Australia, where potential geothermal sites are abundant but the infrastructure often isn’t readily available.
The UK is experiencing similar infrastructure issues with wind power, where grid transmission infrastructure cannot handle production. This has resulted in a situation where the government has paid wind energy producers to shut down operations to avoid grid-overload.
Dealing with infrastructure barriers of renewable energy requires whole system initiatives, where governments, councils, and utility companies work together to ensure the right infrastructure is in place alongside the right funding stimulus.
One infrastructural advantage of renewable energy, however, is that electricity production can also be decentralised by way of micro-grids and privately owned systems – small solar farms to supply towns and solar panels on the roofs of houses for example.
Efficiency and Reliability Issues with Renewable Energy
Efficiency and reliability has been a major headache for renewable energy becoming widespread. This occurs both in the true reliability of the technology and with stigmatisms surrounding methods that may have once been unreliable but have since been improved.
Solar photovoltaics (electricity-producing solar panels) is an area where efficiency has drastically improved over the last five years, however stubborn reliability and efficiency concerns continue to hinder market uptake.
Transport fuel is a good example of a technology that is still struggling with true reliability. Although a handful of hybrid cars are having market success, such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, technology and infrastructure of hybrid and electric cars is tenuous.
Current problems include supporting infrastructure such as charging stations and driver anxiety relating to driving distances – how far a car will drive on a single charge.
With a number of car technologies in the pipeline, such as electric, hybrid, and fuel cell, some potential buyers are understandably anxious about investing in technology that may not have a future.
Money, Money, Money
The fact is, installing renewable energy technology requires large up-front investment. This is arguably the single biggest factor inhibiting the proliferation of renewable energy methods.
Individuals wanting to install a solar water heater or wind turbine to supply their house for example, essentially have to pay for their next 20-30 years of power up-front.
Government and regional financial initiatives have seen some good results over the last few years, particularly in places like California and Australia. These come in many forms, such as investment tax credits, feed in tariffs, and various rebate schemes.
Global government stimulus has taken a major hit with the recession however. Many government schemes have been abruptly cutback, most notoriously is Spain slashing agreed Feed in Tariffs in 2008.
Such stop-and-go support can do more damage to investor confidence and the clean energy sector than if subsidies were never established in the first place.
2011 had a silver lining for potential renewable energy investors however, with the price of solar panels dropping by around 50%. This was largely due to extreme competition from emerging Chinese solar panel manufacturers.
An Industry in its Infancy
Since the Industrial Revolution, our energy systems haven’t needed to change, until now.
As with any new technological, social, or economic era, renewable energy is experiencing a growth period where some systems are tested, some are broken, and some are refined.
The roadblocks of the renewable energy revolution are just that – roadblocks that must be negotiated. Naturally, the energy revolution has to deal with external and internal factors such as the global financial crisis, energy politics, market timing, and feasibility of individual methods.
Already there have been some major failures (failed manufacturers, failed methods, failed infrastructure), but there have also been some enormous advances (efficiencies, new applications, cost reductions).
Micky Hansen is an environment and green energy writer for http://exploringgreentechnology.com
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