It is surprising how well-established it has become in the debate and the media that the energy of the future should be renewable.
This is actually a double-fault here. There is renewable energy that is not sustainable and there are powerful, sustainable energy alternatives that are not renewable! So it is time to consistently move on to talk about sustainable energy for the future and conclude the mantra that the energy of the future should be renewable.
How is “renewable” and “sustainable” really defined?
An early and widely accepted definition of “sustainable development” can be found in the Brundtland Commission’s “Our common future” report, June 1987: “Developments that meet current needs, without removing the opportunity for future generations to meet their needs.”
It may well be considered generally accepted that “renewable energy” refers to sources of energy whose energy, at least from the perspective of man, is constantly being replaced (renewed). But isn’t the difference subtle? You may wonder. Not at all; fusion energy, which is one of our most powerful energy alternatives for the future, is sustainable but needs fuel from land and sea and is therefore not renewable. The world’s largest energy research project, the fusion experiment ITER (under construction near Marseille in France), can lead to a solution to the energy problem millions of years ahead. Thus, when we talk about the energy of the future as renewable, we exclude one of the most promising solutions.
Is renewable energy sustainable?
Yes, as a natural phenomenon, but unfortunately the technology we use to take advantage of it can cause unsustainability. Of course, a lot of unsustainable fossil energy is needed today to construct wind turbines or other types of power plants, but it is not this, with time-wasting problems, that is crucial.
Hydropower, which supplies 16% of the world’s electricity, is a renewable energy source that is not sustainable. New developments usually cause large methane emissions (methane is 20 times more efficient as greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), degraded water quality and large-scale environmental degradation. Another renewable example with questionable sustainability is biomass, which can cause soil erosion and deforestation and give rise to emissions of pollutants and hazardous gases.
Here we come up with another type of sustainability problem. When biomass is grown for later conversion to biofuels such as ethanol, we have an increasingly populous planet to address not only issues such as pollution and depletion of water resources but also competition between fuel and food production.