Since the beginning of the 21st century, renewable energy technology has been a significant area of research amongst scientists. However, despite scientists coming up with practical and convincing technologies on renewable energy, getting people to switch from their use of non-renewable energy sources has been quite slow and uncertain, especially in developing nations.
There are barriers to the adoption of renewable energy technology, particularly regarding over-reliance on fossil fuels (coal), political and regulatory barriers, technical barriers, social-cultural barriers, financial and economic barriers, and geographical and ecological barriers.
Using energy is a necessity for physical and socio-economic development in rural and
urban settings. However, despite being the major contributor of energy in the global
energy mix, fossil fuels are also the main contributor to the high levels of carbon dioxide
emissions in the atmosphere, hence an increase in global warming. Due to the increased use of conventional sources of energy such as fossil fuels (coal, gas, oil and radioactive ore) all
over the world and the associated environmental impacts, efforts have been directed
towards minimizing dependence on these resources by increasing renewable energy
supply, with limited impact to date. There has been exponential growth in the development and innovation of the related technologies, but the adoption of these renewable energy generation sources has been lagging.
Most countries have an enormous potential for renewable energy production, but for several reasons, the current renewable energy application in these countries is negligible compared to their potential. For example, though South Africa is rich in both renewable and conventional energy resources, coal continues to be the dominant source of electricity due to its availability, suitability to the needs and relatively low cost. Rapid growth in population and subsequent increase in energy demand, as well as shockingly critical infrastructure, has led to an emerging energy crisis which in effect increases people’s dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
Why are people still using coal?
Coal-fired power plants currently fuel 37% of global electricity and figures from the International Energy Association (IEA) show that coal will still generate 22% of the world’s electricity in 2040, retaining coal’s position as the single largest source of electricity worldwide. This means that it will be hard to replace coal as a source of energy, especially in our industries. The infrastructural changes that are required in changing from coal to other renewable sources of energy are prohibitive—in terms of cost and time.
Coal also has a high net energy yield compared to renewables like wind and solar. This refers to the fact that coal is efficient and capable of producing high amounts of energy. Coal is readily available, people who have something readily available are lax in adopting a new technology where there are extra costs and infrastructure involved, even if it would save them money in the long run. Solar and wind-generated energy is intermittent, meaning that the energy has to be stored for later use when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
One of the largest problems facing renewables is that they create too much energy, or rather, they generate too much energy when we don’t need it. Wind and solar are variable in their outputs and produce energy when the sun shines strongest or when the wind is blowing the hardest, which rarely matches up with the times we need it. This mismatch means that when the energy demand is low, but production is high, the grid must curtail or get rid of some of its excess energy supply or risk overtaxing the grid.
Infrastructure is a big obstacle when it comes to saying goodbye to coal. Building new types of power plants will have a huge initial cost that each country’s economy will have to pay for. The infrastructure for using coal as ‘n power source is already there and has a proven track record. It can also produce energy all the time. It is necessary to sensitise the public regarding the negative effects of coal. Renewable energy is the only way to free ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels.
Political and regulatory barriers
Renewable energy is becoming ever more popular due to its potential benefits in reducing greenhouse emissions across the globe; however, a lack of policy support may hinder adoption opportunities by not providing reliable investment environments. Investors need stability from governments so their money isn’t put into long-term projects without any guarantees on how much profit they’ll make or if other competitors have better technology.
With the power of enabling policies, stable and predictable environments are established to help overcome barriers to renewable energy investments. These measures ensure project revenue streams remain consistent through regulatory standards that make these projects more accessible by reducing technological risks associated with them.
The future of renewables will not be without hiccups, but according to the Stanford Solutions Project, a 100% renewable energy system is feasible by 2050. The biggest problem is then not technological barriers, but finding the political will to do the needed work.
Inadequate technology and lack of infrastructure necessary to support the technologies can make it challenging for renewable energy developers. From a study conducted in Saskatchewan, Canada, two main barriers hindered the willingness to invest in wind-generated electricity: inadequate technology and insufficient infrastructure.
Introducing renewable energy technologies into developing countries, in particular, Sub-Saharan Africa is an important factor. These types of regions are not typically equipped with the same resources as more developed areas and so often rely on fossil fuels to produce power for their citizens. The lack of trained personnel to train, demonstrate, maintain and operate renewable energy structures in regions with low education levels is causing many people not to import the technologies for fear of failure.
Socio-cultural barriers have been identified as one of the bases for failure to adopt renewable energy in some countries. Households are unwilling to use renewable technology because they fear it would not be dependable, which is understandable considering that public disinterest and disengagement with wind energy development has caused problems for Saskatchewan’s own government when trying to make this a reality.
Social acceptability is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome because whatever renewable energy entails, it involves a lot of change. It means changes in the sources of our power supply, which means we will have to accept some different infrastructure around the country. It also means a behavioural change of ourselves and how we use energy on a day-to-day basis. Sustaining change over a long period will be the number one thing that will make a big difference.
Financial and economic barriers
It’s important to consider the initial capital cost of renewable energy as an investment that will pay off in the long run, and not just a one-time purchase. Lowering these costs is essential for sustainable development, especially because access to subsidies or incentives varies depending on your economic status.
Many producers prefer to keep initial investment costs low while maximizing profits; high costs of investment remain a significant barrier to implementing sustainable renewable energy solutions. For example, many developing countries lack adequate renewable energy technologies and therefore rely on imports from industrialized nations. Initial investment costs are, therefore, high and discouraging to potential investors due in part to the fact that imported technologies from technologically advanced countries are more expensive than those made locally.
In some parts of the world, renewable energy is not as economically viable because fossil fuels are unfairly subsidized. For example, Malaysia has one of the highest levels of subsidies for fossil fuel and this makes it hard for renewables to compete with them on a level playing field.
Geographical and ecological barriers
The geographical barrier to renewable energy development comes in many forms. In India, intermittent solar and wind make it hard for the country’s power demands to be met by renewables alone; this is because of how dependent they are on geographic location. This means that the adoption of renewable energy sources will be hindered, as these sources are not dependable.
On the ecological side, a common take-down to wind turbines is that they kill birds. Unfortunately, this is true. In South Africa, wind farms are responsible for an estimated 0.279 avian deaths per GWh, nuclear power plants 0.6 avian deaths per GWh and fossil fuel power plants 9.4 fatalities per GWh. And cats kill roughly about 10 times the amount of birds that turbines do. So, when contextualised, bird deaths caused by wind turbines are comparably small.
The life cycle of both solar panels and wind turbines are yet another point of attack for those looking to discredit renewables. These technologies require resources to assemble, install, and eventually, dismantle. Some argue that renewables aren’t as clean as we think they are. But according to a 2017 paper that compared the emissions from the life cycle of a variety of energy sources, solar and wind consistently produced some of the lowest impacts compared to coal or natural gas. This research reinforced a previously widely cited 2013 study that found similar results. In short, despite the amount of concrete and raw materials required to construct wind and solar arrays, they can quickly pay off that initial carbon debt. These technologies are comparably young, so as renewables continue to be honed, these installations will last longer and longer making waste less of a problem.
But the adoption of renewables can only get us so far. Recognising and changing the way we consume energy is also an essential part of mitigating carbon emissions. If we continue with business as usual, we’ll need to transform a lot more. If through policy and behaviour change, the amount of energy that countries in North America and Europe use decreases, then the challenge of scaling renewables to meet energy demand will no longer be as daunting.
Most people don’t think about energy use unless Eskom implements loadshedding. We turn the electricity switch on and expect the power to be there. If we are going to get to zero-net carbon as a way of living, we would have to radically rethink this and engage with energy in a completely different way – understand what we are using, why we are using it, when we are using it.
Thank you for reading this article. If you feel we have left out any important information or would like to contribute to this site and content, please get in touch with us by leaving a comment or emailing us.