Solar Alone Can’t Do It: How a Mix of Electricity Sources Is Needed to Reach Net-Zero

by | Oct 25, 2021 | Blog

Three people installing solar photovoltaic panels.

Summary

  • Action against climate change is an urgent matter. Between the Paris Agreement and a commitment to reach net-zero by 2050, Canada is looking into making the electricity and transport sectors cleaner.
  • The most efficient way forward is clean energy. Although 2020 saw the most considerable growth in renewables since 1999, solar and wind may need some assistance to reach the rising global energy demands.
  • Energy sources like nuclear are highly controversial, but the data shows it is far better for the environment than fossil fuels. Unfortunately, with many nuclear power plants set to close by 2025, solar and wind aren’t in a position to cover the loss. Therefore, the demand falls on fossil fuels, increasing greenhouse gases once again.
  • The world needs various electricity sources if we have any chance of fighting climate change and achieving the net-zero target. Despite ongoing debate over nuclear power, there is one certain thing: fossil fuel reliance must dramatically decline if we are to meet these goals.

Introduction

Global warming is causing disastrous effects worldwide, from extreme heatwaves, droughts, storms and flooding.

The science on climate change has revealed a newfound urgency to reach a net-zero future by 2050. Global warming is causing disastrous effects worldwide, from extreme heatwaves, droughts, storms and flooding. Alongside water, soil and air pollution, it is contributing to thousands of premature deaths.

The combustion of fossil fuels for electricity emits tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere—a leading cause of climate change. The more GHG in the atmosphere, the more the earth heats. Experts are desperately trying to cap the temperature increase at 1.5 degrees, but immediate action is needed.

Canada signed the Paris Agreement with hopes of limiting the earth’s rising temperature. A significant part of Canada’s plans to reach net-zero by 2050 includes switching to clean energy. That said, there is debate over which energy source will help us get there. This article explores the notion of using a combination of electricity sources to reach net-zero and how solar may need assistance.

What Will a Net-Zero Future Look Like?

A significant part of moving towards a net-zero scenario is creating a system that relies on clean, renewable power rather than fossil fuels.

Canada has committed to lowering its emissions to net-zero, but what does this actually mean? A net-zero future will require Canada to reduce the emissions they are producing to zero or discover a way of storing its emissions not to pollute the atmosphere. A significant part of moving towards a net-zero scenario is creating a system that relies on clean, renewable power rather than fossil fuels, which are notorious for polluting the air, water and soil. Compared to fossil fuels, renewable power uses replenishable sources such as the sun, water, wind and plants. These energy sources are likely to play a role in cleaner transport and smart grids.

Can Renewable Power Meet Global Energy Demands?

Despite the exponential growth of the renewable energy market, it still has a long way to cover the rising global energy demand.

Solar and wind energy have grown at an impressive rate. In 2020 alone, the industries saw their most significant growth since 1999, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) classing this as the “new normal”.  While we are hopeful solar, wind and hydropower will dominate Canada’s energy sector in the coming years, the reality isn’t straightforward. Despite the exponential growth of the renewable energy market, it still has a long way to cover the rising global energy demand.

In the case of wind and solar, they may not be the most reliable forms of energy, as the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Energy storage options are becoming more popular; however, the cost of backup power is an additional expense slowing the growth of these sources. Renewable power may not get us to net-zero alone, but with the help of other electricity sources, the goal may become more attainable.

Read: Where the Solar Panel Shines: Can the World Run on Renewable Energy?

An infographic depicting various ways to reduce carbon emissions.

How a Mix of Electricity Will Help Reach Our Climate Goals

The authors realize that renewables will not keep up with the decline [of nuclear power]; thus, the demand falls on fossil fuels.

Our World in Data released a report on the safety of energy sources. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas are the worst source of power as they are finite and produce GHG. Fossil fuel waste and production pollute water, soil and air quality, impacting the planet and local communities. The same report outlines that wind and solar are the safest forms of energy as they have a very low death rate and minimal GHG emissions. However, as we’ve explored, wind and solar may not be able to meet climate goals alone.

There is talk of using a combination of low carbon electricity sources to reach net-zero; however, this includes nuclear power, a controversial energy source. Nuclear power sparks debate amongst many environmentalists, as there is no denying its damaging effects. From public health concerns to toxic waste, a nuclear power plant has serious side effects that authorities shouldn’t take lightly. Harmful waste is one significant concern for many decision-makers as there is no way to dispose of it safely. A reactor produces 20-30 tonnes of hazardous waste every year, and it may stay radioactive for a quarter of a million years.

Despite these concerns, the IEA set out to achieve net-zero by 2050, and nuclear energy may be essential to meeting these goals. As nuclear power is coming to the end of its designed lifetime, we are set to see 25% of nuclear capacity shut down by 2025. However, the authors realize that renewables will not keep up with the decline; thus, the demand falls on fossil fuels.

Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power doesn’t create harmful GHG. In fact, in 2019, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) report revealed the US avoided over 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. They indicated that this equates to removing 100 million cars off the roads.

The IEA claims that it may be cheaper to prolong the lifetime of nuclear reactors compared to investing in new clean energy projects. They continued to explain that for solar and wind energy to offset the decline in nuclear power, capacity would have to increase by five times in the next 20 years.

While it seems there are strong arguments for and against the use of nuclear power, it remains clear that fossil fuels are the most harmful option. Air pollution alone may lead to approximately 5 million premature deaths per year; if fossil fuels decline, this figure could drop by 3-4 million annually. Interestingly, one report found that nuclear energy causes 99.8% fewer deaths than brown coal.

Read More: How Does Nuclear Power Fit In with The Clean Energy Transition

Final Thoughts

While we remain hopeful that wind and solar energy will power the world in the future, the reality of achieving that isn’t an easy task. We must look at every possibility to reach global climate goals, and the best way may be to extend the lifetime of a nuclear reactor.

However, it’s not as simple as moving away from a power plant for many people, as they do not have the facilities or funds to live elsewhere. This is a severe social issue that the government needs to take action on. If nuclear power continues, local communities need far more support, and safe disposal needs further investigation.

Despite the concerns, one thing is certain; the world must move away from fossil fuels. The data shows that nuclear power is far safer than oil, gas and coal, but there’s no hiding that it may cause some additional issues down the line regarding waste disposal.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What effects does climate change have on the planet?

Climate change is causing the world to heat up, prompting extreme weather and leading to thousands of premature deaths. Alongside pollution, heatwaves, flooding, and droughts affect people’s quality of life and life expectancy.

 

What will a net-zero future look like?

Canada has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning they need to reduce the emissions they are responsible for or find a way to store the emissions that don’t cause further issues. A net-zero future is likely to have more electric vehicles and smart grids. The emphasis will be on a new clean energy system, likely run on renewables.

 

Can the world run on renewable energy?

Achieving net-zero emissions isn’t easy, and we need a mixture of electricity sources to make it possible. Creating a new infrastructure takes time and money; unfortunately, solar and wind can’t reach net-zero alone. However, after meeting these goals, it may be possible to power the world using renewables. Renewable energy is versatile. For example, experts can install solar panels across various industries, including residential homes, commercial buildings, farmland or electric vehicle charging.

 

How is a combination of energy needed to reach climate goals?

Reaching net-zero emissions is time-limited, and unfortunately, solar and wind won’t get us there alone—especially as global energy demands continue to rise. We must think critically about a mixture of sources. Nuclear power has become a serious consideration to displace fossil fuels, as it doesn’t emit harmful gases. However, this is controversial as there are health implications and issues with waste disposal.

 

Is nuclear power a clean energy source?

Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy because it doesn’t emit GHG—for this reason, many classify it as clean energy. However, that doesn’t mean it is entirely safe. While nuclear power avoids millions of tons of GHG emissions, it also produces toxic waste and may harm human health.

 

Read More: Climate Change Despair: Make  a Difference With Renewable Investments