Learn the factors that impact the reliability of renewable energy sources.
Is renewable energy reliable?
When most people think about renewable energy sources and their reliability, they think about the different energy sources as separate entities. A common misconception is that renewable energy only generates electricity when the wind blows or solar power when the sun is shining. The mistake lies in not thinking about renewable energy as one unit, tied together by multiple sources.
For example, when a wind farm cannot operate due to low wind speeds, an adjacent biomass plant can compensate for the lost capacity in the meantime. Or, a solar farm is constructed near a hydro plant, where they work in tandem to meet the energy demands of their respective region. When you stop thinking about renewable energy as individual modes of electricity generation working independently of each other, and instead you see them as a holistic force, then you can determine that renewable energy is indeed reliable1.
What makes renewable energy reliable?
If we think about what makes an energy source reliable, it would be based on its availability, and more specifically, its supply and location. Renewable energy is reliable because it is both unlimited and domestic. Between the four primary modes of renewable energy generation in the U.S., wind, solar, biomass, and hydro, there is the potential to generate 100% of the electricity needed to meet the energy demands of the entire country. The transition is already happening, as the U.S. has been adding more renewable energy each year and phasing out fossil fuels2.
Is renewable energy more reliable than fossil fuels?
Renewable energy can be more reliable than fossil fuels when thinking about the bigger picture and the planet's future. There is only a finite amount of coal and oil, where there is essentially an unlimited amount of renewable resources that can sustain us for generations to come.
From a domestic standpoint, oil can also be unreliable if we are dependent on receiving it from foreign sources. If we depend on foreign governments for a percentage of our oil supply, it is unreliable because laws and relationships change. Even if the U.S. could achieve 100% domestic oil production, there still is only so much oil that can pump from the ground. Eventually, the supply will run out. The same idea goes for coal. We could supply our coal fire plants with coal only extracted from within the U.S., but there is only a finite supply again. Renewable energy is more reliable than fossil fuels because it will always be there, and its electricity is generated locally3.
How reliable are the different forms of renewable energy?
Like with any source of energy, there are pros and cons. When discussing the reliability of a single energy source, it is also important to discuss what can make an energy source unreliable at times. When it comes to renewable energy sources, they must be constructed in a particular region. To make solar, wind or hydro cost-effective, they need to be built in areas that can utilize to their maximum potential, such as on a river or a vast open field. On the other hand, a solar power plant in a metropolitan area may not be as efficient or cost-effective as it could be elsewhere. But again, when you look at renewable energy sources as a single unit working together rather than individual modes, renewable energy sources are highly reliable when all is taken into account. Let's look at the U.S.'s four primary renewable energy generation methods and discuss how they can be unreliable and dependable4.
- Hydropower: Hydropower is generally accepted as the most reliable form of renewable energy because it can go from zero output to maximum capacity in a short amount of time. Also, hydroelectric plants are not dependent on the sun or the speed of the wind like solar and wind power are, which can be a bit more tricky when it comes to predicting the output. They have also proven themselves to be highly reliable with over a half-century of proven success. The only limiting factor for hydropower is geography. They must be constructed on a river or a body of water. However, because of the interconnected nature of the U.S. power grid, they can efficiently send power to nearby and more distant communities when needed5.
- Wind power: The two main aspects that can make wind power potentially unreliable are geography and variations in wind speed. The first issue of geography should be something that engineers solve before constructing a wind farm. You need a large area of land, and you need to ensure that it has the winds necessary to make the wind farm's construction logical and cost-effective. In the United States, the areas with the most reliable winds happen to be in Northern Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Northern Illinois. If you look at a map of where all the wind farms are located within the United States, you will see that the majority of the farms tend to be in the central part of the country, where wind consistently blows. However, even if geography can tell you where the best winds are to build the most efficient wind farms, there can be times when the wind doesn't blow, or even the opposite, when the wind blows too hard, which could damage the turbines. If wind speeds go below 2.5 meters per second, the wind turbines cannot spin and generate electricity. If wind speeds go above 25 meters per second, the turbines cannot be operated due to fear of damage. Even with these two limiting factors, wind power can still be reliable when the proper calculations are conducted. Engineers can look at wind speed measurements from meteorological sources and calculate averages that can be used to do a cost-benefit analysis, including the potential time that the turbines will be rendered inoperable due to unusable wind speeds.
- Solar power: The aspects that can make solar energy unreliable are geography and daylight. The issue of geography, again, is an easy one to solve. In the United States, it is easy to determine the parts of the country that receive the most sunlight. The southwestern United States, including regions of southern California, are dry climates with plenty of sun and large areas of unusable desert land, making it ideal for solar power plants. But even if you have the most sunlight in the country year-round, there still is the nighttime when of course, there is no sunlight. As solar battery storage technology continues to increase and excess energy generated during the day can be cheaply stored to be used at night, this will become less of an issue.
- Biomass: Biomass is consistently reliable because an almost unlimited supply of organic material can be incinerated to produce electricity. That is why a biomass plant is often paired with a solar or wind power plant to generate electricity when they are unable.
Every form of energy generation has advantages and disadvantages. Overall, renewable energy sources are much more sustainable for the environment and our future, even with their faults.
What is the most reliable source of renewable energy?
Hydroelectric power and biomass are the most reliable energy sources. Like with biomass, other forms of power generation often use hydroelectric power plants as a backup resource. When a coal power plant goes down, or there is a surge in demand and the grid cannot keep up, it is often a hydroelectric power plant that can go fully operational in a short amount of time to meet energy demand.
Is wind or solar energy more reliable?
Wind turbines can turn about 50% of the wind it captures into energy. When we look at the most efficient solar panels currently in operation, they can convert roughly 23% of the sunlight they absorb into electricity. However, it is essential to remember that solar energy is more abundant and available than wind, so experts on both sides debate for superior reliability6.
Is total renewable energy possible?
Many experts believe that total renewable energy is possible. The United States is already trending that way. There are many influences involved, like U.S. domestic energy policy and who is in charge of setting it. Total renewable energy in the U.S. is possible; it is just a matter of when and how it is made possible.
What is the future of the energy industry?
The future of the energy industry is renewable energy. By 2040, renewables could account for nearly 70% of the world's energy mix, according to a report from the global financial institution ING. While it will take billions of dollars, tons of research, and more technological innovations, renewable energy will make our planet healthier in the years to come.
Right now, we are on the right trajectory to replace destructive energy production processes with better systems for our future, but we need all the help we can get. Actions like attending a rally against fossil fuel usage or buying energy-efficient appliances can show your commitment to improving the energy industry's future. There are many different ways to push for environmentally-friendly standards, but if you're looking for a quick and easy way to make an impact, sign up for a 100% clean energy supply plan for your home.
Not sure if renewable energy is right for you? Read some of Inspire Clean Energy's reviews to see how we've helped customers make the switch.