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alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

Renewable energy – powering a safer future

Energy is at the heart of the climate challenge – and key to the solution.

A large chunk of the greenhouse gases that blanket the Earth and trap the sun’s heat are generated through energy production, by burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat.

Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, are by far the largest contributor to global climate change , accounting for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

The science is clear: to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, emissions need to be reduced by almost half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.

To achieve this, we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels and invest in alternative sources of energy that are clean, accessible, affordable, sustainable, and reliable.

Renewable energy sources – which are available in abundance all around us, provided by the sun, wind, water, waste, and heat from the Earth – are replenished by nature and emit little to no greenhouse gases or pollutants into the air.

Fossil fuels still account for more than 80 percent of global energy production , but cleaner sources of energy are gaining ground. About 29 percent of electricity currently comes from renewable sources.

Here are five reasons why accelerating the transition to clean energy is the pathway to a healthy, livable planet today and for generations to come.

1. Renewable energy sources are all around us

About 80 percent of the global population lives in countries that are net-importers of fossil fuels -- that’s about 6 billion people who are dependent on fossil fuels from other countries, which makes them vulnerable to geopolitical shocks and crises.

In contrast, renewable energy sources are available in all countries, and their potential is yet to be fully harnessed. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that 90 percent of the world’s electricity can and should come from renewable energy by 2050.

Renewables offer a way out of import dependency, allowing countries to diversify their economies and protect them from the unpredictable price swings of fossil fuels, while driving inclusive economic growth, new jobs, and poverty alleviation.

2. Renewable energy is cheaper

Renewable energy actually is the cheapest power option in most parts of the world today. Prices for renewable energy technologies are dropping rapidly. The cost of electricity from solar power fell by 85 percent between 2010 and 2020. Costs of onshore and offshore wind energy fell by 56 percent and 48 percent respectively.

Falling prices make renewable energy more attractive all around – including to low- and middle-income countries, where most of the additional demand for new electricity will come from. With falling costs, there is a real opportunity for much of the new power supply over the coming years to be provided by low-carbon sources.

Cheap electricity from renewable sources could provide 65 percent of the world’s total electricity supply by 2030. It could decarbonize 90 percent of the power sector by 2050, massively cutting carbon emissions and helping to mitigate climate change.

Although solar and wind power costs are expected to remain higher in 2022 and 2023 then pre-pandemic levels due to general elevated commodity and freight prices, their competitiveness actually improves due to much sharper increases in gas and coal prices, says the International Energy Agency (IEA).

3. Renewable energy is healthier

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 99 percent of people in the world breathe air that exceeds air quality limits and threatens their health, and more than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes, including air pollution.

The unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide originate mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. In 2018, air pollution from fossil fuels caused $2.9 trillion in health and economic costs , about $8 billion a day.

Switching to clean sources of energy, such as wind and solar, thus helps address not only climate change but also air pollution and health.

4. Renewable energy creates jobs

Every dollar of investment in renewables creates three times more jobs than in the fossil fuel industry. The IEA estimates that the transition towards net-zero emissions will lead to an overall increase in energy sector jobs : while about 5 million jobs in fossil fuel production could be lost by 2030, an estimated 14 million new jobs would be created in clean energy, resulting in a net gain of 9 million jobs.

In addition, energy-related industries would require a further 16 million workers, for instance to take on new roles in manufacturing of electric vehicles and hyper-efficient appliances or in innovative technologies such as hydrogen. This means that a total of more than 30 million jobs could be created in clean energy, efficiency, and low-emissions technologies by 2030.

Ensuring a just transition , placing the needs and rights of people at the heart of the energy transition, will be paramount to make sure no one is left behind.

5. Renewable energy makes economic sense

About $7 trillion was spent on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry in 2022, including through explicit subsidies, tax breaks, and health and environmental damages that were not priced into the cost of fossil fuels.

In comparison, about $4.5 trillion a year needs to be invested in renewable energy until 2030 – including investments in technology and infrastructure – to allow us to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The upfront cost can be daunting for many countries with limited resources, and many will need financial and technical support to make the transition. But investments in renewable energy will pay off. The reduction of pollution and climate impacts alone could save the world up to $4.2 trillion per year by 2030.

Moreover, efficient, reliable renewable technologies can create a system less prone to market shocks and improve resilience and energy security by diversifying power supply options.

Learn more about how many communities and countries are realizing the economic, societal, and environmental benefits of renewable energy.

Will developing countries benefit from the renewables boom? Learn more here .

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What is renewable energy?

Derived from natural resources that are abundant and continuously replenished, renewable energy is key to a safer, cleaner, and sustainable world. Explore common sources of renewable energy here.

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Learn more about the differences between fossil fuels and renewables, the benefits of renewable energy, and how we can act now.

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Five ways to jump-start the renewable energy transition now

UN Secretary-General outlines five critical actions the world needs to prioritize now to speed up the global shift to renewable energy.

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It’s time to stop burning our planet, and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us." ANTÓNIO GUTERRES , United Nations Secretary-General

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May 12, 2020

Can renewable energy really replace fossil fuels?


Scientist turns to zinnias, roadside weeds, other plants to create efficient biofuels

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — As global temperatures and energy demand rise simultaneously, the search for sustainable fuel sources is more urgent than ever. But how can renewable energy possibly scale up to replace the vast quantities of oil and gas we consume?

Plant power is a significant piece of the answer, says Purdue scientist Maureen McCann .

“Plants are the basis of the future bioeconomy,” she says. “In my mind, building a sustainable economy means we stop digging carbon out of ground and begin to make use of one and a half billion tons of biomass available in the U.S. on an annual basis. That's the strategic carbon reserve that we need to exploit in order to displace oil.”

McCann is a professor of biological sciences, former director of the Energy Center at Purdue’s Discovery Park, and president-elect of the American Society of Plant Biologists. She has spent her academic career looking at plant cell walls, which contain some of the most complicated molecules in nature. By studying a wide range of plants — from poplar trees to zinnias — ­her lab has characterized hundreds of plant genes and their products in an effort to understand how they all interact and how they could be manipulated in advantageous ways.

The ethanol industry uses enzymes to break starchy corn kernels down into glucose molecules, which, in turn, are fermented by microorganisms to produce usable fuel. Many researchers have been working on the possibility of getting more glucose by breaking down cellulose — the primary fibrous component of all plant cell walls — which is much more abundant than starch. However, McCann says their methods might be ignoring a valuable resource.

In addition to cellulose, cell walls contain many complex, poly-aromatic molecules called lignins. These compounds can get in the way of enzymes and catalysts that are trying to access cellulose and break it down into useful glucose. As a result, many labs have previously attempted to create plants that have more cellulose and fewer lignins in their cell walls.

But it turns out lignins are important for plant development and can be a valuable source of chemicals. As director of Purdue’s Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), McCann collaborated with chemists and chemical engineers in maximizing utilization of available biomass, including lignins. A nine-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy funded C3Bio researchers’ work toward using chemical catalysts to transform both cellulose and lignins into liquid hydrocarbons, which are more energy-dense than ethanol and fully compatible with engines and existing fuel infrastructure.

In light of lignins’ usefulness, McCann and her colleagues are interested in alternative biofuel optimization strategies that don’t involve reducing plants’ lignin content. For example, if the researchers can modulate the strength of the “glue” between plant cells, they can make it easier for enzymes to access cellulose and also reduce the amount of energy needed for shredding the plant material. Another approach involves genetically engineering living, growing plants to incorporate chemical catalysts into their own cell walls, which will help eventual breakdown be faster and more complete.

“In both cases, this work is a reflection of synthetic biology thinking,” McCann says. “We don't simply take what nature gives us; we think of ways to improve the performance of the biomass using the entirety of the genetics toolkit.”

McCann encourages others to think about “pathways of carbon.”

“If we think of how plants grow, they're marvelous chemists. They're taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water through their roots, and converting those simple molecules into highly complex cell wall structures,” she says. “When we think about making use of plant material in a biorefinery, a key goal is to make sure that every carbon atom that the plants so carefully trapped as part of their bodies ends up in a useful target molecule — whether that's a liquid hydrocarbon or a component of some material with advanced properties.”

As synthetic biologists, McCann and her lab members think holistically about optimizing crops for producing food, biofuel and useful materials such as specialized chemicals. Regardless of end purpose, she says, she keeps three dimensions in mind when thinking about optimization: increasing yield per acre, increasing the quality and value of each plant and increasing the area of land on which crops can be grown profitably. The holistic approach is particularly important for ensuring that scientists and agricultural producers achieve these goals without compromising the global environment or local ecosystems.

“As a new bioeconomy emerges powered by the life sciences, plants are at the root of it in so many ways — both in terms of the energy they can provide and also the kinds of molecules that they can produce,” McCann says.

For now, she acknowledges that ending economic dependence on fossil fuels is a work in progress. The transition to a renewable energy economy will require multiple levels of change over time. For example, even if we made the switch entirely to electric cars, we would likely still need hydrocarbon fuels to mine lithium for the batteries and to run machines with longer lifetimes than cars, such as airplanes and ocean-going vessels. Yet she maintains a positive outlook.

“Something that gives me great optimism is that we're going through a revolution in our ability to make new discoveries that lead to technologies that enable acceleration of the pace of discovery,” she says. “We’re going to find new ways of converting energy from one form to another that we haven’t even imagined. The capacity to make this substantial change from a fossil-based to a renewables-based economy is going to be there. We just need to drive it forward.”

McCann is in the Department of Biological Sciences , which is housed in the College of Science . 

About Purdue University

Purdue University is a top public research institution developing practical solutions to today’s toughest challenges. Ranked the No. 6 Most Innovative University in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, Purdue delivers world-changing research and out-of-this-world discovery. Committed to hands-on and online, real-world learning, Purdue offers a transformative education to all. Committed to affordability and accessibility, Purdue has frozen tuition and most fees at 2012-13 levels, enabling more students than ever to graduate debt-free. See how Purdue never stops in the persistent pursuit of the next giant leap at  purdue.edu .

Writer: Grace Niewijk

Media contact: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-412-0864, [email protected]

Source: Maureen McCann, [email protected]

Note to Journalists : A photograph of Maureen McCann is available for journalists to use via a Google Drive folder .

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April 22, 2015

The Age of Wind and Solar Is Closer Than You Think

Renewable energy, spurred by a crisis in climate, may usurp fossil fuels by mid-century

By Michael T. Klare

SA Forum  is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

That day will come: the life-changing moment when renewable energy—wind, solar, geothermal and others still in development—replace fossil fuels as the principal source of world energy. Most analysts insist, however, that this day will not arrive for many decades to come—certainly well past the middle of the century. Fossil fuels are too entrenched, it is said, and renewables too costly or impractical to usurp existing systems. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the share of global energy provided by renewables—a mere 14 percent in 2012—will increase only slightly between now and 2040, rising to just 19 percent. But there are good reasons to believe that the transition to renewables will occur much faster than previously assumed, pushing that percentage higher and higher. Indeed, recent increases in wind and solar installations have been running at nearly twice the rate of the IEA’s projections for long-term capacity growth, suggesting that its projections of renewables’ share of global energy are much too low.

It is hardly surprising, of course, that many experts say we will witness a relatively drawn-out transition from fossil fuels to renewables, given what is known about previous energy shifts of this sort. Any new form of energy initially operates at a severe disadvantage, lacking the elaborate production, processing and distribution networks retained by the prevailing type; before it can overcome that disadvantage and become the new leader the upstart must create a duplicate infrastructure—something that typically requires many decades. “Energy transitions take a long time,” observed Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba in Scientific American . It took more than 50 years for coal to replace wood as the world’s leading source of energy and another 50 years for oil to overtake coal; the shift from fossil fuels to renewables, he argued, is not likely to occur any faster.

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Under ordinary circumstances, Smil’s forecast would no doubt prove accurate. But these are not ordinary times: Growing concern over climate change is leading to increasingly strict controls on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while a continuing cascade of innovations in renewables technology is lowering their price and speeding their installation. (In a 2009 Scientific American cover story Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobson presented a detailed plan showing how the entire world could be powered by wind, solar and water sources by 2030 .

There are, of course, many obstacles to the effective control of carbon emissions, as demonstrated by the unremitting efforts of U.S. coal companies and their congressional allies to block the imposition of new rules by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nevertheless, it is impossible to dismiss the progress being made at the local, regional and international levels to curb GHGs and promote the use of renewables. The European Union (E.U.), for example, is well on the way to achieving a 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, along with a 20 percent increase in the share of its energy obtained from renewables. In the U.S. upgraded fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light vehicles will reduce U.S. consumption by an estimated savings of 12 billion barrels over the next 10 years. And China, the world’s leading fossil fuel consumer, has pledged to cap the growth in its carbon emissions by 2030 and increase the share of nonfossil fuels in its primary energy consumption to around 20 percent by that time.

Despite such progress, it appears increasingly unlikely that the world will succeed in preventing the expected increase in global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius—the maximum amount, most scientists agree, that the Earth can absorb without experiencing catastrophic climate events such as the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. This may mean we can expect an ever-expanding assault of droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, typhoons and other disasters. But this, in turn, will prompt governments to impose even tougher restraints on carbon emissions and to accelerate the installation of renewables.

The transition to renewables will be hastened by dramatic improvements in the pricing and performance of such systems. Due to steady increases in the efficiency of wind and solar systems, coupled with the savings achieved through large-scale manufacture, the price of renewables is falling globally. Deutsche Bank reports that the total module costs sustained by leading Chinese solar companies has decreased by 62 percent over the past few years, falling from $1.31 per watt in 2011 to $0.50 in 2014; further reductions, it says, will occur over the next few years. With prices dropping this fast, solar energy is now proving competitive with fossil fuels for generating electricity in many areas. As if to confirm this development, the Electricity and Water Authority of oil-rich Dubai recently awarded a $330-million contract to a Saudi firm for construction of a 200-megawatt solar electricity plant, touting its superior price for delivered power over oil and gas-fired plants.

This shift, says energy analyst Nick Butler of the Financial Times , provides “advance notice of a revolutionary development.” The collapse of solar module prices “has enabled solar to move from being a niche supplier to being a major regional competitor to [fossil fuels] and a potential disrupter of the whole power industry.”

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will not occur overnight, and it will not escape recurring setbacks. Nevertheless, renewables are likely to replace fossil fuels as the dominant source of electrical power well before mid-century as well as make giant strides in other areas such as transportation. Yes, the titans of carbon will continue to rule for another decade or so but their days are numbered and the smart money will place increasing bets on the eventual triumph of renewables.

Michael Klare is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and author of several books on energy and geopolitics, most recently The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources .

News from the Columbia Climate School

Why Renewable Energy Will Replace Fossil Fuels

Steve Cohen

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert

I am often a little amazed when I find renewable energy skeptics pointing out that without government incentives, renewable energy would not be competitive with fossil fuels, as if fossil fuels have not benefited from a series of public policies that greatly facilitated their development and adoption. Electric and gas utilities are monopolies regulated at the state level. Permission to operate and not compete and policies setting prices and assured return on capital investment are all provided by the government. Public service or public utility commissions operate in each state to protect the interests of those that generate and distribute electricity and natural gas. Then there is the oil depletion allowance, and the government’s huge investment in interstate and local highways. And of course, there was the billion-dollar bailout of the American auto industry, which the last time I looked makes products that are mostly powered by fossil fuels. All these initiatives are driven and funded by government, all a result of public policies designed to bring energy to the widest possible number of people. So please, no more nonsense about competing on the so-called level playing field. American capitalism has never been pure; we have always had a mixed economy. Government has long picked “winners and losers.”

There is good reason for fossil fuel folks to be nervous. Time is not on their side. People know that they need fossil fuels―I certainly did today when I put gas in my car―but most of us wish we had alternatives to these earth-damaging sources of energy. The market for alternatives is there and it will displace fossil fuels when (not if) renewable energy technology becomes cheaper and more convenient. At the start of 2017, Pew conducted a poll on attitudes toward renewable energy and in March 2017 Gallup conducted a similar poll. According to Gallup’s Frank Newport , the poll reported that:

  • “59% say protecting environment is more important than traditional energy
  • Over seven in 10 favor development of alternative energy vs. oil, gas, coal
  • Majority favor higher emissions standards, enforcement of regulations”

Gallup’s poll confirmed similar results in the Pew poll , but Pew drilled down deeper and found partisan differences in views on energy. Pew found that the only group favoring fossil fuel development over renewable energy development was conservative Republicans. But partisanship was only one part of the story: Pew’s most significant finding was that age is a significant factor in attitudes toward renewable energy. The strongest support for renewable energy was from those aged 18-29. Among young people, 75% favored alternative energy compared to 19% interested in developing new sources of fossil fuels. Among those 30-49 years old the numbers were 72% renewable compared to 24% fossil. Even those 50-64 emphasized renewable over fossil fuels by 59% to 32%, and among those 65 and older, renewables were still favored by 50 to 38%. The only outliers were conservative Republicans. They still want to “drill baby drill.” Unfortunately, those fossil fuel zealots are the people controlling the three branches of the federal government.

Gallup’s explanation for the survey results is that fuel is so plentiful and cheap that people are willing to explore alternatives. While I am sure that is true, that does not explain the age effect. Why are young people so much more anti-fossil fuel and pro-renewable energy? I believe it is because they understand the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels. They have lived their entire lives understanding these impacts and they believe that technology can help reduce those impacts. Young people have a fundamental belief in the transformative potential of new technology.

Gallup’s view that good economic news leads to greater support for environmental protection must be viewed in light of Pew’s age cohort analysis. Young people tend to have the fewest economic resources so economic plenty does not explain their view. Moreover, if the young maintain these views as they age, the views of older, more fossil fuel oriented people will be replaced by the views held by today’s millennials.

Our economy is built on energy, and assumes energy will be reliable, accessible and relatively inexpensive. Transitioning away from fossil fuels will be a long process. But it is a transition that young Americans strongly support. People raised in a world of constant technological change have a different attitude toward technology than those raised in an era of gradual technological change. Young people are constantly learning how to use new software programs and how to make the technologies they use function correctly. People my age frequently rely on younger people to explain how to set up and fix those programs and technologies. New applications arrive, new forms of social media fall in and out of style, and these remarkable changes are considered quite ordinary by millennials who have grown up with constant change.

The expectation that climate change, toxics and pollution are simply the price of modern life and can’t be changed makes no sense to people whose life experience has been constant change. Global warming, sea level rise, massive floods, fires and storms are a way of life; from Fukushima to Hurricane Sandy; from California’s recent drought to floods in the Midwest. Some of these conditions are natural and some are human induced. All need to be more effectively addressed with investments in stronger and more resilient infrastructure. But the idea that business as usual is acceptable is not accepted by the young people who will experience more of the impacts of climate change than old people will. People know that fossil fuels cause climate change and pollution and they want a new way to power their homes and businesses.

While people would like to see an alternative to fossil fuels, that does not mean they will use them if they become available. The alternatives must be convenient, reliable, and relatively inexpensive.  We all have sunk costs in current energy investments: our car, our water heater, and the rest of the appliances in our homes; these are barriers that will slow the transition to a new energy system. The electric car will need to be better and cheaper than the internal combustion car if it is to take over the market. That is true for renewable energy at home. But these technologies are improving on a daily basis. The electric version of the Model T is coming and it will transform personal transportation. Home battery storage is improving its reliability and coming down in price. As these technologies improve, they will drive fossil fuels from the marketplace.

I am convinced that this transition is coming but know it would be a whole lot faster if we didn’t have a president who equated fossil fuels with wealth and national might. The effort to revive the fossil fuel industry in the United States is not helpful and we may lose our technological advantage in the renewable energy innovation race. But China, Japan, India and Europe are more than ready to fill in for us if we falter. Japan has no fossil fuels and is desperate to wean itself from nuclear in an energy politics dominated by the Fukushima disaster. There are plenty of alternatives to the U.S. federal government working right now to develop renewable energy.

Renewable energy will replace fossil fuels because they will be less expensive, as reliable, and as convenient as fossil fuels. The polls indicate that the latent market for renewables in already in place. The issue is not if, but when. The health of our planet requires that this transition take place as soon as possible. Government incentives could and should be used to accelerate this process. In the United States, these incentives will need to come from states and cities since it is clear our dysfunctional federal government will do little or nothing to help.

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This is one of those (all too common) articles where the writer insists that he wants to happen must happen, even though there is little evidence that It will. Mr. Cohen apparently thinks that, since young people desire renewable sources of energy, these must inevitably come to exist. But the development of renewable fuels is not a problem of consumer demand. It is an Engineering problem, and is subject to the constraints of the physically possible. I’m sure people wanted flying machines in 1800, but that in no way meant that the invention of flying machines was imminent. The problem is, renewables like wind and solar are intermittent, and thus useless for practical generation of electrical power. Get it? They don’t work. And not only that but they must cost at least twice as much per unit of energy as fossil fuels. Mr. Cohen wants governments to deliberately make fossil fuels more expensive by (in effect) fining people for consuming them. An obvious feature of this scheme is that operating a motor vehicle would become something that only affluent people could afford. See? That’s something that environmentalists never actually admit, because it would expose the clear class bias in their thinking.

Saying that we will inevitably develop a reliable, economically feasible source of energy that does not produce air pollution is like saying that we will inevitably find a cure for cancer. These are physical problems, and there may be no solution to them.

Here’s what I think will probably happen: After about ten more years, when it becomes obvious that there are no nonpolluting sources of energy and that attempts to produce them are expensive failures, and when there aren’t any climate disasters in developed countries, we’re just going to accept the continued consumption of fossil fuels and politely pretend that we never were all that worried about climate change in the first place. The whole thing is going to be like the Y2K bug or the heterosexually driven AIDS epidemic. A monster-under-the- bed story that was fun for a while but which we will eventually outgrow.


you do know that fossil fuels are very limited right, how long do you think that the sun will last, or the wind, surely much longer than some compressed carbon under the surface, at some point we will have to use renewable energy sources more, oil,coal, and natural gasses arent unlimited on earth.


Ian, your clearly in the fossil fuel industry and your comments reflect that. Statistically, renewables are growing 12x vs non renewables. This is FACT.

You can delay, deny and spread FUD, but the market has spoken, #renewables

But GuitarMan, the market cannot magically produce that which is desirable merely because people desire it. For example, there is a huge and lucrative market for weight-loss programs and products. The sellers of these make a profit, and they have plenty of customers, but they don’t actually work in the long term. Essentially what the buyers of weight loss programs and products pay so dearly for is hope.

The question remains, is it possible to produce electrical power more cheaply than, say, coal, by means that do not cause air pollution? Aside from nuclear and hydro, no. Environmentalists tell us that, once we make a commitment to wind and solar, economies of scale will kick in and cause their costs per kilowatt-hour to drop. Let’s see how well that works in Germany, as the Germans have now embarked on a practical experiment to see if it is so.

Keep in mind that the problem is global. If China and India must burn fossil fuels to bring industrial prosperity to their citizens, that will happen, and there’s nothing anyone in the West can do about it. Not even declare war, as China and India have nuclear weapons. The Chinese and the Indians are a market too.

The other mistake Mr. Cohen is making is that he is overestimating consumer demand for clean energy. Discussions of climate change were all but absent from the last presidential campaign (which produced an outcome that I suspect neither Mr. Cohen nor anyone he knows personally would have predicted in October of 2016). Most people care more about the obesity epidemic than they do about climate change.

I will guess that, if you were to round up a sample of people who have children and ask them to name their greatest concern, very few would say climate change. And those who do will turn out to have high incomes and stable employment. People like, oh, I don’t know, tenured college professors. Or people like Leonardo DiCaprio, who are wildly out of touch with just about everybody who is not extremely wealthy.

So sure, young people will say that they are concerned about climate change, but they will have been recently indoctrinated in that position in college, and they will not yet have run full force into the difficulties that most adults face in earning a living. Plus, they will believe that they have a moral duty to care about climate change, which will taint their ostensible concern with it with a certain amount of vanity and moral posturing.

I will say this for Mr. Cohen: he understands that the principles of Economics are not just arbitrary inventions that we can set aside when they are no longer convenient. He’s not an outright fantasist, like the appalling Bill McKibben, who seems to think that material desire is just an annoying vice like smoking or overeating, and that we can stamp it out with the proper application of fascism. But reasonable and temperate as Mr. Cohen is, he’s making some very large and Panglossian assumptions.

I’m going to have to admit that I have (belatedly) figured out that Mr. Cohen is more formidable, honest and wise than I thought. Like, he could be right and I could be wrong. Ow, ow, that smarts.

It turns out that Mr. Cohen is skeptical of carbon pricing, as both politically shaky and essentially unproductive in forcing the conversion to green energy. So when I accused him of being in favour of carbon pricing I was wrong by reason of ignorance by reason of not having done any reading of Mr. Cohen’s prior writings. Oops.

Mr. Cohen’s basic premise, of course, is that engineers and other scientists will eventually develop green energy sources that will displace fossil fuels as a simple matter of marketplace economics. I consider that a Jules Verne story. But it turns out that the Germans actually are generating 30 percent of their electrical energy from wind turbines (and perhaps solar cells). They have figured out how to do this reliably and continuously, without power blackouts. I’m impressed. Also embarrassed at how incorrect I was about the nature of these sources of energy.

And of course government intervention in the form of subsidies must play a part in these advances. This has always been a fact of life in capitalist economies. Consider the example of the development of jet aircraft in the United States: In 1945, the United States military had no jet aircraft at all. By 1958 there existed usable military fighter jets (and the B-58 bomber) that could reliably go twice the speed of sound. This mighty surge in technical prowess was only possible because it was underwritten by the United States government.


My concern is that we just can’t get enough energy out of wind and solar to replace fossil fuels. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. We need consistent, reliable energy. The big problem is storage of the energy that wind and solar produce. Lithium batteries are destructive to the environment to produce, and there isn’ t enough Li in the world to make the batteries we will need. Old , depleted Lithium batteries are similar to nuclear power waste. We have no known way to safely process the used ones.

Leonidas Sakellarion

True – no plan forward will succeed unless it involves changing our behaviors

An opportunity to start that right now? Wouldn’t bet on it unfortunately…


We’ve made incredibly technically challenging advances when we wanted to. I believe this is possible and appreciate the positive outlook.

Here’s a fun fact for Mr. Cohen: Saudi oil costs ten dollars a barrel to produce, and is sold for four or five times that. No other business (except maybe motion pictures or heroin) produces profit margins that large. Certainly not wind and solar. Wind turbines cannot be sold to private consumers. They must be bought by governments, so the financing for the wind turbine industry is not just a subsidy but its entire economic base. Fossil fuels companies, on the other hand, do not require direct government subsidies to exist. If the depletion allowance was abruptly cancelled, oil companies would still be able to sell their product at a profit. (Also, to call public roads a subsidy to the oil industry is sophistry. Public roads are a subsidy to all the commerce in the United States.)

Young people are cute, charming and earnest, but these assets do not give them a special capacity to overcome physics and economics. If Mr. Cohen would like a real world demonstration of the difficulties in transitioning away from fossil fuels, he can look to the failed experiment in wind energy that is currently underway in Germany. Any time you read that solar or wind are now competitive in price with coal you are reading propaganda designed to fool the unwary. The claim of economic equality is made by considering only the operating costs of power generation and completely ignoring the capital costs. This is like saying that a Chevy and a Rolls Royce are equal in cost to their buyers because both use the same amounts of gas.

you are talking about the cost of oil and all this jazz, well oil, coal, natural gasses, are not unlimited. you do know that inevitably we will have to start to switch, you cant put your trust in fossil fuels forever, and maybe you just do not care about the future generation who will have to live without this substance we use to prop up almost our entire power production, maybe you are just an old person and you dont care because by the time it would be your problem you will be 6 feet under or stuffed in an urn. i know that renewable energy is expensive and that it won’t be an overnight change but we will need to make changes gradually.


Yes, fossil fuels are limited, but there are still immense amounts that can power us for decades. Also, recently a company said that they are confident that electricity generated with nuclear fusion will be commercially available by the end of the decade. I think it will start taking over the energy industry if this is true and that nobody should worry about carbon dioxide emissions in part because of this.

Another reason not to worry about it is because fossil fuels play next to no part in the earth’s temperature. Hear me out. Ninety percent of the greenhouse effect is caused by water vapor. Carbon dioxide i only responsible for six percent. Ninety percent of our carbon dioxide comes from sources like volcanoes. Of course the remaining carbon dioxide is not all from fossil fuels only. Even if it was, fossil fuels would only account for a petty zero point six percent of the greenhouse effect meaning it may have made the earth a degree or two warmer than before.

Finally, carbon dioxide is not a threat because even if levels increase, they will quickly return to normal because of plants. Plants (and other photosynthesizing organisms) conduct photosynthesis using carbon dioxide water and sunlight to produce glucose and oxygen. When there is more carbon dioxide in the air, plants do more photosynthesis which allows the to grow more and help farmers produce even more food for humanity, take out more carbon dioxide than before preventing any related problems, produce and produce more oxygen. With this information you should be able to see why I think fossil fuels aren’t a problem and why they will probably become far less popular with the development of the fusion reactor (they will probably still be a dominant fuel for transportation).

Sarah Fecht

Unfortunately all of that information about CO2 is incorrect. Please see https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/02/25/carbon-dioxide-cause-global-warming/ Also, researchers estimate that all volcanic eruptions together in a given year — including both submarine and subaerial eruptions — emit about 0.15 to 0.26 gigatons of CO2. By comparison, human activities emit about 35 gigatons of CO2 every year (about 135 times as much).


if you think that wind energy should replace fossil fuels your a liberal #Trump 2020

The end of your comment is it’s own rebuttal


Leonidas Carmine Sakellarion

What about the fact that the production of so many “renewable” sources of energy involves such heavy use of fossil fuels, toxic materials, environmental damage, and is being hijacked by Wall Street and traditional energy companies?

Get the Columbia Climate School Newsletter


Renewable energy, explained

Solar, wind, hydroelectric, biomass, and geothermal power can provide energy without the planet-warming effects of fossil fuels.

In any discussion about climate change , renewable energy usually tops the list of changes the world can implement to stave off the worst effects of rising temperatures. That's because renewable energy sources such as solar and wind don't emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming .

Clean energy has far more to recommend it than just being "green." The growing sector creates jobs , makes electric grids more resilient, expands energy access in developing countries, and helps lower energy bills. All of those factors have contributed to a renewable energy renaissance in recent years, with wind and solar setting new records for electricity generation .

For the past 150 years or so, humans have relied heavily on coal, oil, and other fossil fuels to power everything from light bulbs to cars to factories. Fossil fuels are embedded in nearly everything we do, and as a result, the greenhouse gases released from the burning of those fuels have reached historically high levels .

As greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space, average temperatures on the surface are rising . Global warming is one symptom of climate change, the term scientists now prefer to describe the complex shifts affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas , and a range of other impacts .

Of course, renewables—like any source of energy—have their own trade-offs and associated debates. One of them centers on the definition of renewable energy. Strictly speaking, renewable energy is just what you might think: perpetually available, or as the U.S. Energy Information Administration puts it, " virtually inexhaustible ." But "renewable" doesn't necessarily mean sustainable, as opponents of corn-based ethanol or large hydropower dams often argue. It also doesn't encompass other low- or zero-emissions resources that have their own advocates, including energy efficiency and nuclear power.

Types of renewable energy sources

Hydropower: For centuries, people have harnessed the energy of river currents, using dams to control water flow. Hydropower is the world's biggest source of renewable energy by far, with China, Brazil, Canada, the U.S., and Russia the leading hydropower producers . While hydropower is theoretically a clean energy source replenished by rain and snow, it also has several drawbacks.

For Hungry Minds

Large dams can disrupt river ecosystems and surrounding communities , harming wildlife and displacing residents. Hydropower generation is vulnerable to silt buildup, which can compromise capacity and harm equipment. Drought can also cause problems. In the western U.S., carbon dioxide emissions over a 15-year period were 100 megatons higher than they normally would have been, according to a 2018 study , as utilities turned to coal and gas to replace hydropower lost to drought. Even hydropower at full capacity bears its own emissions problems, as decaying organic material in reservoirs releases methane.

Dams aren't the only way to use water for power: Tidal and wave energy projects around the world aim to capture the ocean's natural rhythms. Marine energy projects currently generate an estimated 500 megawatts of power —less than one percent of all renewables—but the potential is far greater. Programs like Scotland’s Saltire Prize have encouraged innovation in this area.

Wind: Harnessing the wind as a source of energy started more than 7,000 years ago . Now, electricity-generating wind turbines are proliferating around the globe, and China, the U.S., and Germany are the leading wind energy producers. From 2001 to 2017 , cumulative wind capacity around the world increased to more than 539,000 megawatts from 23,900 mw—more than 22 fold.

Some people may object to how wind turbines look on the horizon and to how they sound, but wind energy, whose prices are declining , is proving too valuable a resource to deny. While most wind power comes from onshore turbines, offshore projects are appearing too, with the most in the U.K. and Germany. The first U.S. offshore wind farm opened in 2016 in Rhode Island, and other offshore projects are gaining momentum . Another problem with wind turbines is that they’re a danger for birds and bats, killing hundreds of thousands annually , not as many as from glass collisions and other threats like habitat loss and invasive species, but enough that engineers are working on solutions to make them safer for flying wildlife.

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Geothermal: Used for thousands of years in some countries for cooking and heating, geothermal energy is derived from the Earth’s internal heat . On a large scale, underground reservoirs of steam and hot water can be tapped through wells that can go a mile deep or more to generate electricity. On a smaller scale, some buildings have geothermal heat pumps that use temperature differences several feet below ground for heating and cooling. Unlike solar and wind energy, geothermal energy is always available, but it has side effects that need to be managed, such as the rotten egg smell that can accompany released hydrogen sulfide.

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Cities, states, and federal governments around the world are instituting policies aimed at increasing renewable energy. At least 29 U.S. states have set renewable portfolio standards —policies that mandate a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources, More than 100 cities worldwide now boast at least 70 percent renewable energy, and still others are making commitments to reach 100 percent . Other policies that could encourage renewable energy growth include carbon pricing, fuel economy standards, and building efficiency standards. Corporations are making a difference too, purchasing record amounts of renewable power in 2018.

Wonder whether your state could ever be powered by 100 percent renewables? No matter where you live, scientist Mark Jacobson believes it's possible. That vision is laid out here , and while his analysis is not without critics , it punctuates a reality with which the world must now reckon. Even without climate change, fossil fuels are a finite resource, and if we want our lease on the planet to be renewed, our energy will have to be renewable.

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  • Published: 18 March 2012

Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?

  • Richard York 1  

Nature Climate Change volume  2 ,  pages 441–443 ( 2012 ) Cite this article

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A fundamental, generally implicit, assumption of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and many energy analysts is that each unit of energy supplied by non-fossil-fuel sources takes the place of a unit of energy supplied by fossil-fuel sources 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 . However, owing to the complexity of economic systems and human behaviour, it is often the case that changes aimed at reducing one type of resource consumption, either through improvements in efficiency of use or by developing substitutes, do not lead to the intended outcome when net effects are considered 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 . Here, I show that the average pattern across most nations of the world over the past fifty years is one where each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use and, focusing specifically on electricity, each unit of electricity generated by non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. These results challenge conventional thinking in that they indicate that suppressing the use of fossil fuel will require changes other than simply technical ones such as expanding non-fossil-fuel energy production.

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alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay


The energy debate: Renewable energy cannot replace fossil fuels

  • 12th April 2017
  • by Toni Pyke

alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

  The fact that oil is a “finite” material is not a problem…Every material is finite. Life is all about taking the theoretically finite but practically limitless materials in nature and creatively turning them into useful resources. The fossil fuel industry does it, the “renewable”—actually, the “unreliable”—energy industry doesn’t. End of story.” Alex Epstein

Fossil Fuels (coal, oil, petroleum, and natural gas) are originally formed from plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago and became buried deep beneath the Earth’s surface. These then collectively transformed into the combustible materials that we use today for fuel. The earliest known fossil fuel deposits are from about 500 million years ago, when most of the major groups of animals first appeared on Earth. The later fossil fuels, such as peat or lignite coal (soft coal), began forming from about five million years ago.

Currently, we are (over)dependent on fossil fuels to heat our homes, run our cars, power our offices, industry and manufacturing, and respond to our insatiable desire to power all of our electrical goods. Nearly all of the energy needed to meet our demands – 80 percent of global energy – comes from burning fossil fuels . At the current rate of global energy demands, fossil fuels cannot replenish fast enough to meet these growing needs. The (over)consumption of these non-renewable fuels has been linked to the emission of greenhouse gases and pollutants into the atmosphere – the leading cause of global warming and climate change.

In Ireland , for example, our energy consumption from fossil fuels was 89% in 2013. Our highest demand for fossil fuel energy over the last 51 years was experienced during the period of high growth under the ‘Celtic Tiger’ (2004), where we required 93.39%. The lowest energy consumption value ( 67.24% ) was in 1960, more than half a century ago! Ireland is ranked 46th out of 136 countries in its fossil fuel energy consumption . That’s higher than the UK (52nd) and the US (56th)!

For more background to the debate see “ 5 possible climate scenarios” by the Guardian.

Renewable energy is energy that is derived from natural processes (e.g. sunlight and wind). Solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, bioenergy and ocean power are sources of renewable energy. Currently, renewables are utilised in the electricity, heating and cooling and transport sectors.

Renewable energy, collectively provides only about 7 percent of the world’s energy needs. This means that fossil fuels, along with nuclear energy — a non-renewable energy source — are supplying 93% of the world’s energy resources. Nuclear energy (a controversial energy source among public opinion) currently provides 6% of the world’s energy supplies .

“Models predict that Earth will warm between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius in the next century. When global warming has happened at various times in the past two million years, it has taken the planet about 5,000 years to warm 5 degrees. The predicted rate of warming for the next century is at least 20 times faster. This rate of change is extremely unusual.” – NASA Earth observatory

Burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas emitter that contributes to global warming, which hit its peak in 2012. In the last 30 years, temperatures have risen to the warmest since records began. If we continue to pump greenhouse gases into our environment the average global temperature could increase by 1 °C to 4°C by 2100 .  Even if we changed today to using more renewable resources instead of fossil fuels for example, increases could be between 1 to 2.5°C.

alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

This graph , based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.)

The 20th century saw the most prolific population growth and  industrial development , which was and remains totally dependent on the use of fossil fuel for energy.

Estimates for fossil fuel reserves depletion range from between 50-120 years. None of these projections are very appealing for a global community that is so heavily dependent on energy to meet even our basic human needs – needs that keep growing.

Predictions estimate that global energy demand will grow by a third by 2035 . Also critical to consider is the more than 1.2 billion people around the world who still do not have access – yet – to electricity. As the global population continues to grow – predicted to be nine billion people over the next 50 years – the world’s energy demands will increase proportionately.

Scientists maintain that the impact of global warming on the environment is widespread. In the Arctic and Antarctica, warmer temperatures are melting ice, which leads to increases in sea levels and alters the composition of the surrounding sea water. Rising sea levels impacts on settlements, agriculture and fishing both commercially and recreationally. Air pollution is also a direct result of the use of fossil fuels, resulting in smog (see in China and India ), and the degradation of human health and plant growth. There is the negative impact on natural ecosystems that result from collecting fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil. There is also the continuing threat of oil spills that devastate ecosystems and the impact of mining on land vitality.

The discussions around climate change and energy problems today centre around the potential for technical solutions to energy demands that are cost effective . So far, the alternative to fossil fuels has been around renewable energy sources , which are expected to play an increasingly vital role in the mix of power generation over the next century. The demands on these alternative energy sources are inordinate – they will need to not only keep up with the increasing population growth, but needs to go beyond these demands by contributing to the replacement of fossil fuel energy production in order to meet future energy needs and consider the natural environment.

However, the argument from governments, oil, coal and natural gas companies is that until renewable energy sources become more viable as major energy providers, the only alternative in meeting the increasing demands for energy from a growing global population that requires more and more energy, is to continue to extract fossil fuel reserves.

Round #1: The switch

Agree: switching to renewable energy is not as simple as it is being made out to be. quite the opposite..

“ It is commonly assumed that greenhouse gas and energy problems can be solved by switching from fossil fuel sources of energy to renewables.  However, little attention has been given to exploring the limits to renewable energy.  Unfortunately, people working on renewable energy technologies tend not to throw critical light on the difficulties and limits.  They typically make enthusiastic claims regarding the potential of their specific technologies .” (Alex Epstein)

The idea of drawing our energy from sources that are renewable, independent of foreign nations, and do not emit greenhouse gases has powerful appeal. But capturing these resources is expensive, and many are intermittent, which complicates using them on a large scale.   Furthermore, it takes time and money to change distribution and consumption of energy, meaning we will be dependent on fossil fuels until we can afford this switch. Finally, bringing new renewable energy technologies to market causes problems both in regard to cost and convenience, meaning a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not a simple task.

“ It would be difficult to find a more taken for granted, unquestioned assumption than that it will be possible to substitute renewable energy sources for fossil fuels, while consumer-capitalist society continues on its merry pursuit of limitless affluence and growth. There is a strong case that this assumption is seriously mistaken .” ( Ted Trainer )

Disagree: Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is good for everyone

“ To deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2C of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel reserves unexploited. I should point out that reserves are just a small fraction of resources (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The reserve is that proportion of a mineral resource which has been discovered, quantified and is viable to exploit in current conditions: in other words that’s good to go…. a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. 2C is dangerous enough; at present we are on course for around 5C by the time the century ends, with no obvious end in sight beyond 2100. ” (George Monbiot, The Guardian , 2015)

“ The major thrust of climate-change claims is that man is destroying the planet. There is much evidence to show that we are the greatest burden that Earth has to bear. To simply rape the earth of all its fossil-fuels would be gross folly. ” (Dr. Peter Langdon)

Fossil fuels are not renewable, they can’t be made again. Once they are gone, they’re gone.

For more on this see renewable energy vs fossil  fuels by Energy Quest (USA).

Round #2: Demand vs supply

Agree: renewables cannot provide the required amount of energy to supply demand (intermittency).

Solar and wind technology, after 50 years of subsidies, produces less than 1 percent of the world’s energy—and, because the sun and wind provide only intermittent energy, continue to require fossil fuel backups.

The issue of intermittency from solar and wind means that is difficult to get reliable power from either as it is weather dependent – which, particularly in Ireland is unpredictable. This creates a need for energy storage (which is currently not efficient enough to be cost effective) or needs traditional fossil fuels or nuclear power to supplement.

“ As you look at the jagged and woefully insufficient bursts of electricity from solar and wind, remember this: some reliable source of energy needed to do the heavy lifting. In the case of Germany, much of that energy is coal. As Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel capacity, especially coal, has not been shut down—it has increased. Why? Because Germans need more energy, and they cannot rely on the renewables .” (Alex Epstein)

“ It is concluded that although the foregoing figures are not precise or confident, their magnitudes indicate that it will not be possible to meet a 1000 EJ/yr energy target for 2050 from alternative energy sources, within safe greenhouse gas emission levels… . Such a goal could not be achieved without radical change in social, economic, political and cultural systems .” (Ted Trainer)

Much of the debate around renewables is in reference to the ‘present’ energy demands, where the anticipated demand for energy in the future is expected to double by 2050. “The crucial question is can renewables meet the future demand for energy in a society that is fiercely and blindly committed to limitless increases in “living standards” and economic output.  The absurdity of this commitment is easily shown. If 9 billion people were to rise to the “living standards” we in rich countries will have in 2070 given 3% p.a. economic growth, then total world economic output would be 60 times as great as it is now! It is concluded that the investment cost that would be involved in deriving total world energy supply from renewable sources would be unaffordable. Full dependence on renewable energy can only be done if we move to lifestyles and systems that require only a small fraction of the present rich world per capita energy consumption.

Renewables could provide around of 25% of energy needs in some countries, but much of the generating capacity would have to be duplicated in the form of fossil or nuclear plant for use when there is little sun or wind; and the amount of coal use that will continue to be required would continue to exceed safe greenhouse gas emission limits.” For more on this see  Ted Trainer, The Simpler Way

As discussed above, Renewable Energies have limitations, but these are varied based on the type of renewable energy being discussed. Here are the specific limitations of each.

Solar Power

– Photovoltaic solar electricity (or PV) is intermittent. Its potential contribution to providing widespread renewable energy is limited without the capacity for very large-scale storage.  Even if it became cheaper than fossil fuels, its major limitation is that it can’t power anything for about 16 hours a day, or in the case of consecutive cloudy days.  It can feed surpluses from house roofs etc., into a grid running on coal (although this is expensive), while drawing power from that grid at night.  But this only works when a lot of coal or nuclear power plants are running all the time to act as a giant “battery” into which PV can send surpluses.

– Solar thermal plants – need to be located in the Sahara region. While they can store energy as heat to generate and transmit electricity when it is needed, their biggest limitation is the significant transmission losses and the magnitude of the potential of this type of renewable energy is uncertain, and especially doubtful in winter, where output is generally about 20% of summer output.  This means that solar thermal systems will need to be located in the world’s hottest regions, and will need to supply major demand centres by long transmission lines, and will not be able to make a large contribution in winter.

For very large scale biomass production, each person in the world would need about 2.6 hectares of land growing only biomass to provide for their liquid and gas consumption (in the form of ethanol net, not primary energy amount.) To provide the anticipated 9 billion people on earth by 2060 we would need 24 billion hectares of biomass plantations.

The world’s total land area is 13 billion hectares, and the total forest, cropland and pasture adds to only about 8 billion hectares, just about all heavily overused already. If we vary the above assumptions there is no possibility of explaining how all people could ever have something like the present rich world liquid fuel consumption from biomass.

For more on this point see The climate change deniers guide to getting rich from fossil fuel divestment, The Guardian (April 2015)

Disagree: Renewable energy can meet energy needs in a safe and reliable way

“… The key is to have a mix of sources spread over a wide area: solar and wind power, biogas, biomass and geothermal sources. In the future, ocean energy can contribute. Intelligent technologies can track and manage energy use patterns, provide flexible power that follows demand through the day, use better storage options and group producers together to form virtual power plants. With all these solutions we can secure the renewable energy future needed. We just need smart grids to put it all together and effectively ‘keep the lights on ’”. ( Greenpeace.org 2014 )

“ There’s no shortage of renewable energy from the sun, wind and water and even stuff usually thought of as garbage — dead trees, tree branches, yard clippings, left-over crops, sawdust, even livestock manure, can produce electricity and fuels — resources collectively called ‘biomass’… The sunlight … in one day contains more than twice the energy we consume in an entire year. … Clean energy sources can be harnessed to produce electricity, process heat, fuel and valuable chemicals with less impact on the environment .”  ( California Energy Commission 2006 )

Continued research has made renewable energy more affordable today than 25 years ago. The cost of wind energy has declined from 40 cents per kilowatt-hour to less than 5 cents. The cost of electricity from the sun, through photovoltaics (literally meaning “light-electricity”) has dropped from more than $1/kilowatt-hour in 1980 to nearly 20cents/kilowatt-hour today. And ethanol fuel costs have plummeted from $4 per gallon in the early 1980s to $1.20 today.

The amount of energy used in Irish homes has decreased by 32 per cent since 1990 despite a 50 per cent increase in the average floor area of residential properties. Renewable energy last year accounted for 21% of the amount used in the electricity sector , 5.7% of the amount used for heat and 4.9 per cent of that used in transport.

By 2050 almost all of global energy needs can be met with renewable energy share: 41 percent by 2030 and 82 percent by 2050. That would be the global electricity supply- energy used in buildings and industry, would come from renewable energy sources. The transport sector, in particular aviation and shipping, would be the last sector to become fossil fuel free.

Already many countries throughout the world are committing to a future that will be powered by renewables. For example:

– Germany , currently generates 25 percent of its electricity from renewables and is aiming for 80 percent by 2050 – Spain’s top source of electricity in 2013 was wind power, ahead of nuclear, coal and gas. Renewables supplied 42 percent of mainland Spain’s electricity in the same year – In 2012 China’s wind power generation increased more than generation from coal – The Philippines produces 29 percent of its electricity with renewables, targeting 40 percent by 2020 – Denmark is aiming to produce 100 percent of its heat and power with renewable energy by 2035 and all energy by 2050. – Emerging economies like South Africa, China and Brazil are setting the pace for renewable energies . Investments in renewables from these economies was US$112 billion in 2012, which is close to the US$132 billion that developed countries invested.

Emerging economies do not need to go down a path of relying on fossil fuels. Just as many developing countries skipped land lines and went straight to cellular telephones, these countries can leapfrog right to affordable clean energy. Many have already taken advantage of the benefits of renewable energy and recognised the long-term benefits. For example, in Uganda less than 15% of a total population of 38 million people, have access to electricity. The majority of the population is dependent on kerosene or charcoal for their energy and light, both of which are expensive and environmentally damaging. Yet, the population is embracing the potential for clean energy alternatives being promoted within the country.

Intermittency is an issue at the moment as the technology is expanding, but it can be managed by thinking about the overall energy system. Over reliance on one renewable technology could result both in massive variability in output over short time periods and in severe risk of big gaps in generation.

The way round this is:

a) a dispersed portfolio of generation connected by a wide grid and b) clean gas on standby

“ Yes, backup generation ups the overall price, but it’s cheaper than having half the planet die of climate-induced starvation ” ( Quora.com )

Round #3: What about the costs?

Agree: renewable energy is not cost effective.

Renewable energies in their current supply are either not cost effective without heavy government subsidies, use tremendous amounts of land, or they harm the environment in some way. (Quora.com)

Calculating the cost of electricity from renewable energy sources is quite difficult. It depends on the fuel used, the cost of capital (power plants take years to build and last for decades), how much of the time a plant operates, and whether it generates power at times of peak demand. In measuring the costs economists use “levelised costs”(the net present value of all costs – capital and operating – of a generating unit over its life cycle, divided by the number of megawatt-hours of electricity it is expected to supply). What levelised costing doesn’t take into account is the issue of intermittency – wind power isn’t generated on a calm day, or solar power at night, resulting in the need for conventional power plants to be kept on standby.

Electricity demand varies during the day in ways that the supply from wind and solar generation may not match, so even if renewable forms of energy have the same levelised cost as conventional ones, the value of the power they produce may be lower.

Another way to measure the costs is through a ‘cost-benefit analysis’ which looks at the benefits of renewable energy including the value of the fuel that would have been used if coal or gas-fired plants had produced the same amount of electricity and the amount of carbon-dioxide emissions that they avoid.  According to this calculation, wind and solar power appear to be far more expensive than if calculated on the basis of levelised costs .

To determine the overall cost or benefit, the cost of the fossil-fuel plants that need to continue to be on stand-by for the intermittency problem, needs to be factored in. For example, solar farms run at only about 15% of capacity, so they can replace even less. Seven solar plants or four wind farms would be needed to produce the same amount of electricity over time as a similar-sized coal-fired plant. And all that extra solar and wind capacity is expensive.

In Europe, rather than seeking to increase the availability of low cost electricity, governments enforce scarcity by manipulating the factors influencing electricity prices such as “ regulatory structures—including taxes and other user fees, investment in renewable energy technologies, and the mix and cost of fuels .”

In the EU governments interfere with electricity markets, and enforce the use of inferior electricity sources such as wind and solar, resulting in subsidies, taxes, feed-in tariffs, materials and labour, forcing the consumer to pay the ultimate costs. Rather than seeking to increase the availability of low cost electricity, governments enforce scarcity by manipulating the factors influencing electricity prices such as regulatory structures—including taxes and other user fees, investment in renewable energy technologies, and the mix and cost of fuels. In Germany for example,

“ taxes and levies account for about half of retail electricity prices, [and] transmission system operators charge residential consumers a renewable energy levy that is used to subsidise certain renewable generation facilities .” ( Alex Epstein ) 

This is in addition to policies which penalise coal and nuclear electricity generators.

Disagree: Fossil Fuel energy costs do not factor in all the ‘hidden’ costs

“Investing in clean energy is not only good for the economic growth, it is good for people. The unfortunate reality is that those in the poorest countries are often the most vulnerable to climate change — whether from rising seas that threaten homes and water supplies or droughts that drive up food prices. This is the human cost of fossil fuels that often goes unmentioned in balance sheets and gross domestic product statistics.”  

If the full cost of fossil fuel generation (including climate impact) were included then the costs would be comparable.

“Typically, the ones who claim that wind and solar will bring trouble to the grid are the old players, who failed to take renewable energy seriously and over-invested in fossil fuel capacities instead. Renewable energy is now eating their profits and making their old business models out-of-date” (Greenpeace.de)

“ Those who argue that wind is expensive and unnecessary are quite simply wrong.  Because Ireland has such a good wind energy resource, we can get cheap clean electricity from it. Making comparisons with other countries about wind effectiveness is not always valid.  Ireland has a uniquely strong resource.  We have one of the lowest support regimes and wind is not raising electricity prices .”( Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland 2014 )

Ireland is highly dependent on imported fossil fuels – for 89 per cent of its energy, s pending €6.5 billion per year on imports – just over half of this on transport . In the past five years renewable energy has saved over €1 billion in fossil fuel imports; has reduced CO2 emissions by 12 million tonnes and has not added to consumers’ bills. The potential for wind and other provides the opportunity for greater energy independence, reducing carbon footprint, national competiveness leading to greater control over energy prices.

Growing our use of renewable energy is also vital for our national competitiveness, giving us greater control over our energy prices.

“ Less reliance on fossil fuels gives us greater certainty on our energy prices, rather than leaving us at the mercy of international commodity price rises. It also helps attract foreign investment, as more global companies seek access to clean energy as part of their location decisions .” ( SEAI 2014 )

The costs of some renewable energy inputs such as Photovoltaic solar panels have halved in price since 2008 and the capital cost of a solar-power plant—of which panels account for slightly under half—fell by 22 percent between 2010 and 2013. In a few sunny places, solar power is providing electricity to the grid as cheaply as conventional coal- or gas-fired power plants.

As the large utilities’ fossil and nuclear plants become more expensive and alternatives become cheaper, savvy consumers are looking to decrease their dependence on the utilities’ power supply. To cope, the utilities are trying to decouple their increasing costs from the amount of electricity they sell, further increasing the cost advantages of renewables and other alternatives. Renewables, with zero-marginal-costs, helped push down wholesale prices to 8-year lows in 2013.

Most sources of electricity, including coal, natural gas, and nuclear are and have historically been subsidized with both implicit and explicit subsidies, including the same types of tax credits afforded to wind and solar. For example:

Explicit subsidies: Nuclear receives a Production Tax Credit, similar to Wind. Natural Gas gets access to the Oil and Gas Exploration & Development Expensing subsidy.

Implicit subsidies through the tax payer for example in the US, subsidises cover the costs of catastrophic insurance for nuclear plants, because there is no way their owners could afford to clean up after a Fukushima-style disaster. And, of course, the ultimate implicit subsidy – the cost of environmental damage due to pollution and CO2 production, for which we all pay and will continue to pay for generations.

Also hidden costs such as bonus payouts to CEOs of the top 5 oil companies estimated at US$1tn (£650bn or €888bn) for fossil fuel exploration and extraction over nine years , reflecting the confidence of top oil companies that demand will remain high for decades to come.

The combined 2014 upstream ( Upstream operations deal primarily with the exploration stages of the oil and gas industry, with upstream firms taking the first steps to first locate, test and drill for oil and gas. Later, once reserves are proven, upstream firms will extract any oil and gas from the reserve) capital spending bill for the big five is three and a half times the sum devoted to research and development by the world’s five biggest-spending drug firms. It is also equivalent to more than 14% of the combined stock market value of Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, Total and  BP .

Currently, renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels. BUT, this is changing rapidly. There are various types of renewables – onshore wind is the most cost competitive and offshore wind is heading that way but will likely remain more expensive; the large scale solar power costs are rapidly reducing, hydro power – marine, tidal stream, dams, run-of-river – are currently more expensive but some large-scale projects such as the Severn Barrage in the UK are competitive.

Given the interest in the private sector for renewable energy – it must be big business, with giants like Wal-Mart, Google and General Electric that have been increasing in clean energy investments. Billionaire Warrant Buffett recently spent US$5.6 billion for a renewable energy company in Nevada and a US$2.4 billion investment in a wind farm in California. Many oil companies are involved in the development of more reliable renewable energy technologies. Already for example, BP has become one of the world’s leading providers of solar energy through its BP Solar division. Dong Energy and EDP have built up balanced energy portfolios which include higher shares of renewables. Their renewable assets are making more profits than their thermal ones.

Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of US$5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to US$10m a minute every day. This subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments and 6.5% of global GDP.  The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.

“ This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries… A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests .” ( IMF 2015 )

The need for subsidies for renewable energy –$120bn a year – would disappear if fossil fuel prices reflected the full cost of their impacts .

Round #4: Scaling renewables - is it possible?

Agree: renewable energy utilises too much land, meaning problems in scalability and storage..

A problem with solar and wind energy is the sheer scale of land that is required to obtain as much energy as even a small coal fire power plant can produce. Storing renewable energy more effectively and inexpensive energy from wind or solar could become much more viable than they are currently. However right now, no cost effective forms of energy storage exist, and are not foreseen.

The area of productive land required to provide for one Australian is over 7 hectares per person.  The US figure is closer to 12 hectares.  However, the amount of productive land per person on the planet is about 1.3 hectares and by the time we reach 9 billion it will be close to 0.8 hectares. In other words Australians have a footprint about 10 times greater than all could share.

“ Renewables are so much less energy dense than conventional generation, meaning so much more land is required. The British economist David McKay estimated that to meet the UK’s electricity needs from offshore wind would require 44,000 3MW turbines in a 4km wide band around the entire 3,000km coastline of the country. And if the wind stops, well.. .”  ( Ted Trainer )

The best option is to use electricity to pump water up into dams, then generate with this later.  This works well, but the capacity is very limited.  World hydro generating capacity is about 7 – 10% of electricity demand, so there would often be times when it could not come anywhere near topping up supply. Hydroelectric power is cost effective and does not suffer from intermittency, but have been linked to impacting on the ecosystems in which they are installed and affecting settlements and livelihoods.

Very large scale production of renewable energy, especially via solar thermal and PV farms located at the most favourable regions, will involve long distance transmission. European supply from solar thermal fields will probably have to be via several thousand kilometre long HVDC (high-voltage, direct current) lines from North Africa and the Middle East. Expected power losses from long distance plus local distribution are predicted to be around 15 percent. This makes it different than coal, natural gas, and nuclear, and in some senses worse. It means that it can’t supply 100 percent of our needs, and intermittency needs to be factored into any electricity system design. An intelligently designed energy system using very basic “smart grid” technology could support easily up to 25 percent production from intermittent renewables without significant strain on resources.

Disagree: Many renewable technologies are scalable, and perceived problems regarding land, noise and animal welfare can be overcome.

Many renewable technologies are very scalable. The much hyped DeserTec project pointed to a new model for electricity generation for Europe with massive PV arrays in North Africa. Difficult, expensive… but do-able.

All of the scalability problems are surmountable. Doing so requires a new, far more complex, energy system with new technologies and new policy tools.

“ The really fun bit will come when electric vehicles and demand-side-management become a mainstream reality. Finally, we would have the beginnings of a sustainable energy system .”

Land use : The land used for renewable energy projects, like wind farms, can still be used for farming and cattle grazing. International experience has shown that livestock are completely unaffected by the presence of wind farms and will often graze right up to the base of wind turbines.

Noise : Studies have shown that noise complaints, especially those related to wind farms, are often unrelated to actual noise. In most cases it was found that people were actually opposed to the farms on aesthetic grounds – which would be the same with coal or nuclear plants. It was also found that ‘noise’ complaints dropped off rapidly when local communities derived income from the renewable energy projects in question.

Birds and bats : A common argument against wind farms is that they kill birds and bats. However, if environmental impact assessments are conducted and migratory and local bird population patterns are assessed before construction, this is avoided completely. It is vital that these assessments are made to ensure the safety of birds and bats, as with any development project.

Round #5: Can we meet an increase in demand?

Agree: demand is increasing globally .

The total world energy demand is for about 400 quad rillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) annually . One ‘BTU’ is about the energy and heat generated by a match. Oil, coal and natural gas supply about 350 quadrillion BTUs. Oil provides most of this, around 41 percent of the world’s total energy supplies (164 quadrillion BTUs). Coal provides 24 percent (96 quadrillion BTUs), and natural gas provides the remaining 22 percent (88 quadrillion BTUs).

By the year 2020, world energy consumption is projected to increase by around 50 percent – an additional 207 quadrillion BTUs. As outlined in previous points, renewable energies would not be able to meet this increasing demand.

Disagree: Demand is decreasing in significant parts of the world, for example the European Union

Total and peak electricity demand in the European Union started to slow in the 1990s, and have been falling since 2007 (with the exception of in 2009). Total demand in the EU-27 fell by around 2.5% from 2007 to 2012. Demand also fell in several large national markets: by 7.5% in the UK, 4.3% in Italy, 3.4% in Spain and 3.2% in Germany. In the first 11 months of 2013, demand fell by a further 2.6% in Spain and 3.5% in Italy (where Enel, the country’s major electricity producer, reported an even larger drop in its nine-month report); in the first nine months of 2013, demand in Germany fell by1.1 percent.

Europe today has about twice as much installed generation capacity as peak demand would warrant.

The Clean Air Act of the late 1950s means that today a building stays the same colour as when new. The catalytic converter means that vehicles are cleaner than even thought possible 25 years ago. It prevents sulphurs entering the atmosphere and turns unburnt or half-burnt carbons into CO2. Why? Because CO2 is harmless. More CO2 provides more plant food and is, in effect, greening the planet.

New cars require only half the engine size to produce the same power and twice the mileage. Electric generators that 25 years ago were around 30 per cent efficient are now around 70 per cent efficient. Yet the ‘greens’ would have us adopt wind generation, solar power or electric cars, none of which can ever approach the efficiency of boiling water to achieve a 600 times expansion and thus power the world as economically as is possible to date. Green policies cause more damage.

In conclusion, it is our responsibility to advance alternative power. However, we should remember that low-cost electricity generation is crucial to the economy. It increases income and employment in all sectors, the purchasing power of the consumer, and makes exports more competitive. Renewable energy certainly can supplement conventional power, and its use will likely continue to steadily grow. Nevertheless, realistically speaking, it can’t entirely replace non-renewable fuels anytime soon .


“ Eventually, the degree to which we depend on fossil fuels will have to lessen as the planet’s known supplies diminish, the difficulty and cost of tapping remaining reserves increases, and the effect of their continued use on our planet grows more dire. But shifting to new energy sources will take time which we don’t have ” ( NowIreland )
“The number one way to cut emissions quickly and get back to 350ppm is to stop burning dirty coal as soon as possible. Without coal, we must find a way to make cheap, renewable energy widely available in order to ensure all communities the right to develop cleanly.” ( 350.org , 2013)

If we contemplate the finite dimension of our earth and our (over)consumption of our natural environment, the reality of extinction spreads beyond fossil fuels:

Soil quality –erosion of topsoil, depleted minerals, added salt

Fresh water –depletion of aquifers that only replenish over thousands of years

Deforestation –cutting down trees faster than they can regrow

Ore quality –depletion of high quality ores, leaving only low quality ores

Extinction of other species –as we build more structures and disturb more land, we remove habitat that other species use, or pollute it

Pollution –many types: CO2, heavy metals, noise, smog, fine particles, radiation, etc.

Arable land per person, as population continues to rise. In light of these ‘costs’ of fossil fuels, renewable energy is a solid alternative to meet the energy demands of our world.

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Wind turbines on a hill, behind a big gum tree

It’ll be impossible to replace fossil fuels with renewables by 2050, unless we cut our energy consumption

alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

Honorary Associate Professor, UNSW Sydney

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Mark Diesendorf does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

UNSW Sydney provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

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Energy consumption – whether its heating your home, driving, oil refining or liquefying natural gas – is responsible for around 82% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions .

Unless Australia reduces its energy consumption, my recent study finds it’ll be almost impossible for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels by 2050. This is what’s required to reach our net-zero emissions target.

Yet, as the nation’s economy recovers from the pandemic, Australia’s energy consumption is likely to return to its pre-pandemic growth. The study identifies two principal justifications for reducing energy consumption (or “energy descent”):

  • the likely slow rate of electrifying transport and heating
  • that renewable energy will be chasing a retreating target if energy consumption grows.

Energy descent isn’t an impossible task. Indeed, in 1979, Australia’s total final energy consumption was about half that in 2021. Key to success will be transitioning to an ecologically sustainable, steady-state economy, with greener technologies and industries.

What’s slowing down growth in renewables?

To transition to sustainable energy, Australia must electrify transport and combustion heating, while replacing all fossil-fuelled electricity with energy efficiency and renewables, which are the cheapest energy technologies .

Renewables can be rolled out rapidly: wind and solar farms can be built in just a few years and residential rooftop solar can be installed in a single day.

Rooftop solar

But rapid growth in wind and solar is slowed by three critical infrastructural and institutional requirements of the electricity industry:

  • to establish Renewable Energy Zones (a cluster of wind and solar farms and storage)
  • to build new transmission lines and medium-term energy storage such as pumped hydro
  • to reform electricity market rules to make them more suitable for renewable electricity.

These take longer than building solar and wind farms and much longer than installing rooftop solar and batteries. Nevertheless, they could be fully implemented within a decade.

In fact, transitioning existing fossil-fuelled electricity generation, such as coal-fired power stations, to 100% renewables could possibly be completed by the early 2030s.

But optimistic calculations based on how quickly we can build solar and wind farms and their infrastructure ignore the fact that the growth of renewable electricity is limited by electricity demand.

When existing coal-fired power stations have been replaced by renewables, electricity demand will be determined by how rapidly we can electrify transport and combustion heating. These are the principal tasks that will limit the future growth rate of renewable electricity. They will likely be implemented slowly, despite the urgency of climate change.

Read more: Why Labor's new tax cut on electric vehicles won't help you buy one anytime soon

Households and industries have big investments in petrol/diesel vehicles and combustion heating. They may be reluctant to replace these working technologies, without substantial government incentives.

So far, effective federal government policies are almost non-existent for transitioning transport and heating, which are together responsible for 38% of Australia’s emissions .

This month’s announcement of a future “consultation” on fleet fuel efficiency standards is the government’s tentative first step .

Electric car charging on the street

Chasing a retreating target

If we look at only percentage growth rates, the task of renewable electricity looks misleadingly easy. From 2015 to 2019, Australia’s renewable electricity grew by 62% – an excellent achievement.

But, it was starting from a small base. This means its increase in energy production over that period was only slightly bigger than the growth of total final energy consumption – comprising electricity, transport and heating – which is still mostly fossil fuelled.

On the global scale, the situation is even worse. As a result of growth in total final energy consumption, the share of fossil fuels was the same in 2019 as in 2000 : namely around 80%.

The challenge for renewable energy is like a runner trying to break a record while officials are striding away down the track with the finishing tape.

This situation is not the fault of renewable energy technologies. Nuclear energy, for example, would grow much more slowly and would take even longer to catch up with growing consumption.

alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

In one of the scenarios I explore in my study, Australia’s total final energy consumption grows linearly at the pre-pandemic rate from 2021 to 2050. Then, renewable electricity would have to grow at 7.6 times its pre-pandemic rate to catch up by 2050.

Alternatively, if renewable electricity growth is exponential , it would have to double every 6.8 years until 2050.

Considering that future growth in renewable electricity will be limited by the rate of electrifying transport and combustion heating, both the required linear and exponential growth rates appear impossible.

Possible solutions

Both the International Energy Agency and modelling done for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change avoid the problem by assuming large-scale carbon dioxide capture and storage or directly capturing CO₂ from the air will become commercially available.

But relying on these unproven technologies is speculative and risky . Therefore, we need a Plan B : reducing our energy consumption.

Read more: Engineers have built machines to scrub CO₂ from the air. But will it halt climate change?

My study shows if we could halve 2021 energy consumption by 2050, the transition may be possible. That is, if raw materials (such as lithium and other critical minerals) are available and local manufacturing could be greatly increased.

For example, if the total final energy consumption declines linearly and renewable electricity grows linearly, the latter would only have to grow at about three times its 2015–2019 rate to replace all fossil energy by 2050. For exponential growth, the doubling time is 9.4 years.

Improvements in energy efficiency would help, such as home insulation, efficient electrical appliances, and solar and heat pump hot water systems. However, the International Energy Agency shows such improvements will be unlikely to reduce demand sufficiently.

We need behavioural changes encouraged by socioeconomic policies, as well as technical.

Implications of energy descent

To reduce our energy consumption, we would need public debate followed by policies to encourage greener technologies and industries, and to make socioeconomic changes.

This need not involve deprivation of key technologies, but rather a planned reduction to a sustainable level of prosperity.

It would be characterised by greater emphasis on improving and expanding public transport, bicycle paths, pedestrian areas, parks and national parks, public health centres, public education, and public housing.

Read more: Affluence is killing the planet, warn scientists

This approach of providing universal basic services reduces the need for high incomes and its associated high consumption . As research in 2020 pointed out, the world’s wealthiest 40 million people are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions.

And on a global scale, energy descent could be financed by the rich countries, including Australia. Most people would experience a better quality of life. Energy descent is a key part of the pathway to an ecologically sustainable, socially just society.

  • Renewable energy
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  • National emissions
  • Electric vehicles (EVs)

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Burn it down —

We get more useful energy out of renewables than fossil fuels, it costs less energy to get fossil fuels, but we can't use them as efficiently..

John Timmer - May 21, 2024 9:30 pm UTC

We get more useful energy out of renewables than fossil fuels

It doesn't take a lot of energy to dig up coal or pump oil from the ground. By contrast, most renewable sources of energy involve obtaining and refining resources, sophisticated manufacturing, and installation. So, at first glance, when it comes to the energy used to get more energy—the energy return on investment—fossil fuels seem like a clear winner. That has led some to argue that transitioning to renewables will create an overall drop in net energy production, which nobody is interested in seeing.

A new study by researchers at the UK's University of Leeds, however, suggests that this isn't a concern at all—in most countries, renewables already produce more net energy than the fossil fuels they're displacing. The key to understanding why is that it's much easier to do useful things with electricity than it is with a hunk of coal or a glob of crude oil.

Energy efficiency and utility

The basic idea behind the new work is that while it's energetically cheap to extract fossil fuels, the stuff that comes out of the ground isn't ready to be put to use. There are energetic costs to making it into a useful form and transporting it to where it's needed, and then there is lost energy when it's being put to use. That's especially notable for uses like internal combustion engines, where significantly less than half of the energy available in gasoline actually gets converted into motion.

So, the researchers propose an alternate form of the energy return on investment (EROI)—something they call useful-stage EROI. This measures how much energy is needed to put a unit of energy to work in a way that society values—heating a home, moving a car, lighting a room, and so on. This is also a more complicated measure because it depends on how the energy is put to use, which will vary from country to country. So, even though natural gas has the same EROI at extraction, it'll have different useful-stage EROIs in a country that primarily uses gas for heating versus one that's using it for electricity generation, since those two activities have different efficiencies.

To analyze useful-stage EROIs, the researchers built on a previous publication that calculated what it termed final-stage EROIs, which tracked the energy used to get a unit of energy to where it's ready for use—so, all the energetic costs of extraction, processing, and delivery. This information let them track this statistic for the 50-year period from 1970–2020. Then, they built their own country-level energy use database . Since typical efficiencies of various uses are available, that lets them track the useful-stage EROI in each country they have data for.

The one thing this doesn't include is the energy cost of the infrastructure needed to extract fossil fuels, which, in the case of things like off-shore drilling, can be significant. So, the researchers suggest that they're probably overestimating the useful-stage EROIs for fossil fuels.


Focusing on utility makes a substantial difference. Using the 2020 data, the final, delivered-to-end-user EROI of fossil fuels is quite good, at approximately 8.5, meaning you get about 8.5 units of energy out for every one you invest. (This is averaged across all fuels and uses.) Once you try to do something useful with it, however, it drops dramatically so that the useful-stage EROI is only about 3.5. Which, to be clear, is bad—you want to be getting as much useful energy as possible for every unit of energy you put into things.

Different fuels have very different profiles, however. Natural gas has the highest useful-stage EROI at 9.5, coal is at 7.2, and oil products are at only 2, meaning we only get about twice as much energy out of gasoline as we put into producing and using it. Most of these values have been largely unchanged for the past 50 years except for natural gas, which has seen a dramatic drop in the EROI of getting it ready to use (possibly due to the energy costs of fracking—the trend is most notable in the 1980s) and a smaller drop in useful-stage EROI.

A large contributor to these values is how these fuels are put to use. For example, the useful-stage EROI for natural gas in heating buildings is about 12, meaning it can be used reasonably efficiently. The value for heating with oil products is only about 5. Oil products used in road and rail propulsion are also terrible, being just above 2 for rail travel and under 2 for roads.

Renewable energy, in this analysis, is focused on things like wind and solar, which deliver electrons to the grid (things like renewable production of methane are pretty minor at this point). Those can be used for things like heating, rail and road transit, and other uses performed by fossil fuels. Many of these uses are extremely efficient—things like heat pumps and electric motors are much better at turning energy into utility than their fossil fuel equivalents.

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Review on Revolutionary and Sustainable Green Hydrogen: A Future Energy Source

  • First Online: 21 May 2024

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alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

  • Vishal V. Patil 6 ,
  • Avesahemad S. N. Husainy 6 ,
  • Kaustubh Shedbalkar 6 ,
  • Samir N. Momin 6 ,
  • Omkar S. Chougule 6 ,
  • Prathamesh U. Jadhav 6 ,
  • Sanmesh S. Shinde 6 &
  • Paramvir Singh 7  

Part of the book series: Energy, Environment, and Sustainability ((ENENSU))

The advantages of hydrogen as a versatile and eco-friendly fuel are highlighted, along with its potential as a prospective energy resource for the future. The concept of a “hydrogen economy” is hinted at, wherein electricity and hydrogen work together as complementary energy sources. The text emphasizes the growing energy demand due to population growth and improved living standards. While fossil fuels currently dominate energy consumption, the focus is on sustainable alternatives like hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, wave, and tidal energy. Hydrogen has a great potential for a future energy source. Only water vapor is released by hydrogen, which reduces air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and highlights the flexible and environmentally friendly nature of hydrogen. It can be created using a range of resources, including renewable energy, which adds to its appeal. Nevertheless, it recognizes the existence of challenges and hurdles that must be addressed before hydrogen can be extensively adopted as a replacement for fossil fuels. There are several processes for creating hydrogen, including steam methane reforming, which recovers hydrogen from fossil fuels, and unconventional techniques including water electrolysis and thermochemical reactions. Hydrogen is a practical energy source in terms of environmental sustainability, energy effectiveness, and fuel variety.

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Patil, V.V. et al. (2024). Review on Revolutionary and Sustainable Green Hydrogen: A Future Energy Source. In: Singh, P., Agarwal, A.K., Thakur, A., Sinha, R.K. (eds) Challenges and Opportunities in Green Hydrogen Production. Energy, Environment, and Sustainability. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-97-1339-4_3

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Can Renewable Energy Replace Fossil Fuels

alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

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What Is The Best Alternative Energy Source To Replace Fossil Fuels?

The world is changing every day. And with an increased collective awareness of the damaging effects of fossil fuels, many people are seeking  alternative energy sources  to reduce that damage. Lots of countries now look at wind energy, solar power, geothermal energy, and tidal energy as being the future of our energy resources. As of right now, we are overdependent on energy sources that will run out one day. Fossil fuels power our homes, offices, schools, prisons, public buildings, and manufacturing plants. These energy sources offer a reliable and affordable way to power these industries, but they release harmful CO₂ emissions into the atmosphere every day. We are hopeful that, someday, renewable energy will replace fossil fuels entirely so that we can slow down and reverse the damage done to the planet. The  benefits of renewable energy  provide great solutions to combat the harmful effects of fossil fuels, but we need to look deeper into why this needs to take place.

Why renewable energy will replace fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are the biggest driver behind the climate crisis, and transitioning to a more sustainable system is necessary to fight climate change. Not only this, but it is also necessary if we are to meet the increasing demand for cheap and accessible energy. This must be done before we run out of fossil fuels or we will face a world that cannot provide energy to all its inhabitants. As it is, over a billion people worldwide lack access to electricity. Perpetuating our collective reliance on fossil fuels will not change this; it will make it worse. We must ensure renewable energy replaces fossil fuels and carry out a healthier, more accessible long-term plan.

Is renewable energy better than fossil fuels?

Renewable energy is certainly more sustainable than fossil fuels, as there is a finite amount of fossil fuels in the earth’s crust. Fossil fuels are made from ancient biological matter that has been contained in a pressurized environment for hundreds of thousands of years. This is not a process we can recreate quickly. Which means we will run out, and soon. Estimates say we will run through the remaining fossil fuels in between 50 and 150 years.

Renewable energy sources  like wind energy, solar power, and geothermal energy rely only on constant and consistent resources. For example, the wind will always blow, the sun will always shine, and the earth will always produce heat. Once built, wind farms rely solely on the wind to continue blowing in order to harvest energy. Once installed, solar panels continue to work for decades, creating energy from the sun’s rays. Fossil fuels on the other hand continue to cause irreparable damage to the ozone layer, and while we can never undo this damage, it is possible to bring this damaging process to a halt.

What are the viable alternatives to fossil fuels?

Nuclear energy.

While prone to risks of its own,  nuclear energy is among the most abundant sources of alternative energy . It produces more than 55% of the nation's emission-free electricity. It offsets hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon emissions every year and offers a consistent, reliable energy source. Nuclear plants run 24/7, operating at full power almost 100% of the time. The drawbacks of nuclear energy include high operating costs, the danger of a meltdown, and the transportation, storage, and disposal of the toxic by-products.

Hydro power

Another viable alternative to fossil fuels is hydro power, which is generated from the natural energy of water flow. This method of harnessing energy was one of the earliest but went into decline with the rise of fossil fuels. Now, it’s coming back.  Hydroelectricity is a clean energy source , contributes to flood control and irrigation techniques, and can be used anywhere there is a natural flow of water.

Biomass energy

Biomass energy is another viable source of energy that causes significantly less damage to the environment than fossil fuels. Energy crops are grown for this specific purpose, and the most common biomass materials come from wood, animals, and plants. Biomass can be burned to create heat (known as thermal conversion), converted directly into electricity, or processed into biofuel. This energy source is cheap, renewable, and reduces the reliance on fossil fuels, but is not considered a clean energy source.

Solar power

Solar power harnesses the sun’s energy to produce electricity . This is a clean energy source and will become more prevalent as solar panels become more efficient in low-lighting.

Wind energy

Wind energy is another clean energy source  that harnesses the power of the wind to turn generators which then produce electricity. In windy areas, this is a very efficient form of clean energy. The biggest problem with wind turbines is they aren’t suitable in urban areas, and so must be built in remote windy areas or out at sea. Learn  how to switch to wind powere here !

Can solar energy replace fossil fuels?

It is difficult to say whether one source of renewable energy alone can replace fossil fuels. It is more likely that a combination of sustainable energy sources could replace them instead. Solar power is more accessible to the average individual as it can be installed on roofs of homes with relative ease. In the future, when solar panels can generate electricity even in low-light scenarios, putting them on as many rooftops as possible could be an extremely effective way of producing more energy without taking up space.

What is the best alternative to fossil fuels?

Solar power is entirely renewable, and the initial installation costs are outweighed by the money saved in traditional suppliers’ energy bills. Regardless of the financial potential, solar cells are prone to deterioration over time and still rely on steady weather conditions to function consistently. Tidal energy is a relatively new renewable energy source, but it has already shown great potential. One UK study recently reported that tidal energy could meet almost 20% of the U.K's electricity demand. Because it is such a new source of energy, it’s unclear whether it alone could replace fossil fuels. Wind energy is another promising alternative to fossil fuels; it makes use of an infinite, natural resource, namely wind. It generates no waste and leaves the surrounding areas relatively untouched. Wind energy is also a sensible environmental investment — the average wind project repays its carbon emissions in under six months while avoiding the CO₂ emissions of 42 million cars. The best alternative to fossil fuels is to use all clean energy and alternative energy sources in tandem and then increase our dependence on clean energy sources as they become more efficient.

Pros and cons of alternative energy replacing fossil fuels

A healthier, cleaner world to live in . Currently those living in urban areas face respiratory issues from sub-par air quality. Alternative energy sources will help improve this significantly. There won’t be oil spills to deal with, we’ll have cleaner water supplies, global warming will lessen dramatically, and so on.  Creates more local jobs . Clean and alternative energy sources are often produced and used within the US, which can help create more jobs, especially in rural areas.  We can future-proof our energy supply . Whether you believe in global warming or not, there’s no denying that fossil fuels will continue to become more scarce and more expensive. Alternative energy sources can continue to supply electricity when this happens.  Alternative energy will become cheaper for consumers . As fossil fuels become more scarce, their prices will rise. Alternative energy sources will not become scarce – provided we create the infrastructure – and so this will drive energy prices down in the long term.  Reduce dangerous environments for workers . Those who work in coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power (not a fossil fuel, but worth mentioning) work in dangerous environments. If you look back in history, you can discover numerous occasions where miners have died in tunnel collapses, fires, explosions, and meltdowns. It’s easy to think of these occurrences as a thing of the past, but they still happen regularly where fossil fuels are still abundant.

Our infrastructure is built for fossil fuels  and that means that we need to do a lot of work to change things. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve relied on fossil fuels to develop and grow our societies. Now, we need to change things drastically if we wish to continue living in a healthy world where there is enough energy for all.  Businesses will have to change . Change is necessary, but it’s not always easy. Asking whole industries to move to something different is an extremely difficult thing to do. The businesses that go with the change will survive, but many will resist and therefore die, meaning a loss of jobs, even as alternative jobs are produced.

What does the future look like for alternative energy and fossil fuels?

It is likely that renewable energy sources will gain prominence over the next decade, and then more dramatically over time; however, initial investments are required to get these projects off the ground and that can slow down the process. The decline in international oil prices and natural gas has meant that suppliers are even better equipped to deal with the rise in popularity of alternative energy sources. Ultimately, there is no single renewable energy source that can single-handedly replace fossil fuels. What’s required is a thoroughly thought-out combination of several sustainable options, each one to be used where appropriate and financially viable.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will not happen overnight, and it will not occur without setbacks and challenges. But the process does need to start now, as it may take four or even five decades to get to a place where it’s making a recognizable impact. It will entail a number of costs, not only financially but also from the perspective of changing our habits and ways of thinking. The fundamental point is that a transition to more sustainable options is possible, as long as we begin the process soon. If you’re ready to make the switch to renewable energy sources to lessen the demand on fossil fuels and encourage the country to invest in the infrastructure to produce more clean energy, then it’s time for you to choose  renewable energy . With Inspire, it takes less than five minutes to sign up and then you’ll begin enjoying the benefits of unlimited clean energy in your home. Learn more about  how to switch to renewable energy  today.

Not sure if renewable energy is right for you? Read the latest  Inspire Energy reviews  to see how we've helped customers make the switch.

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A Journal of Ideas

Why renewables cannot replace fossil fuels, it’s all in the math and physics., tagged climate change fossil fuels nuclear energy renewables.

alternative energy can effectively replace fossil fuels essay

Solar panels adorn the roof of my Colorado home. I helped build two large solar farms. I felt sure I was helping mitigate global warming, and it felt good! And as a happy additional benefit, Colorado’s net-metering meant my electric bill for the sunny summer months was $0. A win for the climate and a win for me. Or so I thought.

My journey began when, as a concerned scientist, I decided to understand what it would take to clean up America’s fossil-fueled electric power systems. Wind and sunshine are free and plentiful. It seemed to make perfect sense to put them to work cleaning up dirty and polluting power plants. After installing my solar panels several decades ago, I really got into it. I studied the science, met with utility and power executives, talked with leading academics, and pored over the data from already operating clean energy systems (solar, wind, and nuclear power). I also studied promising new technologies: Allam cycle gas, gas turbines with carbon capture, fusion, and hot rock geothermal. But as I got further into the science, the results became harder to hear; they began to deeply challenge many of my cherished beliefs.

The math for solar panels explains why. Solar panels turn sunlight into electricity, and they are—by far—the cheapest way to generate electricity. Replacing dirty coal with clean solar sounds terrific. But the problem is that word “replace.” A coal plant generates electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rain or shine, all year long. Solar panels, on the other hand, suffer through nights, clouds, dust, snow, and weak winter sun, all of which impact a solar panel’s ability to generate electricity. In fact, and on an annual basis, the average North American solar farm generates meaningful power less than 20 percent of the time .

I’d never really thought about that. Obviously, power for 20 percent of the time can’t replace 24-hour dispatchable (whenever needed) baseload power. To cover those huge night and dark-day gaps, and to keep the lights always on, something else is needed—a lot of something else. In Colorado and elsewhere, most of that something else, most of those gaps, are filled with power from coal or gas plants. And that is the problem. Although solar farms have allowed fossil-fueled plants to cut back and save emissions on sunny days, they haven’t been able to replace them 24/7 and obviously cannot do so by themselves.

The result is that to fill the power gap, utilities employing solar and wind farms still need to keep their fossil-fueled generators running to provide power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind not blowing.

Many of us have hoped that batteries could someday fill the gaps by storing and saving energy that could be distributed when needed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, there is no known technology that can efficiently and economically store the incredible amount of energy required for the length of time required. In winter, for example, clouds can cover most of the continent for a week or more, shutting down solar production (the output from solar farms drops by 75 to 90 percent when clouds cover the sun). Batteries can store enough power for a few hours, but storing enough electricity in batteries to power the nation for a cloudy week is simply not feasible . And as we electrify everything, the demand and the gap will grow exponentially.

Hydrogen? That doesn’t really work either. Unlike natural gas, great quantities of free hydrogen have not been found in nature. Clean, green hydrogen must be manufactured by electrolyzing water—an energy-intensive process. The gas then must be compressed, cooled, and sent to storage. To get the energy back out, it must be sent to a power plant where it will be burned in gas turbines driving electric generators. The process is hugely inefficient. Two thirds of the energy used to make the hydrogen is lost. We can’t afford to triple the number of solar farms to make up for hydrogen’s inefficiency.

But suppose if by some magic there were enough efficient storage to power the entire nation for a cloudy week. When the sun came back out, we’d have to recharge all that storage—put as much power back in as we took out. That means that for the next sunny week, all our solar power would be recharging storage—leaving nothing available to power the economy. In order to also do that, therefore, we’d need twice as many solar farms; one to run the economy, another the same size to recharge storage.

And then what happens if the clouds come back before recharging is complete? In short, and it’s something rarely considered, filling the gap with storage would require more than doubling the number of solar farms, doubling the cost, land use, and resources. Frankly, to meet our 2050 net zero goals, that much storage and renewable overbuild is simply not a realistic option. We need something else.

In short, and as much as I wanted it to be otherwise, when it comes to replacing reliable, weather-independent, 24/7 coal or gas plants, the intermittency of solar and wind farms simply doesn’t fill the need. Some early adopters of intermittent renewable energy like California and Germany are seeing the problem already. It comes in the form of grid instability and blackouts. As a result, California is cutting new solar way back , keeping gas plants running , and postponing the planned shutdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. California businesses and wealthy homeowners are buying diesel generators .

Strangely, the media hasn’t yet gotten the message. Daily media messaging tells us that renewables are the solution. It reinforces our hopes and distracts us from doing what’s really needed. Indeed, America is incurring many hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt for clean energy. And there is great pressure to use most of that money almost exclusively to build solar and wind farms, farms that, by themselves, won’t allow us to close fossil plants.

But please don’t get me wrong. Solar and wind, when properly integrated, can, and will, make a significant contribution to carbon reduction. But the backbone of any robust system must be reliable 24/7 (baseload) power. And the problem is much bigger than just replacing existing fossil plants. America’s reindustrialization, along with the electrification of transportation, heating, and industry, will double or triple electrical demand before 2050. It will take massive new energy generation to meet that challenge. Our nation still needs to come up with a plan to meet that projected increase in baseload demand with clean 24/7 energy.

But back to climate. Records show that 2023 was the hottest year in the last 125,000 years. If our nation fails to build workable solutions that can truly replace fossil fuels, emissions will keep rising, the planet will get hotter, life will get harder, and our grandchildren will rightly blame us.

If we really want to mitigate climate change, it’s time to put to work technologies whose physics and math say they actually can supply the massive baseload power to replace those fossil plants and meet the new demand. Fortunately, solutions exist.

The Solution

As hard as it may be to hear (and it took me a long time to accept this), nuclear energy is the only solution capable of replacing fossil fuels at scale . It has already been done. After the 1973 oil crisis, France began replacing almost all its fossil plants with new nuclear plants. The French finished the job in less than 15 years. Since then, those plants have been providing more than 70 percent of France’s electricity (most of the rest is hydropower). Today, excluding hydropower, France has the most reliable, cleanest, and cheapest electricity in Europe. It’s also the safest—no notable accidents. To meet the expected increase in demand, France has just decided to build at least seven more nuclear plants. Because it is such an obvious solution that works, more countries are beginning to follow France’s example. Allow me to get a little wonky. There are about 440 nuclear power plants operating in 32 countries today. There are another 60 reactors under construction across the world, and still another 110 planned . Some countries are expanding their existing nuclear fleet—like China , which is bringing online dozens of new reactors (China is bringing more reactors online than any other country). Others, like Poland , are new to nuclear but moving forward aggressively, trying to free themselves from reliance on Russian gas. Now aware that nuclear is essential, more than 30 newcomer countries are considering, planning, or starting nuclear power programs. Twenty-two nations at COP28 in Dubai last December signed a pledge committing to tripling nuclear power. Russia’s response is to try to dominate nuclear energy. By offering finance, Russia has become the biggest exporter of nuclear reactors around the world, with an order book estimated to be worth about $200 billion .

Where is the United States in all this? Going the other way. Almost five decades ago public opposition driven by fear and oil company pressure effectively halted the planned conversion to nuclear of most of our coal and oil-fueled generators. We still get 20 percent of our electricity (and most of our non-hydropower clean electricity) from the 94 nuclear reactors that are still running. Unfortunately, many of them will soon be due for retirement. Replacements? In the last 30 years we’ve built only two new reactors, and no more are planned.

It’s worth looking at why and how this happened. Following WWII, I believe well-intentioned scientists inflated the danger of radiation in order to scare the world away from using—or even testing—atomic weapons. And as so often happens, there have been unintended consequences. Reacting to those public fears, the U.S. government set radiation limits for nuclear power plants far stricter than necessary for safety. Limits were set more than 100 times stricter than anything that has ever been shown to cause human harm, 50 times stricter than a full CT scan, even more than 20 times stricter than the high but harmless natural background radiation (radiation from the Earth) in some parts of the world . If we viewed highway risks the same way, we’d mandate a maximum speed of 1 mph It would unquestionably save lives – but at a huge cost to society. We’ve effectively restricted nuclear to 1 mph when the data says we could go 15 times faster (15 mph) with almost no increase in risk.

To get a better balance, perhaps it would help if we used the safety data from actual experience. In some parts of the world, populations have lived for millennia with background radiation as much as 100 times greater than America’s strict standard, with no elevated cancer or health problems. Navy sailors live and sleep for months next to naval reactors. Then there is the data from the world’s hundreds of power reactors that are not under America’s strict safety interpretations. The safety of those other reactors is every bit as good as the American reactors.

In fact, and despite the myths, the safety record of nuclear is unmatched by any other energy source. In the last 70 years, for example, radiation from nuclear accidents has caused fewer than 200 deaths ( all from Chernobyl ). By contrast, the UN claims that fossil fuel pollution causes some 8 million deaths each year ! Even the manufacture and installation of solar panels causes more deaths per unit of delivered power. In practice, and over its lifetime, nuclear power is safer , more reliable, cheaper , and less environmentally damaging than any other electric power system. And it is also the cleanest , generating no CO 2 and producing less toxic waste than even solar . I would argue that by being overstrict with nuclear, we forced ourselves to use more oil, coal, and gas, which created much greater harm to our health, society, and economy.

So while my solar panels can certainly make a contribution, they can’t replace that dirty CO 2 -producing coal plant that provides my electricity when the sun isn’t shining. The only thing that could do that before 2050 is a new nuclear power plant. If the United States is to meet the anticipated doubling of electricity demand and its climate goals, the American people must demand that their leaders include a significant buildout of new nuclear power.

The rest of the world is already doing so. The Koreans build large U.S.-designed nuclear plants in under five years and for less than the cost of a coal plant . American innovators are developing a new generation of smaller, cheaper, and even safer, small modular reactors (SMRs) that could see commercial operation this decade. On the other hand, if America fails to launch an accelerated nuclear buildout, we’ll not only keep damaging the climate, we’ll also be handing our adversaries an unopposed opportunity to move an energy-hungry world away from us and into their orbit.

Read more about Climate Change fossil fuels nuclear energy Renewables

Bill Budinger is a physicist, author, the founder and former CEO of Rodel, Inc., a global manufacturing company, and a lifetime trustee of the Aspen Institute.

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Managing Energy, Economic, and Environmental Transition: Workshop Report

Photo: satvik/Adobe Stock

Photo: satvik/Adobe Stock

Table of Contents

Report by Neelima Jain

Published May 21, 2024

Available Downloads

  • Download the Full Report 292kb

Executive Summary

The transition from coal-dependent economies to ones driven by sustainable energy sources presents a global challenge in balancing climate action, energy access, and economic development. The “just transition” concept recognizes the importance of addressing societal impacts, environmental sustainability, governance, and financial mechanisms in this process. Countries such as India, South Africa, and the United States, each with their distinct socioeconomic landscapes, underscore the necessity for collaborative efforts and knowledge sharing to facilitate successful regional transitions.

To address these challenges and explore subnational strategies for managing energy, economic, and environmental transitions, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, hosted an invitation-only hybrid workshop on July 27, 2023, in New Delhi, India. The workshop aimed to connect stakeholders from India, South Africa, and the United States to share experiences, policy mechanisms, and technical considerations for navigating transitions at the subnational level.

The workshop featured four sessions focusing on (1) governance, (2) economic revitalization and diversification, (3) infrastructure repurposing and environmental remediation, and (4) workforce and skill development. Each session included presentations by expert speakers, audience engagement, and reflective discussions on the lessons learned. The event attracted 46 officials and practitioners from 11 states and provinces, providing a valuable platform for direct engagement and exchange of insights across various contexts. Several key takeaways emerged from the prolific discussions:

Governance in Transition: Policies and Regulations

  • Navigating the transition from a coal-dependent economy becomes intricately challenging when balanced with urgent developmental imperatives.
  • Policy and legislative initiatives reflect growing, ambitious regional climate commitments, yet they confront social, economic, and legacy issues, risking an unplanned and inequitable transition.
  • Community engagement underscores the potential for collaborative, bottom-up approaches to planning a just transition.

Economic Revitalization and Diversification

  • Ensuring broad-based development dividends from the transition—beyond simply mitigating impacts in coal-mining regions—is crucial for garnering widespread political and popular support.
  • The rising industrial demand for renewable energy is accelerating such transitions, but balancing long-term sustainability with immediate economic needs is essential to maintaining momentum in clean energy advancements.
  • Communication strategies that align with local sentiments and openness to change can foster community-led economic diversification.

Infrastructure Repurposing and Environmental Remediation

It is never too soon to start planning for a transition.

  • Trade-offs are inevitable when balancing immediate reliability needs with the overarching goal of transitioning to a clean energy future.
  • Redevelopment and remediation of thermal assets (such as coal-fired power plants and waste incinerators) should prioritize local benefits when addressing the essential elements of job creation, economic diversification, and sustainable development.

Workforce and Skill Development

  • Tangible, on-the-ground projects that demonstrate the feasibility and benefits of sustainable transitions motivate wider community involvement in workforce development.
  • Leveraging local resources to create sustainable economic opportunities promotes a proactive framework for training a more adaptable and skilled workforce.
  • Nurturing green skills is vital for ensuring the inclusivity of the green economy and integrating communities into the future workforce.

This report serves as a comprehensive overview of the discussions, aimed at aiding participants and informing those not in attendance about collaborative opportunities and transition pathways explored during the event.


Balancing climate action, energy access, and economic development during an energy transition presents unique social, economic, and political challenges, especially for coal-dependent economies that are deeply influenced by regional contexts. The concept of a “just transition” integrates critical considerations such as societal impacts, environmental sustainability, governance, and financial mechanisms. For instance, India, a rapidly growing economy that is also highly vulnerable to climate change, places a strong emphasis on ensuring energy security and providing affordable energy access within its climate strategy, and thus is yet to initiate its transition away from coal. Meanwhile, South Africa’s approach to the energy transition is driven by meeting its developmental needs through the lowest-cost pathways . In the United States, the prolonged downturn of the coal market, coupled with consequential industrial restructuring and subsequent unplanned transitions , has brought social sustainability to the forefront of planning for a just transition.

Despite the diverse socioeconomic landscapes in these countries, common concerns related to community welfare and broader economic development resonate in both the Global South and North, emphasizing the necessity for collaboration and knowledge sharing to assist regions and communities in building shared success models. The unfolding of a regional transition is heavily influenced by state and local governments, which retain firsthand knowledge of the transition’s local impacts and play an essential role in reorienting the economy away from coal. In this context, a subnational collaborative platform could facilitate strategic exchange among stakeholders, inspire subnational entities to seek opportunities to leverage change, and identify unique pathways toward a just transition.

To help stakeholders share their experiences in planning and managing transitions at the subnational level, CSIS—in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur—organized an invitation-only hybrid workshop titled “Managing Energy, Economic, and Environmental Transition: A Subnational Exchange.” The full-day, interdisciplinary event was held on July 27, 2023, in New Delhi, India, and brought together policymakers, practitioners, and experts from the Global South and North.

The workshop took place in accordance with the Chatham House Rule , and the opinions shared reflect those of the attendees alone. This report aims to serve as a summary record for the participants and offers a broad overview of the discussions for those not present.

This private, interactive workshop offered opportunities for direct connections between subnational peers from India, South Africa, and the United States. Participants from local, state, and national governments, non-governmental organizations, and academia shared experiences, policy mechanisms, and technical considerations for navigating transitions at the subnational level.

Specific objectives were to:

  • Share knowledge and on-the-ground perspectives on challenges, impacts, and strategies for subnational policymakers who anticipate or are currently managing transitions;
  • Establish a dependable network of policymakers and practitioners for sharing contextually appropriate solutions to tackle immediate transition challenges; and
  • Build a common understanding of the risks of unmanaged and unprepared transitions .

The desired outcomes of the workshop were to:

  • Foster direct connections among stakeholders to enhance the exchange of insights relevant across various contexts;
  • Generate practical examples of regional economic regeneration to inspire policymakers; and
  • Compile a publicly accessible workshop report documenting discussed challenges, examples of transitions in practice, and collaborative opportunities.

Outline of the Workshop

The workshop was anchored around four sessions, each with a separate area of focus:

  • Governance in Transition: Policies and Regulations: This session explored how policy and regulatory tools can enable a well-planned transition process.
  • Economic Revitalization and Diversification: This session discussed the different strategies for economic revitalization and diversification.
  • Infrastructure Repurposing and Environmental Remediation: This session highlighted innovative and efficient ways to remediate and repurpose coal-based assets.
  • Workforce and Skill Development: This session discussed strategies for enhancing workforce resilience.

Each session spanned approximately 75 minutes and featured four speakers alongside a moderator. Sessions commenced with panelists providing opening remarks to establish context and offer various perspectives on the topic. The remainder of the panel was dedicated to fostering group discussions, engaging with audience queries, and introducing fresh insights. Each session culminated in a reflective discussion on lessons gleaned from personal experiences.

Workshop Attendance

A diverse range of local stakeholders involved in the energy transition in India, South Africa, and the United States participated in the workshop. The event provided a platform for direct engagement with 46 officials and practitioners, including representatives from 11 states and provinces. Below is a breakdown of the number of attendees at the workshop.

Photo: CSIS

Session 1: Governance in Transition: Policies and Regulations

This session focused on crucial elements of planning for the transition away from coal, underscoring the necessity of crafting a long-term strategy to navigate the associated complexities and risks. The four panelists—from Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand in India, South Africa, and Minnesota in the United States—articulated the multifaceted challenges of transitioning from a coal-based economy to one relying on more sustainable energy sources, emphasizing the need for comprehensive planning and customized solutions to ensure a just and equitable transition for all stakeholders. The discussion provided a deep dive into region-specific approaches. The following questions guided the session:

  • What policies are being implemented to balance energy accessibility, affordability, and equitability in the energy transition?
  • What consultative process led to the creation of South Africa’s Just Transition Framework and its supporting coalition?
  • What policy instruments and resources are available to Indian state governments to alleviate the challenges of transitioning to a low-carbon economy?
  • What innovative strategies have communities used to enhance state-level planning?  

Key Takeaways

  • Navigating the transition away from a coal-dependent economy becomes intricately challenging when balanced with urgent developmental imperatives, as demonstrated by casesfrom various regions.
  • In South Africa, the reliance on coal has spurred industrial growth but also entrenched an energy-intensive economy that now struggles to pursue environmental sustainability and economic resilience amid a global shift toward cleaner energy. Severe social challenges in coal-rich areas such as Mpumalanga amplify the urgency for a transition strategy that is both sustainable and inclusive, aiming to balance economic development with addressing poverty, inequality, and unemployment.
  • Tamil Nadu’s ambition to harness renewable energy is limited by the state’s lack of commercially viable storage options and its reliance on coal for energy security and affordability. The speaker also noted that in a rapidly growing economy, the state-owned utilities prioritize providing uninterrupted, high-quality power at affordable rates to consumers, often placing environmental and climate change concerns lower on their list of priorities.

In a rapidly growing economy, the state-owned utilities prioritize providing uninterrupted, high-quality power at affordable rates to consumers, often placing environmental and climate change concerns lower on their list of priorities.

  • Minnesota’s landscape, rich in forests and minerals in the north and east and dominated by agriculture in the south and west, presents unique challenges and opportunities for the energy transition. This diversity impacts the state’s industrial activities and energy production, with historical reliance on coal in areas with extractive industries.
  • Jharkhand, with its rich mineral resources, has played a historical role in India’s industrial development, particularly through steel production and significant contribution to India’s coal supply. This energy-intensive industrial base and the state’s heavy reliance on coal underscore the complexities of transitioning to renewable energy in a region critical to the country’s energy security.
  • The speakers recognized the challenges of broaching energy transitions in coal-centric regions, given apprehensions about job losses and earnings. Transitions entail more than just shifting energy sources; they require addressing revenue losses, establishing new infrastructure, and ensuring a fair and inclusive process for all stakeholders.
  • Policy and legislative initiatives reflect growing and ambitious regional climate commitments, yet they confront social, economic, and legacy issues, risking an unplanned and inequitable transition.
  • South Africa is confronting significant pressure to decarbonize its economy while staying globally competitive. The speaker acknowledged that the imperative to shift away from coal is driven by the need to comply with national air quality standards, meet international trade criteria, and overcome the financial and insurance obstacles linked to new coal projects. This shift is intensifying the challenges of effectively delivering social support, providing reskilling opportunities, and facilitating job creation for individuals impacted by the decommissioning of coal plants.
  • Tamil Nadu has set a bold target to increase the share of renewable energy in its generation mix to 50 percent by 2030. However, legacy issues among the state’s utility companies are widening the gap between the potential and actual use of renewable energy resources. The speaker stressed the importance of the financial wellbeing of these companies to an effective energy transition while highlighting the key obstacles plaguing the sector, including overleverage, mounting debts, and failed federal reforms.
  • Minnesota has set ambitious climate-related goals, including setting a renewable energy standard and a target for 100 percent clean energy by 2040. The state has made significant strides in reducing its dependence on coal, with coal generation decreasing from 65 percent of electricity production in 2003 to 25 percent in 2020. While acknowledging the anxiety and resistance in some communities facing the retirement of coal plants, the speaker underscored the importance of stakeholder engagement, local labor provisions, and long-term planning through integrated resource-planning processes.
  • In 2022, Jharkhand distinguished itself as India’s first state to establish a “Just Transition Task Force,” accompanied by the publication of a vision document detailing the transition strategy. The speaker highlighted the critical need to shift away from an economy based on fossil fuels, underlining that this transformation will demand comprehensive planning, infrastructure enhancement, and economic diversification.
  • Community engagement offers the potential for collaborative, bottom-up approaches to planning a just transition.
  • The speaker from South Africa highlighted the critical need for inclusive stakeholder engagement in transition planning, particularly for involving highly impacted communities through multiple consultation rounds. He stressed the importance of engaging with these communities in their native languages and including cultural and logistical considerations to ensure meaningful participation in the transition planning processes.
  • The speaker from Tamil Nadu emphasized communities’ increasing recognition of the economic and environmental advantages of renewable energy, citing initiatives such as rooftop solar projects as effective tactics for promoting renewable energy at the grassroots level.
  • The speaker from Minnesota underscored the state’s effective initiatives in community engagement and economic diversification for transitioning regions. Advocating for a grassroots approach, the speaker urged drawing inspiration from local innovations, fostering intercommunity connections to exchange experiences, and customizing transition strategies to suit specific local needs and opportunities.  

Best Practices

The panel discussions uncovered a wealth of effective working examples, best practices, and innovative approaches to common challenges. These insights hold potential for adaptation and application across various regions.

  • Minnesota’s integrated resource planning has promoted community participation and offers a 15-year window for transition preparation, providing essential time for adjusting and facilitating smoother transitions. The state’s comprehensive approach to energy transition, which focuses on local engagement, has also led to communities collaborating with the state and utilities. Together, they have worked to diversify tax bases, invest in infrastructure, and develop renewable energy projects to mitigate the impact of coal-plant retirements.
  • The Presidential Climate Commission has been pivotal for South Africa, driving transformational economic change through consensus building and inclusive governance. The commission created a Just Transition Framework to guide the country through economic diversification, revitalization, and the securing of finance while emphasizing procedural justice and stakeholder engagement.  

Opportunities to Collaborate

Jharkhand in particular is eager to partner with local and international entities in the following key areas:

  • Decarbonizing Hard-to-Abate Industries: International collaboration can provide access to advanced technologies, expertise, and financial resources that might not be available domestically.
  • Overseeing Land Reclamation and Economic Diversification: As part of a wider strategy to shift the state’s economic reliance away from coal, Jharkhand faces the challenge of converting former coal-mining lands to tourism and other productive uses.
  • Developing the Workforce: Collaborations are sought in skilling, reskilling, and upskilling employees for new industries and technologies, with a specific call for investments in workforce development due to a gap in local manufacturing for emerging technologies such as green hydrogen.  

Session 2: Economic Revitalization and Diversification

This session allowed for a comprehensive and insightful discussion on the multifaceted challenges and strategies related to economic diversification and the clean energy transition in regions previously or currently dependent on coal. The panel—consisting of participants from the Indian states of Odisha and Telangana, South Africa, and the U.S. state of West Virginia—delved into innovative approaches to navigating challenges and seizing opportunities associated with shifting toward a more diversified and sustainable economic foundation. The following questions guided the session:

  • What are some guiding principles that could enhance the political feasibility of a just transition?
  • What types of policy solutions does Telangana need to mitigate the economic impacts of the impending energy transition?
  • How is Odisha’s new renewable energy policy approaching the state’s just energy transition?
  • How does an economic diversification plan ensure energy access?  
  • Ensuring broad-based development dividends from the transition, beyond simply mitigating impacts in coal-mining regions, is crucial for garnering widespread political and popular support.

The low-level support for energy transitions among the general populace is attributed to immediate economic challenges that tend to overshadow long-term climate goals.

  • Prioritizing an equitable energy transition, especially by improving energy access and empowering households to participate in value-added economic activities, will significantly increase political support for sustainability goals and pave the way for communities to adopt alternative economic pathways.
  • The speaker from Odisha emphasized a pragmatic approach to the energy transition, highlighting the necessity of maintaining reliable baseload power to foster ongoing industrial development and ensure broad-based economic growth. Considering the state’s rapidly rising energy demand, a hasty departure from coal risks significant socioeconomic and political repercussions.
  • The rising industrial demand for renewable energy is accelerating such transitions, but balancing long-term sustainability with immediate economic needs is pivotal for maintaining momentum in clean energy advancements.
  • Telangana’s industrial sector has seen notable investments, boosting job creation and economic development. However, transitioning to sustainable energy sources necessitates prudent policymaking to ensure that these industries, including the state’s globally competitive pharmaceutical sector, remain viable and competitive.
  • Odisha’s transition toward sustainable growth necessitates balancing economic advancement and environmental stewardship. There is a noticeable shift in the readiness of industries to invest more in green energy—yet ensuring electricity remains affordable for households and industries is a pivotal concern in this transition.
  • The speaker from West Virginia emphasized the complex interplay between national policies and state initiatives, illustrating how political shifts can swiftly affect the trajectory of an energy transition. The speaker highlighted the private sector’s growing demand for renewable energy as a key catalyst for change, stressing the importance of aligning state policies with market needs and opportunities.
  • Understanding the impact of language in coal-dependent communities is crucial for fostering acceptance of economic changes. Emphasizing terms such as “energy diversity” and “economic diversification” (rather than “just transition”) can resonate more effectively with locals, highlighting the importance of employing communications strategies that are both sensitive and impactful.
  • Direct engagement with communities historically dependent on coal reveals a shared interest in economic diversification across different areas and a willingness to explore new economic paths. This engagement strategy highlights the potential for collaborative grassroots efforts to facilitate economic transitions.

Emphasizing terms such as “energy diversity” and “economic diversification” (rather than “just transition”) can resonate more effectively with locals, highlighting the importance of employing communications strategies that are both sensitive and impactful.

  • Recognizing the challenges of transitioning from coal, the state of Telangana compensates industries that adopt cleaner energy sources. This approach aims to balance the additional costs of sustainable practices with the need to remain competitive, particularly in the international market.
  • West Virginia is aligning its economic development strategies with environmental protection by attracting companies that thrive in a low-carbon economy. Investments in low-carbon steel manufacturing, titanium parts for aerospace made using renewable energy, electric school buses, outdoor recreation vehicles, and grid-scale batteries exemplify the state’s commitment to creating jobs in new, sustainable industries.  
  • Telangana is keen to engage in partnerships aimed at decarbonizing its industrial sector. The state has been a hub for various industries, including the life sciences, defense, aerospace, machine tooling, and electronics. The state recognizes the value of international collaborations in exchanging best practices and proven strategies for achieving industrial decarbonization.
  • Odisha is actively seeking partnerships to enhance its ability to create a comprehensive skill development repository to facilitate a just transition in the state. This endeavor aims not only to compile an extensive array of skills, but also to align them directly with emerging job opportunities in the green economy.  

Session 3: Infrastructure Repurposing and Environmental Remediation

Speakers from Maharashtra in India, South Africa, and the U.S. states of California and West Virginia shared their insights on the complexities and strategic approaches toward thermal infrastructure repurposing and environmental remediation. The discussions highlighted innovative strategies for making use of coal-fired power stations, with a focus on sustainable economic development and the shift toward renewable energy sources. Despite the varied geographical contexts, a common narrative emerged on the need for a balanced approach that harmonizes policy, engages communities, and addresses the economic implications of energy transitions. The following questions guided the session:

  • Is repurposing coal power plants an economic and environmental consideration in Maharashtra? If yes, what resources and policy instruments are available to the state government to implement this? 
  • How is California balancing grid reliability with grid decarbonization? How is it approaching the decommissioning or repurposing of fossil fuel infrastructure?
  • What are some examples of environmental remediation programs that may have helped establish the preconditions for economic prosperity?
  • What challenges have local utilities encountered in repurposing thermal power plants? And what solutions have they come up with to address these challenges?   
  • The key lesson from speakers’ experiences was the importance of taking early and strategic actions to prepare for the transition. By identifying and implementing beneficial projects ahead of thermal power station shutdowns, it is possible to address the “justice” component of the energy transition and mitigate negative impacts and narratives.
  • California employs a comprehensive, forward-looking approach in its integrated resource planning that considers emissions, costs, and the buildout of clean energy infrastructure over both the short (10 years) and long term (25 years).
  • Initiating the planning and execution of transition strategies at an early stage is crucial. Doing so provides ample opportunity to safeguard environmental health and fortify the resilience of communities that have historically relied on industries such as coal, timber, and natural gas.
  • One speaker emphasized the importance of early and effective communication with stakeholders to align expectations and mitigate resistance to change. Engaging communities and stakeholders from the outset in the planning and execution of transition projects is crucial for building broad-based support.
  • One speaker acknowledged the short-term trade-offs and challenges in transitioning to a clean energy future, including the potential retention of natural gas plants to ensure reliability during periods of high demand.

California’s approach of taking thermal fleet assets offline but retaining them for critical needs illustrates a pragmatic strategy to balance reliability with environmental goals.

  • Redevelopment and remediation of thermal assets should prioritize local benefits when addressing the essential elements of job creation, economic diversification, and sustainable development.
  • Bridging capacity gaps in rural areas empowers communities to embark on redevelopment projects, including obtaining federal funds for the remediation of mine land and economic diversification.
  • Starting transition activities that do not impact the operations of existing power stations, such as building solar plants nearby or initiating community development projects, were described as “options of no regret.” These actions lay the groundwork for a smoother transition by establishing economic alternatives and community benefits well before the shutdown of coal-fired stations.
  • Establishing training centers for renewable energy skills and community development initiatives such as early childhood centers, clinics, and libraries are integral to ensuring that the transition benefits the wider community, not just those directly employed by the energy sector.
  • The concrete plan for transitioning includes repowering coal-fired stations with renewable energy sources and repurposing the land for new economic activities. For example, the Komati Power Station in Mpumalanga, South Africa, is set to host solar, wind, and battery-storage projects alongside agrivoltaic (a combined land-use system that integrates solar photovoltaic panels with agricultural production) and manufacturing facilities, serving as a model for how decommissioned coal plants can be given a second life.  
  • Prior to shutting down stations, assessments should be conducted to understand the socioeconomic impacts of doing so on local communities and identify opportunities that arise from the transition. This proactive approach helps to stabilize the economy and support community development through targeted initiatives.
  • California’s holistic approach to environmental stewardship and equity includes an emphasis on accurate carbon accounting, ecological restoration, reforms related to Indigenous land, and the use of carbon market revenues to support disadvantaged communities.
  • A unified approach to sustainable redevelopment is important, including collaboration among consulting firms, community organizations, and local governments to develop viable proposals and secure funding for community-based projects.  
  • Maharashtra is proactively seeking to collaborate on addressing the economic barriers hindering the adoption of green hydrogen in the state.  

Session 4: Workforce and Skill Development

This session—featuring speakers from the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, South Africa, and the U.S. states of Ohio and West Virginia—focused on identifying the most impactful policy instruments for developing human capital in regions previously or currently reliant on coal. It also explored various approaches to bolstering workforce resilience. Participants shared thoughtful perspectives on overcoming the economic challenges, identity crises, and workforce restructuring necessitated by the shift away from coal in these communities. The following questions guided the session:

  • How should the quality of replacement jobs—including aspects such as their location, salary, benefits, and opportunities for advancement—be considered to ensure overall improvements in social welfare rather than merely substituting one job for another?
  • What skill-building strategies are being developed to prepare for future needs and to ensure the workforce is capable of supporting increasing demand for renewable energy and a clean economy?
  • What are some strategies for engaging and training individuals across different life stages, especially those who may be hesitant to embrace new opportunities?
  • Addressing agricultural practices and diversifying revenue streams for farmers can enhance resilience against changing weather patterns and contribute to soil health and carbon sequestration.
  • One speaker highlighted innovative projects, such as extracting iron-oxide pigment from acid mine drainage for commercial use, demonstrating how environmental challenges can be turned into economic opportunities.
  • Embracing the entrepreneurial spirit of local communities can help drive the transition. This includes treating social enterprises as efforts in economic research and development that demand flexibility, experimentation, and a willingness to learn from failures.
  • Leveraging local resources to create sustainable economic opportunities promotes a proactive framework for creating a more adaptable and skilled workforce.
  • One speaker highlighted discussions with developers interested in renewable energy projects that leverage local human and natural resources, underscoring the need to integrate local communities and resources into the sustainable development agenda.

One speaker emphasized the significance of fostering a sense of pride and dignity in new industries that resonate with a community’s historical contribution to the nation, suggesting that sectors such as renewable energy and sustainable agriculture can offer a fresh sense of purpose.

  • Nurturing green skills is vital to the inclusivity of the green economy, ensuring the integration of communities into the future workforce.
  • One speaker stressed the critical need for “green skills” development to support green industries and investments, with a focus on creating jobs that not only contribute to environmental goals but also socioeconomic development.
  • One speaker emphasized the importance of training the next generation for jobs in green energy and other future-oriented sectors. The challenge is not so much in retraining current workers in coal-based industries, as these jobs are expected to remain for the foreseeable future, but in preparing new entrants to the workforce for emerging green technologies and industries.  
  • Incubating social enterprises as a strategy to create jobs in emerging sectors such as solar energy, construction, sustainable agriculture, and ecotourism is important for diversification to reduce vulnerability associated with mono-economies.
  • Asset-based economic development focuses on leveraging local assets to foster growth and entrepreneurship, emphasizing the need for community-driven and creative solutions to economic challenges.  
  • The speaker from Madhya Pradesh saw potential for collaboration between Indian and U.S. academic institutions and industries to align vocational training and university curricula with the demands of future industries, particularly in renewable energy, thereby addressing the skills gap.  


The complexity of energy transitions necessitates a multifaceted approach that includes stakeholder engagement, economic incentives, strategic planning, and investment in alternative economic pathways. Ensuring a just and equitable transition requires understanding and addressing the unique needs and capacities of different communities alongside the broader goals of energy security and climate change mitigation.

  • Include and engage stakeholders in policy formulation. A consensus exists on the importance of engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including industry representatives, civil society, community groups, and non-governmental organizations, right from the initial stages of policy development. It is crucial to also include Indigenous populations and local communities, particularly regarding local resources. Such an approach ensures that policies are well informed, widely accepted, and reflective of diverse perspectives and needs.
  • Foster community engagement through transparent communication.  Officials should tailor outreach strategies to different communities, recognizing that the rationale of climate change may not resonate with everyone. Economic incentives and practical benefits (e.g., cleaner cooking solutions) should be leveraged to facilitate participation in the energy transition. Effective and honest communication about the realities of economic transition, coupled with genuine engagement with communities, is necessary to build trust and support for transition initiatives.
  • Focus on tangible benefits and early wins. Demonstrating the rewards of transition projects early on can help garner community support and build momentum for further initiatives. This includes showcasing successful examples of land restoration, renewable energy projects, and new employment opportunities created through transition efforts. It is vital to develop and implement economic incentives that encourage communities to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.
  • Engage in strategic and early planning. A phased approach to transition planning should distinguish between short-, medium-, and long-term strategies. This includes assessing which fuels and technologies will play pivotal roles in ensuring energy security and economic growth.
  • Take economic drivers and climate change into account. Economic drivers will be crucial in guiding the energy transition, as will addressing climate change. The goal should be to reduce the carbon footprint of development while ensuring energy security.
  • Plan around local skills and comparative advantages. Policymakers should consider the skills and comparative advantages of communities and regions when planning economic diversification and infrastructure development. This requires significant investment in identifying viable alternatives to coal and other industries reliant on fossil fuels.
  • Avoid negative outcomes through advance action. Drawing on lessons from past experiences, such as the decline of coal communities, policymakers should underscore the importance of taking proactive measures now to prevent negative outcomes in the future. This includes anticipating challenges that are likely to arise rather than waiting until they become imminent or unavoidable.
  • Form public-private partnerships for technical implementation. Long-term partnerships that leverage technical expertise from the public sector, academia, and industry are essential not just for planning but also for the successful implementation of transition projects. These partnerships can drive innovation, provide necessary technical support, and ensure the viability and sustainability of projects.

Breaking out of the self-reinforcing cycle of coal dependency will necessitate two primary considerations for policymakers in coal regions: (1) the remediation and repurposing of former mining lands and legacy coal assets to lay the groundwork for future economic growth; and (2) multidecade planning for a just transition that is holistic and multidisciplinary. The experiences of former coal powerhouses in the Global North have shown that a just transition requires a couple of decades to plan. A prolonged coal transition will provide emerging economies time to build a framework for a well-functioning and sustainable post-coal future. Planning should thus begin now.

Neelima Jain is a senior fellow with the Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This white paper is made possible by support from the SED Fund.

This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2024 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Neelima Jain

Neelima Jain

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