Cities and countries around the world are transitioning the energy sources for electricity towards renewable energy sources at different rates.
Inevitably, there are potential challenges and problems with this transition that can occur.
In this guide, we list and explain those different challenges and problems.
Summary – Challenges & Problems With Transitioning To Renewables
Ultimately, every city and country’s energy mix and energy system is different.
So each will have it’s own individual challenges and problems when trying to integrate and transition to higher shares of renewables
Germany, South Australia and California are three examples of places that have had problems of different kinds with their transitions to increased renewable energy use in their energy mixes.
It’s possible for renewables to replace fossil fuels in different cities and countries, but there are considerations that have to be taken into account in terms of how and when that happens, and what the best approach is for each city, State or country
Despite the challenges and problems associated with transitioning to renewables, the benefits they provide are significant, and the problems associated with the continued use of fossil fuels are significant too (especially the environmental and social costs).
The challenges listed below are:
Reliance on government support
Decentralization, siting and transmission
Intermittency and variability
Volatility of electricity prices
Interference with a competitive market
Availability of back up dispatchable energy sources
Requirement for energy storage
Political, social, cultural and institutional problems
Penetration into transport and heating and cooling sectors
Unequal playing field
Environmental and sustainability problems
Other problems and challenges
The cost of renewable energy capital (i.e. – to build solar farms, wind farms, mega hydro dams etc.) can be expensive compared to some fossil fuel capital (ucsusa.org).
What tends to happen though, is that these upfront costs average out over time with the low running costs of solar and wind farms, and over the long term, renewables can be as cost effective as fossil fuels.
This provides some certainty for investors over a 20 or 30 year period for example.
In addition to this, many sources quote the old prices of coal, natural gas and other fossil fuel plants.
New fossil fuel plants with devices and systems for minimising carbon emissions and air pollutants can be far more expensive.
Clean coal and CCS technology can also be expensive.
Add to this that renewable energy technology and equipment is becoming cheaper as demand increases and economies of scale kick in, and capital costs are becoming less of a challenge.
An asterisk to cost, is of course, that developed/wealthy countries and cities are going to have far more of a budget to finance renewable energy technology and systems than developing/poorer countries and cities.
So, level of financing is an issue here too.
… there are estimates that the costs of moving the entire country to 100 percent renewable sources would be around $5.7 trillion, and a 2019 brief from the Institute for Energy Research estimates that the idea of getting to 100 percent renewable generation is “nothing more than a myth,” and that attempting to do would be a “catastrophe” for our country.
In some places like Australia though, the scenario might be different:
The cost to decarbonise the electricity system is lower than the cost of replacing the existing power system [replacing the existing coal fired generation with new coal fired generation] like for like
Also, as reneweconomy.com.au notes:
Over many years the electricity market has seen numerous technology changes driving prices.
An obvious historic example was oil fired generation to coal.
Another shift was the move using transmission from small generators to large generation units.
Something we have to consider in lieu of this is that it costs money to set up, maintain and upgrade any electricity system – both new and existing.
There would have been a time where there would have been high short term costs to build new fossil fuel generators, nuclear and associated infrastructure.
With this in mind, short term costs for renewable energy may not be the problem it is made out to be as long as costs stabilise (adjusted for inflation) over time, and there are benefits to these newer energy sources that fossil fuels and existing energy sources aren’t providing.
Also, consider the subsidies, investment and government support fossil fuels have received through history (over the last hundred years or so).
We must consider whether it’s a fair comparison for fossil fuels and renewable until renewables and greener energy has had the same amount of time, investment, support and development as fossil fuels has had.
Existing energy grids and infrastructure like power lines are largely set up for fossil fuel energy.
It can be both time and money intensive to to build new infrastructure, upgrade power grid, build new transmission lines and interconnectors, build new convertors, and so on – all to support renewable energy or a changed energy mix.
However, some of these costs are more of a one time cost that benefits the energy system over the long term (the same way existing infrastructure and energy systems were originally paid for and built for fossil fuels)
Reliance On Government Support
At least in the short to mid term, some argue that renewable energy needs to support of governments to get into and compete in the market via subsidies, tax breaks, tariffs, levies, carbon tax (on other energy sources that pollute), schemes and concessions, credits, and so on.
How much a government supports renewable energy can heavily influence it’s expansion and use.
This support can’t waver from year to year – it really needs to be a long term commitment to help the technology get set up, develop and stabilise.
We see different governments around the world supporting renewable energy, and even individual renewable energy sources, to different extents.
For example, even though the US isn’t a country that has majority of it’s electricity supplied by renewable energy sources yet, parts of the US like California, and the MidWest, have governments that support renewable energy in different ways.
Decentralization, Siting & Transmission
Fossil fuel plants tend to be centralized in one place, where as renewables like solar and wind can be decentralized and spread out.
This presents two issues – siting, and transmission:
For every piece of land wind and solar occupy, there can be ensuing negotiations, contracts, permits, and community relations, all of which can increase costs and delay or kill projects. (ucsusa.org)
Power needs to get from where it’s produced, to where it’s needed.
Transmission lines are needed, which take time to build and are costly, and they also need to be sites (ucsusa.org).
The further away solar and wind farms are from where the energy they produce is needed, the more complications that can arise.
Solar is often classed as utility (solar farms) and distributed (solar panels on buildings and in residential areas).
A decentralized system like this can also provide benefits, such as stabilising the power grid in the event there is an issue with the main energy system, but, also providing multiple points of energy generation in the event of a natural disaster or extreme weather events.
Intermittency & Variability
Renewable energy sources solar and wind are often called intermittent and variable sources of energy.
This is because the consistency of their energy supply is often determined by how much the sun is shining and how much the wind is blowing i.e. the quality of sun and wind conditions.
This can be a problem as there can be very little, intermediate amounts, or too much energy coming through at any one time or over a certain period.
In comparison, fossil fuel energy sources like natural gas and coal tend to be consistent because they rely on coal and gas resource supplies, which are always abundant and available.
Variability and intermittence can lead to a number of issues like:
The mismatch of energy supply with demand (electricity needs to be timed to be used at the time it is required, unless energy is stored in a battery),
Uncertainty for other energy sources and operating at smaller scale (this means operators of these plants lose money and profits)
The phasing out of other energy sources (and shutting down of these power plants)
The requirement for back-up energy sources
Decreased investment in certain energy sources
It really can be a domino effect with variability.
(In fairness though, there are things that can be done to address variability and intermittence, such as introducing market controls for a more stable energy market, introducing energy storage, introducing backup dispatchable energy sources, and so on)
“Intermittent wind and solar cannot stand on their own” … “They must have some form of back-up power, from reliable coal, natural gas, nuclear units, storage capability from hydroelectric facilities, and/or batteries.
Batteries of the size and scope needed for 100-percent renewables are unproven and not cost effective.
Even if a 100 percent renewable future were feasible, the land requirements and costs of transitioning would be enormous and would require subsidies to ease the electricity price increases that would result.”
[A question with this study though is … this is limited to the US (and not other countries or States), and it doesn’t mention the environmental costs of fossil fuels (or social/health), it doesn’t mention the long term impact of renewables (only the short to medium term), and it doesn’t mention all the other benefits of renewables. So, if renewables are increasing electricity prices – is it for a justifiable reason or not?]
Over capacity is when there is an over supply/surplus of energy to the power grid.
This is usually caused by conditions with too much sun and wind providing too much solar and wind energy.
The impact of this can be a power grid that becomes unstable, and electricity prices that drop.
Germany is one example of a country that has experienced overcapacity as a result of variable solar and wind energy supply (power-technology.com)
When the power grid is unstable, it can be due to a variety of reasons.
Specifically with renewable energy, it can refer to a surplus or lack of power supply that can impact availability of energy, but, can also refer to the ability of the grid to withstand load fluctuations from variable energy sources.
Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have suffered grid stability issues from the transmission of surplus energy from the German power grid (power-technology.com)
Volatility Of Electricity Prices
Germany has experienced volatility of electricity prices when there has been a surplus of solar and wind power. Surplus electricity has forced prices negative in the past, forcing power plants to pay commercial customers to receive the surplus (power-technology.com)
Having said that, Germany has addressed this problem: ‘[volatile electricity prices] can be somewhat addressed by replacing the feed-in tariff subsidy with a market-responsive auction system based on pre-set RES capacity growth caps (power-technology.com)
Furthermore, wind and solar energy in South Australia has actually made the market for wholesale electricity prices more competitive with natural gas – leading to cheaper prices (abc.net.au)
Interference With A Competitive Market
There’s several ways the introduction of renewables, or the support of renewables by regulations and government tool, can interfere with the market.
Some of these ways includes:
If renewable energy portfolios require a minimum amount of renewable energy to be used, and for renewables to be used first, then other energy sources are capped at the scale they can operate (especially if they have to ramp up and down when there is a lack, or a surplus of energy)
There can be the closure of other energy sources if they aren’t supported or they can’t run at full capacity
Subsidies for renewable energy capital costs can be passed onto customers
Other more energy or cost efficient forms of energy can be forced out of the market even if they are more competitive (because renewables might be heavily supported by non market support like regulations and government tools)
But, some people point to the support and subsidies fossil fuels have been receiving for years, and say that all the issues renewables might cause n interfering with a cost and economically competitive market could be said about fossil fuels too (especially when you take into account the environmental and social costs of fossil fuels that aren’t priced).
Availability Of Back Up Dispatchable Energy Sources
A definition of dispatchable energy is:
‘Dispatchable generation refers to sources of electricity that can be used on demand and dispatched at the request of power grid operators, according to market needs. Dispatchable generators can be turned on or off, or can adjust their power output according to an order’ (wikipedia.org)
Because of the variable nature of renewable energy like solar and wind, when sunshine and wind conditions change, and energy supply of these sources are low or high, some energy systems require back up dispatchable sources of energy that can ramp up and down quickly to address baseload, low and peak demand.
Due to several factors, these back-up sources are usually natural gas or coal (nuclear less so). In Germany, having fossil fuel back up energy sources has actually lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the short term (power-technology.com).
Requirement For Energy Storage
Again, due to the variable nature of renewable energy sources like solar and wind in some places, dispatchable energy sources and/or energy storage may be used separately or in combination to provide energy when primary renewable energy sources are not providing enough power.
Energy storage can take several forms, with two of the more notable forms being battery storage, and pumped storage hydro energy.
Energy storage technology with batteries has technological and economic limitations with large batteries right now – the bigger they are and the more hours of energy they store, the more costly they are … they can be very expensive.
They usually only have enough stored energy to last a few hours or for shorter bursts at the moment on the commercial scale.
South Australia recently got a very large energy storage battery built to address recent blackout problems they had.
Pumped storage hydro energy involves storing energy in the form of water, pumping it up to a higher reservoir, and releasing that water downhill through turbines when energy is needed to generate electricity.
Political, Social, Cultural & Institutional Problems
Some sources indicate the problems with a transition to renewables aren’t technological or economic in some countries and cities, but:
Political (politicians being supported by or being misinformed by fossil fuel companies),
Social (social misconceptions with the use of fossil fuel and renewable energies and what each can provide),
Cultural (biased cultural support for fossil fuels because of jobs, economic benefits and so on)
And, institutional (the energy industry is set up for fossil fuels and not renewables in many ways)
Penetration Into Transport, Heating & Cooling, & Sectors Other Than The Power Sector
Right now, most of the installed capacity, production of renewable energy, and consumption of renewable energy, penetrates into the power/electricity sector. Hydropower currently leads the charge in this regard of all the renewable energy sources.
Transport, and heating and cooling, though, are primarily fossil fuel powered right now.
Transport, through the use of petrol and diesel-fuelled cars; and for heating, through the use of oil and natural gas boilers in buildings (swecourbaninsight.com)
It will be a challenge to electrify these sectors and penetrate them with renewable energy sources in the future.
The existing energy market in countries like the US is set up for fossil fuels and existing established energy sources, and these energy sources benefit from existing infrastructure, expertise, and policy (ucsusa.org).
Because of the market power of existing energy suppliers, it can be hard for renewables and individual clean energy competitors to enter the market and survive.
Unequal Playing Field
Renewables may not be entering a level energy market playing field in some countries.
Some argue in countries like the US, fossil fuels benefit from political influence, and receive direct subsidies (through subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives and loopholes, and indirect subsidies (through not being punished for polluting for example) (ucsusa.org)
Because of the variability of wind and solar, some people think that they are unreliable.
But this may not be true:
Solar and wind are highly predictable, and when spread across a large enough geographic area—and paired with complementary generation sources—become highly reliable. Modern grid technologies like advanced batteries, real-time pricing, and smart appliances can also help solar and wind be essential elements of a well-performing grid. (ucsusa.org)
In addition to that, wind might be used more in the winter, and solar in the summer, and, there are new technologies being developed that might allow solar to generate energy at night time too.
Environmental & Sustainability Problems
Renewable energy is not without it’s own environmental issues (although, many argue that the environmental problems caused by renewables are minimal compared to those caused by fossil fuels).
Just as a few examples might be (via bettermeetsreality.com, and interestingengineering.com):
Solar farms use up a large land area (are land inefficient compared to fossil fuel power plants)
Can be in the flight path of migratory birds and other flying animal species. Can also use up a large land area
The construction of dams, and the discharge of water can have a negative impact on water sources, the aquatic environment, aquatic wildlife, and downstream water users
Can release waste steam and gas, can cause hydraulic fracturing, and can cause air and water pollution, amongst other issues
Wave & Tidal
Can dislodge and have a negative impact on seabeds, and marine life
Uses land, can use fertilizer and pesticides (to grow crops for biofuel), uses water, and creates waste
The requirements to make solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy equipment, and support it once in use, isn’t talked about as frequently.
Other Problems & Challenges
Questions over whether renewable energy systems can scale up fast enough to a certain scale, by a certain target year (relates to technology considerations, but also practical considerations like power output, and more)
Adding turbines to some existing hydropower dams (for increased capacity) may be physically impossible
A potential shortage of precious metals in the future for renewable energy equipment and batteries (like nickel, cobalt, copper, lithium etc.)
The need for frequency control and the provision of inertia, price signaling and communication between distributors and the wholesale electricity market (Reneweconomy.com.au)
Older power engineers are attached to the concepts of base load, intermediate and peak load power stations … and cannot envisage a system that contains a large fraction of variable RElec and where demand can be modified almost instantaneously (Reneweconomy.com.au)
The natural renewable resources each country or city has, and how much potential they have to expand e.g. Australia might have far more land and sunshine than other countries to expand their solar and wind equipment
Large hydro power projects like mega dams can be highly unpredictable in the design and approval stage, and can have feasibility issues
Renewable energy investment can be variable from year to year
Other Resources On The Challenges & Problems With Transitioning To Renewable Energy
There are many more challenges and problems than the ones we have listed above.
Some of the guides that list further challenges and problems are: