Transitioning Away From Hydrocarbons
Hydrocarbons to Renewables: A Complete Guide
Learn all about transitioning from hydrocarbons to renewables.
1. Renewables Economics
Transitioning to renewable energy requires examining its economic impacts.
Why Should We Shift Away From Fossil Fuels?
Why is it necessary to move away from fossil fuels in the first place? Fossil fuels are nonrenewable. They cause severe environmental damage and pollution and contribute to climate change. Despite their efficiency and energy density, fossil fuels are hazardous, damaging ecosystems and threatening public health. For those reasons, society will decrease its reliance on fossil fuels and hydrocarbons in other forms meaning utilities and renewable energy project developers need to explore new options for the future.
What Can Replace Hydrocarbons?
Solutions for phasing out hydrocarbons are complicated and change every year. Several different sources of renewable energy and alternative fuel could replace hydrocarbons. The most viable solution will likely be a combination of various renewable energy methods, varying based on location, resource availability, economies and other factors. When it comes to manufactured products, a replacement for hydrocarbons could be bioplastics composed of resources other than fossil fuels. Alternatives are possible for electricity, manufacturing and fuel.
Alternative Electricity Sources
Utilities have utilized hydrocarbons for electricity for many years now — the question of alternative electricity sources has garnered a great deal of attention and research. Many different options are available for electricity generation. Each has varying availability and reliability, so society will need to utilize a combination of renewable and clean energy sources. Some advancing and emerging technologies include the following power sources. An energy transition to renewables could include greater reliance on:
Renewable Natural Gas
Renewable natural gas is a pipeline-quality gas that can be utilized by utilities interchangeably with conventional natural gas. When biogas is processed to purity standards, the end result is RNG. Biogas can be used in myriad industries and applications (transportation fuel in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG).
The fuel is produced from methane waste sources. Farm and landfills can provide the gaseous products of decomposition. Utilities and project managers looking for reduced emissions can process this without building out infrastructure significantly. This will reduce costs as you seek to use renewables as an improved method for the electrification of homes and businesses.
Renewable natural gas projects are complex and require the support of knowledgeable project management teams and strategic partnerships. A successful project team will provide landfill gas (LFG) services to public outreach.
Hydrogen is produced through biomass, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, natural gas and more. Utility providers’ biggest challenge with utilizing hydrogen as a renewable alternative is the cost. Cost-competitive transportation fuel cells require additional research. To ensure hydrogen is competitive with conventional fuels, research is focused on improving the lifetime efficiency the production technologies as well as reducing the costs of operations, equipment and maintenance.
Some of the strongest electrical alternatives involve solar power. The sun provides endless energy to the Earth’s surface. All forms of energy on Earth derive from the sun in one way or another. Scientists have discovered several ways to harness solar energy for human use. Solar panels allow for the conversion of sunlight into electrical energy. Solar power development is the fastest-growing renewable energy sector in the U.S.
Recent technological advancements have boosted efficiency and reduced costs, making solar a stronger economic option. Photovoltaic (PV) solar works by using small cells made of semiconductors to convert the sun’s electromagnetic radiation into usable energy. The individual cells connect to create larger units called panels. Multiple solar panels work together to form solar arrays. Arrays feature converters that transform the gathered energy from direct current to alternating current to make it usable.
Thermal solar heat alternatives harness the sun’s energy in a different way than photovoltaic cells. They use the sun’s heat instead of its radiation, converting the heat from sunlight into electricity. The way it works is similar to a wind turbine. Solar thermal generators contain liquid, which heats into pressurized steam that spins a turbine. The spinning generates electricity.
Concentrated Solar Power
Concentrated solar power (CSP) provides a way to convert solar energy into either power or liquid fuel. It uses energy from the sun to create synthetic gas. It works by using mirrors to concentrate sunlight. The resulting heat drives an engine connected to an electrical power generator.
Solar Power Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are like batteries, storing energy for future use. They make solar energy much more reliable. Paired with a solar energy system, they provide steady energy when sunlight is not available. Without fuel cells, solar panel owners have to rely on other backup methods for energy. A common solution is to stay connected to the energy grid.
Fuel cells maximize the positive environmental impacts of solar by utilizing all of the energy panels produce. They also allow for complete independence from the grid, which is important to rural landowners with limited grid access. For those reasons, fuel cells will be an integral part of the renewable energy transition.
Offshore and Onshore Wind Turbines
It’s also possible to generate electricity from wind. Collecting wind energy is quite straightforward. The wind turns propeller-like blades around a rotor, which spins a generator and creates electricity. Like all types of energy, wind represents a secondary form of solar energy — wind results from the sun heating the Earth’s atmosphere.
Wind energy offers many benefits. It’s inexpensive, especially if onshore, and causes negligible pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, turbines take up limited space, which is one of the main downsides of solar energy. Generating wind power is not without flaws, of course.
Obstacles include transmitting energy from rural sites to cities, noise pollution and harm to birds and bats. Proper placement can help reduce these negative impacts. Overall, wind power is a much cleaner and safer form of energy than fossil fuels are.
One of the oldest sources of power is hydroelectricity, once used to grind grain. It utilizes the power of moving water, working almost the same way wind power does. The force of the water turns the blades of a turbine, which spins a generator and produces electricity. Most hydropower facilities hold water behind dams to release on command, but some use a canal system instead.
Hydropower has a lot of potential in the era of renewable energy sources, although it has its challenges. Dams can impact fish migrations, and the hydropower process can decrease water oxygen levels. In addition, hydropower relies on constant access to water, so droughts are a concern. Despite these obstacles, hydropower is as clean as solar or wind power.
Another alternative energy form is geothermal. It utilizes the hot water beneath the Earth’s surface. Three different methods provide access to geothermal energy:
- Dry steam: Underground wells retrieve steam from inside the Earth. The steam turns a turbine and generator to create electricity.
- Flash steam: Flash steam plants access water so hot and pressurized that it flows upwards on its own. As the pressure decreases and water boils, the resulting steam powers a turbine and generator. Leftover water returns to the Earth and makes the system renewable.
- Binary steam: Binary steam plants use the heat from the water within the Earth to boil a secondary fluid. The water returns to the Earth untouched, which makes it the cleanest of the three methods.
The main obstacle for geothermal energy is its geographic limitations. Only some pockets of water are suitable, and they are generally located along fault lines where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. Since the viable water pockets are in such volatile regions, harnessing geothermal energy can be risky. Another concern is cost — geothermal equipment is expensive.
Collecting geothermal energy also creates a safety hazard. The water requires reinjecting to keep the pressure within the Earth high enough. Failing to reinject enough water underground could cause massive sinkholes. For those reasons, other alternative energy methods are more prevalent, but further research could help to address these concerns.
Among solar’s challenges is its reliability, which varies based on location and time of year. Consistent access to sunlight is necessary for solar engineering to work. Some solar arrays include batteries or fuel cells for excess energy storage. With battery storage, the user can access energy when sunlight is not available. Otherwise, landowners who have solar panels partner with local utility companies to access the energy grid when necessary.
Another challenge that applies to all forms of solar energy is the space it must take up. Solar arrays monopolize space and require access to sunlight, like trees and other plants. To avoid unnecessary habitat loss, it’s best to place solar panels on existing rooftops or other structures.
Onshore vs. Offshore
The biggest decision for wind energy production is where to place turbines. Placement can be either on or offshore. Onshore wind turbines are located on land, while offshore wind turbines are located over large bodies of water, most often the ocean. Offshore wind speeds are faster, generating more electricity. However, initial installation and ongoing maintenance are more complicated and expensive.
Alternatives to Plastics
Alternative energy sources are not the only replacement necessary for fossil fuels — plastics also derive from fossil fuels. Fossil fuel-based plastics have raised concerns about pollution and public health. For instance, microplastics found in drinking water could cause serious health issues. Because plastic does not biodegrade, plastic debris often makes its way to the ocean — up to 90% of the trash in the ocean and on the world’s beaches is plastic.
Researchers have been developing plastic alternatives. Bio-based plastics, created from renewable products, could replace synthetic plastics made from fossil fuels. Bioplastics represent a growing industry projected to reach $44 billion by 2022. Bioplastics can derive from several different sources, including:
- Lignin or cellulose.
- Vegetable fats and oils.
- Recycled food waste.
Although bioplastics produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions in their lifetime than traditional plastics, they can still have negative environmental impacts. When disposed of improperly, bioplastics can damage recycling efforts. In addition, bioplastic production requires large land areas and uses fuel-run machinery.
While alternatives to plastics are promising, there also needs to be a cultural shift towards reusing goods and reducing waste. Reusable products are growing in popularity. For example, the reusable water bottle market should reach $10.6 billion by 2025. Stepping away from single-use products would help to reduce global pollution.
Fossil fuels also power vehicles in the form of petroleum. Renewable alternatives use biological materials to produce fuel. They’re easy to replenish — unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to form. Biofuel alternatives include a range of sources.
Biofuel is any fuel produced from biomass — biomass is plant or animal material, such as wood, crops or animal waste. Utilizing biomass is not a new concept. Biomass was the first energy source humans ever used and remains important in many parts of the world today. Examples of biofuels include ethanol and biodiesel, which are viable because they’re compatible with existing vehicle engines and infrastructure.
- Ethanol: Ethanol biodiesel derives from plant materials, most often corn or sugarcane. It’s a simple alcohol, containing hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. Blending it with gasoline helps reduce carbon emissions. It’s also cost-effective to produce. However, ethanol has its cons. Since it comes from food crops, its production could inflate food prices or create food scarcity. In addition, the process to create ethanol is land- and energy-intensive, limiting its positive environmental impact.
- Biodiesel: Biodiesel comes from vegetable oils or liquid animal fats. Its sources must contain long-chain fatty acids. Examples include maize and soybeans. While ethanol requires blending with gasoline, biodiesel is most often blended with petroleum diesel.
A widespread societal shift is underway — now is the time to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and begin renewable energy projects. Learn about the process of investing in renewables and use the renewable energy project development guide to help you get started.
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