The Difference Between Renewable and Sustainable

by Antonio Pasolini on September 22, 2010

Via Campaign Against Climate Change

Climate change, renewable energy, green this, eco that … We are constantly flooded with information about the need to shift towards a different, planet-friendly economy in order to preserve the atmospheric condition in which life as we know it can thrive.

And it’s true.

However, the media is fragmented, conflicting interests clash and everyone is learning and making mistakes in the process. Just remember how much controversy there is about climate science and you get an idea as to how complex thinking about these issues, let alone writing and legislating about them, is.

The concept of renewable energy is also multi-faceted. Renewable, in the context of energy, refers to fuels whose supplies are not based on a finite reserve, like fossil fuels are. For instance, solar power is renewable because the sun will probably outshine the human presence on this planet for millions and millions of years – literally.

Wind is also renewable because it will continue to blow. Wind is just transformed solar energy, says Tom Rand in his book Kick The Fossil Fuel Habit – 100 Technologies To Save The World. It is “the expansion and contraction of the air that has been heated by the sun and then cooled”, Rand explains. That sounds like renewable to me.

Biofuels are renewable because we can plant more of the stuff and therefore renew its production cycle indefinitely, at least in principle. Geothermal (geo-exchange) is also renewable because it taps the energy that sits just below the earth’s surface in order to cool or heat buildings, without depleting anything. Hydropower (dams) is also, at least officially, renewable, although changes in precipitation may affect areas that rely on it.

So, all the above is renewable. But – is it also sustainable? That’s where the problem begins. If we define sustainable as any method of production that does not affect the environment and the welfare of living beings, then we can’t always equate renewable with sustainable. The problem is that existing technology to harness the power of renewable sources is still in its infancy and is not as efficient and clean as it should be. Yet.

The best example of this paradox is biofuel, which used to be an emblem of alternative fuels and is now looked upon with suspicion by environmental and food security campaigners. Biofuels can compete with food land and also drive deforestation, they say, with facts to back their claims. The issue has become so serious that in countries like the United Kingdom there are organizations opposing subsidies to agrofuels, as they call it, due to all the misery they cause – including more climate disruption.

UK-based Friends of the Earth recently released a report warning that the “European Union’s renewable fuel target is driving land grabs in Africa that threaten the environment and local communities”. Even the UK government’s in-house climate advisors recently said that current biofuel targets for transport are too high at 10%.

In Brazil, the construction of Belo Monte, a massive dam in the Amazon region, is the subject of fierce controversy, one that has attracted the support of filmmaker James Cameron, due to land displacement and biodiversity issues raised by the project. Expect an Avatar-style battle over it.

Still in South America, Save America’s Forests warns that San Rafael Falls, Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, is threatened by a Chinese-funded hydroelectric project, The 1,500 megawatt Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project will divert water flow away from the 480-foot San Rafael Falls, leaving it “high and dry”, they say, and also threatens the biodiversity of the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve.

Wind gets into trouble as well. In Scotland, Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm has been accused to be the possible cause of the death of 33 seals whose bodies were found mutilated. The company denied the accusations. In Portugal, environmentalists say a wind farm in Alvaiázere threatens bats already faced with extinction.

And the list goes on.

What conclusion can we reach from all this? The advantages that renewable energy offer, and the sheer necessity to replace fossil fuels with a cleaner alternative, validate them. But careful assessments of their viability and, most importantly, sustainability, must be carried out, always. Perhaps in our eagerness to be clean we sometimes hasten to celebrate any energy with the renewable tag attached to it. But we must careful not to jump from the frying pan into the fire. The primary goal and raison d’être of renewable energy is to arrive at a point when renewable does equate with sustainable. We must not settle for anything less than that.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

EnergySaver September 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm

This is a good portion of food for thought. All too often we get caught up in the dream of renewable energy without considering the sustainability of the idea. I did not know about the seal story or the dam in brazil, I hope that these issues are resolved.

Narasimhan Santhanam September 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Yes. Renewable (energy) does not mean sustainability, at least not all the time. But at the same time, I do feel that the negative fall-outs of renewable sources are possibly overblown. For instance, you keep hearing about the negative effects on the ecology from biofuel feedstock such as palm or corn. But it is quite possible that second generation biofuel sources such as cellulosic sources (for ethanol) and jatropha (for biodiesel) could have far less negative fallouts than the first generation feedstocks. Similarly, the current offshore wind turbine designs could indeed be harmful to sea life, but it is quite likely that with modifications in design of the blades and related dynamics such harmful effects could be minimized considerably.

In sum, yes, renewable does not currently mean sustainable and completely harmless, but it could become more and more so with more investments and R&D into this exciting field

Narasimhan Santhanam, Energy Alternatives India –

Eric Wilson September 26, 2010 at 8:07 pm

You make a good point. None of this innovation is static. And the classification of an energy source as “renewable” or “sustainable” is also static as technology evolves. Still, it’s best to keep the difference in mind for the long view.

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Bethanie Gulston December 23, 2011 at 10:19 am

thx mate Here’s some pass forward: Thought for the day? : Is the glass half empty, half full, or twice as large as it needs to be?

Alicia Keys January 9, 2012 at 6:48 pm

You bring up some very important points in your post. We do need to reach a point where renewable and sustainable energy are one in the same. Unfortunately, I feel that time might be running out for us to change our ways. I hope I am wrong!

Charlie Hess March 29, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Its only dramatic if you make it dramatic.

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