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Dickinson to Durban » Climate Change, Key COP17 Issues, Summer Reading Responses » Renewable Responsibility

Renewable Responsibility

by Emily Bowie ’14


The World Watch Report, “Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030,” develops important aspects of a transition to a low-carbon economy as well as illustrates potential scenarios for this transition. Carbon efficiency and renewable energy are the celebrated strategies for this transition. Explanations of the potential for certain renewable energy sources are provided and analyzed, as well as useful strategies for increasing current and future efficiencies (1).

First, I found it interesting how often the report praised the accomplishments and potential of energy intensive renewables, mainly solar power. Graphs are presented that show solar as the fastest emerging renewable as well as the renewable with the most potential (see below). The facts that solar power does not require transmission and is well suited for distribution are repeated several times (1).


Last semester I researched the energy payback time of a solar panel and found to my astonishment that a PV solar panel not only takes an astonishing amount of energy to create, but it releases SF6 (one of the worst greenhouse gases) and produces large amounts of toxic electronic waste in the process (2). I also researched the payback period of wind turbine, which came to be about a tenth of the turbine’s lifecycle (3). Throughout my research it became clear to me that renewables, while beneficial, also have hidden costs and this report mentioned none of them.

Where this really caught my interest, however, was where the report states that “The U.K. government announced in 2007 that all new homes must be zero-carbon starting in 2016, and all new commercial buildings as of 2019.” I found this ambitious in regards to dates and claims, so I looked a little further into what the UK’s policy looked like, particularly in concerns with the energy used in the construction of new homes.

"Zero-carbon" house design

The “Building a Greener Future” policy statement defines the “zero-carbon” standard as: “over a year, the net carbon emissions from all energy use in the home would be zero.” (4)

Nowhere in this definition is the energy used in the construction of the house taken into consideration.

An example of a “zero-carbon” house was designed by the UK, in a description four different aspects were listed as the most important: a wind catcher, a solar array, a high-level wall of insulation and a biomass boiler (5). While examining the sketch of what such a house would look like I could not help wondering how much energy would go into building the wind catcher and wall, as well as building, running and maintaining the biomass boiler and solar array. Is this energy included in the “year” payback? It didn’t seem to be.

Celebrating renewable energy is a good thing, the climate won’t survive without it, but how do we take into account the energy it takes to make renewable and efficient energy sources? And if we don’t take it into account where is the incentive for the houses to be built in a sustainable manner, especially if a sustainable manner is not cheap? How do we stop renewable energy companies from cutting corners are ruining the whole point?


Works Cited:

1. Sawin & Moomaw, 2009. “Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030.” World Watch Report, World Watch Institute, Danvers, MA.

2. Bowie, 2011. “How ‘Clean’ is solar energy?”

3. Crawford, R. H. 2009. Life cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions analysis of wind turbines and the effect of size on energy yield. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

4. Department for Communities and Local Government, 2007. “Building a Greener Future: policy statement.”

5. BBC News, 2007. “First zero-emission home unveiled.”

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