Meeting the world's needs for electricity, heating, cooling, and power for transport in a sustainable way is widely considered to be one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Worldwide, nearly a billion people lack access to electricity, and around 3 billion people rely on smoky fuels such as wood, charcoal or animal dung in order to cook. These and fossil fuels are a major contributor to air pollution, which causes an estimated 7 million deaths per year. Production and consumption of energy emits over 70% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Proposed pathways for limiting global warming to 1.5 °C describe rapid implementation of low-emission methods of producing electricity and a shift towards more use of electricity in sectors such as transport. The pathways also include measures to reduce energy consumption; and use of carbon-neutral fuels, such as hydrogen produced by renewable electricity or with carbon capture and storage. Achieving these goals will require government policies including carbon pricing, energy-specific policies, and phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies.
When referring to methods of producing energy, the term "sustainable energy" is often used interchangeably with the term "renewable energy". In general, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy are widely considered to be sustainable. However, particular renewable energy projects, such as the clearing of forests for the production of biofuels, can lead to similar or even worse environmental damage when compared to using fossil fuel energy. There is considerable controversy over whether nuclear energy can be considered sustainable, for example among European Union and Japanese decision makers.
Moderate amounts of wind and solar energy, which are intermittent energy sources, can be integrated into the electrical grid without additional infrastructure such as grid energy storage. These sources generated 7.5% of worldwide electricity in 2018, a share that has grown rapidly. As of 2019, costs of wind, solar, and batteries are projected to continue falling.
The concept of sustainable development was described by the World Commission on Environment and Development in its 1987 book Our Common Future. Its definition of "sustainability", now used widely, was, "Sustainable development should meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
In its book, the Commission described four key elements of sustainability with respect to energy: the ability to increase the supply of energy to meet growing human needs, energy efficiency and conservation, public health and safety, and "protection of the biosphere and prevention of more localized forms of pollution." Various definitions of sustainable energy have been offered since then which are also based on the three pillars of sustainable development, namely environment, economy, and society.
- Environmental criteria include greenhouse gas emissions, impact on biodiversity, and the production of hazardous waste and toxic emissions.
- Economic criteria include the cost of energy, whether energy is delivered to users with high reliability, and effects on jobs associated with energy production.
- Socio-cultural criteria include the prevention of wars over the energy supply (energy security) and long-term availability of energy.
Providing sustainable energy is widely viewed as one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, both in terms of meeting the needs of the present and in terms of effects on future generations. Bill Gates said in 2011:
If you gave me the choice between picking the next 10 presidents or ensuring that energy is environmentally friendly and a quarter as costly, I'd pick the energy thing.
Worldwide, nearly a billion people do not have access to electricity, and over 2.5 billion people rely on dirty fuels for cooking. Air pollution, caused largely by the burning of fuel, kills an estimated 7 million people each year. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for "access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all" by 2030.
Energy production and consumption are major contributors to climate change, being responsible for 72% of annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions as of 2014. Generation of electricity and heat contributes 31% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, use of energy in transportation contributes 15%, and use of energy in manufacturing and construction contributes 12%. An additional 5% is released through processes associated with fossil fuel production, and 8% through various other forms of fuel combustion. As of 2015, 80% of the world's primary energy is produced from fossil fuels.
In developing countries, over 2.5 billion people rely on traditional cookstoves and open fires to burn biomass or coal for heating and cooking. This practice causes harmful local air pollution and increases the danger from fires, resulting in an estimated 4.3 million deaths annually. Additionally, serious local environmental damage, including desertification, can be caused by excessive harvesting of wood and other combustible material. Promoting usage of cleaner fuels and more efficient technologies for cooking is, therefore, one of the top priorities of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative. As of 2019[update], efforts to design clean cookstoves that are inexpensive, powered by sustainable energy sources, and acceptable to users have been mostly disappointing.
Proposed pathways for climate change mitigation
Cost–benefit analysis work has been done by a disparate array of specialists and agencies to determine the best path to decarbonizing the energy supply of the world. The IPCC's 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C says that for limiting warming to 1.5 °C and avoiding the worst effects of climate change, "global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050." As part of this report, the IPCC's working group on climate change mitigation reviewed a variety of previously-published papers that describe pathways (i.e. scenarios and portfolios of mitigation options) to stabilize the climate system through changes in energy, land use, agriculture, and other areas.
The pathways that are consistent with limiting warning to approximately 1.5 °C describe a rapid transition towards producing electricity through lower-emission methods, and increasing use of electricity instead of other fuels in sectors such as transportation. These pathways have the following characteristics (unless otherwise stated, the following values are the median across all pathways):
- Renewable energy: The proportion of primary energy supplied by renewables increases from 15% in 2020 to 60% in 2050. The proportion of primary energy supplied by biomass increases from 10% to 27%, with effective controls on whether land use is changed in the growing of biomass. The proportion from wind and solar increases from 1.8% to 21%.
- Nuclear energy: The proportion of primary energy supplied by nuclear power increases from 2.1% in 2020 to 4% in 2050. Most pathways describe an increase in use of nuclear power, but some describe a decrease. The reason for the wide range of possibilities is that deployment of nuclear energy "can be constrained by societal preferences."
- Coal and oil: Between 2020 and 2050, the proportion of primary energy from coal declines from 26% to 5%, and the proportion from oil declines from 35% to 13%.
- Natural gas: In most pathways, the proportion of primary energy supplied by natural gas decreases, but in some pathways, it increases. Using the median values across all pathways, the proportion of primary energy from natural gas declines from 23% in 2020 to 13% in 2050. 
- Carbon capture and storage: Pathways describe more use of carbon capture and storage for bioenergy and fossil fuel energy.
- Electrification: In 2020, around 20% of final energy use is provided by electricity. By 2050, this proportion more than doubles in most pathways.
- Energy conservation: Pathways describe methods to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy demand in all sectors (industry, buildings, and transport). With these measures, pathways show energy usage to remain around the same between 2010 and 2030, and increase slightly by 2050.
Renewable energy sources
When referring to sources of energy, the terms "sustainable energy" and "renewable energy" are often used interchangeably, however particular renewable energy projects sometimes raise significant sustainability concerns. Renewable energy technologies are essential contributors to sustainable energy as they generally contribute to world energy security, and reduce dependence on fossil fuel resources thus mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2018, solar power provided around 3% of global electricity. Solar electricity production uses photovoltaic (PV) cells to convert light into electrical current. Photovoltaic modules can be integrated into buildings or used in photovoltaic power stations connected to the electrical grid. They are especially useful for providing electricity to remote areas. Although generally warranted for 25 years it is claimed that an average solar panel will last 40 years and almost all of it can be recycled.
Currently, photovoltaic (PV) panels only have the ability to convert around 24% of the sunlight that hits them into electricity. At this rate, solar energy still holds many challenges for widespread implementation, but steady progress has been made in reducing manufacturing cost and increasing photovoltaic efficiency. In 2008, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a method to store solar energy by using it to produce hydrogen fuel from water. Such research is targeted at addressing the obstacle that solar development faces of storing energy for use during nighttime hours when the sun is not shining.
Large national and regional research projects on artificial photosynthesis are designing nanotechnology-based systems that use solar energy to split water into hydrogen fuel and a proposal has been made for a Global Artificial Photosynthesis project.
Research is ongoing in space-based solar power, a concept in which solar panels are launched into outer space and the energy they capture is transmitted back to Earth as microwaves. A test facility for the technology is being built in China.
Solar heating systems generally consist of solar thermal collectors, a fluid system to move the heat from the collector to its point of usage, and a reservoir or tank for heat storage and subsequent use. The systems may be used to heat domestic hot water, swimming pool water, or for space heating. The heat can also be used for industrial applications or as an energy input for other uses such as cooling equipment. In many climates, a solar heating system can provide a very high percentage (20 to 80%) of domestic hot water energy. Heat can be stored through thermal energy storage technologies. For instance, the summer heat can be stored for winter heating. Similar principles are used to store winter cold for summer air conditioning.
In 2018, wind power provided approximately 6% of the global electricity supply. However, it may be difficult to site wind turbines in some areas for aesthetic or environmental reasons. A large wind farm may consist of several hundred individual wind turbines, and cover an extended area of hundreds of square miles, but the land between the turbines may be used for agricultural or other purposes. A wind farm may also be located offshore.
After about 20 years wind turbine blades need replacing with larger blades, and research continues on how best to recycle them and how to manufacture blades which are easier to recycle.
Among sources of renewable energy, hydroelectric plants have the advantages of being long-lived—many existing plants have operated for more than 100 years. Also, hydroelectric plants are clean, have few emissions and can compensate for variations in wind and solar power. Criticisms directed at large-scale hydroelectric plants include: dislocation of people living where the reservoirs are planned, and release of greenhouse gases during construction and flooding of the reservoir.
However, it has been found that high emissions are associated only with shallow reservoirs in warm (tropical) locales, and recent innovations in hydropower turbine technology are enabling efficient development of low-impact run-of-the-river hydroelectricity projects. Generally speaking, hydroelectric plants produce much lower life-cycle emissions than other types of generation.
In 2015, hydropower supplied 16% of the world's electricity, down from a high of nearly 20% in the mid-to late 20th century. It produced 60% of electricity in Canada and nearly 80% in Brazil. As of 2017, new hydropower construction has stopped or slowed down since 1980 in most countries except China.
Biomass is biological material derived from living, or recently living organisms. As an energy source, biomass can either be burned to produce heat and to generate electricity or converted to modern biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol.
Biomass is extremely versatile and one of the most-used sources of renewable energy. It is available in many countries, which makes it attractive for reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels. If the production of biomass is well-managed, carbon emissions can be significantly offset by the absorption of carbon dioxide by the plants during their lifespans. However this "carbon debt" may be paid back too late, or (especially in the United States) not properly accounted for. If the biomass source is agricultural or municipal waste, burning it or converting it into biogas also provides a way to dispose of this waste. Bioenergy production can be combined with carbon capture and storage to create a zero-carbon or negative-carbon system, but it is doubtful this can be scaled up quickly enough.
If biomass is harvested from crops, such as tree plantations, the cultivation of these crops can displace natural ecosystems, degrade soils, and consume water resources and synthetic fertilizers. In some cases, these impacts can actually result in higher overall carbon emissions compared to using petroleum-based fuels.
Biofuels are fuels, such as ethanol, manufactured from various types of biomass, such as corn or sugar beet. Biofuels are usually liquid and used to power transport, often blended with liquid fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel or kerosene. As of 2020[update] which are sustainable biofuel is being debated.
Cellulosic ethanol has many benefits over traditional corn based-ethanol. It does not take away or directly conflict with the food supply because it is produced from wood, grasses, or non-edible parts of plants. Moreover, some studies have shown cellulosic ethanol to be potentially more cost effective and economically sustainable than corn-based ethanol. As of 2018, efforts to commercialize production of cellulosic ethanol have been mostly disappointing, but new commercial efforts are continuing.
Use of farmland for growing fuel can result in less land being available for growing food. Since photosynthesis is inherently inefficient, and crops also require significant amounts of energy to harvest, dry, and transport, the amount of energy produced per unit of land area is very small, in the range of 0.25 W/m2 to 1.2 W/m2. In the United States, corn-based ethanol has replaced less than 10% of motor gasoline use since 2011, but has consumed around 40% of the annual corn harvest in the country. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the clearing of forests to produce palm oil for biodiesel has led to serious social and environmental effects, as these forests are critical carbon sinks and habitats for endangered species. In 2015, annual global production of liquid biofuels was equivalent to 1.8% of the energy extracted from crude oil. It has been suggested that, due to the limited quantities that can be sustainably produced, it should all be aviation biofuel: because unlike other forms of transport long-distance aviation cannot be powered by batteries, hydrogen, ammonia or fuel cells.
Geothermal energy is produced by tapping into the thermal energy created and stored within the earth. It arises from the radioactive decay of an isotope of potassium and other elements found in the Earth's crust. Geothermal energy can be obtained by drilling into the ground, very similar to oil exploration, and then it is carried by a heat-transfer fluid (e.g. water, brine or steam). Geothermal systems that are mainly dominated by water have the potential to provide greater benefits to the system and will generate more power. Within these liquid-dominated systems, there are possible concerns of subsidence and contamination of ground-water resources. Therefore, protection of ground-water resources is necessary in these systems. This means that careful reservoir production and engineering is necessary in liquid-dominated geothermal reservoir systems. Geothermal energy is considered sustainable because that thermal energy is constantly replenished.
Geothermal energy can be harnessed to for electricity generation and for heating. Technologies in use include dry steam power stations, flash steam power stations and binary cycle power stations. As of 2010, geothermal electricity generation is used in 24 countries, while geothermal heating is in use in 70 countries.[needs update] International markets grew at an average annual rate of 5 percent over the three years to 2015.[needs update]
Geothermal power is considered to be a sustainable, renewable source of energy because the heat extraction is small compared with the Earth's heat content. The greenhouse gas emissions of geothermal electric stations are on average 45 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electricity, or less than 5 percent of that of conventional coal-fired plants.
Marine energy is mainly tidal power and wave power. As of 2020[update], a few small tidal power plants are operating in France and China, and engineers continue to try and make wave power equipment more robust against storms.
Non-renewable energy sources
Nuclear power plants have been used since the 1950s to produce a steady supply of electricity, without creating local air pollution. In 2012, nuclear power plants in 30 countries generated 11% of global electricity. The IPCC considers nuclear power to be a low-carbon energy source, with lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions (including the mining and processing of uranium), similar to the emissions from renewable energy sources.
There is considerable controversy over whether nuclear power can be considered sustainable, with debates revolving around the risk of nuclear accidents, the cost and construction time needed to build new plants, the generation of radioactive nuclear waste, and the potential for nuclear energy to contribute to nuclear proliferation. These concerns have led to a decrease in the contribution of nuclear energy to the global electricity supply since 1993. At a global level, opposition to nuclear energy stood at 62 percent in 2011. Public support for nuclear energy is often low as a result of safety concerns, however for each unit of energy produced, nuclear energy is far safer than fossil fuel energy.
Traditional environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are opposed to all use of nuclear power. Individuals who have described nuclear power as a green energy source include early Greenpeace member Patrick Moore, Stewart Brand, George Monbiot, Bill Gates and James Lovelock.
Newer nuclear reactor designs are capable of burning nuclear waste until it is no longer (or dramatically less) dangerous, and have design features that greatly minimize the possibility of a nuclear accident. These designs have yet to be commercialized. (See: Molten salt reactor) Some forms of nuclear power can "burn" nuclear waste through a process known as nuclear transmutation, such as an Integral Fast Reactor. Nuclear power plants can be more or less eliminated from their problem of nuclear waste through the use of nuclear reprocessing and newer plants such as fast breeder plants.
There are potentially two sources of nuclear power. Fission is used in all current nuclear power plants. Fusion is the reaction that exists in stars, including the sun, and remains impractical for use on Earth, as fusion reactors are not yet available. However nuclear power is controversial politically and scientifically due to concerns about radioactive waste disposal, safety, the risks of a severe accident, and technical and economical problems in dismantling of old power plants. Safety assessment of already operating plants to extend their lifetimes, perhaps up to 80 years, continues.
Thorium is a fissionable material used in thorium-based nuclear power. The thorium fuel cycle claims several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle, including greater abundance, superior physical and nuclear properties, better resistance to nuclear weapons proliferation and reduced plutonium and actinide production. Therefore, it is sometimes referred as sustainable.
Carbon capture and storage
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In theory, the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuel and biomass power plants can be significantly reduced through carbon capture and storage, although this process is expensive. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the lowest cost path to meeting the 2 °C target includes massive deployment of one specific type of negative emissions technology called bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, or BECCS. However, achieving this target through BECCS requires more resources than are currently available worldwide. For example, to achieve 10 Gross tons of CO2 per year (GtCO2/y) would require biomass from 40 percent of the world's current cropland.
Managing intermittent energy sources
Solar and wind are intermittent energy sources that supply electricity 10-40% of the time, depending on the weather and the time of day. Overall intermittency can be reduced by combining these sources.
Most electric grids were constructed for non-intermittent energy sources such as coal-fired power plants. In general, up to around 30% of the energy supplied to an electric grid can be provided by intermittent sources without requiring changes to the grid system.[better source needed] However the International Renewable Energy Agency forecasts that well over half will need to be wind and solar, to limit the global rise in temperature to well below 2 °C by 2050. As larger amounts of solar and wind energy are integrated into the grid, it becomes necessary to make changes to the overall system to ensure that the supply of electricity is matched to demand. These changes can include the following:
- Using grid energy storage to store excess solar and wind energy and release it as needed. The most commonly used storage method is pumped-storage hydroelectricity, which is feasible only at locations that are next to a large hill or a deep underground mine. Batteries are being deployed widely. Other storage technologies are used in limited situations.
- Using hydroelectricity or natural gas generation to produce backup power
- Importing electricity from other locations through long-distance transmission lines, such as distributing solar power from the Sahara to Europe.
- Reducing demand for electricity at certain times through energy demand management and use of smart grids.
As of 2019, the cost and logistics of energy storage for large population centres is a significant challenge, although the cost of battery systems has plunged dramatically. For instance, a 2019 study found that for solar and wind energy to meet energy demand for a week of extreme cold in the eastern and midwest United States, energy storage capacity would have to increase from the 11 GW currently in place to 277.9 GW. A possible approach to energy storage is a vehicle-to-grid system, in which batteries in electric cars double as a buffer for the electricity grid.
Moving towards energy sustainability will require changes not only in the way energy is supplied, but in the way it is used, and reducing the amount of energy required to deliver various goods or services is essential. Opportunities for improvement on the demand side of the energy equation are as rich and diverse as those on the supply side, and often offer significant economic benefits.
Efficiency slows down energy demand growth so that rising clean energy supplies can make deep cuts in fossil fuel use. A recent historical analysis has demonstrated that the rate of energy efficiency improvements has generally been outpaced by the rate of growth in energy demand, which is due to continuing economic and population growth. As a result, despite energy efficiency gains, total energy use and related carbon emissions have continued to increase. Thus, given the thermodynamic and practical limits of energy efficiency improvements, slowing the growth in energy demand is essential. However, unless clean energy supplies come online rapidly, slowing demand growth will only begin to reduce total emissions; reducing the carbon content of energy sources is also needed. Any serious vision of a sustainable energy economy thus requires commitments to both renewables and efficiency.
As of 2019[update] fossil fuels still supply over 80% of world energy consumption and, although energy consumption per person is expected to peak in the 2020s, the use of sustainable energy is not increasing fast enough to meet the 2 degree goal of the Paris Agreement.
In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus outbreak may prevent or delay companies from investing in green energy.  The outbreak could potentially spell a slowdown in the world’s clean energy transition if no action is undertaken.
Fuel switching from coal to natural gas
On average for a given unit of energy produced, the greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas are around half the emissions of coal when used to generate electricity, and around two-thirds the emissions of coal when used to produce heat: however reducing methane leaks is imperative. Natural gas also produces significantly less air pollution than coal. Building gas-fired power plants and gas pipelines is therefore promoted as a way to reduce emissions and phase out coal use, however this practice is controversial. Opponents argue that developing natural gas infrastructure will create decades of carbon lock-in and stranded assets, and that renewables create far less emissions at comparable costs. The life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of natural gas are around 40 times the emissions of wind energy.
Government promotion of sustainable energy
Energy-specific programs and regulations have historically been the mainstay of efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Successful cases include the building of nuclear reactors in France in the 1970s and 1980s, and fuel efficiency standards in the United States which conserved billions of barrels of oil. Other examples of energy-specific policies include energy-efficiency requirements in building codes, banning new coal-fired electricity plants, performance standards for electrical appliances, and support for electric vehicle use.
Carbon taxes are an effective way to encourage movement towards a low-carbon economy, while providing a source of revenue that can be used to lower other taxes or to help lower-income households afford higher energy costs. Carbon taxes have encountered strong political pushback in some jurisdictions, whereas energy-specific policies tend to be politically safer. As of 2018, carbon prices are much lower than the actual costs of emissions to society: In 42 OECD countries and territories they averaged US$8 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted, around a quarter of the OECD's estimated actual cost of carbon. Some studies estimate that combining a carbon tax with energy-specific policies would be more cost-effective than a carbon tax alone.
Sustainable energy research
This section needs to be updated.October 2019)(
There are numerous organizations within the academic, federal, and commercial sectors conducting large scale advanced research in the field of sustainable energy. Scientific production towards sustainable energy systems is rising exponentially, growing from about 500 English journal papers only about renewable energy in 1992 to almost 9,000 papers in 2011.
Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel that can be produced by using electrolysis to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can play a role in a sustainable energy system if the electricity used to produce it is generated from sustainable sources, such as wind or solar. Hydrogen can be produced when there is a surplus of intermittent renewable electricity, then stored and used to generate heat or to re-generate electricity. Hydrogen can be distributed by ship or through pipelines. Up to 20% can be mixed into natural gas pipelines without changing pipelines or appliances, but as hydrogen is so light this would only save 7% of emissions. As of 2020[update] trials are underway on how to convert a natural gas grid to 100% hydrogen, in order to reduce or eliminate emissions from residential and industrial natural gas heating. It can be used to power vehicles that have hydrogen fuel cells. As it has a low energy to volume content, it is easier to use in hydrogen-powered ships or heavy road vehicles than in cars and airplanes.
As of 2018, very little of the world's supply of hydrogen is created from sustainable sources. Nearly all hydrogen is created by steam methane reforming (SMR), which results in high greenhouse gas emissions but is currently cheaper than creating hydrogen via electrolysis. Although some carbon from SMR could be captured the process can be made more sustainable by using autothermal reforming with carbon capture and storage technologies to remove most of the carbon dioxide that is emitted.
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