Energy powers all aspects of life. Access to clean and affordable energy is essential for improving standards of living and public health, overcoming poverty, and ensuring social and economic development. Humanity simply can not do without it. Yet, years of fossil fuel-based human activities have caused global temperatures to rise, setting our planet on an unsustainable path. Climate change is by far the biggest challenge of our century.
As human-driven emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are the primary cause of global warming, tackling climate change must start with reducing our planet’s emissions. Such efforts are known as climate mitigation and sustainable energy is our best chance at accomplishing it.
What is sustainable energy?
Sustainable energy is the energy generated from a naturally replenished resource that can be used indefinitely. This means that our energy and heat demands can be met without either the risk of depletion or pollution.
Examples of sustainable energy include wind, solar, hydropower, and sustainably sourced geothermal energy. All of which can be considered inexhaustible and widely available to almost everyone. These sources are often treated as equivalent to renewables. Although there are many similarities between the two terms, they are not the same concept.
What’s the difference between sustainable and renewable energy?
Most sustainable energy sources are also renewable. These definitions are often used interchangeably but are not exact equivalents. Their main difference is based on their replenishment capacity.
Sustainable energy, as previously mentioned, is inexhaustible. Sunlight, wind or water flow need not be produced or replaced as they naturally replenish themselves. These sources are also renewables, but not every renewable source is also sustainable.
Renewables are, in fact, theoretically exhaustible as their production resources might or might not be replenished. Bioenergy, for instance, is produced from biomass, namely biological masses such as agricultural by-products. These can be reproduced via planting or farming and are thereby considered renewable, although they are not naturally sustainable.
Geothermal energy can be included as a sustainable energy source, as it is produced from the planet’s underground reservoirs of steam and heated water such as geysers.
Whether renewable or sustainable, these energy sources have become essential to meeting our energy needs and climate imperatives, as they emit very little to no greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Other low-emitting technologies include nuclear and green hydrogen - that is hydrogen produced from electrolysis. These are defined as clean, albeit not sustainable, energy sources.
Transitioning from an emitting fossil fuel – such as coal, oil, and natural gas – to a sustainable energy source has now become a common goal worldwide to successfully limit rapidly rising temperatures.
Year after year countries around the world gather at the UN Conventions of the Parties (COP) to reinforce their pledges towards climate mitigating efforts. In 2015 COP21’s landmark Paris Agreement legally bound 196 countries to reduce global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels and to achieve climate neutrality by 2050.
The European Union is leading the way in meeting such targets with the EU’s Green Deal and Fit for 55 packages, now further reinforced by the REpowerEU plan. The development and swift deployment of sustainable energy have therefore taken centre stage in the world, not only for their energy efficiency and climate-friendly footprint. There are many other benefits enshrined in a sustainable energy mix.
What are the benefits of sustainable energy?
The ongoing crisis in Europe has shed light on the many merits of sustainable energy sources beyond the immediate climate gains.
Good for the climate
Natural resources such as sunlight, water, wind, or geothermal heat produce very low carbon emissions, unlike fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. This enables the production and consumption of energy with very limited impact on the climate.
Good for the environment and public health
Sustainable energy sources emit little to no pollutants into the atmosphere. This improves air quality which in turn is critical to ensuring healthy environments for all living species.
Sustainable energy carriers can therefore play an important role in reducing if not reverting the rate of biodiversity loss registered all over the world. Not only is their impact on the environment far lower than the one caused by fossil fuels, but they can also contribute to restoring or protecting nature when carefully integrated with degraded ecosystems.
As we will detail later, there are many benefits to grasp from unleashing synergic approaches between renewable and biodiversity practices.
Good for energy security
Relying on imported fossil fuels to meet a country’s energy needs creates a dangerous vulnerability. We experienced it during the oil crisis of the 1970s and we are now witnessing it as Europe fights its way out of the ongoing energy crisis triggered by Russia’s deliberate gas supply disruptions.
Sustainable energy sources can be sourced at the local level as well as traded across several countries thus avoiding the risk of depending on single untrustworthy suppliers. They are thus green, affordable, and unmatched rapid solutions to decrease dependency on coal, oil, and gas imports. This rationale is what moved the European Commission to propose the RePowerEU package, which raised the bar for renewable targets to 45% of the energy mix by 2030.
Good for employment
The green sector is rapidly expanding and with it the opportunity for new employment. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown promising data. Today about 65 million people work in the energy industry worldwide, of which already 50% are clean jobs. These include occupations in both renewables and low-carbon technologies including nuclear and hydrogen.
These numbers are set to grow as the world transitions from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy.
Good for consumers
Some sustainable energy sources, such as solar, wind and hydro have become increasingly competitive over the past decade and are now considered among the cheapest technologies available. Since 2020, solar PV has held the record as the cheapest source of electricity in history – according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Their high competitiveness explains renewables’ growing share in many countries’ energy systems, including EU Member States. Solar Power Europe recently confirmed that PV solar broke yet another record this year by reaching 41 GW in additional installed capacity. The data went well beyond even their most optimistic scenarios.
Developing sustainable energy sources might have high upfront costs but their very low operational costs, positive externalities, and clear long-term return on investments makes them an irresistibly attractive solution. The current energy crisis, however, has highlighted the need to further speed up their development to ensure EU countries’ energy independence and decarbonisation targets.
Reducing the share of emitting fuels in a country's energy mix by investing in clean and renewable energy can improve security of supply and contain electricity prices, thanks to renewables' higher energy efficiency. Improved efficiency standards can in fact lower energy waste, cut consumption and increase energy savings while delivering the same level of comfort.
Several bottlenecks, however, risk hampering much needed growth rates in sustainable energy.
What are the main challenges to the upscale of sustainable energy in Europe?
The IEA has declared that “renewables will transform the global power system through 2027 and become the largest source of electricity generation by 2025”. Europe’s energy security needs and high decarbonisation ambitions are projected to double the expansion of renewables by 2027.
Narrowing the gap to net-zero, however, requires overcoming a number of challenges.
The lack of a highly skilled workforce in the EU, such as installers and operators, is holding back the growth potential of sustainable technologies. Access to green jobs must be facilitated to support the required renewable rates – amounting to 753 GW of additional renewable capacity by 2030 - to meet EU decarbonisation targets.
EU Countries should thus incentivise companies to undertake skilling, upskilling and reskilling programmes, to reduce the skills gap and enable th much needed sustainable energy deployment rates.
Storage and flexibility
The most competitive and financially attractive sustainable sources are also variable. This is why investing in storage technologies is fundamental to ensure supply when the sun does not shine, and the wind does not blow. At the same time, variable sources should be complemented with dispatchable and firm capacity technologies such as hydropower and nuclear.
Today the number of in-house batteries coupled with rooftop solar panels is increasing, but it’s still far from the rates needed to reach EU targets. The possibility to store energy also enables consumers – businesses and households alike - to actively contribute to the green transition by providing flexibility to the distribution grid.
Renewable energy is often turned into electricity as the cleanest and most efficient energy carrier to decarbonise Europe’s economy. As the number of projects increases, the power system will become ever more decentralised raising challenges for grid operators to balance power dispatch. Increasing the flexibility of the electricity networks can help integrate new renewable capacity thereby balancing the grid.
Storage, as well as other electric services such as smart charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, are important sources of such flexibility as they can store excess energy supply to then release it during peak demand.
Renewable projects receive the green light through permits. These systems, however, are subject to lengthy procedures. Today there are around 80 GW of wind capacity currently stuck in permitting in the EU. Eurelectric’s Power Barometer shows that EU countries have four times more wind projects under permitting than under construction, with the former stage taking up to eight years when only two are needed for latter.
Similarly, solar projects must wait around five years on average to receive the green light. Environmental impact assessments and societal resistance further contribute to slowing down the time of approval. Faster permitting is however essential to enable higher deployment of sustainable energy and attract further investment. These needs became all the more urgent with the outbreak of the current energy crisis.
This is why this week the Council approved the possibility of shortened and simplified permitting processes. Member States will be asked to designate specific “go-to-areas” which are particularly suitable for the deployment of renewable projects, most notably wind and solar, due to the region’s low environmental risk.
This agreement represents a powerful enabler for stronger renewable deployment rates, even more so if we consider the synergies that could be harnessed between sustainable energy sources and the natural environment. Now is the time to move beyond the silos separating energy and nature and tackle the twin climate and biodiversity crisis together. Let’s learn how.
How to reconcile the need for sustainable energy with nature protection?
Over 81% of habitats in the European Union are already in poor condition due to intensive farming, urban sprawl or pollution. The same worrying trends apply to many other regions across the world.
Awareness of the ongoing biodiversity crisis is thus growing worldwide. As shown in the recent COP15, countries are now increasingly committed to taking action against the worrying rates of biodiversity loss. The parties agreed in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) to restore 30% of degraded habitats and to grant protected status to at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. They also made a pledge, among others, to halt the extinction of threatened species by 2050 and triple biodiversity funding for developing countries.
Climate change is set to become the leading driver of biodiversity loss by 2050. The energy sector, as the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, can strongly contribute to improving environmental health and reducing if not reverting these worrying trends. To do so, we must move beyond the silos separating energy and nature to embrace win-win approaches aimed at jointly addressing the interconnected climate and biodiversity crises.
Clean and renewable electrification, supported by a massive rollout of sustainable energy sources, can indeed break the cycle of degradation and help regenerate biodiversity. The key lies in deploying renewable projects in areas suitable for nature preservation and ecological restoration through innovative climate-friendly resource-management practices.
The good news is that the electricity sector is already harnessing these synergies and showing promising results, confirmed by Eurelectric’s recent flagship report PowerPlant.
Floating solar panels in flooded gravel pits and mines, eutrophic lakes, or wastewater treatment plants can limit land use and provide new habitats for marine life by reducing evaporation. Matching high-sun-exposure areas with sun-tracking PVs can both maximise energy generation and contribute to revegetating the soil by containing evapotranspiration. Moreover, integrating agricultural activities such as beekeeping, regenerative annual cropping, and managed grazing with PVs can boost biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, increase moisture retention, and capture carbon emissions.
Hydropower can also contribute to regenerating biodiversity while providing renewable flexibility by storing power and releasing it during periods of high demand. Hydroelectric plants’ reservoirs can be used for restocking endangered aquatic species and can further protect biodiversity by controlling rivers’ water flows and preventing floods. Gravel riverbanks and riparian areas serve as new breeding grounds and suitable habitats for fish and birds, while integrated fish ladders assist fish migration to upstream breeding grounds.
Stopping the extraction of peat and using rewetted areas for wind farms can significantly reduce methane emissions and improve biodiversity. Wind parks can also be made more sustainable by reducing impacts on birds and baths via biodiversity-mindful approaches. These include choosing the optimal location for wind projects by mapping migratory routes before construction, painting wind turbines to create a visual deterrent for birds and adding sensors. These systems, based on radar, camera, and microphone technologies detect and monitor, birds and bats, triggering actions to avoid fatal events with wind blades.
The list of synergies continues, yet these innovative projects are often held back by regulatory constraints and low societal awareness. A structured framework that seeks to advance projects with documentable benefits for habitats and biodiversity is now needed. This could for instance contain accelerated permitting for certified nature-friendly projects, qualitative requirements for nature protection in tenders, a financial set-aside for biodiversity, and rewilding from governmental project-related revenues.
The age of sustainable energy has already begun, it is now up to governments, industry, and civil society to work together to ensure we reach this future as quickly as possible.