What Are the Five Major Types of Renewable Energy?

2022-09-24 04:49:33 By : Mr. Jason Liu

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Awareness around climate change is shaping the future of the global economy in several ways.

Governments are planning how to reduce emissions, investors are scrutinizing companies’ environmental performance, and consumers are becoming conscious of their carbon footprints. But no matter the stakeholder, energy generation and consumption from fossil fuels is one of the biggest contributors to emissions.

Therefore, renewable energy sources have never been more top-of-mind than they are today.

Renewable energy technologies harness the power of the sun, wind, and heat from the Earth’s core, and then transforms it into usable forms of energy like heat, electricity, and fuel.

The above infographic uses data from Lazard, Ember, and other sources to outline everything you need to know about the five key types of renewable energy:

Editor’s note: We have excluded nuclear from the mix here, because although it is often defined as a sustainable energy source, it is not technically renewable (i.e. there are finite amounts of uranium).

Though often out of the limelight, hydro is the largest renewable electricity source, followed by wind and then solar.

Together, the five main sources combined for roughly 28% of global electricity generation in 2021, with wind and solar collectively breaking the 10% share barrier for the first time.

The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) measures the lifetime costs of a new utility-scale plant divided by total electricity generation. The LCOE of solar and wind is almost one-fifth that of coal ($167/MWh), meaning that new solar and wind plants are now much cheaper to build and operate than new coal plants over a longer time horizon.

With this in mind, here’s a closer look at the five types of renewable energy and how they work.

Wind turbines use large rotor blades, mounted at tall heights on both land and sea, to capture the kinetic energy created by wind.

When wind flows across the blade, the air pressure on one side of the blade decreases, pulling it down with a force described as the lift. The difference in air pressure across the two sides causes the blades to rotate, spinning the rotor.

The rotor is connected to a turbine generator, which spins to convert the wind’s kinetic energy into electricity.

Solar technologies capture light or electromagnetic radiation from the sun and convert it into electricity.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar cells contain a semiconductor wafer, positive on one side and negative on the other, forming an electric field. When light hits the cell, the semiconductor absorbs the sunlight and transfers the energy in the form of electrons. These electrons are captured by the electric field in the form of an electric current.

A solar system’s ability to generate electricity depends on the semiconductor material, along with environmental conditions like heat, dirt, and shade.

Geothermal energy originates straight from the Earth’s core—heat from the core boils underground reservoirs of water, known as geothermal resources.

Geothermal plants typically use wells to pump hot water from geothermal resources and convert it into steam for a turbine generator. The extracted water and steam can then be reinjected, making it a renewable energy source.

Similar to wind turbines, hydropower plants channel the kinetic energy from flowing water into electricity by using a turbine generator.

Hydro plants are typically situated near bodies of water and use diversion structures like dams to change the flow of water. Power generation depends on the volume and change in elevation or head of the flowing water.

Greater water volumes and higher heads produce more energy and electricity, and vice versa.

Humans have likely used energy from biomass or bioenergy for heat ever since our ancestors learned how to build fires.

Biomass—organic material like wood, dry leaves, and agricultural waste—is typically burned but considered renewable because it can be regrown or replenished. Burning biomass in a boiler produces high-pressure steam, which rotates a turbine generator to produce electricity.

Biomass is also converted into liquid or gaseous fuels for transportation. However, emissions from biomass vary with the material combusted and are often higher than other clean sources.

Despite the recent growth of renewables, fossil fuels still dominate the global energy mix.

Most countries are in the early stages of the energy transition, and only a handful get significant portions of their electricity from clean sources. However, the ongoing decade might see even more growth than recent record-breaking years.

The IEA forecasts that, by 2026, global renewable electricity capacity is set to grow by 60% from 2020 levels to over 4,800 gigawatts—equal to the current power output of fossil fuels and nuclear combined. So, regardless of when renewables will take over, it’s clear that the global energy economy will continue changing.

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As European gas prices soar, countries are introducing policies to try and curb the energy crisis.

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Europe is scrambling to cut its reliance on Russian fossil fuels.

As European gas prices soar eight times their 10-year average, countries are introducing policies to curb the impact of rising prices on households and businesses. These include everything from the cost of living subsidies to wholesale price regulation. Overall, funding for such initiatives has reached $276 billion as of August.

With the continent thrown into uncertainty, the above chart shows allocated funding by country in response to the energy crisis.

Using data from Bruegel, the below table reflects spending on national policies, regulation, and subsidies in response to the energy crisis for select European countries between September 2021 and July 2022. All figures in U.S. dollars. CountryAllocated Funding Percentage of GDPHousehold Energy Spending, Average Percentage 🇩🇪 Germany$60.2B1.7%9.9% 🇮🇹 Italy$49.5B2.8%10.3% 🇫🇷 France$44.7B1.8%8.5% 🇬🇧 U.K.$37.9B1.4%11.3% 🇪🇸 Spain$27.3B2.3%8.9% 🇦🇹 Austria$9.1B2.3%8.9% 🇵🇱 Poland$7.6B1.3%12.9% 🇬🇷 Greece$6.8B3.7%9.9% 🇳🇱 Netherlands$6.2B0.7%8.6% 🇨🇿 Czech Republic$5.9B2.5%16.1% 🇧🇪 Belgium$4.1B0.8%8.2% 🇷🇴 Romania$3.8B1.6%12.5% 🇱🇹 Lithuania$2.0B3.6%10.0% 🇸🇪 Sweden$1.9B0.4%9.2% 🇫🇮 Finland$1.2B0.5%6.1% 🇸🇰 Slovakia$1.0B1.0%14.0% 🇮🇪 Ireland$1.0B0.2%9.2% 🇧🇬 Bulgaria$0.8B1.2%11.2% 🇱🇺 Luxembourg$0.8B1.1%n/a 🇭🇷 Croatia$0.6B1.1%14.3% 🇱🇻 Lativia$0.5B1.4%11.6% 🇩🇰 Denmark$0.5B0.1%8.2% 🇸🇮 Slovenia$0.3B0.5%10.4% 🇲🇹 Malta$0.2B1.4%n/a 🇪🇪 Estonia$0.2B0.8%10.9% 🇨🇾 Cyprus$0.1B0.7%n/a

Source: Bruegel, IMF. Euro and pound sterling exchange rates to U.S. dollar as of August 25, 2022.

Germany is spending over $60 billion to combat rising energy prices. Key measures include a $300 one-off energy allowance for workers, in addition to $147 million in funding for low-income families. Still, energy costs are forecasted to increase by an additional $500 this year for households.

In Italy, workers and pensioners will receive a $200 cost of living bonus. Additional measures, such as tax credits for industries with high energy usage were introduced, including a $800 million fund for the automotive sector.

With energy bills predicted to increase three-fold over the winter, households in the U.K. will receive a $477 subsidy in the winter to help cover electricity costs.

Meanwhile, many Eastern European countries—whose households spend a higher percentage of their income on energy costs— are spending more on the energy crisis as a percentage of GDP. Greece is spending the highest, at 3.7% of GDP.

Energy crisis spending is also extending to massive utility bailouts.

Uniper, a German utility firm, received $15 billion in support, with the government acquiring a 30% stake in the company. It is one of the largest bailouts in the country’s history. Since the initial bailout, Uniper has requested an additional $4 billion in funding.

Not only that, Wien Energie, Austria’s largest energy company, received a €2 billion line of credit as electricity prices have skyrocketed.

Is this the tip of the iceberg? To offset the impact of high gas prices, European ministers are discussing even more tools throughout September in response to a threatening energy crisis.

To reign in the impact of high gas prices on the price of power, European leaders are considering a price ceiling on Russian gas imports and temporary price caps on gas used for generating electricity, among others.

Price caps on renewables and nuclear were also suggested.

Given the depth of the situation, the chief executive of Shell said that the energy crisis in Europe would extend beyond this winter, if not for several years.

This graphic quantifies and compares the state of decarbonization among the 30 largest investor-owned utilities in the United States.

Introducing the NPUC Annual Utility Decarbonization Report 2022 Created in partnership by Visual Capitalist and Motive Power.

With the Biden administration targeting a zero-emissions power sector for the U.S. by 2035, how are the nation’s largest electric power providers faring in terms of decarbonization? 

Together, Visual Capitalist and our sponsor National Public Utilities Council have developed the Annual Utility Decarbonization Index. The index quantifies and compares the status of decarbonization among the 30 largest investor-owned utilities in the United States.

Decarbonization is quantified by scoring companies on six emissions-related metrics based on publicly available data from 2020 (the latest available).

Why does the Decarbonization Index specifically look at the 30 largest IOUs by electricity generation? 

Well, these 30 utilities collectively generated around 2.3 billion megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity (including purchased power), making up over half of U.S. net electricity generation in 2020. Moreover, they also served over 90 million customers, accounting for roughly 56% of all electric customers in the country.

Therefore, it’s safe to say that the 30 largest IOUs have an important role in decarbonizing both the power sector and the U.S. economy. Since the residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural sectors all use electricity, the decarbonization of utilities—the providers of electric power—can enable emissions reduction throughout the economy.

For each of the six metrics used in the Decarbonization Index, utilities are scored on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest), indicating whether they are trailing or leading, respectively. Scores for each metric are based on the range of figures for each metric divided into five equal buckets that the utilities fall into. 

For simplicity, let’s suppose that the lowest reported total emissions figure is zero metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and the highest is 100 metric tons. In that case, companies that emit fewer than 20 metric tons of CO2 will receive the highest score of 5. Those that emit between 20 and 40 metric tons of CO2 will receive a 4, and so on.

A utility’s overall decarbonization score is an average of their scores across the six metrics, summarized below:

The data for these metrics comes from various sources including company sustainability reports, quantitative reporting templates from the Edison Electric Institute, and the Climate Disclosure Project’s Climate Change Questionnaire filings.

Explore all six metrics of the U.S. Utility Decarbonization Index

Download The NPUC Annual Utility Decarbonization Report for free.

Before looking at numbers, it’s important to note that the Decarbonization Index is relative and compares the 30 largest IOUs to each other. Therefore, a score of 5 does not indicate full decarbonization or net-zero emissions. Instead, it suggests that the utility is doing particularly well relative to its peers. 

With that in mind, here’s a look at the Annual Utility Decarbonization Index 2022: 

A small number of companies did not report data on certain metrics and have been excluded from scoring for those metrics (denoted as N/A). In such cases, the decarbonization score is an average of five metrics instead of six.

Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), headquartered in New Jersey, tops this year’s rankings thanks to its low-emissions profile and ambitious climate goals. The company is aiming to achieve net-zero emissions from operations by 2030—five years ahead of the Biden Administration’s target and faster than any other utility on the list.

Tied with PSEG is NextEra Energy Resources, the clean energy-focused subsidiary of NextEra Energy. The company is the world’s largest producer of solar and wind power and generated 97% of its net electricity from low-carbon sources in 2020.

In third place is California’s largest utility, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). PG&E had the lowest emissions per capita of the 30 largest IOUs at 0.5 metric tons of CO2 per retail customer in 2020. That figure is significantly lower than the average of 11.5 metric tons across the 30 IOUs. 

Rounding out the top five are Avangrid, a renewables-focused U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish Iberdrola Group, and Exelon, the nation’s largest utility by number of retail customers. Avangrid had one of the cleanest fuel mixes with 87% of its owned net electricity coming from low-carbon sources. Exelon is the nation’s largest provider of emissions-free electricity, generating around 157 million MWh or 86% of its owned net electricity from nuclear power.

While the Decarbonization Index provides a look at the current status of utility decarbonization, there’s much more to uncover in the full report, including:

>> Click here to download the full report and find out everything you need to know about utility decarbonization.

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