Baylor researchers encounter challenges to renewable energy goals

In the quest for renewable energy, Baylor researchers are lacking confidence, after new studies reveal answers are not right around the corner. Camie Jobe | Photographer

By Sarah Gallaher | Staff Writer

Though many major cities in the U.S. have pledged to transition to fully renewable energy sources by 2050, a new study by a pair of Baylor researchers found the complete eradication of nonrenewable energy sources is unlikely. The study, which was published in January, outlined three main barriers to renewable energy: economics, leadership and literacy.

The study, titled “When energy doesn’t add up: Use of an energyshed framework in assessing progress towards renewable energy transitions,” was conducted by Dr. Kayla Garrett, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, and Dr. Ryan McManamay, an associate professor of environmental science.

“To many scientists and researchers, our work should not come as a surprise,” McManamay said. “There’s a lot of people who already knew what we published, so it’s not a revelation to many. What we understood was that society at large doesn’t understand this issue.”

When it comes to sustainability, the use of renewable energy is not a foolproof solution.

“True sustainability is the overlap of maintaining environmental integrity, meeting economic development and sustaining social needs — and if those three things aren’t happening, it’s not considered truly sustainable,” Garrett said in a Baylor Media article. “I think the same thing applies to any of these energy plans or these efforts of an energy transition. It has to be equitable, bearable and viable in all of those systems for it to work.”

McManamay said many view renewable energy as a perfect solution to the climate crisis. However, he said no energy source is environmentally benign, including renewables.

Materials obtained for the purpose of creating renewable energy sources first require the use of nonrenewable energy during the mining process, which comes with a variety of ethical and environmental considerations. Additionally, establishing an energy grid large enough to meet the needs of cities would take a great deal of land.

“We have huge energy demands in our country,” McManamay said. “Renewables, while they provide electricity and can provide electricity that meets our demands at times, they’re not always going to provide immediacy.”

When turning on a light switch or plugging in a phone, the expectation is an immediate flow of energy. Since renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines depend on the weather, they are not as reliable as fossil fuels, McManamay said.

Without a substantial decrease in energy usage, technological advances and the construction of renewable energy sources won’t be enough to fulfill all energy needs as early as 2050.

Garrett and McManamay found that most of the 250 cities with renewable energy pledges will likely only meet 10% of their energy demand. Furthermore, the most successful cities will likely only transition to between 35% and 65% renewable energy in the next 20 to 30 years.

“I think a more realistic goal is we’re going to increase our energy efficiency by 25%,” McManamay said. “That’s a large goal, and if they get to that point, that’s very big anyway and could be more achievable.”

In an article from The Washington Post, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the U.S. has a greater responsibility to combat climate change by reducing the use of nonrenewable energy. Guterres said the U.S., along with other developed nations, should eliminate carbon emissions by 2040.

However, Garrett and McManamay’s research conflicts with these expectations, despite the impact that carbon emissions may have in the next 20 to 30 years. Garrett told Baylor Media that there is a “misalignment” between the proposed timeline and the methods used to meet the goal.

“We’re still unsure about the long-term implications of that and what it’s going to mean for our ice caps and sea levels,” McManamay said in the Baylor Media article. “That’s the major outcome.”

When it comes to positive environmental impact, McManamay said reducing energy consumption is the easiest solution, but small renewables can provide additional support. According to McManamay, college students are a good example of low energy consumption, since walking to class and living in dense housing lead to less energy use on average.

While one individual cannot solve the nation’s environmental problems, small contributions can make a significant difference. Unplugging devices that consume energy when not in use — otherwise known as “phantom” or “vampire” energy — is an effective way to reduce energy consumption.

“We’ve got to have these hard discussions and figure out that deep transformation to renewables takes a really deep transformation of all sectors because our whole economy is based on fossil fuels,” McManamay said.