What exactly is the role of renewable energy in a circular economy?

    By Emma Lucey  February 13th, 2023

    Energy use continues to increase globally, through ongoing population growth and economic development, and remains one of the biggest drivers of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

    Research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that 55 per cent of GHG emissions can be mitigated by switching traditional energy sources to renewable energy. 

    Not only can a managed transition to renewable energy help decouple the correlation between economic development and greenhouse gases produced, but it can also drastically reduce our dependency on the unsustainable consumption patterns associated with a linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economy. 

    The 45 per cent of GHG emissions remaining after the transition to renewable energy can only be addressed by transforming the systems of production that provide our food, cars, clothes and other products, and keep materials in circulation. Circular economy initiatives to transform systems of production will only be effective when the energy used is produced by renewable sources.  

    It will therefore take both a carbon neutral and circular economy for us to live in balance with nature; living off nature’s interest rather than its capital. Considering the enormity of the task to reach net-zero goals, it is clear a systems-wide change is vital to alter how we live and work.   


    What are renewable energy sources? 

    Energy resources are split into three categories: fossil fuels, renewable resources and nuclear resources. Renewable energy sources are regenerative, meaning they can be used to produce energy over and over again. When a renewable resource is consumed in order to produce energy it can be replenished (either naturally or through human intervention) in order to replace the amount consumed.  In 2019, renewable energy sources supplied around 11% of the global energy demand. Solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind turbines are the best-known and most widely available renewable energy sources, but there’s also other sources including tidal power generators, hydropower turbines and geothermal power plants, among others. 

    With increased recognition of the impact of fossil fuel-based energy generation on GHG emissions, renewable energy technology adoption has greatly increased in recent years, with growth rates that have been compared to that of the uptake of mobile phones and the internet. The International Energy Agency predicted the total capacity of renewable-based power will grow by 50 percent between 2020 and 2024. However, there is still a long way to go.   


    Benefits of the renewable energy transition 

    There are many sustainable development goals that renewable energy can contribute to including: climate change mitigation, energy access, energy security and reduction of environmental and health impacts. Lifecycle assessments of electricity generation technology found the environmental burden and GHG emissions from renewable energy are generally considerably lower than energy produced by fossil fuels. Renewables are also the cheapest form of power thanks to swift development of new renewable technologies.

    Black carbon and other air pollutants, caused by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, not only accelerate climate change but can have detrimental health effects. Developing countries experience a higher level of air pollution due to factors such as older technologies and a lack of environmental regulation. Although, the benefits of the implementation of renewable energy sources are not limited to reducing local air pollution and associated health impacts. 

    Renewable energy would also contribute to energy security and reduce an economy’s vulnerability to price volatility. For example, if a township implements renewable energy systems (e.g. solar networks), they could potentially create a self-sustaining microgrid to produce and control energy, becoming less dependent on traditional energy suppliers. The use of innovative technology, like eleXsys, could allow cities to run on urban, clean-energy power stations. eleXsys, an innovation designed and licensed in Australia by Planet Ark Power, is an artificial-intelligence-based, two-way grid technology that harmonises electricity grids, makes clean energy microgrids bankable and allows efficient and extensive use of new or existing solar installations without any expensive grid upgrades.  

    Localised energy production means less energy is lost in comparison to long distance transmission. Furthermore, eliminating fuel costs lowers the cost of energy produced and can allow for more stable energy prices over time.  

    Other benefits of switching to renewable energy include job creation in the renewable energy industry, and landowner income for farmers and rural landowners who implement a renewable energy source on their land (e.g wind farms). 


    Circularity of renewable energy 

    The switch to renewable energy can contribute to all three principles of the circular economy by designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating nature. But the renewable transition is particularly important to addressing the first principle of designing out waste.  By prioritising renewable energy inputs, we can eliminate the waste and pollution produced due to the extraction and use of carbon-based energy. Furthermore, the use of carbon-based energy, innovative technologies, such as eleXsys mentioned previously, can utilise existing infrastructure (poles & wires), eliminating the need for new electricity grids.    

    Just as a circular economy must be underpinned by the renewable energy transition, circularity is also critical to ensuring this transition does not come at the cost of new forms of waste. Renewable energy technologies are often dependent on highly critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and other materials and metals, like nickel. Circular strategies including greater recycling, use of recycled materials, and design for second life and disassembly will all be required if we are to conserve these resources.  

    When it comes to circular practices in the renewable energy industry, the recycling and reuse of materials from products such as laptops, smartphones and hard drives should be utilised. Use of low-carbon materials, such as recycled aluminium, produces less carbon dioxide compared to other untapped sources and reduces the strain on natural resources.   

    As with anything in the circular economy, if the materials and equipment used by renewable energy sources are reused or remanufactured at its end-of-life, it reduces the environmental cost of the infrastructure. To keep up with the upward trend of renewable energy use, circular practices must be considered to determine responsible sources of supply and resource cycles of renewable energy equipment and infrastructure. 

    Where prices for fossil sources will continue to rise due to the limited supply, the prices of renewable energy will decrease thanks to more efficient production and the development of innovative technologies designed to protect the environment and contribute to a circular economy.   

    Learn more about eleXsys Energy and Planet Ark Power

    Emma Lucey

    Emma brings experience in digital media and communications with a background in several industries such as tourism and hospitality. Prior to joining Planet Ark in 2022, Emma spent 5 years living abroad in London & Amsterdam where she developed a greater interest in the environment and sustainability. Outside of work Emma enjoys gardening, camping and crocheting.

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