EME 805
Renewable Energy and Non-Market Enterprise

3.1 Sustainable Development and Energy


3.1 Sustainable Development and Energy

Why Sustainable Energy?

In this lesson, we begin to look at the concepts of sustainable development, the main drivers of sustainable development, and how sustainable development is directly dependent on renewable energy. The title of this book and the first chapter both refer to the term "sustainable energy," as opposed to renewable energy. Sustainable energy, while necessarily taking into account renewables, can also include the use of lower-CO2 output fossil fuels and nuclear reactions to satisfy energy demands, as long as the long-term and medium-term environmental effects are taken into account and remediated. The bottom line is that societies globally cannot move forward directly into the use of renewables only, and that some energy pathway towards the future that entails an equitable economic and social development of most underdeveloped countries is going to require use of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear energy, unlike many renewables, still has significant engineering hurdles to overcome before it is made considerably safer to use and store over the medium to long term, and while it is often considered a zero-output energy source, one needs to take into account the entire lifecycle of the nuclear fuel which includes significant inputs of fossil fuel at various points along the way.

Energy tradeoffs, costs, and externalities

  • As this is a course on renewable energies, I will expect you to already have an understanding of the fossil fuel backdrop against which renewables are measured. (If you would like to inform yourself further in this area, I strongly urge you to read Chapter 8 of the Sustainable Energy text at some point.)
  • When we are discussing sustainable energies here, we are mainly concerned with those that are specifically renewables. It is important to remember here is that fossil fuels and bio mass are used because they are much less costly per unit of energy than their renewable equivalents.
  • However, the lower cost comes mainly from the fact that the environmental externalities (greenhouse gases, SOx, NOx, etc.) that extend from fossil fuel use have not been counted in their costs to either producer or consumer.
  • As anyone studying markets knows, though, that for no other reason, price will mainly determine selection, and this goes for energy choices as well, particularly for the rapidly developing parts of the world.

Energy and Development

In our current era, human comfort, happiness, well-being, health, security, etc., are all tied directly to energy access and consumption levels. Energy consumption per capita is itself an indicator of a nation's development status. As societies develop beyond meeting basic needs, they consume and become more dependent on energy in support of improvements in lifestyle and welfare. The biggest problem, of course, will be the energy required to bring the rest of the developing world up to the levels found in the developed world.

Points for consideration

  • In this chapter, pay specific attention to examples of per capita energy use and how development fundamentally depends on energy, as this also helps us to project how and where renewable energy markets will likely grow, particularly as national and global patterns of energy production and consumption will continue to change significantly over the 21st century.
  • There are significant concerns about equity and global social justice that underlie considerations around energy use, energy types, and energy-derived emissions.
  • As covered in Table 1.6 of your text (Sustainable Energy: pgs 34-35), all energy choices have trade-offs and environmental externalities which not only affect the quality of an environment but also the human health that depends on that local environment.


In Chapter 1 of Sustainable Energy, the authors frame the overall problem as the energy – prosperity – environmental dilemma, as these three threads are intricately intertwined. Energy helps achieve prosperity, but also its extraction and transformation creates significant environmental problems. As societies achieve greater prosperity, their dependence on energy and on environmental services increases exponentially. To improve the environment, there needs to be fewer pressures put on ecosystems such as increased weather variability, toxic outputs, strip mining, deforestation, air pollution, habitat fracturing, groundwater pollution, surface water pollution, etc.

Renewable energies, as they tie into natural processes, attempt to address this problem in various ways. However, as we have seen, there are significant environmental spillovers with renewables as well. While there is no perfect solution to the trifold dilemma, there are ways to optimize energy and prosperity while minimizing environmental damage, if not figuring out a way to actually improve the environment.

This video (15 seconds) below diagrams the relationships between these three directives in the dilemma:

Click for a transcript
No sound. Words displayed on the background: prosperity requires energy, energy is extracted from the environment, energy and prosperity must support the environment.