EME 807
Technologies for Sustainability Systems

9.4. Can Renewables Meet Global Energy Demand?


9.4. Can Renewables Meet Global Energy Demand?

When we talk about our energy future and contemplate the idea of eliminating fossil fuel combustion entirely and replacing it with cleaner renewable energy technologies, the key question everyone wants to know the answer to is:

Will renewables be enough?

The renewable resources  - solar energy, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro resources - are truly enormous. However, conversion of those resources to accessible, usable energy has a big "overhead". Creation, installation, and support of those technologies takes time, manpower, materials, and (you guessed it) more energy. The net consumable energy is what we hope to match with the existing global energy demand.  

This question is very carefully addressed in the documentary "SWITCH" created by documentary director and writer Harry Lynch and Geology Professor Scott Tinker (University of Texas). The authors travel around the globe to visit the best state-of-the-art renewable and non-renewable energy facilities to understand the pros and cons of each and to put some numbers together.

Please watch the trailer below.

Video: Switch Trailer (2:24)

Credit: Arcos Films. "Switch trailer." Vimeo.
Click here for a transcript of the trailer for Switch.

PRESENTER 1: Energy powers our lives. Everywhere we live, everywhere we go, everything depends on energy. But everything is changing. Oil is running out, or is it? Coal can be clean, or can it? Renewables will power the future, or will they? I'm Scott Tinker, and for 10 years, I've been searching for the truth about our energy transition. So many challenges.

Fresh on the minds of people, of course, is the Deepwater Horizon accident. You look on the news and there's people talking about fracturing. They're looking at it in Washington.

We have 600 million people in this country without access to electricity. Can you imagine? That's two United States. And the only way to find the solution is to go out and get it.

PRESENTER 2: For the first time ever, these landlords have an opportunity to receive a regular paycheck.

PRESENTER 3: And of course, when the wind does not blow, we generate nothing.

PRESENTER 1: But the benefits of new energies come with challenges of their own.

PRESENTER 4: We can make ethanol. It's a no-brainer. We know how to do that. I can tell you for sure that we can do it economically.

PRESENTER 5: And one of the great challenges then is scale.

PRESENTER 6: Scale is exactly the challenge because we use so much energy. It's mind-boggling.

PRESENTER 7: We will see a gradual electrification.


PRESENTER 7: But where are you going to get the extra electricity to run all those electric cars?

PRESENTER 1: It was only by relearning everything I knew about energy that I would find the answer. What will it really take to go from the energy that built our world to the energy that will shape our future?


One good thing about this film is that it does not push a certain political agenda and avoids polarized discussion about what types of energy should or should not be pushed forward. It attempts to take an objective look at the reality of the present-day energy situation, with its opportunities and challenges. Finally, and most importantly, it includes all pillars of sustainability in the discussion.

In this lesson, I ask you to watch this complete documentary (98 min) as part of your learning and provide your reflection on the discussion forum. 

Please refer to the Summary and Activities page for further instruction on the Lesson 9 Discussion Forum.