We define sustainable energy in accordance with the definition used by INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing.
Sustainable Energy is “energy which, in its production or consumption, has minimal negative impacts on human health and the healthy functioning of ecosystems, including the global environment, and that can be supplied in a sufficient amount not only to present, but also to future generations without putting a burden on them.”
Renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are considered sustainable energy sources due to their unlimited supply, whereas fossil fuels are considered non-renewable and thus unsustainable. But we can’t ignore fossil fuels from the sustainable energy conversation. Although sources such as wind and solar are considered sustainable in terms of generating power, building and transporting the infrastructure and technology currently depends on the consumption of fossil fuels.
There are other immediate needs to using fossil fuels according to WGEA: “the existence of sophisticated technologies, the availability of infrastructures permitting their widespread use, a developed power transmission grid, and easy transport.”
Additionally every energy source has their pros and cons in the broader sustainability conversation. The below chart highlights the advantages and disadvantages of various sustainable energy sources.
source: Auditing Sustainable Energy
Solar panels for example have no CO2 emissions and are inexpensive to operate, but produce hazardous waste and are extremely difficult to recycle. Hydropower, which produces zero waste, zero CO2 emissions and connects to the grid quickly, has tremendous environmental impact on the local ecosystem. So which is more “sustainable?”
Because there is no perfect solution, we need to consider and include the effective and economic use of both renewable and non-renewable energy sources (ie fossil fuels) as part of our sustainable energy definition.
Sustainable Energy Infrastructure
Broadly speaking, energy infrastructure includes anything that connects energy producers to energy consumers. This includes power generating plants, distribution grids, transmission lines, boiler plants for heating and pipelines for delivering heating and/or cooling
Sustainable Energy Infrastructure must focus on efficiently connecting consumers to sustainable energy producers i.e. maximizing energy production and minimizing lost energy in transmission and consumption.
This sounds straightforward, but is more difficult than it seems. For example, solar plants can be in remote desert locations and tidal power in seaside towns – remote regions that tend to be far from central distribution networks. The farther power sources are, the more energy lost in transmission and the more expensive it becomes to connect to the grid. In addition to building new transmission lines to connect sustainable sources to the grid, the availability of the transmission network is also a major factor in determining output efficiency.
What questions can we ask in determining the sustainability of energy and the associated energy structure? A team at the University of Tartu came up with the following questions:
Sustainable Energy Infrastructure connects energy producers to energy consumers in the most efficient, economic and sustainable manner. Since eliminating fossil fuels entirely is currently unrealistic, we must assess the entire energy pipeline from material extraction and facility construction to transmission, consumption and disposal. Maximizing consumer and economic benefits while simultaneously minimizing energy losses and environmental impact is essential to protect the health of the world for not only the present but also future generation.