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What is Sustainable Energy?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated: May 21, 2024

Sustainable energy is energy that can potentially be kept up well into the future without causing harmful repercussions for future generations. A number of types of energy can be thought of as sustainable, and many governments promote their use and the development of new technologies that fit within this model. Increasing rates of energy consumption around the world have led to a corresponding rise in concerns about where the energy comes from and if it will become more scarce.

Several factors go into making energy sustainable. The first is whether or not the current use of the energy is something that could potentially persist into the future, which leads many forms of renewable energy to qualify as sustainable. People can generate energy from windmills, ocean waves, and the sun without running out of energy and resources, making these methods sustainable for use by future generations. By contrast, fossil fuels are not treated as sustainable because the Earth's supplies of crude oil will eventually run out.

Another consideration is energy efficiency. Some forms of renewable energy, for example, take quite a lot of effort to actually generate, meaning that almost as much energy goes into their production as the sources themselves generate. Energy efficiency can also be used to describe the technologies that use energy, such as homes, cars, and businesses. Increased efficiency in the way energy is used makes sustainable energy stretch further.

Many people also feel that the environmental impact an energy source has is another facet of whether or not it is considered sustainable, which is why sources like nuclear power are often not treated as such. Although it meets the demands of renewability and energy efficiency, nuclear power can have a negative impact on the environment. Likewise, some of the methods used to produce solar panels, wind turbines, and other technology to convert renewable sources into energy are polluting, leading to concerns that such technology merely moves the pollution to a different place, making it unsustainable.

Another factor important to some people in the energy field is independence. Some critics argue that energy is not sustainable if a nation is forced to rely on another country to meet its energy needs, even if that energy is renewable, non-polluting, and efficient. For example, if the United States relied heavily on Canadian wind farms, this would violate the criterion of energy independence. Being able to meet one's own energy needs as a nation is an important part of sustainable energy in the eyes of some people who are concerned about the intersection of energy and politics.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Babalaas — On Sep 17, 2010

In my opinion, solar energy is the most sustainable renewable energy source. All forms of energy are derived from solar energy, so the most efficient and low impact source will be energy sourced directly from the sun. All the earth's geologic cycles get their energy from the sun. Fossil fuels are simply concentrated chunks of solar energy.

Solar energy is also one of the most water efficient of all sources of energy, which is very important in a globalized world facing population increases and water shortages. The only water needed for solar energy production is to clean panels or mirrors a few times a year.

By Amphibious54 — On Jun 02, 2010

It is a common misrepresentation that renewable technologies like wind and solar "...passes pollution, making [them] unsustainable." There have been extensive studies about the sustainability of renewable energy technologies, and the main concerns for secondary and tertiary externalities associated with renewable energy technologies pertains mostly to certain biofuels and hybrid-electric technologies. According to the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) a commercial wind farm will emit 98-99% less emissions than natural gas or coal during their respective lifecycles. This includes the sourcing, manufacturing, installation, and decommissioning of the various power plants. Hybrid electric tech is currently unsustainable due to the mining of the lithium, battery efficiency, and battery life. Biofuels, especially ethanol, are unsustainable because they take away from the global food supply, require massive amounts of potable water and fertilizer to produce, and lead to degradation of fragile ecosystems. There are so many misrepresentations about renewable energy that come mostly from fossil fuel sponsored think tanks working to protect a mature industry.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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