Can renewables power the world?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


There is wide agreement across politics, business and academia that climate change is the preeminent threat to humanity and that fossil fuels must be phased out as quickly as possible. The most popular solution, it would seem, is to power society using renewable energy. Some forms of renewable power, like hydro power, are too limited to specific geographies to make a big difference, so two have come to dominate: wind and solar.

Proponents argue that both are potentially cheaper than using fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. Once the capital costs have been paid, capturing energy from the wind or the sun is very cheap because there is no fuel required – nature provides it for free. We simply need to build enough wind turbines and solar panels to generate what we need. With better storage technologies, we can compensate for days of low wind or little sun by using the excess generated at other times. Many environmentalists argue they are a much better answer than nuclear, too.

But opponents argue that wind and solar are simply too unreliable to serve the needs of modern economies. In the UK, for example, there are often spells in winter with short days, low wind and cold temperatures. We simply couldn’t store enough power to cover these shortfalls. The costs and the sheer amount of materials that would be required make it practically impossible. Indeed, they argue, the claim that renewables are cheap is simply false. Such technologies are no substitute, critics say, for the low cost and energy density of fossil fuels. No wonder that where renewables have been rapidly introduced, energy costs have gone up, too.

Are renewables the answer to the climate crisis and our energy needs? Can we solve the issues with storage? Should we pursue nuclear as well – or even instead? Are the costs of ditching fossil fuels simply too high?

Prof Dr Michaela Kendall
CEO, Adelan; UK Hydrogen Champion for Mission Innovation, UK Government

Simon Nash
environmentalist; speaker; activist and founder, Green Oil bicycle lubes

Dr Ralph Schoellhammer
commentator and podcaster; lecturer, Webster University Vienna and MCC Brussels

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, forecasting and innovation, London South Bank University

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Economy Forum