The Imponderables of Renewables

With the growing awareness of climate change, the push to move the world to a sustainable energy platform has been gaining momentum. The received wisdom seems to be that we need to be 100% renewables by 2050 if we are to save the world. But really, how likely is that? The attraction of coal and oil is how cheaply it can provide electricity. Yes I know there are all sorts of arguments about that, but at the end of the day it’s how much the consumer pays, and how much electricity there is, that counts to most people. That’s what determines whether you can run a heater or an air-conditioner or have a few big screen TVs.

So, I wonder.

The challenge for someone like me is to be able to get enough objective information to be able to make a reasoned judgement about the actual suitability or effectiveness of 100% sustainable renewable energy. When I try to research this matter, I find widely diverging opinions and facts that are usually biased in the direction of the particular stance of the group or person concerned.

But one thing does stand out. The West’s lifestyle is incredibly profligate. And countries like China and India are relentlessly pursuing parity. I don’t see too much genuine commitment to stepping back from the pursuit of prosperity, growth, material satisfaction etc. This means that energy demands will continue to grow over time.

The question then is how well can renewables satisfy this demand and what is the real impact? Often times I have seen countries like Germany, Denmark, Iceland etc held up as examples of how it can be done, but really, is this true? I’ve done a little research and what I’ve found suggests a less than rosy outlook. Now, I won’t pretend to be an expert or even to have a deep understanding of the issues, but I can read well enough to be suspicious.

Let’s take Iceland. Simplistically, it’s a no-brainer for Iceland and easily achieved. Abundant hydro and thermo, a small and centralised population, limited need for costly dispersed infrastructure and so on. I think Iceland’s situation is so atypical as not to be relevant in considering how Australia for example could become 100% renewable.

What about Denmark? These guys seem to have embraced a plan to be 100% renewables by 2050 and we often hear how well they are going. Heck, just recently it was shouted from the rooftops that they had generated something like 120-140% of their needs by wind alone. But that was on an unusually windy day, what’s it like the rest of the time? And let’s bear in mind that in a similar way to Iceland, Denmark is small (50,000 sq/km) with a small population (5 million or so). Not as much of a challenge as for Australia I think.

Here’s a graph of their progress:

Interestingly, this shows that in 2010, something like 70% of energy was produced by fossil fuels. In fact they won’t get to less than 50% much before 2030. This short summary gives us some sense of the plan:

Well, I wish them luck, they certainly have a lot of favourable conditions on their side. But I think it’s very hard to claim a victory here when it’s so early in the piece. When we hear about Denmark’s success, let’s bear in mind that it’s still a long way off and right now they are using mostly fossil fuels for energy generation.

Here is an article that touches on some of these points, and offers another look at Denmark. I won’t argue for its veracity, but it at least illustrates that there may be more to the story.

How about Germany? Long held to be the poster child, a deeper analysis is not so positive. Briefly, Germany has completely committed to a renewable future by way of its Energiewende program. And they have had notable success. But, there are problems, and given the extent of these problems so early in the program, I am most interested to see how things pan out there.

For example, their implementation is outstripping their ability to keep up with infrastructure such as cabling, and they are throttling back the rate of deployment to ease this problem. However that then means that their schedule is compromised with commensurate economic impacts. They now have an over-abundance of generated capacity when the wind is blowing and the sun shining, so they tend to push these spikes to neighbouring countries who are not happy about that. Poland as an example is considering technology to prevent those spikes entering their grid. When the wind is not blowing, the lack of effective storage technology means that coal-fired power must be kept online, yet such power plants are increasingly not viable, so the government is forced to subsidise this older technology in order to retain capacity. And many of these plants are increasingly using lignite, a dirtier coal, because Germany has substantial deposits of this fuel and it’s cheap. Coal fired generation is likely to be a major player for at least another 30-40 years. There’s much more besides, for example the second highest domestic electricity costs in Europe which is projected to continue to rise by as much as 1-2% per annum for the next 10 years or more. The final point I’d make is that Energiewende is likely to need as much as half a trillion Euros invested over the next 20-30 years to fully achieve its aims.

Now the successes are well known – wind and solar provide impressive contributions to the grid when conditions are right, there is widespread support for the strategy, and many local initiatives are helping (for example rooftop solar etc has meant a large proportion of domestic demand can be met from renewables).

But I can’t help but think Germany might be digging a hole for itself that will be hard to get out of. Add in the additional economic burden of what I think is an incredibly foolish border policy which has seen hundreds of thousands of genuine and economic immigrants and I would not be surprised to see disaster in the years ahead.

I might of course be quite wrong on that. My point is more that it’s difficult to get a clear idea on the move to renewables. A modern lifestyle and commitment to growth seems completely at odds with a commitment to renewables and sustainable energy. Germany seems to illustrate this well. There are many other considerations. For example, wide-scale deployment of wind and solar brings with it huge environmental impacts. Geographic footprints for energy generation become enormous, visual pollution from windfarms as well as their impact on wildlife, the costs of production, maintenance and cabling, and so on. To say nothing of how you actually keep industry going without coal or gas as a fuel source (think steel production for example)

Everything I can see points to one inescapable conclusion. To continue on our current trajectory of material wealth and growth is completely incompatible with a move to sustainable energy. This path will bring inevitable problems, problems perhaps far greater than the current dependence on fossil fuels brings. I think we’d be way better to continue to use fossil fuels and invest in research programs that can more effectively migrate us to other energy sources over the next 100 years.

However even that may not be enough. Really, if we believe that we need to provide a better future for all, then the only answer is to reduce our lifestyles and to expect less from our world.

Or so it seems to me.

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