Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Renewables are a mistake

It’s sometimes argued that renewables are too expensive to rely on, at least at present, and that, if emissions are of concern, we should focus instead on cleaning up fossil fuels via Combined Hat and Power (CHP) and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and reducing energy use via efficiency measures, all of which could offer lower costs/tonne of carbon emissions avoided.  That may be true for some of these measures in the short term (maybe not CCS though) and some should be followed up (efficiency and CHP especially), but if that position is taken to the extreme, then that’s all we will do, right up to the point when we run out of fossil fuels.  So renewables won’t be developed seriously and their costs may continue to look high- until we are forced to try to deploy them in a rush when, despite all the fixes and fudges, it is finally clear to all that fossil fuels have become untenable economically and environmentally.

Basically, longer term, we can’t afford not to start deploying renewables, in order to get their price down- and that is already working. The ‘delay it’ argument may at base reflect a fundamental dislike of ‘disruptive’ renewables by those wedded to the status quo, who at best look to technical fixes and minor adjustments, or, if really pressed, to dubious and perhaps dangerous experiments with CCS, geo-engineering or nuclear fast breeders.

Their arguments against renewables can get quite tortuous.   In one version it’s accepted that, with renewables, the fuel may be free, but it’s noted that the technology itself is not renewable- it has costs and has to be regularly replaced. So, overall, systems using renewable sources are no more renewable than fossil systems, which can, with CCS, yield the same carbon saving at lower cost. The Renewable Energy Foundation’s Dr John Constable says, with current renewables ‘the cost of extraction, conversion, and delivery is very high compared to that for fossil fuels, largely because the density of renewable energy flows are so diffuse in comparison, requiring large machines to concentrate this energy. The capital and O&M costs of the conversion devices, the wind turbines, the solar panels, the delivery costs, have to be very low to become competitive with current fossil fuels’. www.scientific-alliance.org/energy-climate-change/scientific-alliance-scotland-launch-event  Well actually, some already are, despite the continuing heavy subsidies for fossil fuel … for example on land wind and PV. See my Ecologist article: http://bit.ly/1cLWwYI

The same sort of argument has come from the coal lobby. In an analysis for conerstone.net, Prof. Robin Batterham Kernot,  from the  University of Melbourne, argues that coal is a sustainable energy option: ‘Given that coal will be abundantly available for the next few hundred years, whether coal as a resource is exhausted is barely relevant in terms of the needs of future generations’. And it can be low emission too! ‘The fact that the public and governments have focused on renewables instead of low-emission energy puts the coal industry in a difficult position. The response of the industry must be to emphasize that coal can also be a low-emission energy source. By adopting this position, coal can be seen as just as worthy as any other technology, at least for the present. For existing power plants and their supply chains, the opportunities for emission reduction lie mainly in the upstream processing (mining, coal cleaning, and transport) and in carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS). For new power plants, far more opportunities for emission reduction exist.’

Well CHP, and maybe eventually (at high cost) CCS, may allow for some fossil fuels to be used alongside renewables for while, with relatively low emissions. But is coal a long-term option? Here’s what the article says: ‘Coal use for power will cease when replacements are seen as more sustainable.’ Isn’t that where we are getting to now? www.pennenergy.com/articles/pennenergy/2013/12/winning-public-support-for-the-future-of-coal-power.html

In this context it’s interesting that leading German research group Fraunhofer ISE now suggests that any new coal plants would be expensive in relation to new solar and wind (onshore) within 15 years – and such plants generally run for 40-60 years. The ISE team don’t cover nuclear (as there won’t be any in Germany) but commenting on the study, energy campaigner Craig Morris, using the UK nuclear CfD price, said the proposed new   Hinkley nuclear plant would be more expensive than practically all solar and wind power by the time it went online. www.renewablesinternational.net/renewables-becoming-competitive-with-conventional-power/150/537/74751   So that’s coal and nukes seen off!  
Given proper attention to renewables and efficiency, we do not face a coal or nuclear choice, as the Guardian’s George Monbiot keeps suggesting. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/16/nuclear-scare-stories-coal-industry

Coal burning is clearly something we must stop as soon as possible and, even if CCS proves be successful, it would arguably make more sense to use it with biomass, to make the process overall carbon negative. Biomass-based carbon capture and use might also be helpful, creating new green synfuels (perhaps using hydrogen derived from surplus wind-electricity), as well as heat and power (via CHP).

However, overall, the simple truth is that renewables for all uses are getting cheaper and could accelerate dramatically if we didn't waste money trying to sustain the use of dirty, and ever more costly, fossil fuel, or resuscitate dangerous and expensive nuclear options. No one suggests there won’t be problems in redirecting the development of energy system along more sustainable lines, but claiming that we should leave renewables until some unspecified time in the future seems to display a tragic lack of vision.

In fact, renewables are doing well, supplying around 22% of global electricity from around 1,560GW of generating plant, and 19% of total global primary energy, according to the 2014 edition of REN21s annual renewable review: http://www.ren21.net/gsr
And the International Renewable Energy Agency say that, given proper support, by 2030 renewables could be supplying 30% or more of total global energy, with some leading countries getting around 60% of their electricity from renewables by then. www.irena.org/remap/  Heading on the way to, hopefully, 100% within a few decades, this is no time for faint-hearted rethinks.

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