Friday, July 1, 2016

Renewables- the problems of success

Brexit may be dominating our thoughts at present- a self inflicted disaster, likely to lead to a slow down in renewable development, amongst many other things. See this helpful if grim analysis:
Brexit could mean the UK falls even further behind the rest of the EU, abandoning even its low 15% by 2020 renewable energy target. On that basis they may be glad to see us go! But rather than dwelling on that, in this post I’m going to look at what’s happening elsewhere in the EU and globally.  It’s a story of success- although that also bring problems.

Sweden is in the lead in the EU, now meeting over 50% of its energy needs from renewables. Several other EU countries are over or nearing 30%, some, like Austria, helped by their large hydro capacities. But many others, with less hydro, are also doing well, especially in terms of electricity supply. Over 32% of Germany’s electricity is now generated from renewable energy sources.  Denmark is even further ahead -wind energy alone now supplies 43% of its annual electricity.

However, there can be problems with success.  At times there’s too much renewable energy. So, like Germany, Denmark has been looking to Power to Gas conversion/storage options to capture the value of this surplus. In one variant, excess wind-derived electricity is used to electrolyse water to make hydrogen gas, which is then reacted with carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from the air, power plant exhausts or from industry to make methane, which can be used as fuel for power plants, heating or vehicles:

A larger, longer term, problem is that the more renewable energy there is in the market, and the lower its price, the lower is its market value- it sees off expensive fossil fuel, cuts overall prices, but also thus cuts its potential income. See this slightly garbled analysis:
Basically, it’s all about a race to the bottom in marginal costing. Good for consumers (retail prices should fall), good for the planet (emissions will fall), but not good for companies trying to make a living out of energy supply (their profit margins fall). The trouble then is that this may mean the growth of renewables might slow, as profit-seeking investment capital dries up. It’s a standard problem of success- once you reach the top (dominating the market) there is nowhere to go but down, especially since, within the sustainable future credo, the aim is to limit growth once needs have been met.

There is a way to go before this issue gets serious. Renewables are still not dominant, only supplying around 23% of global electricity, and there is plenty of room for them to continue booming around the world, not least since, in many poor countries, even basic energy needs have not been met. There is also plenty of money to be made. Global investment rose 4% last year, to $329bn. And most studies see it accelerating into the future. High renewables scenarios from academics and NGOs are now very familiar: e.g.  and

However, the big energy companies are also coming out with what a few years back would have seemed like heresies. A recent R&D Paper from EDF looks at a future dominated by renewables, which supply 60% of the EU’s electricity by 2030, with nuclear only playing a moderate role (90GW total).

That would lead to major changes. EDF calculates that wind and solar would displace 160GW of baseload capacity, but would require 60GW of fossil backup, so the net reduction is only 100GW. Even so that would mean a huge swing away from fossil fuel. Coal capacity is reduced by 170GW from 250GW to 80GW. However, gas is less impacted. Combined cycle gas plants (CCGT) is increased by 15GW from 70GW to 85GW. Fast start up open cycle (OCGT) plants, used for grid balancing/peak load matching, is increased by 65GW from 35GW to 100GW.  

Of course that doesn't have to be done using fossil fuel: as I have described in my new IoP e-book ‘Balancing Green Power’, there are other options for balancing, including the Power to Gas approach mentioned above, with stored surpluses being available for storage to met shortfalls, and some of this also being shifted via inter-connectors.  That, along with smart grid demand-response, is what most of the academic and NGO scenarios suggests, and most also avoid reliance on nuclear, since (amongst many other things) it is inflexible and makes balancing harder.  Many of them look to 100% renewables by 2050, a view also shared by some trade groups. For example, the World Wind Energy Association says near 100% renewable energy grids will be established by 2050. Stefan Gsänger, WWEA Secretary General, said ‘there are no basic technical barriers for wind power to contribute a large portion of the future global energy supply. 40 % wind power in 2050 is a realistic scenario, and the remaining 60 % will be covered from other renewable technologies so that the world can reach a 100 % renewable power supply (at) latest by the middle of this century.’

That may sound optimistic, and certainly there will be many obstacles and problems to face, but even the relatively conservative International Energy Agency sees renewables roaring ahead. By 2040, it says renewable power generation will reach 50% in the EU and around 30% in China and Japan, and over 25% in the US and India.

The IEA still sees fossil fuels as playing a major role, along, to a lesser degree, with nuclear. Hopefully that may not be the case. Certainly the pace of change in the last few years has been remarkable, with coal being challenged and nuclear flat-lining at around 11%.  Governments may still at times drag their feet and try to prevent change (as in the UK- still backing nuclear), but, as the costs of renewables continue to fall and the direct and indirect costs of using fossil fuels grow, along with the risks and costs of nuclear, the change process seems unstoppable:  

Can it be accelerated?  IRENA is trying to speed things up via its ‘Age of Renewables’ programme, hoping to double renewables globally by 2030, while halving energy use:   That’s for energy not just electricity and is in line with the goals of the UNs Sustainable Energy for All programme. But even that is not really maximal: with costs falling, more could be done, as the NGO scenarios outline, aiming for 80-90% renewable energy contributions in many countries by 2050. Then we may hit some of the problems of success! Though, post Brexit, it remains to be seen if the UK will be in the running..

*My new book ‘Balancing Green Power: how to deal with variable energy’, is available from Institute of Physics Publications.