Posts Tagged solar

Citibanker: the age of renewables is here Bryan Walker Apr 17

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Kathryn Ryan’s interview earlier this week with Michael Eckhart, Managing Director and Global Head of Environmental Finance and Sustainability at the giant investment bank Citigroup was arresting. He was in New Zealand as a keynote speaker at the Wind Energy Conference and Ryan asked him about a recent report from Citi, Energy Darwinism: The Evolution of the Energy Industry, which claimed the world is entering the age of renewable energy and explored the consequences for generators, utilities, consumers and fossil fuel exporters. There’s a good exposition of the report on this blog post.

Eckhart explained the three big costs in producing electricity – the fuel, paying off the loan for the plant, and operational maintenance. In the case of coal and natural gas generation all three costs are involved and there’s no way of knowing what the cost of the fuel will be in the future. With wind and other renewables “there is no fuel cost at all: none”. Once the loan for the plant is paid off there are no further costs other than operational.

Ryan asked why investment in renewables is dropping as the costs are coming down. Eckhart in reply spoke of an anomaly:

“We had a very successful industry emerging coming out of the United States, Europe … manufacturing these solar cells, these solar panels, and  along  came China, and China just produces things at a lower cost and China made a priority – this became a priority industry under the government of China … and they came out with panels costing half as much.”

Investors in Western companies consequently took a hit and investors in the new Chinese companies did very well “and it’s all a big mix now”. The surviving Western companies are still there and very successful though many companies have closed. The industry has a new profile. Japan and the Middle East are also now part of the picture. The industry is evolving all the time.

Ryan then mentioned the difficulties wind energy is facing in the US with the emergence of cheap shale gas and the withdrawal of subsidies leading to a real hit to investment.

In response, Eckhart spoke in general terms of the world being 40 years into a 100-year transition to clean energy. Renewable energy is on a large scale around the world. “It’s a 250 billion dollar per year industry – that’s how much capital’s being invested in it”.  It’s a big industry competing with conventional power “better and better all the time”. In the US right now low-cost natural gas is gaining some share against renewables, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. He spoke of the big forcing functions like climate change, environmental protection, human safety and stabilisation of energy costs. He stressed that stabilisation is one aspect of renewable energy that is often overlooked. Once a wind or solar project is built and financed the cost of its electricity is fixed for the life of the plant. Stabilisation of energy costs is important for countries.

When Ryan pressed the question of subsidies for wind and the pressure they are coming under in some countries Eckhart replied that subsidies are better seen as incentives, or compensation for public benefit. Non-pollution from renewables is a public benefit. But there’s nothing in the market to pay for that.

Solar presently counts for a quarter of a percent of the US electricity supply. How, asked Ryan, do you get a big transition moving from that small base?

Eckhart instanced Bill Gates making a fortune from the point when PCs were at only two percent of the computing power in the world. It’s the future that matters. He distinguished the three layers of the industry. First, the technology and manufacturing companies who produce the equipment to harvest the natural energy. Second, the developers, owners and operators of the renewable power plants. Third the utilities that buy that electricity to sell it to us. The profitability of the manufacturing layer might for the present be bad because of the Chinese dominance of the space. However the drop in prices has benefited the developers who are buying the panels and putting them to service. That’s where the fortunes are currently being made. The utilities have been taken somewhat by surprise and are still figuring out how this impacts their business.

Market adjustment is called for. Those who adjust fastest are going to benefit. Those who stand still might be impacted negatively. The world is changing. We are in a century of massive technology innovation and adoption.

I appreciated Eckhart’s forthrightness, all the more because of the investment banking environment from which it comes. But the question the interview left me pondering was whether the forcing function of climate change that Eckhart refers to will be felt strongly enough to speed up the process that he sees as inexorably under way. Forty years into a hundred-year transition doesn’t sound far enough from a climate change perspective. Our own government is happy enough to look forward to fully renewable energy in the long run, but only after as much profit as possible is taken from fossil fuels. The remaining sixty years of Eckhart’s hundred need to be condensed to thirty before we can safely take heart from the kind of analysis he makes.

The Climate Show #35: elections, extremes and a big wind Gareth Renowden Sep 19

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We’re running a bit late with this one: recorded last week before the big wind left Gareth powerless for six days (a bit like Glenn’s PC), John Cook ruminates on the result of the Australian election, the boys marvel at the Mail’s myth making about Arctic sea ice, and look forward to the release of the first part of the next IPCC report. And much, much more. Show notes below the fold…

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Show notes


Australian election, and prospects for climate policy:

Australia’s new government is likely to repeal the carbon price, by striking a deal with crossbenchers in the Senate after July 2014, or possibly going to a special election if it looks electorally attractive. Still, carbon pricing remains the logical choice for Australia’s longer term climate policy.

In the run up to AR5, British right wing media up the ante by claiming that Arctic sea ice in “recovery” and cooling’s on the way:





But the truth is:

AR5 WG1 summary for policymakers due at end of month:

The Twelfth Session of Working Group I (WGI-12) will take place from 23 to 26 September 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden. This Session of WGI is being convened to approve the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of the Working Group I contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (WGI AR5) and accept the underlying scientific and technical assessment.

The WGI AR5 Summary for Policymakers will be available on 27 September 2013.

AR5 web site:

NOAA/BAMS State of the Climate 2012:

2012 was one of the 10 warmest years on record globally. The end of weak La Niña, and unprecedented Arctic warmth influenced 2012 climate conditions.

NOAA/BAMS extremes report:

New analyses find evidence of human-caused climate change in half of the 12 extreme weather and climate events analysed from 2012.

Auckland Anglican Church votes to get out of any fossil fuel investments:

A link for the bit about the “Walkie Scorchie”

Rooftop solar becoming so attractive in US that some power utilities are lobbying against incentives/wider adoption

ClimatePrediction Dot Net celebrates 10 years this week:

(Will be in Aus and NZ soon).

The Climate Show #32: a Cook’s tour of the Aussie heat Gareth Renowden Jan 24

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At long last: John Cook from Skeptical Science rejoins the Climate Show team for the first show of 2013. He hooks up with Glenn and Gareth to review Australia’s big heatwave, and stays around to dig into the new Greenpeace report on dirty energy, discuss Obama’s inauguration speech and Boris Johnson’s climate blunder, the latest scary news on sea level rise and the implications for the future. Plus much much more…

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The Climate Show

Story references


Australia bush fires and temperature records: For the first image used in the show and further background, see The Conversation.

Bushfires captured by satellite: NASA Earth Observatory

Global Warming Has Increased Monthly Heat Records Worldwide by a Factor of Five, Study Finds

If global warming continues, the study projects that the number of new monthly records will be 12 times as high in 30 years as it would be without climate change. “Now this doesn’t mean there will be 12 times more hot summers in Europe than today — it actually is worse,” Coumou points out. For the new records set in the 2040s will not just be hot by today’s standards. “To count as new records, they actually have to beat heat records set in the 2020s and 2030s, which will already be hotter than anything we have experienced to date,” explains Coumou. “And this is just the global average — in some continental regions, the increase in new records will be even greater.”

A new report commissioned by Greenpeace says the world could be locked into dangerous levels of global warming if 14 planned fossil fuel projects get the go ahead. The projects in the Point of No Return report include the expansion of Indonesian and Australian coal exports, a tripling of production from the Canadian tar sands and extensive offshore drilling in Brazilian waters.All in all, the 6,340 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020, more than the total output of the US.
RTCC news, full report pdf.

US media coverage of Climate Change in 2012 fell by 2%! This despite the devastating drought and Hurricane Sandy.

But if Obama has his way that’s all about to change: Youtube video here.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says his top hopes for 2013 are to reach a new agreement on climate change and to urgently end the increasingly deadly and divisive war in Syria.

Dispatch from London…. Shock! Horror! Boris says something really stupid! He says this week’s snow casts doubt on Climate science. Of course, as Leo Hickman points out in The Guardian he’s only trolling BUT it still matters because he could be Britain’s PM one day…

Jason Box’s Dark Snow Project. He is also going to be speaking at a Climate Desk Event in Washington next month. See also: SkS and HT.

Sea level rise: a sequence of stories…

Natural Relationship Between Carbon Dioxide Concentrations and Sea Level Documented

The researchers found that the natural relationship displays a strong rise in sea level for CO2 increase from 180 to 400 parts per million, peaking at CO2 levels close to present-day values, with sea level at 24 +7/-15 metres above the present, at 68 per cent confidence limits.

Richard Alley lecture – final section on the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica.

Which leads us to the ultimate paradox: Sea level rise could lead to cooler, stormier planet, says Jim Hansen.

A catastrophic rise in sea level before the end of the century could have a hitherto unforeseen side effect. Melting icebergs might cool the seas around Greenland and Antarctica so much that the average surface temperature of the planet falls by a degree or two. This is according to unpublished work by climate scientist James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

Plus: Gareth being gloomy.

And this from The Climate Desk: they report that a group of researchers and educators based at San Jose State University think climate science needs a superhero. And they have: Supermandia!


Scott A Mandia’s blog is here.


Sprinkling billions of tonnes of mineral dust across the oceans could quickly remove a vast quantities of climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to a new study. The proposed “geoengineering” technique would also offset the acidification of the oceans and could be targeted at endangered coral reefs, but there’s a downside — it would require a mining effort on the same scale as the world’s coal industry and would alter the biology of the oceans.

Thin Film Solar Cells: New World Record for Solar Cell Efficiency

UK scientists bid to mimic plant energy creation

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) are embarking on an £800,000 project to replicate photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into sugars to help them grow.

The process will be used to create hydrogen, which can be used as a zero-emission fuel for cars, or converted into green electricity.

It is hoped the method, which involves placing tiny solar panels on microbes to harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, will be a more efficient way of converting the sun’s energy than currently exists.

We have an email!

Thanks to our media partners: Idealog Sustain, Sciblogs, and Scoop .

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

Southern lights Gareth Renowden Sep 30

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If you watch nothing else today, take the time to look at this spectacular movie of an aurora australis taken by the International Space Station on September 17, and made available by NASA’s Earth Observatory a couple of days ago. Not really climate-related, unless you’re into solar/climate linkages, but posted because the images are spectacular. And it is an atmospheric phenomenon…


The Climate Show #14: volcanoes, black carbon and crocks from Christy Gareth Renowden Jun 16

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A busy news week sees Glenn and Gareth discussing volcanoes in Chile and Africa, busy pumping ash into the atmosphere and disrupting flights in South America, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East, an extreme spring in the USA, drought in Europe and a warm autumn in NZ, a new UN report on black carbon and how a reduction could cut future warming, Aussie scientists fighting back against climate denial, and forecasts for the summer ice minimum in the Arctic. John Cook from Skeptical Science deals with their new series on John Christy’s climate crocks, and introduces a great new graphic front end for the SkS climate literature database, plus we cover price reductions on solar panels, LEDs on streetlights in San Francisco and MIT’s Cambridge crude.

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News & commentary: [0:05:50]

Chile volcano: southern hemisphere’s turn to experience what happened last year in Europe – doesn’t threaten climate cooling (at least, not yet)

Earth Observatory


NZ ash forecasts from the Met Service.

But there’s one nearer the equator: Nabro in Eritrea

Follow the action at Dr Erik Klemmeti’s Eruptions blog

Jeff Masters on extreme weather in the US:

Nature’s fury reached new extremes in the U.S. during the spring of 2011, as a punishing series of billion-dollar disasters brought the greatest flood in recorded history to the Lower Mississippi River, an astonishingly deadly tornado season, the worst drought in Texas history, and the worst fire season in recorded history. There’s never been a spring this extreme for combined wet and dry extremes in the U.S. since record keeping began over a century ago, statistics released last week by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) reveal.

And one consequence (among many): NOAA predicts that the annual ’dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico will be the biggest since records begin…

And a dry spring in Europe and SE Britain could mean France has to shut down some nuclear power stations because of a lack of cooling water.

PS: May was the warmest ever recorded in New Zealand… 2.2ºC warmer than 1971-2000 average. (Mt Hutt webcams here).

New UN report on ’black carbon’ just released

Guardian: UN — curbing black carbon would bring dramatic, quick benefits to all

UNEP press release

Report PDF


Aussie scientists hit back at sceptics with series of strongly worded articles at The Conversation

Open Letter.

The greenhouse effect is real.

Speaking science to climate policy.

And finally: First batch of forecasts for the Arctic summer sea ice minimum released.

NASA Arctic Mosaic, and the Arctic Sea Ice blog.

Debunking the sceptic, with John Cook of Skeptical Science [0:42:20]

Christy Crocks

“I think there’s been too much jumping to conclusions about seeing something happening in the climate and saying ‘well the only way that can happen is human effects”

“I think most of all, [current temperatures] are part of the normal ups and downs of climate.”

“We are finding that the climate is not very sensitive to CO2 and those kind of gases”

An Interactive History of Climate Science

Solutions [1:05:00]

Solar PV changing the game? Joe Romm reports:
Solar is Ready Now: ‘Ferocious Cost Reductions’ Make Solar PV Competitive

China Plans to Double Solar Capacity Target for 2015

Google funding rooftop solar PVs

Battery breakthrough (again): MIT Team build liquid fuelled batteries for cars – Cambridge crude!

Another kind of energy storage: an ’energy bag

And energy efficiency: San Francisco replacing sodium streelt lights with LEDs – saves 50% energy…

Thanks to our media partners:, Scoop and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

The Climate Show #13: James Hansen and the critical decade Gareth Renowden May 24

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Special guest on this week’s show is Dr James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies and perhaps the best-known climate scientist in the world — the man who put the 350 in and a forceful advocate for leaving coal in the ground. We caught up with him during his recent NZ tour, and grabbed an interview during his whirlwind visit to Canterbury University (thanks Bronnie!). John Cook’s back from the tour launching his new book Climate Denial: Heads In The Sand, and talks about his experiences on the road as well as debunking the “CO2 lags warming” myth. Plus the Australian Climate Commission’s new report, The Critical Decade, Britain’s ambitious new carbon targets, and a couple of new solar power initiatives.

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, or listen direct/download here:

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News & commentary:

Hansen in NZ

First reports, and on lignite.

Australian Climate Commission releases new report: The Critical Decade.

Key messages:

  1. There is no doubt that the climate is changing. The evidence is overwhelming and clear
  2. We are already seeing the social, economic and environmental impacts of a changing climate
  3. Human activities — the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation — are triggering the changes we are witnessing in the global climate
  4. This is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change our children and grandchildren experience

See also: The Age

Britain pledges to halve carbon emissions by 2025.

Interview: [0:22:25]

Dr James Hansen: director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ’the grandfather of global warming’. [Home page, Storms of my Grandchildren, Wikipedia]

Three papers:

The case for young people and nature: a path to a healthy, natural prosperous future.

Earth’s Energy Imbalance and Implications

Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change

Debunking the sceptic, with John Cook of Skeptical Science [0:47:45].

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the sand: (Hot Topic review).

Climate Myth: CO2 lags temperature:

Solutions [1:08:50]

New solar product captures up to 95 percent of light energy.

First Large Scale 24/7 Solar Power Plant to be Constructed in U.S
Source: Clean Technica

Thanks to our media partners:, Scoop and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

Montana and a singular madness (wishin’ and hopin’) Gareth Renowden Feb 19

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Magical thinking is wonderful. Sprinkle a little oofle dust, twitch your nose, and the world can be put to rights. Joe Read certainly believes in magic. He’s just introduced a bill into the Montana state legislature which will solve the global warming problem at a single stroke:

(2) The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.

Peter Gleick and Josh Rosenau have more, and Brad Johnson at The Wonk Room phoned him up for a chat, with extraordinary results. It’s clear that ideology trumps physics in Joe Read’s Montana. A pity he hasn’t told the glaciers in Glacier National Park. But Read’s wishful thinking is a minor thing, compared to the heroics indulged in by Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil

Kurzweil is well known for his contention that exponential growth in technological capabilities (generalising from Moore’s Law) will lead to a merging of human and machine intelligence that will amount to a singularity — an event horizon beyond which we cannot envisage what will happen (though it’s a fertile field for SF writers like Charles Stross). He puts the date of this event in the not too far distant future (mid century or thereabouts), and is doing his best to stick around to see it happen. In this interview with Lauren Feeney at The Daily Need, he applies his exponential vision to developments in solar power:

So right now it’s at half a percent of the world’s energy. People tend to dismiss technologies when they are half a percent of the solution. But doubling every two years means it’s only eight more doublings before it meets a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. So that’s 16 years. We will increase our use of electricity during that period, so add another couple of doublings: In 20 years we’ll be meeting all of our energy needs with solar, based on this trend which has already been underway for 20 years.

It’s a seductive concept, this idea that technology will advance so rapidly that it will amount to a get out of jail free card for human civilisation. It’s a view that underpins the Lomborg/Breakthrough Institute position that what is needed is not cuts in emissions, but investment in technology. We’re smart, right? We can figure a way to solve this problem.

Kurzweil is quite explicit in the interview. We have “plenty of time”:

Feeney: A lot of climate scientists say that we have about 10 years to turn the situation around, otherwise we’re going to hit this tipping point and we are all doomed. So you think we’re going to make it?

Kurzweil: Even if those timelines were correct, there will be quite a transformation within 10 years and certainly within 15 or 20 years. The bulk of our energy will be coming from these renewable sources. So, I think we have plenty of time. I think we can make it to the point where these renewables are taking over.

Set aside for a moment that Feeney’s question is ill-posed (Stoat will be having kittens, to miscegenate freely). Kurzweil’s answer betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the climate problem — not least the climate commitment, the inevitable warming in the pipeline. If we wait for solar power to take over, but carry on emitting vast quantities of carbon in the meantime, the end result — even with 100% renewable energy on tap — will be warming well beyond two degrees, and a planet making a transition towards its own version of a singularity.

I have a more general objection to Kurzweil’s technological optimism, but I first want to make it clear that I find his vision of the future beguiling, interesting and in some respects feasible. It appeals to the boy in me, the one who read The Eagle in the 60s. It helps me to maintain a degree of optimism in the face of what any sane human might regard as an endless stream of bad news. The real problem is that this vision of accelerating “progress” is rapidly running into the buffers of ecological and planetary limits (which include climate impacts). Yes, we may well be smart enough to design and build superior solar energy capture and distribution systems, but can we do it for everyone — for the nine billion who are likely to be around in 2050, when the singularity will be overdue? Kurzweil glosses over this issue in the interview, but I suspect that reality will be a little more demanding than his interviewer. In fact, we already have the technology to “solve” the climate problem, just as we already grow enough food to feed everyone on the planet. The answer lies in fair distribution and getting things done, and we haven’t found it yet.

I want Kurtzweil to be right. I’d like Joe Read to be right too, but it ain’t gonna happen. I might as well move to Montana and become a dental floss tycoon.

[Dental floss and Dusty (something for everyone!)]

Here comes the sun: 100% renewables by 2050 Bryan Walker Feb 07

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Is a fully sustainable global energy system possible by 2050? It’s hard to imagine a more important question if we entertain hopes of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. It is the question addressed by a new and substantial report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the sustainable energy research and consultancy company Ecofys.

The answer to the question is a careful yes, with a caveat. The Ecofys team writes:

’We have found that an (almost) fully sustainable energy supply is technically and economically feasible, given ambitious but realistic growth rates of renewable energy sources.

’However, the path to this future world will deviate significantly from ‘business as usual’ and a few (difficult) choices will need to be made on the way.’

The report does not see a future or a need for nuclear generation, and nuclear power does not figure as part of the sustainable energy system envisaged.

The report is divided into two parts. The first is WWF’s take on the Ecofys investigation, and a useful presentation of its major points for the general reader. The second contains the more detailed research of the Ecofys team.  They provide a scenario, which is not advanced by WWF as the only way forward but as a clear indication that the goal is feasible.

The single most important element in the Ecofys scenario is increased efficiency in the use of energy. They assess global energy demand in 2050 15  per cent lower than in 2005, by contrast with ‘business-as-usual’ projections which predict energy demand will at least double. The reduction in the scenario is not achieved by reduction in activity but from using energy as efficiently as possible. There are no surprises in the areas in which efficiency can operate to greatly reduce energy demand. Recycling in manufacture is one. Using recovered aluminium, for example, cuts total energy use by more than two-thirds. Product design is another: cars and appliances offer big opportunities for much improved efficiency. Improvements in small-scale cooking devices in the developing world can add up to significant reduction in energy demand. There is already the architectural expertise to create buildings that require almost no conventional energy for heating or cooling, and the scenario assumes this as the standard by 2030. Retrofitting existing buildings will achieve big reductions if it is undertaken systematically between now and 2050. It would mean retrofitting 2-3 per cent of floor area every year, an ambitious target, but one which Germany has already achieved. More fuel-efficient transport and expanded use of buses, trams, trains and bikes can result in major reductions in energy use.

Energy conservation must be built into every stage of product design, including a ‘cradle to cradle’ philosophy where all of a product’s components can be reused or recycled once it reaches the end of its life.

Better energy efficiency clearly implies appropriate regulatory action from governments. Legally binding minimum efficiency standards worldwide are needed for all products that consume energy, including buildings. Energy conservation must be built into every stage of product design, including a ‘cradle to cradle’ philosophy where all of a product’s components can be reused or recycled once it reaches the end of its life. Strict energy efficiency criteria should result in new buildings which aim at near-zero energy use, and ambitious retrofitting should be planned and provided with incentives. Energy taxation can be used to steer demand towards efficient products. Developing countries must phase out the inefficient use of traditional biomass and pursue the alternatives; industrialised countries can help them in this process. Substantial investment is needed into public transport, particularly rail powered by electricity.

Efficiency is coupled with electrification. As far as possible the scenario uses electrical energy rather than solid and liquid fuels. Electricity from renewable sources, for example, will power our cars and trains. Currently, electricity makes up less than one-fifth of our total final energy demand. Under the Ecofys scenario by 2050 it will account for almost half.  Wind, solar, biomass, and hydro power are the main sources of electricity, with solar and geothermal sources providing a large share of heat for buildings and industry.

Solar energy to provide electricity and heat is practically unlimited. To date it is hardly tapped, contributing only about 0.02 per cent of our total energy supply. But the proportion is growing fast and the Ecofys scenario has it providing around half of our total electricity, half of our building heating and 15 per cent of our industrial heat and fuel by 2050. The annual growth rate required to reach this is much lower than the one currently sustained year on year. Solar power can create electricity directly through photovoltaic cells, which have the advantage of being able to be integrated into devices and buildings, or it can be concentrated with the resulting heat used to generate electricity. Variability is a problem, but energy storage is improving particularly through concentrating solar power systems where design stage systems can now store up to 15 hours for electricity generation. Combining solar electricity with other renewable electricity sources is another way of addressing variability. Apart from electricity direct heat from the sun can also be employed. Solar thermal collectors can be widely used to for hot water. Direct sunshine combined with improved insulation and window architecture can be used to heat buildings.

Wind power currently supplies around 2 per cent of global electricity demand. An additional 1,000,000 onshore and 100,000 offshore wind turbines would meet a quarter of the world’s electricity needs by 2050.  Geothermal electric capacity is growing and the Ecofys analysis suggests this could reasonably be expected to provide about 4 per cent of our total electricity by 2050. The waves and tides of the ocean provide a potentially vast and reliable source of energy, but because of the challenges in converting it into electricity the scenario assumes only a 1 per cent contribution to global electricity supply by 2050.  Hydro power currently provides 15 per cent of our electricity but because of the environmental and social problems associated with large dams Ecofys lowers its contribution by 2050 to 12 per cent.

The scenario is cautious on biomass, preferring other renewable sources wherever possible. However it recognises that there are some applications where bioenergy is currently the only suitable replacement for fossil fuels. Aviation, shipping and long-haul trucking cannot with current technology be electrified or powered by hydrogen. Some industrial fuels and heat will depend on biomass in 2050. While some of this can come from waste products there will need to be bio-energy crops — around 250 million hectares, or the equivalent of one-sixth of total global cropland — and great care will need to be taken to ensure that they do not use land and water required to grow food or sustain biodiversity. The WWF section of the report is exercised by this question of land use for bioenergy, and expresses the hope that the level of demand for liquid fuels the Ecofys scenario caters for can be further reduced. Algae may meet part of the biomass requirement, but the scenario has it appearing on the scene only by 2030 and only a fraction of its potential is included by 2050.

The renewable resources are enormous, far in excess of our needs. But we need to tap them. This means massive expansion of capacity for generating electricity from them, building large-scale renewable energy plants, not a new generation of fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that could set us back decades. Local micro-generation also has a part to play. International electricity networks need to be extended. Urgent investment is required for smart grids which allow for a significantly higher proportion of electricity to come from variable and decentralised sources. Research is needed into storage options and efficient grid management. Legislation, investment and incentives are required to encourage manufacturers and consumers to switch to electric cars.

And the money? We need a lot of it to be spent in coming decades, but the savings will begin to outweigh the costs by 2040. Unfortunately the current financial system is not geared to taking the long view. We will need new financing models such as public-private partnerships with shared risks, to encourage long-term investment. Legislation and stable political frameworks will also help to stimulate investment. Support such as feed-in tariffs is still dwarfed by the value of global fossil fuel subsidies. Since the aim of those subsidies is often to provide affordable fuel and electricity for poorer people they should not be cut outright but reinvested into providing renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

There’s much more that the report addresses. Equity issues are central and the report places the end of energy poverty at the heart of its energy vision. The rich countries have built their economies on cheap plentiful fossil fuels. They are in a position to assist poorer countries who have not had this resource to develop their own renewable energy capacity. Advanced renewable energy technology must be shared with developing countries.

A renewable energy future doesn’t mean sacrificing our quality of life. We can maintain rates of economic growth and lead prosperous, healthy lives.

What about the lifestyle implications which worry the well off?  The Ecofys scenario does not demand radical changes to the way we live. The report asserts that a renewable energy future doesn’t mean sacrificing our quality of life. We can maintain rates of economic growth and lead prosperous, healthy lives. Indeed the quality of life for many will improve greatly with access to electricity and clean energy. There will be some changes. In wealthier countries we will need to eat less meat and waste less food, wean ourselves from large fast cars, use public transport more, walk and cycle more, be more judicious in the frequency of our travel — but these are hardly deep sacrifices, and surely not changes we will refuse to make when the benefits are so apparent.

The shift to renewable energy can be made. Climate change apart it would have to be made as fossil fuels are depleted. But climate change cannot be set apart, which is why WWF has settled on 2050 as the date for the full transition to be realised. Technologically it is clearly possible. Financially it is not beyond our capacity. However, political direction and business and investor engagement are essential. There is much to be cheered by in the report. ’Let’s get on with it,’ is the rational response. But rationality still struggles to prevail in the climate change arena. Hopefully the painstaking research and evident good sense of reports such as this will make politicians and business people see clearly that we can achieve what we must achieve if we are to prevent climate disaster.

[The Quiet One]

The Renewable Revolution Bryan Walker Feb 06

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The Renewable Revolution: How We Can Fight Climate Change, Prevent Energy Wars, Revitalize the Economy and Transition to a Sustainable FutureThe recommendations of Bill McKibben and Ross Gelbspan, among others, attracted me to Sajed Kamal’s book The Renewable Revolution, and its subtitle was an additional enticement: How we can Fight Climate Change, Prevent Energy Wars, Revitalise the Economy and Transition to a Sustainable Future. The book is on a smaller scale than its subtitle might suggest. Kamal has long been involved in sustainable development and renewable energy as a teacher, project consultant and speaker. He is eloquent on the Sun as the energy source that connects all life, and it is solar energy that he sees as able to meet all humanity’s energy needs many times over, directly through light and heat and indirectly through wind, water movement and photosynthesis.

Photovoltaic cells are at the forefront of his advocacy. A photovoltaic (PV) spread equivalent to only 1 per cent of the Sahara Desert would produce all the electricity consumed on the planet, but he’s not advocating that degree of centralisation. It’s the multitude of scales and designs of PV systems that help make it as useful as it is. Large, multi-megawatt centralised PV power plants can be appropriately placed in different parts of the world. But there can also be small systems placed on roofs or walls or in back yards to meet or help meet the needs of single-family homes. One of the striking pictures in the book is of a camel being led through a Kenyan desert with a PV powered medical refrigeration unit on its back. Kamal grew up in Bangladesh, and shows a lively awareness of the difference even a small PV unit can make to homes in developing countries not served by any grid. He’s also aware of the difficulty poorer people have in meeting the upfront cost of a PV unit compared with regular small purchases of kerosene or diesel, even though in the longer run the PV power is much cheaper. Innovative financing options can address that.

The modularity of PV systems, their versatility, reliability and durability are the attractions the author dwells on. He aims to make the reader fully aware of all that they have to offer in the wide variety of forms and localities in which they are increasingly employed.

Other forms of renewable energy are described and discussed. Wind turbines in areas with sufficiently consistent wind are proving to be the least expensive and most appropriate electricity-generating technology. He is cautious about major hydro-electric dams, but sees many opportunities for a range of smaller scale ecologically balanced hydro-electric systems which harness the energy of flowing water.  Solar collectors for hot water are efficient in many areas, sometimes surprisingly so as in a New England household he offers as an example. Solar greenhouses, well designed and operated, are providing evidence of their ability to grow food in cold conditions. He describes solar cookers which are effective in many areas, including some which can be plugged in to the electricity supply when sun is not available and use 75 per cent less energy than a conventional oven. Biogas plants can work on quite a small family scale: one compact plant developed in India can generate enough cooking gas for all the meals of a small family from a daily supply of only 2kg of vegetable scraps.

All these options have proved their worth in various parts of the world.  Others are emerging. Hydrogen fuel cells are showing research breakthrough promise, and Kamal points to the enormous advantages they will offer to the developing world in the many areas not served by power lines. With some cautions he includes biofuels and geothermal sources in his survey.

Allowed to flourish, Kamal sees all these meeting humanity’s energy requirements. I was a little surprised that he didn’t include concentrated solar power for electricity generation, but he gave no reason to suppose it wouldn’t be on a comprehensive renewables list. What he does exclude is nuclear power, very firmly, on grounds of its devastating economic, environmental and political consequences. He doesn’t seem to allow for the advances in nuclear power in later plants or the promise showed if Generation IV plants can be developed. Nuclear power is bracketed with fossil fuel power in his thinking.

A feature of the book is a chapter of photographs intended to demonstrate the diversity of design and scale of each technology, the diversity of purpose of their applications, and the diversity of locations round the world where they have been implemented. It made an impressive parade.

On the question of cost Kamal is quite clear that this is one of the crucial advantages of renewable energy. Not that he has charts to show any dollars and cents comparisons. There is no point when we are not paying the cost of our fossil fuel use. In fact he considers the real, total cost of non-renewable energy may even be out of control and have thrust the world economy into bankruptcy, a state being denied by passing the debt to future generations.  The renewables by contrast make for a sustainable economy. The fuel is free and abundant. Environmental control costs are borne by the manufacturer and become a factor in the selling price. There is a clear downward trend of technology costs. Renewables can serve both remote and urban locations. Technology can be readily transferred globally. Local resources can alleviate national energy expenditures, debts and deficits which obtain under current fossil fuel dependence. If real costs are faced renewables win hands down.

There is a gradual transition taking place. But Kamal acknowledges that it is nowhere near fast enough and that we are at the same time becoming more deeply entrenched in the non-renewable path. Urgency of action is critical.  At this point in the book he details many initiatives under way. Many of them are local and in the US, and some of the specifics of their emergence will mean more to American readers than to those from other countries. They are all encouraging, and all worth undertaking. But it is only if they are vastly increased and become part of national endeavours that they have much hope of seriously slowing the emissions path the world is on. That wider political engagement is not a prominent part of Kamal’s book, though he acknowledges its need and comments favourably on countries such as Germany which appear to be making serious effort to move to renewable energy.  He looks to the demand of growing public movements to provide the impetus to which politicians will respond.

The book is not a closely organised analysis of renewable energy prospects and the steps required to achieve them. It has more the style of a discussion of the importance of the issues at stake, including background reflection on a philosophy of human wholeness and connectedness with nature, along with examples of how the necessary transition can begin to be effected right away with the technologies already available. Puny so far perhaps, compared with the great fossil fuel industries, but the shape of the near future unless we ruin it in advance.

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Renewable Energy: The Facts Bryan Walker Dec 14

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Renewable Energy - The FactsGermany is a country which has attracted much attention for taking renewable energy technology seriously, not least because it has gained significant economic advantage in doing so. That lends interest to the publication of an English translation of the book, Renewable Energy: The Facts, by German writers Dieter Seifried and Walter Witzel. The authors write chiefly about the German experience, but the book is also relevant to an international audience. Renewable energy is often difficult to get a handle on. Claims and counter-claims jostle confusingly. Sober evaluations such as this book seeks to supply are helpful. The book sets out to provide straightforward information, albeit with the conviction that renewable energy can successfully replace the fossil-fuelled sources which have become so dangerous in their impact on climate change.

The authors write of the beginning of a Solar Age. Solar is an umbrella term which embraces also wind power, hydropower, biomass and geothermal power. They exclude nuclear energy from this new age for reasons of safety and problems of waste.  And there is certainly no future for fossil-fuelled energy.

Like its title, the book is relatively low key. Every page of print has a chart facing it and each topic is limited to a single page of explanation. A page may be a straight description of a particular technology, or a discussion of an underlying principle, or an explanation of a pricing or funding arrangement, but the overall direction of the separate pieces is clear: renewable energy technology is adequate to move us out of fossil fuel dependency if we take the appropriate steps to allow it.

A frequently sounded theme of the book is that renewable energy advance must go hand in hand with energy efficiency and conservation. They are twinned. The less profligate we become in our use of energy the higher the proportionate contribution renewable energy can make to our needs. The authors envisage renewable energy not to feed an ever more insatiable appetite for energy, but to adequately supply a demand which has been trimmed by sensible measures to conserve the use we make of energy resources. This includes simple things like taking energy costs into consideration when purchasing items with long service lives such as cars and refrigerators.

Cost calculations are often brandished by opponents to demonstrate that renewables are uneconomic. The book is quite clear that the cheapness of fossil energy is alleged, not real.  It may be relatively affordable for individuals but it costs society dearly because the environmental damage it causes is not priced in but externalised — that is, paid by someone else, which may be society as a whole. Selling energy at prices below what it should actually cost leads to more energy being consumed than necessary and discourages investment in efficient appliances and renewable energy. The authors surmise that external costs not contained in market prices can even exceed production costs.

To counter the advantages fossil-fuelled energy gains by its externalised costs, Germany has instituted forms of assistance to renewables, particularly the feed-in tariff system which has now been adopted by many countries. Like the wind and solar power equipment manufactured in Germany, the policy itself, expressed in the Renewable Energy Act of 2000, has become a hot export. The book explains the feed-in rates and other instruments in Germany designed to enable the fast development of renewables. It notes that these surcharges do not simply increase the price of electricity to consumers; rather they result in a paradoxical lowering of power prices on power exchanges. Other economic benefits include a lowering of the external costs imposed on society by fossil fuel and a substantial increase in employment opportunities in renewable energy. Assistance to renewable energy development thus brings wide economic benefit.

Much of the book offers information on the variety of technologies available for deployment in the various fields of renewables. Solar thermal has a chapter, as does solar electric. Photovoltaics are currently still expensive in Germany, but with support from feed-in rates considerable development has nevertheless occurred. Improvements in photovoltaic technology are being made and the book quotes expert opinion that grid parity is already being reached in parts of southern Europe and the southwestern US; even in Germany parity is expected by 2013. Interestingly, although the sun reaches Germany at only half the strength of sunlight in the Sahara the book points out that overall Germany receives more than 80 times more solar energy than it currently consumes from all energy sources.

Solar architecture is an area in which Germany has been prominent and the book explains some of the ways in which extraordinarily low energy consumption has been achieved in new buildings. It also points to the large potential for savings in energy through comprehensive renovation of existing buildings, claiming that roughly 20 per cent of overall current energy consumption in Germany could be offset through such renovation.

Wet and dry biomass receives cautious attention as an energy source, with a recognition of the pressure it can put on land use.  Wood-fired heating not only for individual apartments but for entire neighbourhoods holds promise if forests are sustainably managed. It can add value to the region in which the wood is grown, keeping transportation distance short, saving money on imported fuel and providing greatly expanded employment.

Wind power has been a boom market in Germany and the authors consider it likely to cover some 20-30 per cent of power consumption there by 2025. They note that opponents have consistently underestimated its potential. Minor changes in cultural landscapes they consider are compensated by the long-term nature conservation and protection of the biosphere which wind power offers. Repowering —  replacing small turbines with larger ones — and the development of offshore farms are the two developments which will enable further expansion in Germany. Export prospects for German manufactured components are positive, since wind power is growing strongly in many other countries. Between 2001 and 2009 worldwide installed wind power capacity grew eightfold. Wind power is a good provider of employment — in 2008 there were 85,000 jobs in Germany in the wind sector.

The book’s survey of renewables is rounded off with attention to water power and geothermal sources, including hot dry rock.

What does it all add up to? The book is cautious in its claims, and warns that without greatly increased efficiency and conservation in the ways energy is used renewables will not be able to provide for Germany’s energy needs. But the necessary efficiency gains are well within reach, and when renewable energy is coupled with those gains it should be able to provide 90% or more of Germany’s energy by 2050. This in a country which currently depends on fossil sources for 85% of its energy.

Examples of successful projects in renewable energy implementation on smaller community scales round off the book. They are cheering reminders that when a group of people is ready to take hold of the issue real and prompt outcomes can result. One hopes that such ventures serve as goads to the larger players who have it within their power to make substantial difference to the speed of transition to renewables.

The book has much to offer readers who want to build up a sense of what is possible in renewable energy, what is already happening, and how the potential can be assisted to realisation. ’The future has already begun in Germany,’ proclaims one page heading, with justification.

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