By Guest Author 02/05/2016 9


By Anthony James, Swinburne University of Technology

To have any chance of preventing dangerous climate change, the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or even negative by mid-century. Many experts suggest this means we need to completely phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

Several studies have concluded that 100% renewable energy supply systems are technically and economically feasible. This informs the widespread view that fossil fuels can be more or less “swapped out” for renewables, without significant economic consequences.

We are strongly sympathetic to the need for a rapid global shift away from fossil fuels. But new modelling conducted independently and made publicly available by my colleague at the Understandascope, Josh Floyd, suggests that such a transition may face significant challenges.

Future energy

Analyses of how to get to 100% renewable energy typically look at how future energy sources can supply enough energy to meet a given future demand.

This is what’s known as an “energy balance”. The high-quality work of Mark Diesendorf and his colleagues on the transition of Australia’s electricity supply to 100% renewables typifies such modelling.

But this approach doesn’t tell us what will happen to overall energy supply during the transition.

This new modelling suggests a significant decline in availability of overall energy services during the transition phase. This reflects the increased energy demand associated with the transition task itself.

Such an energy “trough” would significantly impact the economy during the transition. This has flow-on consequences for how to maintain the massive renewables roll-out.

What are net energy services?

To investigate what might happen to energy availability during transition, the model looks at “net energy services” at a global scale.

Net energy services are the total work and heat that energy sources – for instance solar photovoltaic (PV) systems or petroleum – make available to end users, minus the energy services required to provide that supply.

Petroleum requires energy services to find, produce, transport and refine it. Solar PV systems require energy services for mining raw materials, manufacturing, installation, replacement and so on. The net services are what remains available for all other purposes, such as heating buildings and moving goods and people.

A rapid, large-scale energy transition creates extra demands for energy services. This demand will compete with other economic activity.

The speed of transition matters

To start with, the model assumes that fossil fuels are phased out over about 50 years. Biomass, hydro and nuclear contributions are assumed roughly to double.

The model then attempts to maintain the net energy services to the global economy at the maximum level before the fossil fuel phase-out. To do this it uses electricity from onshore wind turbines and large-scale solar PV plants, buffered with lithium ion batteries.

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The 42.95 MW Starokazache Solar Station. The Station is installed over a surface of 80 hectares (200 acres) and consists of 185,952 multi-crystalline solar modules and 41 inverters. The solar plant will generate 54.106 GWh of electricity per annum, enough to supply approximately 11,000 households and saves up to 44,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Developer & image: Activ Solar.

The findings show that the faster the transition rate, the greater the energy services required by the transition task, and the lower the services available for other uses.

This is because of the time lag between energy investments and returns. It is exacerbated for sources where up-front energy investment is a relatively high proportion of the total life cycle, particularly so for solar PV.

A 50-year fossil-fuel phase-out represents a relatively modest transition rate. Even so, in the model’s baseline scenario, net energy services decline during that transition period by more than 15% before recovering.

And that recovery is not certain. The model doesn’t consider how this decline in energy services might affect the transition effort. If less energy services are available, then energy transition will come at the expense of other economic activity. That may impact the collective will to continue.

The cost of transition

In the model’s baseline scenario – phasing out fossil fuels over 50 years – wind and solar plants need to be installed at eight to ten times current rates by 2035.

Financially, this corresponds with capital investment in wind and solar PV plants plus batteries of around US$3 trillion per year (in 2015 dollars) and average lifetime capital cost in the order of US$5 trillion to US$6 trillion per year.

For comparison, in 2014 the International Energy Agency forecast global investment for all energy supply in 2035 at US$2 trillion per year.

This implies that total expenditure on energy supply will increase its share of world spending, reducing scope for other expenditure. Compounding the decline in energy services during transition, this has potential to apply contractionary pressure to the global economy. This has implications in turn for financing and maintaining the political will for the renewables rollout.

What if it were possible to roll out renewables even faster? This could reduce the depth and duration of the decline, but not eliminate it. Again, due to the time lags involved, accelerating deployment in the short term takes energy services away, rather than adding them.

What does this mean?

Of course, this is “just” modelling. But good models can tell us a lot about the real world. If this modelling is right, and energy services fall and costs rise, we’ll have to complement building cleaner energy supply with other approaches.

The other key aspect of transition that we have control over is how much energy we expect to use. Usually discussions of transition focus on maintaining energy supply sufficient for a growing economy much like we see today – just with “clean” energy. But this is changing.

Growing numbers of analysts, business leaders and other prominent figures are calling for broader cultural change, as it becomes clearer that technological change alone is not enough to avoid climate catastrophe and myriad other consequences of energy-intensive consumer societies.

This is about more than efficiency. It is about a shift in our collective priorities and how we define progress, wellbeing and quality of living. Reducing energy demand within these redefined aspirations will markedly improve our prospects for successful transition.

This article was co-authored by Josh Floyd, advisor on energy, systems and societal futures at independent research and education organisation the Understandascope, and founding partner of the Centre for Australian Foresight.

The Conversation

Anthony James, Lecturer with the National Centre for Sustainability , Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured image: CC flickr glasseyes view


9 Responses to “Phasing out fossil fuels for renewables may not be a straight forward swap”

  • This is a nonsense article – to have an intelligent discussion in this space we need to break down “Fossil Fuels” into Coal, Oil and Gas….. of course to get rid of the entire gambit 100% appears insurmountable. Coal electricity generation needs to be the first to go (we can do this quite simply worldwide coal generation moratorium, more distributed renewables, and gas peakers as required but otherwise parked up)! The replacement of Crude for transportation will really be a challenge – but we can start by not squandering so much of it and moving as much as possible to electric. The first discussion should be around getting rid of Coal 100% – in reality some small use of Oil will always be required… We should be aiming for a realistic goal like 100% Coal Free and near future Gas and Oil minimalisation in 50 years. Thanks.

  • Why should we not question the need for so much energy?
    The real transition will be to reappraise our definitions of wellbeing to match human aspirations instead of one-dimensional numerical scores.
    An economics that measures only raw quantity fails to distinguish between the value of commerce and crime, building-up and breaking-down.
    Authentic evaluation of human wellbeing rests in what we are able to do, both individually and collectively, far more than in what we own or control. It lies more in challenge, collaboration and achievement than in the size of the television we can vegetate in front of or the size of our house.
    Waste is not wealth. How do we measure human wellbeing, instead of human consumption?

  • Agree with your sentiment John – so much wastefulness has been integrated into our society, in my view a result of the apparently”free energy” we have been enjoying since Crude Oil was discovered…. If you had to replace a barrel of oil with human labor like for like, it would take about 7 years of manual work. Before oil there was slaves. There is plenty of scope to be so much smarter about how we go about things. Moving from a progressive income based Tax System to a progressive consumption based one might help.

  • That seven-year figure is one heck of a useful approximation, Justin.

    In an area such as mobility it is often not primarily the use, but rather the overuse, misuse and abuse that contribute disproportionately to the ecological or energetic cost.

    An area (in transport again) that can be helpful to look at is ensuring that taxation and other structures allow people to choose their mode of transport for the specific trip, rather than feeling locked into using the car for all travel because of taxation provisions or fixed costs.

    Both principles apply beyond transport but I’ll leave others to build up the picture with their specialties.

  • What if the government made 200,000 bicycles, all the same – stock standard…. and anyone can just help them self to the nearest parked one… You look on your phone to see where the closest one has been parked by previous user – you reserve it for 2 mins max so that when you get to the parked location someone else hasn’t flogged off with it… If you crash it or damage it and you don’t report it with your phone, the next person will… If you are not moving for more than 5 to 10 mins, then you have to park it up….

  • Luud Schimmelpennik started working on that idea in the 1970s with the White Bike scheme in Amsterdam. Problem was then that they were all stolen quite quickly. However the same idea worked well in the enclosed park, the Hoog Veluwe. Modern electronics and geospatial systems should make it a cinch to minimise theft.

    It’s worth mentioning that the traditional Dutch bike, although privately owned, is very much more an element of a rational transport system than is the case for most bikes in other places. Even across the different brands, spare parts were almost always a direct fit, even for items such as mudguard stays. Mountings for racks, lights and dynamos are standard so parts are easily replaceable and interchangeable. Every bike used the same tyre valve so you could borrow a floor pump almost anywhere in the country: workplace, school, cafe, or elsewhere, and you knew it would fit your tyre.

    It made recycling and repairing bikes easy and economical.

    The inventory required to maintain them was less than 10% of what we required in Australia to maintain older bikes. It was not possible for us to make recycling bikes work on its own without incorporating the work into a learning experience for the rider.

  • I am going to look into that guy, Luud Schimmelpennik – thanks… The idea that “our vehicle is some sort of extension of our personality” / some kind of social status display, is a big part of the irrational transport system you point out… The Dutch bikes are very generic, a much more rational way to get around – no ego stroking or showing off involved based on what one is riding. As an aside, I would note that Holland is 100% flat so this opens up the possibility of cycling to all and sundry as even the slightest incline is crippling to a chunker. Perhaps with a modern version of the “bikes free to grab” concept, they could be fitted with a small electric battery pack as well as GPS anti theft devices… You would probably need a small crew of collectors to go around moving them back to designated pick up points once in a while – something like a trolly boy at the supermarket.

    • Yes, Holland is largely flat.

      I would like to work out a way to relate cycling rates to topography. For the same levels of facilitation of cycling the actual rate of usage will be lower in proportion to how hilly the place is.

      On this basis it may be that some cities in Switzerland are doing better than Amsterdam, and have sustained high levels for longer. Not quite the same rates of usage but further above the norm for their level of topography.

      It’s not straightforward to put a single measure on topography, however.

    • It’s worth mentioning that Schimmelpennick (around 1996) was looking at the scope for differential pricing according to whether you were travelling in the peak or counter-peak direction, to reduce the need for trucking bikes. I haven’t kept in touch with how that developed, however.