Ramping up renewables

By Bryan Walker 26/08/2010

There may be conflicting reports as to whether renewable energy can replace fossil fuels in time to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and there are still plenty of people in positions of authority, like our own Energy Minister, who see little reason to hurry the process. The heavy lobbying influence of big oil and coal interests remains powerful. But it’s heartening to be reminded from time to time that transition is nevertheless under way in many parts of the world and that it’s gathering pace. An Earth Policy Institute article has arrived in my inbox offering just such a reminder. It refreshes what Lester Brown had to say about the shift to renewable energy in his book Plan B 4.0.

I reviewed the book on Hot Topic last year, but at the risk of repeating myself I’ll report some of the points which he now reiterates and updates. The first is that the transition to energy powered by wind, solar and geothermal sources is moving worldwide at a pace and on a scale we could not have imagined even two years ago. Texas, the oil state, is a prime example. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, 370 more in construction, and a huge amount in the development stage. When all of these wind farms are completed, Texas will have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity–the equivalent of 53 coal-fired power plants. This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state’s 25 million people, enabling Texas to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil.

South Dakota has begun development on a vast 5050-megawatt farm that when completed will produce nearly five times as much electricity as the state needs. It will become an exporter, as some ten American states and several Canadian provinces are planning to be.

Brown then moves across the Atlantic to point to the hopes of the Scottish government for the development of an enormous off-shore wind generating capacity of some 60,000 megawatts. I reported  on Hot Topic a few months ago on a major survey which has identified North Sea potential from wind and wave of even larger potential, capable of producing six times as much electricity as is currently used in the UK. If joined to a northern super-grid it could enable access to a single European electricity market and export opportunity.

Algeria plans to build 6000 megawatts of solar thermal generating power for export to Europe via undersea cable

It’s not only the developed world that is embracing renewable energy on a rapidly growing scale. Brown instances Algeria’s plans to build 6000 megawatts of solar thermal generating power for export to Europe via undersea cable. He points to their awareness that they have enough harnessable solar energy in their vast deserts to power the entire world economy. Solar energy is clearly of enormous potential not only in the Mediterranean region but also in the south-west US and the Indian desert and China, and there is regular news of new developments in all of these areas.

Brown touches on Turkey where construction  permits are being issued for 7,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, in response to bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts. In Indonesia the state oil company Pertamina is responsible for developing most of a planned 6,900 megawatts of geothermal generating capacity.

’These are only a few of the visionary initiatives to tap the earth’s renewable energy. The resources are vast. In the United States, three states–North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas–have enough harnessable wind energy to run the entire economy. In China, wind will likely become the dominant power source. Indonesia could one day get all its power from geothermal energy alone. Europe will be powered largely by wind farms in the North Sea and solar thermal power plants in the North African desert.’

The 20th century saw the globalisation of the world energy economy as countries everywhere turned to oil, much of it from the Middle East. This century, says Brown, will see the localisation of energy production as the world turns to wind, solar and geothermal energy. It will also see the electrification of the economy.

’The transport sector will shift from gasoline-powered automobiles to plug-in gas-electric hybrids, all-electric cars, light rail transit, and high-speed intercity rail. And for long-distance freight, the shift will be from diesel-powered trucks to electrically powered rail freight systems. The movement of people and goods will be powered largely by electricity. In this new energy economy, buildings will rely on renewable electricity almost exclusively for heating, cooling, and lighting.’

Can renewable energy be expanded fast enough? Brown thinks so, encouraged by the phenomenon of the extraordinary growth of the communications and information economies in only the last thirty years. Others don’t. Barry Brook in Australia is one, with his views summed up in this recent article and much more on his Brave New Climate website. Not that he’s arguing for fossil fuels — in his view nuclear power is the only technology that can get us there fast enough and economically enough. 

Lester Brown falls back on the analogy of the Second World War when the American economy changed direction with extraordinary speed and prospered in doing so. He’s not alone in sounding this theme, but he was an early proponent of it. The difficulty with this concept is that our societies are hardly yet ready to see climate change in the stark terms which obtained in 1939 and 1941. 

Whether renewables will be ratcheted up quickly enough or not they certainly represent one of our best hopes of containing climate change impacts. Don’t forget to tell Gerry Brownlee so before September 2, when submissions on the new draft energy strategy close. I’ve said elsewhere on Hot Topic what I see as wrong with the draft.  Simon Boxer of Greenpeace has put it succinctly:

’It’s a document that lacks vision and goals. It shows that the Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee is ignoring the climate crisis. It’s a route map to a dead end.

’The Government’s energy strategy prioritises drilling and mining for more oil and coal, while providing virtually no stimulation for the development of renewable energy and clean technology. It fails to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change and makes no attempt to set measurable emissions reduction targets.’

If you’d like some suggestions the Greens offer a thoughtful submission guide.  If you’re lacking time a shortcut is offered by Greenpeace or WWF . Many of the 40,000 submissions received by the government on Brownlee’s proposals to mine conservation land no doubt used form statements provided by organisations. They still count, so use one of the offered quick responses rather than pass the opportunity by.