Renewable Energy: The Facts

By Bryan Walker 14/12/2010

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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