The promise of renewables

By Bryan Walker 04/11/2011

No sooner had I finished reviewing Fools Rule, which recounts the determination of many nations to carry on with the further discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels in blunt defiance of the warnings of science, than I read Fred Pearce’s article in Yale Environment 360 detailing how the world is in fact burning more and more coal. He pointed to the irony of the forthcoming UN negotiations in Durban, South Africa, where the talk of how to kick the coal habit will take place in a country with high CO2 emissions and a thriving export industry in power-station coal. Not that he was singling out South Africa — the trend is shared over many countries. As if in confirmation our Prime Minister on the same day, during the leaders’ debate, affirmed yet again his government’s commitment to expand mining and drilling operations — in an environmentally responsible way, of course. He offered Australia as an example of the prosperity to be obtained thereby.

Feeling depressed, I noticed an item in my inbox which I had neglected for a couple of days. It was an article by Earth Policy Institute research associate Matthew Roney reporting a record production of photovoltaic cells in 2010. I know Lester Brown’s Earth Policy Institute can seemingly conjure optimism out of thin air, but its reports are brutal in the delineation of the environmental threats we face and its optimism hardly comes cheap. So I read on. The production total for 2010 was 24,000 megawatts, double that of 2009 and a nearly hundred-fold increase since the 277 megawatts of 2000. Newly installed PV also set a record in 2010, as 16,600 megawatts were installed in more than 100 countries.  This brought the total worldwide capacity of solar PV to nearly 40,000 megawatts–enough to power 14 million European homes.

That’s obviously still tiny by comparison with fossil fuel powered electricity which supplies over 40 percent of the world’s energy. But PV is growing rapidly. The article carries interesting figures for a number of countries. Germany, hardly a likely candidate for extensive photovoltaic generation, leads the world with 17,200 megawatts of installed PV, generating enough electricity to power some 3.4 million German homes. Italy is on the move and now ranks fourth in the world with 3,500 megawatts PV power capacity. Its official 2020 goal was 8000 megawatts, but it is likely to meet that target this year, and Enel, Italy’s leading utility, sees the country reaching 30,000 megawatts by 2020–enough to satisfy half of its current residential electricity needs.

Roney acknowledges that although the cost of solar has fallen substantially it is not yet widely price-competitive with fossil fuel-sourced power. However that’s only because the latter is heavily subsidized and protected from its external costs. If that protection were removed from fossil fuels PV would quickly be revealed as one of the least expensive sources of power.

The article in conclusion emphasises that the potential for solar power is practically without a limit. It links to a 2011 article published in Energy Policy which shows that solar PV deployed in suitable locations could generate 30 times the electricity currently produced worldwide. That article itself is well worth reading as a careful estimate of the adequacy of wind, water and sunlight (WWS) as sources of all the world’s energy requirements. It suggests producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.

None of that overcomes the political barriers, but it does give confidence to those who want to keep challenging shallow politicians and their puppet masters in the fossil fuel industry.

Added to the pleasure I took from the two articles was that which came from listening to what Jigar Shah, CEO of the Carbon War Room had to say in a podcast interview on Climate Progress. (The interview starts about half way through the podcast.) The Carbon War Room, founded by Richard Branson among others, works to help capital flow to entrepreneurial solutions to climate change, focusing on solutions that make economic sense right now.  Shah makes it clear that solar, wind and electric cars, which now have a long track record, are ready for the trillion dollar investment that they need. He considers that renewables are already cheaper for new capacity than natural gas. Asked about the doubters, Shah replies that some are ignorant, but some, such as the big oil companies are better described as diabolical:

They’ll say: ’we need all of the above.’ Or they say: ’we are huge supporters of solar and wind if only their costs would come down by 20%. Then, you know, if there were big breakthroughs in the technology, we’d be huge supporters.’

No, that actually just means that they don’t love solar and wind. It actually means that they hate those technologies and that, in fact, they are trying to figure out, using white lies, how to undermine those technologies… They’re actually trying to figure out how to play a nice PR trick to marginalize you.

Stephen Lacey, the interviewer, asks him at what point we can expect to see our incremental energy come from renewables.

Within this decade. Within this decade in the western world you’ll see — in Europe any day now and in the US probably by 2015 or so — you’ll see no new natural gas…no new coal plants.

To make money on shale gas the producers need gas prices which make it more expensive in new capacity than new solar and new wind. So there’s no need for natural gas.

I’m not saying that by 2015 we’ll stop burning natural gas I’m simply saying that on an incremental basis we don’t need any more new natural gas plants.

Asked about the storage issue for renewables Shah said there are lots of easy ways to solve that problem. We don’t need baseload plants. Coal power plants are the opposite of baseload — 12 percent of unplanned outages each year just throws the entire system into a frenzy. Engineers are not too stupid to implement intermittent technologies. We know how to solve the problem, we just have a political problem with a bunch of people who haven’t figured out how to use the internet.

Is the separation between what’s happening on the ground in the business community and the perceptions in politics and the press greater than ever?

Yeah, I think that when you look at renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean cars and clean technologies, those technologies are moving forward unabated. It actually doesn’t matter what [anyone] says – doesn’t matter because those entrepreneurs, the thousands of them that are in every single city in every single country are moving forward as though they’ve never heard you and I speak. So they don’t actually care what you and I have to say. They’re moving forward.

Dare we hope that political denial and delay will be outflanked by entrepreneurial innovation and deployment of technologies? Might this mean that fossil fuels are made redundant even while we’re going to extraordinary lengths to locate and exploit them?  It’s a happy thought to entertain.