A Pathway to Sustainable Energy

By Bryan Walker 11/06/2012


“Will we look into the eyes of our children and confess that we had the opportunity, but lacked the courage? That we had the technology, but lacked the vision?” These words preface the report Energy [R]evolution 2012: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook published this month by Greenpeace, the European Renewable Energy Council and the Global Wind Energy Council.  It’s the fourth edition in a series which began in 2007. The publication is book length and over its pages describes a renewable energy scenario which sees CO2 emissions fall 85% from 1990 levels by 2050. I thought it well worth drawing attention to.

The authors can hardly be accused of utopian dreams. The technology exists to access stores of renewable energy far larger than the world’s energy requirements. The publication describes in careful and comprehensive detail an achievable programme of transition which would leave no need for the world’s fossil fuel resources to be pursued to the point of exhaustion or anywhere near it.  Carbon capture and storage is not part of the scenario, for reasons of cost and uncertainty; nor is nuclear energy, which, for reasons of cost, safety and inability to reduce emissions by a large enough amount, is marked for phase-out.

The reduction of demand through energy efficiency, the “sleeping giant” which offers the most cost-effective way to reform the energy sector, is a vital element in the transition. Over and over again surveys and analyses are making this clear, and the report is very much in line with an increasingly common theme in the literature.  High levels of projected energy demand diminish dramatically when energy efficiency is given high priority. The document shows the effect of best practice in various sectors of the economy.

The kind of material this and similar publications provide ought to be what government departments concerned with energy and economic development are constantly poring over as they seek sustainable growth.  In fact many of them seem more likely to be trapped in the fossil fuel mode, welcoming renewable energy only when it proves economically competitive with that provided by fossil fuels, pursuing efficiency only when the cries of protest are not loud. Sustainable energy remains only a tantalising prospect under such circumstances, no matter how feasible it is. It’s therefore no surprise that the report includes a demand (their word) for policy changes and decisive action from governments to make the energy revolution real and to avoid dangerous climate change. They list eight demands in all:

1. Phase out all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

The report says US$600 billion per annum is spent in subsidies to fossil fuels.  Even so, it points out, renewables manage to be directly competitive with such heavily subsidized conventional generation in an increasing number of markets.

2. Internalise the external (social and environmental) costs of energy production through ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading.

Not only withdrawing subsidies but also factoring in the cost of climate change from greenhouse gas pollution would, the report goes so far as to maintain, remove the need for special provisions for renewable energy. In market terms it would level the playing field across the energy sector.

3. Mandate strict efficiency standards for all energy consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles.

4. Establish legally binding targets for renewable energy and combined heat and power generation.

5. Reform the electricity markets by guaranteeing priority access to the grid for renewable power generators.

6. Provide defined and stable returns for investors, for example by feed-in tariff programmes.

7. Implement better labelling and disclosure mechanisms to provide more environmental product information.

8. Increase research and development budgets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

It will no doubt be argued that some of the later demands in this list offer special protection to renewable energy. But if they do it is only because the threat of climate change is so dire as to justify the small interference in market operation that they represent. The push for renewable energy isn’t some kind of market manoeuvre. It’s a necessity for a liveable climate. Nevertheless a remarkable feature of the kind of scenario that the report produces is that its future costs are favourable by comparison with a fossil fuel based economy. The level of government support for renewable energy does not result in much more expensive electricity, for example. Here’s what the report has to say:

Under the Energy [R]evolution scenario the costs of electricity generation increase slightly compared to the Reference scenario (a scenario reflecting a continuation of current trends). This difference will be on average less than 0.6 $cent/kWh up to 2020. However, if fossil fuel prices go any higher than the model assumes, this gap will decrease. Electricity generation costs will become economically favourable under the Energy [R]evolution scenario by 2025 and by 2050, costs will be significantly lower: about 8 $cents/kWh – or 45% below those in the Reference version.

Employment prospects are also much improved by comparison with the Reference scenario.

There are 23.3 million energy sector jobs in the Energy [R]evolution in 2015, and 18.7 million in the Reference scenario. In 2020, there are 22.6 million jobs in the Energy [R]evolution scenario, and 17.8 million in the Reference scenario. In 2030, there are 18.3 million jobs in the Energy [R]evolution scenario and 15.7 million in the Reference scenario.

Even private car transport is treated gently under the Energy [R[evolution scenario:

Significant savings are made from a shift towards smaller cars triggered by economic incentives together with a significant shift in propulsion technology towards electrified power trains – together with reducing vehicle kilometres travelled per year.

The preface to the report speaks of courage and vision. Perhaps that is what the requirements look like to nervous politicians. But good sense would do equally well.