Last week I attended an energy conference in Aberdeen. Getting away from my desk, and the virtual world I live in, it allowed me to mix with real energy professionals and I got to wondering why it was that I disagreed with so much that was said. University professors got up and read from the renewable energy or global warming scripts and seemed to believe this was leading edge energy research.
[Image: WSW facing solar panels in the shade of a tree, University of Aberdeen. It is unlikely that badly mounted panels at this latitude will ever produce enough electricity to recoup the energy used in their manufacture.]
New energy research is being directed by policy and diktat that has been decided in advance of the research being conducted. In Europe, this has origins in the 20 20 20 policy that was decided in 2007 that itself has roots in the Kyoto Protocol and the desire to reduce global CO2 emissions. The 20 20 20 policy has the following aims to be met by the year 2020:
- A 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels;
- Raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20%;
- A 20% improvement in the EU’s energy efficiency.
These binding targets, created by unelected technocrats (who may not even know what the SI unit of energy is) have a profound effect on all of our lives. One of the more insidious effects is to direct university and government based research. If you happen to be a renewables enthusiast then it is easy to get a job and funding for research into the delivery of the policy. If you happen to have a mind that questions everything, and in particular the wisdom of government on such a vital issue, you may become marginalised from the process. A selection process then occurs where universities recruit like minded individuals and before you know it 97% of all energy researchers will agree that a dramatic growth in renewable energy is of benefit to the population and to the planet.
Setting targets for renewable energy has become an international sport where one government tries to outdo the other. Thermodynamics, engineering and economics are thrown to the wind in this pursuit of government popularity. Scotland, no longer able to compete on the global soccer stage, is vying for pole position in this renewables bidding war with a target to produce 100% of electricity equivalent from renewable sources by 2020. Where is the research that shows this will benefit the Scottish people and the environment? I will return to have a closer look at the Scottish Government energy policy shortly.
Last week I learned that Ban Ki-moon the Secretary General of the United Nations has now led the world into the renewables bidding war with a new initiative called Sustainable Energy For All that has three pillars to be achieved by the year 2030:
Ensure universal access to modern energy services.
Double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency.
Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
I will not take issue with the aspirations to bring “modern energy services” (electricity?) to all of the people of the world nor to improve energy efficiency. But I do suspect that the outcomes of these two pillars may not be what is currently anticipated by the UN. But as with the EU and Scottish government targets I wish to take serious issue with the renewable energy target. Where is the evidence that this will be beneficial to Mankind and Planet Earth?
I wish to make clear at the outset that I am not against renewable energy per se but wish to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch in the energy world. Renewables are all too often and naively presented as clean, green, free energy. In many cases the exact opposite is true. Ban Ki-moon needs to understand that with energy, he is interfering with the lifeblood of the global economy and the welfare of the global population. Where is his mandate to do this and what is the source of his knowledge that leads him to believe his policy is right? I am sure his intentions are good ones but this could end in tears.
The first thing we need to know is what is the current share of renewable energy in the global energy mix that is to be doubled by the year 2030? On the assumption that global energy production will continue to rise in lock step with population then renewables production will have to more than double from current levels in the next 16 years. My recent look at Global Energy Trends based on BP 2014 suggests that hydro currently accounts for 7% of global energy and new renewables (wind, solar, biofuels etc) a little over 2%. Note that BP gross up renewable electricity production by a factor of roughly 3 to take into account the thermal losses from power stations. But BP data does not take into account biomass that is an important source of fuel throughout the undeveloped world. Data I received from Rembrandt Koppelaar many years ago, based on the work of Vaclav Smil, suggests that biomass may run at around 6% of the total suggesting that around 15% of global primary energy currently comes from renewable sources. Ban Ki-Moon’s ambition, therefore, is that this should rise to 30% in 16 year’s time. I already sense a catastrophe in the making.
According to BP 2014, 7% of global energy came from hydro and a little over 2% from new renewables in 2013. Adding an estimate of 6% for biomass (wood) suggests a global renewables total of 15%.
Current levels of biomass use are leading to slow deforestation. Forests play a vital role in stabilising Earth’s climate and ecosystems and if anything the use of biomass should be reduced and not increased. Most, if not all of the expansion of renewables must therefore fall to hydro and the suite of new renewable technologies.
[Image: the ugly face of deforestation in Indonesia. Setting global renewables targets may unwittingly lead to more habitat destruction.]
Let me begin by considering hydro electric power my and most other peoples favourite renewable energy source. Hydro electric power provides a renewable energy store, that like fossil fuel and nuclear energy stores, can be used when we need it. Hydro can be switched on at 17:00 hours every day to meet peak electricity demand and to be sold at top prices. It is the Rolls Royce of renewable energy. But there are costs, it is not a free lunch. Building dams and creating large lakes can have a profound impact on people and the environment. It is estimated that 1.5 million people were displaced by the recently built 3 gorges dam in China. In Scotland, migratory salmon and sea trout are becoming extinct in hydro river systems. Adult fish may use a fish ladder when ascending the river but many young fish may be mashed by turbines on their return journey to the sea. But this is as good as it gets in the renewable world. It is a delicate trade off between the cost of certain environmental destruction and human suffering and the benefits of having a sustainable energy resource.
After hydro and biomass, wind power is the next largest source of renewable energy today. Used mainly by city dwellers, onshore wind has blighted the lives of thousands of country dwellers who are consulted and then ignored by wind power developers. The landscape impact of onshore wind is being increasingly acknowledged resulting in an accelerating move off shore where costs escalate. Offshore wind is among the most expensive forms of electricity generation yet deployed. And the high cost of construction does not begin to take into account the cost of load balancing the grid that is currently borne by fossil fuel (FF) generators. Until grid-scale, cheap, energy efficient electricity storage is invented, and I doubt it ever will be, then wind power is locking the world into a future that MUST continue to burn FF.
Another negative aspect of wind power is the use of the rare earth element neodymium in the manufacture of turbine magnets. This greatly improves the performance of the turbine enabling the development of the 2 to 6 GW monsters that are now being deployed. Rare Earth mining and processing is particularly nasty, so much so that China is one of the few countries to permit the activity at scale with a high environmental and human cost. Wind enthusiasts seem able to simply wave this harm away, since it takes place in someone else’s back yard.
[Image: rare earth element mining in China is required to build wind turbines in Germany and the USA.]
The talk of smart grids, interconnections, energy markets and load shifting incrementally adds costs while collectively failing to provide a workable solution. The way things stand, wind fans are locking the world into a FF future, the exact opposite of policy goals. The impact on populations are higher electricity bills (the result of consumer paid subsidies), infrastructure everywhere, landscape and environmental degradation and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. Is Ban Ki-moon absolutely certain this is the future he wants for our world?
Moving on to solar photovoltaics we have a renewable technology that may have potential to sensibly contribute to the global energy mix in certain very specific niche circumstances. Correctly deployed solar panels in sunny climates may, for example, be used to power air conditioning units in advanced economies, where demand and supply are well-correlated on diurnal and annual demand cycles. In Africa solar cells have been used to power cell phone networks that have a liberating impact on undeveloped communities. It seems possible that solar photovoltaics may liberate off grid communities that are not already tied into a very specific demand pattern and for so long as maintenance services can be provided and roaming militias do not vandalise the investments.
But none of this begins to make a dent in achieving a doubling of renewables in 16 years time. And it is at this point that mindless mass deployment takes hold, subsidised by consumers, regardless of benefits. Solar, like wind, can create large swings in diurnal power that needs to be balanced by FF, once again locking the world into a FF future. And at high latitudes, where annualised loads are <10%, it seems unlikely that solar photovoltaics will ever recover the energy costs of manufacturing, deploying and maintaining these complex devices. The Co2 associated with these schemes is emitted before any energy is produced. This is fast tracking emissions production, again, the exact opposite of the policy goal.
Finally, biofuels are worthy of brief consideration. Sugar cane ethanol, produced in the tropics where there is a large amount of solar energy to capture, does indeed provide a means of creating a liquid fuel with significant positive energy return. In other words significantly less energy is used in the production process compared with the final energy produced. But moving to temperate regions plants are much less efficient at producing starch and sugars. This is in part due to lower levels of insolation and in part due to a different photosynthetic pathway. Multiple studies have shown that temperate latitude bio fuel production – corn ethanol and bio-diesel, barely achieve energy break even. The energy inputs by way of methane gas used in the manufacture of ammonium sulphate based fertilizers, diesel used in planting harvesting and transporting the crops and electricity in refineries all add up to a similar amount of energy contained in the bio-fuel produced. Nothing is gained. Crop land and water once used for growing food is now used for fuelling traffic jams. This process is enabled by badly informed government policies and by the transferal of money from poor to rich.
Providing all of the world’s people with electricity services and improving energy efficiency will have two certain outcomes. More people and more energy consumption. It will result in greater prosperity and more comfort. Where the increased amounts of energy will come from should be left open to debate. Placing this in a straight jacket of inefficient renewable energy at the outset may guarantee the failure of the whole Sustainable Energy For All Initiative. Replacing the renewable energy aspiration with a non-FF aspiration may be a wise move at this juncture. There are a very large number of engineers and scientists who envisage nuclear fission as the near term bridge to a nuclear fusion future. The United Nations should take care not to prejudice this possible outcome that may turn out to be the better course for humanity.