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Renewables power ahead

By Dave Elliott

Renewable energy is being taken increasingly seriously as a major energy option, if not the major energy option. ‘The share of renewable energy in global primary energy could increase from the current 17% to between 30% to 75%, and in some regions exceed 90%, by 2050.’ So said the Global Energy Assessment (GEA) produced by an international team led by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. See www.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/INF/PR/2012/2012-06-19.html.

The GEA develops a series of possible low-carbon pathways, including one with maximum demand saving achieved through a focus on energy efficiency. In that, residual nuclear power is phased out in most of the world and totally by 2050. The GEA sees ‘nuclear energy as a choice, not a requirement,’ adding that ‘it is possible to meet all GEA goals even in the case of a nuclear phase-out’. However it accepts that nuclear ‘can play an important role in the supply-side portfolio of some transition pathways’. But the main emphasis in all scenarios is on renewables and efficiency.

It won’t be cheap. The GEA indicates that global investments in combined energy efficiency and supply will need to increase to between US$1.7-2.2 trillion per year compared to present levels of about US$1.3 trillion per year (~2% of current world gross domestic product) including end-use components. However, longer term this could be a wise investment. For example, the International Energy Agency has put the total cost of a low carbon future at $36 trillion by 2050, but they noted that ~ $100 trillion would then be saved via reduced use of fossil fuels.

While the longer term benefits may be large, what will dive the change over in the shorter term? Given its exit from nuclear, Germany has been pursuing its renewables programme with some vigour, and Japan is now following the same route. Although, to reflect the fact that they are low carbon , most renewables still need subsidies or climate policy linked tax/support regimes, it could be that technological progress in countries like this will push renewables on to the point when some become economically attractive compared to fossil fuel around the a world, perhaps within a decade- without any need for subsidies or mandatory global climate treaties. “An alternative to a global climate deal may be unfolding before our eyes,” says an article in the journal Climate and Development, by researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. That’s pretty optimistic. But many countries in the EU are certainly trying- and reaping economic benefits, not least in terms of employment: according to a study commissioned by the German Federal Environment Ministry, the development and production of renewable energy technologies and the supply of electricity, heat and fuel from renewable sources provided around 382,000 jobs in 2011- 125,000 in solar, 124,000 in biomass and more than 100,000 in wind power.

The growth of uptake has certainly been striking. The Strategic Energy Technologies review produced by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) noted steep increases of wind and solar generation capacity in the EU and worldwide and found that in the wind sector deployment grew 65% globally (to 200 GW), largely driven by China, while solar PV had reached 70 GW globally by the end of 2011. At the beginning of 2011, CSP plants with a cumulative capacity of about 730 MW, were in commercial operation in Spain, about 58% of the worldwide capacity of 1.26 GW. Spain is also currently constructing an additional 898 MW and another 842 MW have already registered for the feed-in tariff, which would bring the total capacity to about 2.5 GW by 2013.

As renewables expand, there will be a need for grid upgrades. But 2012 has also seen a big push for green gas as opposed to (just) electricity, with several ‘wind-to-gas’ hydrogen electrolysis projects in Germany, with some of the resultant green gas being injected in to the gas main, along with biogas from Anaerobic Digestion of wastes. In parallel, three Dutch, Danish and Belgian companies issued a joint-declaration on their intention to develop carbon free gas networks by 2050, based on biogas, biomass, and conversion of excess renewables to hydrogen and synthetic gas. See www.energinet.dk/EN/GAS/Nyheder/Sider/100CO2neutral.aspx.

It’s been argued that, not only is gas much easier to store than electricity, shifting over to green gas also has attractions on the transmission side – gas pipelines are more efficient, cheaper, and, once built, less invasive, than electricity grid links.

Issues like this will be crucial as we try to link more dispersed renewables in. There certainly is no shortage of scenarios with very high renewable percentages, with wind power playing a major role. Mark Jacobson at Stanford University has even argued that there is ‘no fundamental barrier to obtaining half (5.75 TW) or many times more of world’s all-purpose 2030 power demand from wind’. See his earlier papers on wind (www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/windfarms.html) and on global renewables (www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/susenergy2030.html).

However, while wind is relatively cheap, direct solar is a much bigger resource. Although it’s harder to harvest efficiently, longer term it must be where we will go. Including presumably Concentrating Solar Power in desert areas. Then of course will do need electricity transmission via HVDC supergrids, unless you are going to use CSP to make hydrogen and export it via pipe or tanker.

There’s also the green heat issue- while some see heating being provided by spare electricity from offshore wind farms, the idea of using it in domestic scale heat pumps has taken a bit of a hit recently, while large scale community wide Combined Heat and Power /district heating has moved up the agenda. It is widely used in continental europe, but it is beginning to get established in the UK. The CHP Association has pointed out that there are already over 200 heat networks in the UK, a mixture of residential, commercial and public sites, with 70 more in development. So far, 38% use renewables.

Whether for heat or power, renewables do seem to be becoming well established. Overall, in 2011 renewable sources supplied 16.7% of global final energy consumption, with investment in renewables increasing by 17% to a record $257 billion, 94% higher than the total in 2007, the year before the world financial crisis. Globally, renewables accounted for over 71% of total new electricity capacity additions in 2011, swelling renewables total share of electricity capacity to over 31%. 2011 also saw photovoltaic module prices drop by 50% and onshore wind turbines by close to 10% bringing to price of the leading renewable power technologies closer to grid parity with fossil fuels such as coal and gas. See http://fs-unep-centre.org and www.ren21.net/gsr.

In my next few Blogs I will be looking at the state of play around the world – in China, Japan, Germany and the USA.

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