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WREC in London

By Dave Elliott

Some continue to portray renewables as marginal, with for example, ExxonMobil claiming that their potential is limited by ‘scalability, geographic dispersion,intermittency (in the case of solar and wind), and cost relative to other sources’, and renewables are only likely to make up about 5% of the global energy mix by 2040: www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5a2356a4-f58e-11e3-afd3-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk#axzz33albsQ2B

Most however see renewables as booming, with IRENA looking to 30% or more of primary energy coming from renewables globally by 2030 (www.irena.org/remap). That is the sort of future envisaged, on the way to maybe near 100% of power by 2050, by most who attended the 13th biannual World Renewable Energy Congress, this one at Kingston University, London, in August.

As usual, WREC kicked off with the big hitters laying out overviews, in the plenary sessions, with the ‘100% renewables’ theme being to the fore. For example Stefan Schurig, from the World Future Council Foundation, described their 100% renewables campaign (www.go100re.net) and David Renné, President of the International Solar Energy Society looked at ‘A 100% Renewable Energy Future’, which he saw as ‘a solution to climate change’. He stressed the need for grid balancing. More generally Hans-Josef Fell, President of the German Energy Watch Group, looked at the role of renewables in ‘global cooling’, and Mohamed El-Ashry from the United Nations Foundation, also spoke very positively on the future of renewables- and REN21’s work: http://www.ren21.net/REN21Activities/GlobalStatusReport.aspx

Key regional and national prospects were also covered. Rainer Hinrichs-Rahlwes, Vice-President of the European Renewable Energies Federation looked at ‘Perspectives for Renewable Energy in Europe’, and then, in his German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) role, at ‘Perspectives of Renewables in Germany’. He was critical of the German governments recent plans to dump the Feed In Tariffs and cut support levels and targets, asking whether the new programme was ‘reform or deform’. Prof Abubakar Sambo looked at developments in Africa:he talked of getting to 50% renewable energy after 2040. Prof. Yogender Kumar Yadav looked at options in India, including 100GW each of wind and PV, plus a lot of bioenergy: he looked to bio-refineries becoming a major industrial focus.

It was an impressive set of overviews, reflecting the ability of WREC, and its WREN network, to bring together people from across the world, a strength celebrated in the introductory talk by long time WREN member, Prof. Brian Norton, President, Dublin Institute of Technology, who reflected on its first 25 years. But its strength is not just in big names and high policy. In parallel WREC had a vast number of technical papers and regional reports covering just about all aspects of renewables across the world, with many strong presentations on North Africa (a new growth area), the Middle East, and Asia – China, India and Indonesia especially. So it’s timely that the next WREC (No 14) will be in Indonesia in 2016.

The coverage was certainly very international, with for example 20 papers from Algeria, 10 from Egypt, 6 each from China, India and Indonesia, 16 from Japan, 17 from S Korea, 10 each from the USA, Canada and Australia, plus 10 from Africa and 20 from South America. However, as the host country, there were inevitably many UK papers, 74 out of the near 500 total. There certainly is a lot going on here and in his introductory remarks, Energy Secretary (and local MP) Ed Davey naturally talked the UK efforts up and launched Kingston Energy, a new initiative by Kingston University: http://sec.kingston.ac.uk/energy/.

My own contribution was more critical, contrasting the relatively slow growth and policy constrained future with the possibilities that I and David Finney had identified in the Pugwash 80% Renewables UK 2050 Pathway. A similarly critical view was put forward by Martin Alder, Managing Director of renewable developer Optimum Energy, in a overview of ‘UK Government Support for Renewables 2010 to the Present’. He concluded that the UK renewables programme has become politicised, with ‘the previous consensus evaporating’ and the continued expansion of renewables being under threat. At the very least he predicted a ‘hiatus’ while the new CfD process, and the new funding cap on it, was digested- most developers would wait to see how that went and stick to the Renewables Obligation for now.

There was a large non-UK European contingent, with 23 papers from Italy, 18 from Germany, while Spain had 17, Greece 16, France 11, and Denmark 9. Amongst the most intriguing of these was one by Avril et al, from CEA Saclay, France: ‘Nuclear Power: a promising back-up option to promote renewable penetration in the French power system?’ It argued that since France had such a large nuclear capacity (63GW, likely to fall to maybe 50GW soon given the new partial phase out policy), even if only a small percentage change in output could be made regularly and fast, that would be enough (maybe 5GW) to balance a large renewable component. The implication was that since the capacity existed it might as well be used, and the old, fully paid for, nuclear plants could act as grid balancing units at less cost than new gas fired turbines, depending on the price of carbon. Clever stuff. It is usually argued that nuclear plant can’t load follow to any great extent quickly and repeatedly, since there is a problem with radioactive Xenon poisoning (it takes time to clear). But they can make smaller adjustments. Of course no one would suggests building new nuclear plants to balance renewables- you would have to have a lot to be able to do that. And at present it is not planned that any of the new plants proposed for the UK will load follow. But France is unique in that it has a lot, some of which can and do load follow. The plants are still be basically inflexible, but they could help a bit with some real time balancing, and, in addition, the paper argued, some of their excess output (e.g. at night) could be converted to hydrogen to use more flexibly to balance renewable short falls at other times. That idea has of course already been taken up for wind surpluses (i.e. wind-to-gas conversion). Could it be that, where they still exist in significant numbers, nuclear plants will muscle in to the balancing market as well?

For most of those attending WREC, this sort of issue would no doubt be irrelevant; their focus is on getting renewables established rapidly, whether in Europe, led by Denmark, where it was reported that wind was now supplying 33.2% of electricity and was expected to reach 50% by 2020 and 70% by 2050, or (increasingly) in the developing world. As usual, WREN produced a Renewable Energy review report for the conference. It included a global overview, claiming that it was possible to get at least 50% of global electricity from renewables by 2030, produced by Prof. Ali Sayigh, WREC and WREN’s ever energetic chair. Gatherings like this may help to make that, and maybe more, a reality. www.wrenuk.co.uk

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