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European fudges and global options

By Dave Elliott

Renewables are doing well around the world including in the EU, which now has over 100GW of PV solar in place and around 150GW of wind generation capacity. However, there are some problems and issues as the economic and political climate changes, leading to a range of new policies, for example in Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark and the UK.

Sweden, which now gets over 50% of its energy from renewables, has decided to close but replace its old nuclear plants with up to 10 new ones, while still keeping to its aim of moving to 100% renewable energy by 2040. Oddly that evidently doesn’t mean that all the nuclear plants would then be closed. The new policy says the 100% by 2040 target ‘is a goal, not a cut-off date that would prohibit nuclear power, and it does not mean either the end a closure of nuclear power’: http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NP-Sweden-abolishes-nuclear-tax-1006169.html This seems a strange compromise, and the ‘10 new plants’ is just speculation – they would presumably have to be privately financed, which could be hard unless costs fall: http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=2054&artikel=6451006

Germany, which now gets over 32% of its electricity from renewables, is still committed to phasing out the rest of its nuclear plants by 2022, but is cutting back on the rate of expansion of renewables to reduce cost pass-through to consumers and allow grid upgrades to catch up, while limiting problems with some of them – there has been local opposition to new grids. New restrictions will cap onshore wind expansion at 2.8GW per year. Solar PV will also have a limit of 600MW p.a.: www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/01/angela-merkel-signs-deal-with-german-states-to-regulate-green-energy-rollout

Although the government is evidently still sticking to its target of an increase in the share of renewable sources to 40-45% of total electricity production by 2025 on the way to 80% by 2050, many see the slow down as a worrying step backwards:  www.windpoweroffshore.com/article/1393115/analysis-industry-questions-german-sustainability

These fudges and cuts are unwelcome, but not unexpected given the political and economic climate, perhaps the worst news being that Germany is also dragging its feet on phasing out coal: http://www.reuters.com/article/germany-coal-idUSL8N18Z27Y?rpc=401

Though equally worrying is the backlash from Denmark’s centre-right government, which wants to cut support for renewables – onshore wind especially: www.thegwpf.com/denmark-cancels-all-coastal-wind-farms-delays-new-built-until-2025/ and  www.thegwpf.com/denmarks-liberal-government-to-roll-back-renewable-energy-policy/  Much as with the Conservatives in the UK – where nuclear is still backed strongly and renewables face yet more cuts: www.r-e-a.net/news/strong-renewable-energy-growth-threatened-by-recent-policy-changes That seems likely to get worse after Brexit – the UK will no longer be subject to the mandatory 15% by 2020 UK renewable energy target agreed with the EU.

It’s the same old battle almost everywhere. Temporarily lost in Spain, with most renewable support cut back and nuclear retained, but lively still in France, where a recent study by the state energy agency ADEME claimed France could switch to 100% renewables by 2050: http://mixenr.ademe.fr/en. However, although some old nuclear plants may close under the new policy, one of EDF’s top nuclear executives, Dominique Miniere, told reporters in Paris, ‘A certain number of points in that study are not based on technological realities. We do not believe in a 100% renewables mix by the (time) horizon (ADEME) indicates. However, we want to extend the lifespan of our reactors in order to allow a gradual increase of renewables in the mix.’ www.powerengineeringint.com/articles/2016/05/edf-nuclear-chief-says-100-per-cent-renewables-by-2050-unrealistic.html

The new renewable energy technologies are still progressing, now supplying around 24% of global electricity but, as can be seen, progress in the EU is being opposed at every step, with support for, or retention of, nuclear often being the default position adopted by the old guard. Plus shale gas in some, but coal in Germany.

While Europe struggles with it politics and economics, and now Brexit, the situation elsewhere is somewhat different – China, still booming economically although now a bit less, is leading the pack with wind heading for 250GW and PV solar already at 60GW:  www.e3g.org/library/china-accelerates-while-europe-deliberates-on-the-clean-energy-transition India also has ambitious targets including 100GW of PV by 2022. Expansion is underway in many other parts of Asia, as well as in South America and Africa: http://www.ren21.net/status-of-renewables/global-status-report/ So the prospects for a global energy transition still look quite good, with, according to Energydata, global energy intensity, the average amount of energy needed to produce a unit of GDP, declining by 3% last year.

However, the use of coal remains a problem and grid integration and balancing issues have to be faced as renewables expand. So too does energy saving. It’s wise therefore not to be too optimistic. While some progress has certainly been made, there is still a long way to go. In its latest analysis of trends in world energy Enerdata saysachieving the goals discussed at the COP21 (1.5 to 2° temperature increase by the end of the century), in fact requires a lasting stagnation of global energy consumption and a strong reduction of emissions. Thus, with a global GDP growth assumption of 3% per year, this would imply an average carbon intensity reduction target of 5 to 6% per year.’ www.enerdata.net/enerdatauk/press-and-publication/publications/peak-energy-demand-co2-emissions-2016-world-energy.php

However, even if the political will may not be so apparent in some countries, the potential for more rapid expansion is there, with many scenarios outlining how 80% or more of global electricity can be supplied by renewables by around 2050: see my last post for an example. Moving beyond the immediate problems and issues, and adopting  a forceful progressive but also critical global approach, as I mentioned in my last post, the US Post Carbon Institute’s magnum opus  Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy,  by Fellows Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, looks at ‘the inevitable transition to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources’. Nevertheless, as I indicated, it doesn’t see this as a simple technical fix, with new energy sources just replacing old dirty ones – it says the way in which energy is used will have to change. That’s partly since renewables have technical and operational limitations, which it explores carefully. As mainly low energy density intermittent sources, they cannot sustain the sort of wasteful economic growth we have seen in the past, but should be able to sustain a more balanced future. Some good thoughtful stuff, covering key issues like the limits of fuel and material substitution and the energy/carbon debts associated with making the transition to 100% renewables. Though generally positive about the future it seeks to counter excessive technical optimism: we have to learn to live within limits. Free at: http://ourrenewablefuture.org

So, what’s the bottom line? There is a need for radical change in energy technology and in our way of using energy. Although in its latest Energy Technology Perspectives, the International Energy Agency says that ‘progress deploying clean energy technologies worldwide is still falling worryingly short of what is needed’, the technology is available or can be made so soon, with costs falling.  A tipping point may have been reached in the process of change, although it may take time to develop fully: http://moneyweek.com/coal-and-renewable-energy-tipping-point/ While cautious optimism, coupled with careful assessment of the limits, seems reasonable, that assumes that the political and social will can be mustered to make the changes and meet the challenges. And that is less clear. But we must try, and this analysis of what social change issues need to be considered seems sensible: http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/6/064014.

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