It is manifest from the book we are examining (Our Renewable Future by Heinberg and Fridley of the Carbon Institute) that we have to rely on sun and wind as main sources for future energy.Reasons are evident – we have urgently to stop further pollution of our atmosphere with temperature rising carbon emissions and the fossil based energy is finite and we have already burnt most of it (resulting in severe climate change). Time is up, we have missed earlier chances and are facing a last chance, obviously. The book is scrutinizing this last chance in an analytical way and we have to be serious despite the many economical, industrial and commercial high levels of wishful thinking based on a continued 6-8% GDP growth level forever into the future.
But this wont be easy – that’s mainly the message of the book and we are going on with some major findings, or rather major conclusions by a great number of scientists and researchers that is the basis for the authors message. In our opinion, it is highly interesting and important to the development professionals, architects, planners, engineers and the like, interested in a changing future, and we will now continue the presentation:
An illustration (and some text) from the book is clearly indicating the change from fossil to renewable energy and it follows here (it is based on the US situation in 2012) – and we here are trying following the same development concept:
Electricity constitutes only a portion of the energy the world uses daily. In the United States, 21 percent of final energy is used as electricity (for the world, the figure is 18 percent); of the U.S. electricity supply, 38 percent is generated from coal, 31 percent from natural gas, 19 percent from nuclear power, 7 percent from hydro, and 5 percent from other renewables.
Figure 3.1. US final energy consumption by fuel type, 2012. NGL = natural gas liquids. LPG = liquefied petroleum gas. Source: International Energy Agency and U.S. Energy Information Administration. Obs - blue is Natural Gas & NGL
Since most solar and wind energy technologies produce electricity (as do hydro, geothermal, and some biomass generators), replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources is happening fastest in the electricity sector. Further, this means that hopes for accelerating the energy transition hinge on the electrification of a greater proportion of our total energyAs you realize, a large section (3/4) of the energy consumption illustrated in the diagram will and must be changed to renewable energy in the form of electricity. And this is the bolts and nuts of the interesting chapter 3 of the book – the headings are: Renewable Electricity, Falling Costs, Variability/Intermittency and Scaling Challenges. The problems are not avoided and we will highlight a few of them:
Regarding the intermittency character (due to the sun and wind variability) regarding the production of solar and wind power, there will be a problem during an establishing period. When the renewable power is available, the existing grid cannot without severe problems take on an input of more than 20%. Then the existing grid and production cannot deliver as per contract. This means that the storage issue will come very early in the transitional process. Consequently, the redesign of the grid is an imminent problem and an expensive one. But never the less important – we might say that it is a timing/planning problem. Note – when we hear that Portugal just had four consecutive days on renewable electricity and Germany from May 2015 filled almost all its electricity needs on renewables for a month, it means that they at least have overcome the mentioned problem but also we must keep in mind that electricity currently represents only 20% of final energy use.On the storage of electrical energy, the authors are very alert. It is a huge problem that varies a lot with the geography of the plants for renewable sun and wind electricity. The cheapest way of storing energy we find in mountainous regions with good sites for dams – we here can forget this but it is mindboggling.
It is about pumping water from a low lying dam to a higher lying dam and use the hydropower concept with water powered turbines to mitigate the intermittence problem – it is the most efficient storage of power we know so far! What about a country like ours, then, to get a more permanent input to the grid?
For us on the flats, the most feasible storage concept might be to store compressed air in underground caverns. A rarely used concept so far but vividly researched as it is theoretically effective for storage of intermittence energy as above mentioned hydropower. Energy can also be stored underground as hydrogen but losses are large, unfortunately. Hydrogen stored in tanks has a very short “best before” as the small atoms will seep through most tank materials. However, hydrogen can be very economic for immediate use in industries, manufacturing and even domestically as well as fuel for light vehicles.
Now to the storage of energy we are very well used to and used very often by the previous generation here (and we are returning to more and more often, actually – and you know why). That’s batteries and a perfect storage for energy that we all know about – and they are getting better day by day! Our grandparents used very primitive ones to store energy from wind pumps with small generators to have a few 12 volt lamps for a short evening plus listen to “the wireless”. Had the wind/ water/ generator pump been a bit more effective then, we are sure that the low volt system had still been around and with individual solar panels on the roofs, the 12 volt system might very well have a renaissance in the future.Modern batteries have a theoretical upper energy density of around 5 megajoules (MJ) per kilogram but the best batteries of the day are only around 0.5 MJ – but Tesla is working hard on that. Unfortunately, battery materials are scarce, already, as well as many materials for cell phones, pads and the like (including solar panels). Maybe gold is a fine surrogate!
Joking apart, recycling of what we have might be a right step – it is often totally out here in Africa and a kind of sustainable business in the old industrial countries. And by the way, the authors are putting our attention to waste as a “renewable energy” source. Mostly for making heat and we have already that in amounts but hot water can even propel generators via steam, our grandfathers say.
A re-design of our conventional power grid will step by step be most essential for the future. The first priority is to make less energy losses - about 1/3 of energy is today lost in the grid supplying power and, then another 1/3 is lost on the user side. And we still have to live with this antique delivery system during some decades when saving is the major thing. In fact, half of the energy we produce and use today is essentially “waste”.
The electricity grid is often described as the largest machine ever created by human beings – unfortunately invented at times of abundant cheap fossil fuel and little concern of feasibility and losses as well as impact o the environment. It is most often centralized and here comes an interesting note from the authors.
In the long run (with possibilities for 100% renewal energy) the energy will most probably be located in a dispersed pattern and thus, decentralized. That doesn’t mean that the “large machine” isn’t needed – on the contrary, much needed to connect all decentralized power farms and in that way becoming more resilient for unsuitable sun and winds and interchangeable. In fact, we are then storing sun and wind with…sun and wind! Here we have the question of demand management, and this involves changes in the current way of life, communication, living, culture and more – lifestyles in another word. Not to mention the trend towards self reliance regarding domestic power via individual solar panels and batteries in private housing. It’s already clear that most one family homes are possible to be self sufficient on power and most large energy farms will be needed for industrial production and heavy delivering trucks (maybe by hydrogen). Air traffic will contract to a level that can be based on bio-fuel and some sea transporters are already taking down speed (from 32 to 24 knots saving 1/3 of fuel) and, believe it or not, contemplating the help of sails! There will be changes indeed by time.Some countries are lucky to experience the possibility of tidal and wave generators although the cost equation and EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) is not very positive. Not very interesting to a landlocked country but mentioned here that local/regional solutions are highly important for the future. On this issue, I remember that in the 80-ies a local architect (Ian Harley Marshall) designed a few public buildings here that were very energy friendly, unfortunately not appreciated but the ignorant users – too early, perhaps, but more of this local design is needed!
As the authors are stating that it is sun and wind that are the feasible energy sources for the future, we seemingly are a bit short of wind if I remember the planning answer book right. For instance, a colleague that wrote the climate chapter for a 1981 Development Plan stated: “The prevailing wind is northeast to southwest – but most days there is no wind at all”.
That was long ago and maybe modern wind turbines are more sensible to low and medium winds and we have that card to use, too. But I’m in the blue about feasible wind conditions here – maybe we have to concentrate on solar panels. Seemingly wind turbines are terrible expensive, about US$16 million each (of which Germany has about 28,000 in use since many years and now replacing about 1000 a year as the lifespan for such a one is only 20 years). Renewable energy doesn’t come cheap, that’s for sure but it is still regarded a better investment over time than conventional energy plants (that also have an enormous external costs environmentally).
“Our Renewable Future” is in our opinion very US/EC ethnocentric. Cost is discussed but not as seriously as we in the developing countries must do, often being forced to take substantial loans from Bretton Woods institutions with governments as guarantors. And when we look into the financial facts in today debt market, it’s frightening. This is the state of it in 2013:
As can be seen, world GPD in 2013 was c.60 trill or 1/3 of total debts 180 trill. Today ab 50 and 200 trill respectively. Debts are mostly oil exploration and countries with Britton Woods loans (UK is great here). 1/3 of the debts is finance based (overvalued bonds, hedge funds, derivatives and other artificial wealth related factors and thus, a bubble about to get bust (again). This time it is not possible that finance institutions can be bailed out, as we understand. It is a very dangerous situation for needed renewable energy projects and it is not a trouble free future for a renewable future when we are in a financial dive and debt burden globally.
We must ask ourselves if the needed very expensive and probably upfront financed projects will be implemented in a global financial crash? Fortunately Botswana has a fat reserve of about P85 billion and not much of loans but the private markets are more or less counted out due to their heavy loans. It’s an understatement to say that the thing is volatile.
How it goes with the finances, one thing is evident – the development professions (architects, planners, engineers, surveyors and realtors) will be the ones shaping the renewable world and the lifespan of what is created is 50-100 years. Mistakes can easily become serious hurdles for a renewable future which must be considered and starting now!
This “negativism” as the ignorant (even “green” people) will say is not any criticism of the book – it clearly indicates a way to our renewable future! The authors will have the last words:
“Cities and suburbs will need to be redesigned so that all people have good alternatives to private car ownership, with a focus on mixed use and clustered development. Transportation priorities will need to shift profoundly, with new road building coming to a halt and investment shifting to infrastructure for public transit, bicycling and walking…. and… electrified public transit between and within communities.” And further on:
“…the renewable energy transition will not consist of a simple process of unplugging coal plants and plugging in solar panels and wind turbines, it will imply changes in how we live, how much energy we use, and how we use it. Historic energy transitions (the harnessing of fire, the advent of agriculture, the fossil fuel revolution) changed societies from the bottom up and from the inside out. There’s no reason to assume the renewable energy revolution will be any less transformative.”
Jan Wareus 28/06/2016