Renewable Energy Future

SUBHEAD: The mainstream vision and a dose of reality concerning what is actually achievable given our situation today.

By Nicole Foss on 28 October 2012 for the Automatic Earth-

Image above: A solar farm rolls like ribbons of glass across the countryside. From original article.

 [IB Editor's note: This is a long and thorough article on our renewable energy. It goes into depth too long for this post.  A detailed discussion of European efforts to introduce large scale renewable energy in Britain and Germany as well as the plan for a European SuperGrid has been cut out.We also has skipped the section on  the Global Clean Tech Bubble. Together this is about half the content of this article. Refer to original article in the AutomaticEarth for all of this material.]

In recent years, there has been more and more talk of a transition to renewable energy on the grounds of climate change, and an increasing range of public policies designed to move in this direction. Not only do advocates envisage, and suggest to custodians of the public purse, a future of 100% renewable energy, but they suggest that this can be achieved very rapidly, in perhaps a decade or two, if sufficient political will can be summoned. See for instance this 2009 Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables:

A year ago former vice president Al Gore threw down a gauntlet: to repower America with 100 percent carbon-free electricity within 10 years. As the two of us started to evaluate the feasibility of such a change, we took on an even larger challenge: to determine how 100 percent of the world’s energy, for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030.

See also, as an example, the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan proposed by Beyond Zero Emissions:

The world stands on the precipice of significant change. Climate scientists predict severe impacts from even the lowest estimates of global warming. Atmospheric CO2 already exceeds safe levels. A rational response to the problem demands a rapid shift to a zero-fossil-fuel, zero-emissions future. The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan (the ZCA 2020 Plan) outlines a technically feasible and economically attractive way for Australia to transition to a 100% renewable energy within ten years. Social and political leadership are now required in order for the transition to begin.

The Vision and a Dose of Reality
These plans amount to a complete fantasy. For a start, the timescale for such a monumental shift is utterly unrealistic:

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of energy transitions is their speed. Substituting one form of energy for another takes a long time….The comparison to a giant oil tanker, uncomfortable as it is, fits perfectly: Turning it around takes lots of time.

And turning around the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system is a truly gargantuan task. That system now has an annual throughput of more than 7 billion metric tons of hard coal and lignite, about 4 billion metric tons of crude oil, and more than 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. And its infrastructure—coal mines, oil and gas fields, refineries, pipelines, trains, trucks, tankers, filling stations, power plants, transformers, transmission and distribution lines, and hundreds of millions of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and fuel oil engines—constitutes the costliest and most extensive set of installations, networks, and machines that the world has ever built, one that has taken generations and tens of trillions of dollars to put in place.

It is impossible to displace this supersystem in a decade or two—or five, for that matter. Replacing it with an equally extensive and reliable alternative based on renewable energy flows is a task that will require decades of expensive commitment. It is the work of generations of engineers.

Even if we were not facing a long period of financial crisis and economic contraction, it would not be possible to engineer such a rapid change. In a contractionary context, it is simply inconceivable. The necessary funds will not be available, and in the coming period of deleveraging, deflation and economic depression, much-reduced demand will not justify investment. Demand is not what we want, but what we can pay for, and under such circumstances, that amount will be much less than we can currently afford. With very little money in circulation, it will be difficult enough for us to maintain the infrastructure we already have, and keep future supply from collapsing for lack of investment.

Timescale and lack of funds are by no means the only possible critique of current renewable energy plans, however. It is not just a matter of taking longer, or waiting for more auspicious financial circumstances. It will never be possible to deliver what we consider business as usual, or anything remotely resembling it, on renewable energy alone. We can, of course, live in a world of renewable energy only, as we have done through out most of history, but it is not going to resemble the True Believers' techno-utopia. Living on an energy income, as opposed to an energy inheritance, will mean living within our energy means, and this is something we have not done since the industrial revolution.

Technologically harnessable renewable energy is largely a myth. While the sun will continue to shine and the wind will continue to blow, the components of the infrastructure necessary for converting these forms of energy into usable electricity, and distributing that electricity to where it is needed, are not renewable. Affordable fossil fuels are required to extract the raw materials, produce the components, and to build and maintain the infrastructure. In other words, renewables do not replace fossil fuels, nor remove the need for them. They may not even reduce that need by much, and they create additional dependencies on rare materials.

Renewable energy sounds so much more natural and believable than a perpetual-motion machine, but there's one big problem: Unless you're planning to live without electricity and motorized transportation, you need more than just wind, water, sunlight, and plants for energy. You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day. You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed -- not simply harvested or farmed. You need non-renewable resources:

• Solar power. While sunlight is renewable -- for at least another four billion years -- photovoltaic panels are not. Nor is desert groundwater, used in steam turbines at some solar-thermal installations. Even after being redesigned to use air-cooled condensers that will reduce its water consumption by 90 percent, California's Blythe Solar Power Project, which will be the world's largest when it opens in 2013, will require an estimated 600 acre-feet of groundwater annually for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment.

• Geothermal power. These projects also depend on groundwater -- replenished by rain, yes, but not as quickly as it boils off in turbines. At the world's largest geothermal power plant, the Geysers in California, for example, production peaked in the late 1980s and then the project literally began running out of steam.

• Wind power. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the 5,700 turbines installed in the United States in 2009 required approximately 36,000 miles of steel rebar and 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-foot-wide, 7,630-mile-long sidewalk). The gearbox of a two-megawatt wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium -- rare earth metals that are rare because they're found in scattered deposits, rather than in concentrated ores, and are difficult to extract.

• Biomass. In developed countries, biomass is envisioned as a win-win way to produce energy while thinning wildfire-prone forests or anchoring soil with perennial switchgrass plantings. But expanding energy crops will mean less land for food production, recreation, and wildlife habitat. In many parts of the world where biomass is already used extensively to heat homes and cook meals, this renewable energy is responsible for severe deforestation and air pollution.

• Hydropower. Using currents, waves, and tidal energy to produce electricity is still experimental, but hydroelectric power from dams is a proved technology. It already supplies about 16 percent of the world's electricity, far more than all other renewable sources combined….The amount of concrete and steel in a wind-tower foundation is nothing compared with Grand Coulee or Three Gorges, and dams have an unfortunate habit of hoarding sediment and making fish, well, non-renewable.

All of these technologies also require electricity transmission from rural areas to population centers…. And while proponents would have you believe that a renewable energy project churns out free electricity forever, the life expectancy of a solar panel or wind turbine is actually shorter than that of a conventional power plant. Even dams are typically designed to last only about 50 years. So what, exactly, makes renewable energy different from coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power?

Renewable technologies are often less damaging to the climate and create fewer toxic wastes than conventional energy sources. But meeting the world's total energy demands in 2030 with renewable energy alone would take an estimated 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today's largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar power systems. That's a heckuva lot of neodymium.

In addition, renewables generally have a much lower energy returned on energy invested (EROEI), or energy profit ratio, than we have become accustomed to in the hydrocarbon era. Since the achievable, and maintainable, level of socioeconomic complexity is very closely tied to available energy supply, moving from high EROEI energy source to much lower ones will have significant implications for the level of complexity we can sustain. Exploiting low EROEI energy sources (whether renewables or the unconventional fossil fuels left to us on the downslope of Hubbert's curve) is often a highly complex, energy-intensive activity.

As we have pointed out before at TAE, it is highly doubtful whether low EROEI energy sources can sustain the level of socioeconomic complexity required to produce them. What allows us to maintain that complexity is high EROEI conventional fossil fuels - our energy inheritance.

Power systems are one of the most complex manifestations of our complex society, and therefore likely to be among the most vulnerable aspects in a future which will be contractionary, initially in economic terms, and later in terms of energy supply. As we leave behind the era of cheap and readily available fossil fuels with a high energy profit ratio, and far more of the energy we produce must be reinvested in energy production, the surplus remaining to serve all society's other purposes will be greatly reduced. Preserving power systems in their current form for very much longer will be a very difficult task.

It is ironic then, that much of the vision for exploiting renewable energy relies on expanding power systems. In fact it involves greatly increasing their interconnectedness and complexity in the process, for instance through the use of 'smart grid' technologies, in order to compensate for the problems of intermittency and non-dispatchability. These difficulties are frequently dismissed as inconsequential in the envisioned future context of super grids and smart grids...

 [IB Editor's note: Beginning here this article has been greatly abbreviated. Refer to original article in the AutomaticEarth for all of this material.Scroll down to the image of a green light bulb to continue reading.]

... A Decentralized Renewable Reality?
Renewable energy is never going to be a strategy for continuing on our present expansionist path. It is not a good fit for the central station model of modern power systems, and threatens to destabilize them, limiting rather than extending our ability to sustain business as usual. The current plans attempt to develop it in the most technologically complex, capital and infrastructure dependent manner, mostly dependent on government largesse that is about to disappear. It is being deployed in a way that minimizes a low energy profit ratio, when that ratio is already likely too low to sustain a society complex enough to produce energy in this fashion.

Renewable electricity is not truly renewable, thanks to non-renewable integral components. It can be deployed for a period of time in such a way as to cushion the inevitable transition to a lower energy society. To do this, it makes sense to capitalize on renewable energy's inherent advantages while minimizing its disadvantages.

Minimizing the infrastructure requirement, by producing power adjacent to demand, and therefore moving power as little distance as possible, will make the most of the energy profit ratio. The simplest strategy is generally the most robust, but all the big plans for renewables have gone in the opposite direction. In moving towards hugely complex mechanisms for wheeling gargantuan quantities of power over long distances, we create a system that is highly brittle and prone to cascading system failure.

In a period of sharp economic contraction, we will not be able to afford expensive complexity. Having set up a very vulnerable system, we are going to have to accept that the the lights are not necessarily going to come on every time we flick a switch. Our demand will be much lower for a while, as economic depression deepens, and that may buy the system some time by lowering some of the stresses upon it. The lack of investment will take its toll over time however.

While a grid can function at some level even under very challenging conditions - witness India - it is living on borrowed time. We would do well to learn from the actions, and daily frustrations, of those who live under grid-challenged conditions, and do what we can to build resilience at a community level. Governments and large institutions will not be able to do this at a large scale, so we must act locally.

As with many aspects of society navigating a crunch period, decentralization can be the most appropriate response. The difficulty is that there will be little time or money to build micro-grids based on local generation. It may work in a few places blessed with resources such as a local hydro station, but likely not elsewhere in the time available. The next best solution will be minimizing demand in advance, and obtaining back up generators and local storage capacity, as they use in India and many other places with unstable grids. These are relatively affordable and currently readily available solutions, but do require some thought, such as fuel storage or determining which are essential loads that should be connected to batteries and inverters with a limited capacity. Later on, such solutions are much less likely to be available, so acting quickly is important.

Minimizing demand in a planned manner greatly reduces dependency, so that limited supply can serve the most essential purposes. It is much better than reducing demand haphazardly through deprivation in the depths of a crisis. Providing a storage component can cover grid downtime, so that one no longer has to worry so much when the power will be available, so long as it is there for some time each day. Given that even degraded systems starved of investment for years can deliver something, storage can provide a degree of peace of mind. It is typically safer than storing generator fuel.

Some will be able to install renewable generation, but it will not make sense to do this with debt on the promise of a feed-in tariff contract that stands to be repudiated. Those who can afford it will be those who can do it with no debt and no income stream, in other words those who do it for the energy security rather than for the money, and do not over-stretch themselves in the process. Sadly this will be very few people. Pooling resources in order to act at a community scale can increase the possibilities, although it may be difficult to convince enough people to participate.

It is difficult to say what power grids might look like following an economic depression, or what it will be possible to restore in the years to come. The answers are likely to vary widely with location and local circumstances. Depression years are very hard on vital economic sectors such as energy supply. Falling demand undercuts price support, and prices fall more quickly than the cost of production, so that margins are brutally squeezed. Even as prices fall, purchasing power falls faster, so that affordability gets worse. Consumers are squeezed, leading to further demand destruction in a positive feedback loop.

Under these circumstances, the energy sector is likely to be starved of investment for many years. When the economy tries to recover, it is likely to find itself hitting a hard ceiling at a much lower level of energy supply. With less energy available, society will not be able to climb the heights of complexity again, and therefore many former energy sources dependent on complex means of production will not longer be available to simpler future societies. Widespread electrification may well be a casualty of the complexity crash.

We are likely to realize at that point just how unusual the era of high energy profit ratio fossil fuels really was, and what incredible benefits we had in our hands. Sadly we squandered much of this inheritance before realizing its unique and irreplaceable value. The future will look very different.


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