Renewable Energy, Part 1: Where Renewables Fit In A Sane Climate Policy

From an older edition of the Economist: “The International Energy Agency, a think-tank, estimates that 13.5% of the world’s primary energy supply was produced from renewable sources in 2013. That sounds like a decent slice, but almost three-quarters of this renewable energy came from what are euphemistically known as “biofuels”. This mostly means burning wood, dung and charcoal in poor countries. Hydro-electric power, which has fallen from favour in the West because of its often ruinous effect on river ecosystems, was the world’s second most important source of renewable energy. Nuclear power, which is green but not renewable, supplied 5% of energy needs, and falling. Wind turbines, solar farms, tidal barriers, geothermal power stations and the like produced just 1.3% between them.”

global_energy_use_by_source.0

Now, renewables have been growing strongly, but it is clear that they have a long way to go before they replace oil and natural gas.

What that makes clear is that efforts at mitigation cannot rely on ‘new’ renewables (wind, solar and biofuels, including ethanol) to get the job done.

This doesn’t mean we consign renewables to the dustbin of history. Far from it. We need to keep pushing not only on renewables but on the enabling technologies (storage, battery improvements, smart grids, etc.) that will accelerate their take-up.

But that can only be a part of our strategy. We also need to focus on initiatives such as Fast Mitigation, the removal of black soot, CHFCs, methane and the reversal of deforestation.

We need to work harder on energy efficiency–‘negawatts’ usually mean a lump of coal isn’t burned. We also need to stop doing stupid things. Airplanes fly longer routes than necessary because of no-fly zones put in place for the Cold War that could easily be removed (although we might want to leave them for the Ukraine for now). We could mandate the accelerated take-up of energy efficient aircraft and ships for that matter.

I wrote in an earlier post that successful mitigation was far more likely to consist of 50 ‘Two Percent Solutions’ than one over-riding answer.

Renewables can be one of those Two Percent Solutions. It has the potential to be a lot more. But renewables alone cannot be our answer to climate change.

Clustering partial solutions

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32 responses to “Renewable Energy, Part 1: Where Renewables Fit In A Sane Climate Policy

  1. I bet we will see more nuclear power in the future. I know you dont see it yet, but oil supply is drying up. We need to wait for December figures, but it looks like crude oil production, lower than 40 degrees API, has peaked and will enter an oscillating decline phase, to never return to the 2006-2015 peak decade.

    I’m having trouble pinning down the lighter streams, in part because the information is a bit shoddy and inconsistent, in part because I perceive an intentional effort to smear the data. OPEC’s report is a masterpiece of obfuscation, while agencies like the EIA bury the data and make sure they don’t report or interpret what’s going on. This is a bit puzzling, given that reliance on Saudi oil is increasingly a clear and present danger to Europe and the USA.

    • Not to dispute your assumptions about oil, but your post raises the question: What does nuke power have to do with oil? Oil is for transport fuel, nuke power is for large base loads.

      • Personally I picture a world where land-based transportation is predominantly electrically powered and the electricity comes primarily from nuclear power.

      • I intended to point out nuclear was needed to replace fossil fuels in general. Oil is right at the edge of peaking. Natural gas and coal have larger life spans, but the long term picture is grim.

        Focusing on oil, the way I see it, as oil prices climb the market will drive individuals to plug in hybrids. I also see much more public transport using trams, electric buses connected to overhead cables, trains, etc. The shortage is more accute in oil molecules we use to make gasoline and diesel. I think the plastics feedstocks should be fine for say 30-40 years.

        I’m not very hopeful for the future, unless we have technology breakthroughs. I’m one of those guys who worries about the details. This means I don’t sit waiting for a breakthrough to happen, it may appear, or it may not.

        We are facing extremely high energy prices as fossil fuels run out. Unlike Tom, I have been on the extraction side, so my worry arises from the simple fact that I know we can’t find cheap resources. That cost curve climbs very steeply as we start drawing on our own resources. Meaning we use up stuff and energy to generate energy. And we are running out.

    • Fernando,

      I don’t see how to reconcile your claim that oil supply is drying up with the low price of oil. If there was an issue with production, the price should be high.

      • Mike M, Fernando is a great poster here, but I also find your point to be one the peak oil folks have trouble with. There is so much coal and gas- excellent power plant fuel. And of course natural gas is an excellent transport fuel as well.

      • Fernando,

        Unlike Hunter, I do not think that fossil fuels are limitless. We will probably need to move on before this century is out. And I agree with you that nuclear is the only promising alternative at present. My issue is with your claim that “Oil is right at the edge of peaking”. Why do you think so? I know the “peak oil” theory, but the quantity of oil in the ground is an ill-defined quantity. The amount of recoverable oil depends on price.

      • My position has never been that any mineral resources are limitless. I am sorry if I gave that impression. My point is that history tells us that there is a lot of oil, coal, gas, rare earth, and radioactive resources. We have been told since the days of Malthus that it I’s all about to run out. The predictions have been wrong every single time.

      • My position has never been that any mineral resources are limitless. I am sorry if I gave that impression. My point is that history tells us that there is a lot of oil, coal, gas, rare earth, and radioactive resources. We have been told since the days of Malthus that it I’s all about to run out. The predictions have been wrong every single time.

  2. I dislike the term “renewables” because it is often used interchangeably to mean low-carbon and eco-friendly. As you note, some forms of “renewable” energy such as bio-mass are high in carbon, and we have the daft situation in the UK now where biomass is being shipped across the Atlantic to be burned in a former coal plant – emitting more carbon per kilowatt of electricity than the coal it replaces!

    Hydro is good because it is controllable, but as you note it creates environmental problems of its own.

    Solar seems to have the greatest potential in some parts of the world, as it should be relatively predictable and this may allow it to be integrated into the grid more readily.

    However I really struggle to see the benefit of wind power. We aren’t farming wind, we’re scavenging for it. Its unpredictable nature and lack of dispatchability means it can only exist alongside “backup” sources (usually fossil fuels), which are forced to run at lower efficiency (both physically and economically). Overall, there isn’t much evidence that the system as a whole is lower in carbon, and it is vastly more expensive. The only scenario which makes sense to me is coupling wind-power with pumped storage, but this is obviously limited by geography and also by the fact that pumped storage is already used to keep the grid balanced.

    Apologies for the long post, but well done for running a great blog.

    • The Spanish grid uses a combination hydro-solar-wind system, in which the hydro is used to cover for the other two. The swings are covered by hydro and natural gas turbines. And electricity is pretty expensive.

      • Very true, Fernando, but I think electricity was expensive in Spain even before the rush to renewables, wasn’t it?

      • Mike M, Fernando is a great poster here, but I also find your point to be one the peak oil folks have trouble with. There is so much coal and gas- excellent power plant fuel. And of course natural gas is an excellent transport fuel as well.

    • Pumped storage is expensive hybrid hydro. Which means flooded valleys. Which our green self selected overlords don’t approve of.

  3. Tom,

    There is much to be said for fifty 2% solutions, but I don’t know that is practical. The market tends to converge on the most competitive few. Trying to push multiple solutions with government policy usually ends up with policies that fight each other. For example, a policy that tries to encourage conservation by pushing up electricity prices will discourage the use of plug-in vehicles.

    You wrote: “We could mandate the accelerated take-up of energy efficient aircraft and ships for that matter.”
    Seriously? These are highly competitive enterprises that are heavily dependent on energy costs. There is enormous pressure to be efficient. Mandates would be silly.

    • Hiya Mike,

      Just regarding airplane efficiency, the latest models are 20% more fuel efficient than the fleet at large. Normally it would take decades to replace the fleet a few planes at a time.

      How about a Cash for Clunkers for the airline industry?

      • Tom,

        “How about a Cash for Clunkers for the airline industry?”

        Let me get this straight. You want to use several trillion tax dollars to buy airplanes from Boeing and Airbus and then give the airplanes to airlines? All to save a fraction of 1% of CO2 emissions? Oh, and that might save a decade or so worth of emissions, since it would likely take Boeing and Airbus 20 or 30 years to build all those airplanes, so it would only marginally speed up replacement of the fleet.

      • Hiya Mike,

        Oh, I think we could do it a bit smarter with accelerated depreciation, fuel taxes, tax breaks for new airplanes and other typical bureaucratic dodges that piss us off so much when we’re not the beneficiaries.

        Air travel is estimated at 5% of emissions, so 20% improvement would be the 1% that you cite. Does that mean it’s not worth doing?

      • Tom,

        “that piss us off so much when we’re not the beneficiaries.”

        Speak for yourself. They bug me even when I am the beneficiary.

        “Air travel is estimated at 5% of emissions, so 20% improvement would be the 1% that you cite. Does that mean it’s not worth doing?”

        Short answer (without crunching the numbers): Yes.

        Longer answer: It depends on the price. Airplanes are always improving, so it is guaranteed that the fleet average will be less efficient than the latest model. The best you can do is to decrease the time lag. So lets say that the fleet average age is 20 years (40 year average lifetime per plane) and the fuel efficiency improvement is 1% per year (giving the 20% you cite). Doubling airplane production would cut the average age to 10 years; that would improve the efficiency by 10%. That would require the government to pay half the cost of the new planes. That is probably a couple hundred billion $ per year, maintained indefinitely to do any good.

        I’ve got airliner emissions as 3% of 10 billion tons of C emitted per year. So 10% of that is 30 million tons C, or 110 million tons CO2. That makes the cost at least $1000 per ton of CO2. The price is clearly too high. My short answer stands.

      • Well, it’d be nice if we could find a way to make it work. With the increase in air travel that’s expected for the next 30 years, there’s going to be a lot of new efficient planes flying. That’s good.

        But what happens is they don’t retire any old planes–they just sell ’em on to other airlines. That’s what’s going to hurt.

  4. This is probably dumb but I wonder if there is potential in combining intermittent renewables with that old “Peak Oil” standby – the idea of using Hydrogen as a fuel ?

    Simply put use current gen renewables to generate Hydrogen as and when they can. Once a tank is full it is then shipped and used as a fuel by burning – e.g. in a car, bus, truck, ship or even maybe a plane.

    Far better than biofuels, and doesn’t take land used for growing food.

    I do know that handling of Hydrogen in gas form is far more complex than liquid fuels but that is engineering, and there are a lot of really clever folks out there 😉 who know about that or can adapt something else, e.g. Autogas.

    • PS – I obviously mean this as a stepping stone to something better.

    • Morph,

      Turning electricity into hydrogen is not very efficient, maybe 60%, and the same goes for getting electricity from hydrogen. Burning the hydrogen is even less efficient. So with present technology, converting electricity into hydrogen is very wasteful. It is also very expensive. The equipment has large capital costs; so using it only part of the time makes it even more expensive per unit hydrogen produced. Hydrogen is extremely difficult to store and transport. The density is low, even if you make it into a liquid (at 20 K) or compressed gas (dangerous). Or you can store it as a metal hydride, which makes it very heavy. And you need to use special materials since hydrogen dissolves in most metals and makes them brittle. Lots of clever people have put a lot of effort into hydrogen and it remains impractical.

  5. The one good thing that has come out of the climate panic is Gates’ research initiative on clean energy. We clearly need something that is better than our current options. I’ve always liked nuclear, but it still seems to be politically unpopular for some reason.

  6. One of the other major biofuels is the waste from pulp and paper mills, particularly black liquor. That often provides around half the plant’s energy. Between that and the sawmills’ waste, there is a lot of energy that is duly counted in the totals but people don’t realise it.

  7. Tom,

    Can I assume you know who posted at 4:29 p.m. and will take appropriate steps?

  8. These minor things like more efficient planes strike me as a religious exercise.

    The only solution is renewables that are cheap enough to replace those 3000 quads you are talking about, and you are pushing these feel good solutions that do pretty much nothing.

    • MikeN,
      The real question, it seems to me, is “what is the problem to be solved?”. It is clear that non-hydro renewables will never be a serious source of substantial grid power. And due to their unstable, unreliable nature, never should be in the first place.
      But the real question is: What is so bad about fossil fuels burned as clean as practical, along with a lot more fission power?

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