Responses: 2. Substitution with Renewables

Section
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
Page
8.5

Renewable energy is a huge and complex topic that we can but touch on. This said, we are lucky to have some first-rate communicators and clear thinkers to guide us through the maze, and Dave Borlase from ‘Just Have a Think’ is certainly one of these. He is an intelligent layman trying to come to terms with all that is going on in climate and energy and his 15-minute YouTube podcasts are excellent introductions to a suite of issues in and around these topics.

One of his recent podcasts – ‘Global Energy Shock’ – clearly summarises the context and challenge for renewable energy if it is to continue to grow as a major energy provider, particularly by 2030, and if the goal of CO2 reduction to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, is to be met.

‘Global Energy Shock’ runs for just 16 minutes but covers a lot of territory re the necessary content and scale if a transition to renewable energy is to occur, and to occur very quickly. It can be listened to here: Massive global energy disruptions are coming. Brace yourself! – YouTube , and my brief notes follow:

Minutes

1-3: Dave introduces the work of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and its latest report1.

3-5: Interesting chart presented of the required energy mix in 2030 if temp. kept below 1.5 degree rise;

Statistics from the chart, comparing 2022 to 2030, are:

-electricity generation up from 21% of total to 30%;

-65% of this generation would need to be from renewables;

-Onshore windpower needs to increase 4X ;

-Offshore windpower needs to increase 11X;

-Solar increase 7X;

-Hydro/CCS/Bioenergy need to increase 6X;

-Energy efficiency increase 250%;

-Emissions reduction if all of the above achieved = from 37 billion tonnes to 25 bt. (It is unclear if this accounts, also, for increased consumption and population). Note 1

6: Hydrogen. Nearly all currently made by burning fossil fuels – see his podcast on this: Blue Hydrogen. The greatest fossil fuel scam in history? – YouTube ; by contrast, ‘green’ hydrogen is made with ‘green’ (renewable) power and although it currently barely registers on the graph, IRENA thinks it can grow to provide 12% of final energy consumption by 2050.

7:30: Bioenergy will need to increase 3 X by 2050 to 25% of total, but poses great problems (my words) re biodiversity impacts, pollution, undesirable land use change, etc…and would require huge change in politics, governance, policy, to approach ‘sustainability’; see Borlase’s podcast on this, too: The global Biomass scam. – YouTube .

9: The problems of rare earths are examined (cultural and natural environmental damage; scarcity, etc…); rare earths essential for manufacture of renewable energy generators.

11: Recycling will have to increase markedly.

12: Need for a circular economy and an interconnected economy (economics/society/environment).

12:40 and 14: Problems of global inequity energy access and use: 758 M people without electricity, 2.6 billion no access clean cooking fuels and technologies.

13: Phase out fossil-fuel subsidies and increase tax breaks for lower-income groups.

15: Refers to IRENA report again and its 20-pg summary.

The IRENA report (executive summary) can be obtained here: World Energy Transitions Outlook 2022: 1.5°C Pathway – Executive Summary (irena.org) , and perhaps its three, key, summarising graphics are as follows:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(IRENA. 2022. Key Milestones and Actions for Rapid Emission Reductions).

Ramping up renewables and greatly increased energy efficiency are seen as central to achieving IRENA’s desired energy mix by 2030.

(IRENA. 2022. Tracking Progress of Key Energy System Components).

The next chart moves the target date to 2050 and assesses current pace (‘Off/On Track’) and sets ambitious goals for what it sees are the five, key, energy components for focus in the next 30 years.

(IRENA. 2022. Reducing Emissions by 2050 Through Six Technological Avenues).

The final chart provides an estimate of the reduction in CO2 emissions (36.9.Gt CO2) possible by 2050 through six priority measures.

The nub of the IRENA report can be summed up in its ‘Highlights’ section:

By 2050, the world would need to have net zero emissions, requiring a cut of nearly 37 gigatonnes (Gt) of annual emissions. Global energy consumption would need to decrease by 11%* (MF/HdeC underline and note: reduced total consumption is somewhat ambiguous in the report; see pp. 31, 70 and 84 -?) from 2019 levels though ambitious energy efficiency improvements, with a simultaneous increase in the share of renewables in the global energy mix – to 79% by 2050, from 19% in 2019”.

The IRENA report is impressive in its detail and breadth of coverage, highlighting just what would need to be done and what it would look like to have a net-zero-emissions world, achieved via renewables, by 2050. It is also no empty cheerleader of technology and perpetual growth, addressing, as it does, issues of equity, regional differences and policy mixes to maximise benefit for all. Its contribution is genuine and valuable.

This said, I am not entirely in agreement with its solution to the energy problems of today. Undoubtedly, there needs to be continued expansion of renewable energy generation and electrification, and there will be continuing technological and efficiency gains, but as we have seen in webpage 8.4, these are starting to taper off now as we approach material limits, and after the low-hanging fruit has been picked, so I think projections here are much too optimistic. In addition, I have grave doubts about much of what goes under the banner of ‘bioenergy’ as I have seen it all too often being just an excuse for habitat destruction or ‘lazy’ waste burning. Hydrogen as a fuel and carbon capture and storage is similarly problematic and I am doubtful that it will be able to make a significant contribution. Most importantly of all, I am not sure where IRENA stands on the continuation or otherwise of global growth of the number of people, consumption, and economies. Failure to address this traps them in a hopeless Jevons Paradox as all the gains they outline would be wiped out by continual growth, but there is hope in their statement above re global energy consumption – “global energy consumption [by 2050] would need to decrease by 11% from 2019 levels” – that they recognise this, at least in part, although there is little or no explanation in the report of this target, nor how this would be achieved at a global policy level. In a world addicted to growth in every way; it would go down like a lead balloon.

There are two quite distinct camps, or perhaps paths, regarding proponents of renewables, and they can be characterised as:

  • The simple substitution/BAU group; and
  • The renewables within a context of lower-energy and fundamental change group.

The first group is very little different from that outlined in webpage 8.4: pro-growth, highly technologically optimistic, averse to deeper social structural change, and believing in the current economic system to deliver renewables as a complete or partial substitute for fossil fuels and their problems. This is really a simple ‘switching saddles’ scenario, where technology, efficiencies, and economics, deliver us new fuel sources and we ride on energetically, as before. It is this group that so annoys the producers of films such as ‘Bright Green Lies’ and ‘Planet of the Humans’ (see 7.8) because they think that these renewables enthusiasts lack an understanding of Nature, are blinded by technology and economic faith to the negative aspects of ‘renewable’ energy, and that they – ultimately – make matters worse by pumping up the global growth/domination agenda. I have some sympathy with this view, having endured some extremely boorish and thuggish behaviour by the windfarm industry in my state – Victoria – when the industry got underway here in the early 2000s. While being largely positive about renewables and their future role in combating climate change, I was disheartened by the steamrolling of any other environmental or cultural considerations when they were first being established. I well remember, when objecting at a hearing to one such proposal to place a windfarm in a highly sensitive coastal environment with high biodiversity, scenic and Aboriginal heritage values, to being told by the proponent, the government’s PR representative, to: “F*** off and get out of the way!”.

This group cares little for the environment, but much for the perpetuation of economic growth, profits, and existing power structures, and even if their ‘techno-dreaming’ were to be fulfilled, only the symptom of climate change would be reduced and the deeper causes and major destroyers of the natural world would continue unabated (e.g. habitat loss, direct exploitation, pests and weeds, pollution, etc…see Section ‘Habitat’ – 7.1 and 7.2, and Section ‘State of the Environment’).

Thankfully, this is one group only of renewables proponents and there are others with a much more sophisticated understanding of the world, an understanding couched within a framework of the natural world and the reality of limits. This group knows that renewables will be very important indeed for a sustainable future, but that they are not magic and there are limitations; and only a holistic approach, based around a lower-energy and steady-state or dynamic-equilibrium future, can survive and prosper, in the true sense of the word. It is to this group that we turn in 8.6.

 

(SolarReserve/Inhabitat. 2016. Crescent Dunes Concentrated Solar Power Plant, Nevada. Cost $1 billion U.S.; capacity 110 MW; storage duration 10 hours. Despite its potential and innovation, the plant has had technical and financial problems2).

 

1 International Renewable Energy Agency, 2022. World Energy Transitions Outlook 2022: 1.5 C Pathway. March, IRENA, Abu Dhabi.

2 Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project. 2022. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crescent_Dunes_Solar_Energy_Project >

Note 1 For an in-depth technical analysis and discussion of the challenges involved in moving from a fossil-fuel powered, to a renewable-powered, future, see Tom Murphy’s e-book, ‘Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet’ (Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (ucsd.edu)). Likewise, David JC MacKay also considers the question of converting our entire energy system to electricity produced using renewable sources in ‘Sustainable Energy – Without the hot air’ (David MacKay FRS: : Contents (withouthotair.com).

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