Are renewable energy solutions really going to carry the weight of the future energy demand which fossil fuels have been bearing for the past few centuries?
Does a future alternative of renewable energy sources supplying all of our electricity, heating and cooling really represent a realistic worldview?
Whilst it is easy to criticise the (sometimes) seemingly lethargic attempts of world governments to adopt new technologies which we know are needed, how likely is it that if this transition was made that we would actually be able to meet the globe’s demands for technology and development?
Let’s face it, if we had to face using less energy because we had adopted cleaner, greener sources of power, most of us would be resistant. This is a shame, you would hope we would put the wellbeing of the planet before our own technology or at least find a way to balance the two. So, on one hand we have the environmentalist movement would have you believe it is a no brainer:
“A 100 percent renewable energy future is necessary not only for the climate, but also for local communities. Moving away from the current fossil fuel economy can make our communities healthier, reduce pollution, and create more and better jobs. It can take the burden off the backs of low-income communities and communities of color that have borne the worst impacts of the fossil fuel economy. A 100 percent renewable future can ensure that our energy economy is one that works for everyone, not just fossil fuel CEOs.”
Whilst on the other hand books such Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels claim we should even use more fossil fuels:
There seems to be some opposing ideas so in this piece I will cast an eye over countries where the renewable energy paradigm has been embraced and see what this has meant for the people of the country as well as their environment!
Case Study: Germany
Possibly one of the most well known western countries to be leading the transition is Germany. With a northern European climate they experience warm summers and cold winters, Germany has a northern coastline and to the south finds it itself in the heart of mainland Europe so there is a mixed range of possible technologies to use. Althought not quite generating 100% renewable energy just yet, during the Spring months of 2016 Germany recorded days where between 85% and 95% of their power generation came from renewable sources including solar, wind, hydro and biomass. They have committed to closing down their nuclear programmes by 2022 with the Atomstop agreement so they are definitely serious.
The 2010 Energiewende policy really shifted the country into gear with many wind farms being installed, both onshore and offshore providing about 10% of Germany’s energy demand. Solar varies through the year as you would expect but in 2012, on an exceptionally sunny day, at about midday solar provided half of the country’s energy, an equivalent of 20 nuclear power stations! In fact, in some cases wind turbines have to be turned off as the grid can’t cope with the amount of energy being produced. This can be extremely costly and it would appear that the unpredictable nature of the sun and wind can cause issues if you are not prepared for the peaks and dips in energy production.
Although Germany is extremely innovative technologically, new infrastructure is expensive (more efficient 2nd generation wind turbines are now replacing old models). A massive issue which is of yet unresolved is that the energy price per unit (Kilowatt Hour) to consumer in Germany is basically the highest in Europe. German businesses are struggling to pay these prices and so it could be argued that the transition is hard to manage economically.
In terms of the energy and cost of installing the technology, it seems to be clear sailing but there are problems in the transition to renewables logistically and economically. I admire the German government for so enthusiastically putting themselves forward to the world as a prototype and it definitely is encouraging because we see that the energy demands can be met.
Case Study: Costa Rica
For 76 days between June and August in 2016, Costa Rica produced electricity completely from renewable energy. Even better, 271 days throughout the year were clean electricity generated, making Costa Rica the best bet we have for a completely renewable electricity generating nation.
As compared with Germany where hydro and solar make up the majority of generation, in Costa Rica hydro (74%) and geo thermal (12%) make up the majority, with wind coming close in third (10%). The country has been set the target of becoming carbon neutral by 2021 which seems, by their current standards, extremely attainable. Especially when you consider that their 2015 and 2016 successes of 98.99% and 98.21% renewable energy generation came amidst 2 national climate crises: El Niño weather patterns causing both flooding and droughts in 2015 and low rainfall in 2016. This bodes well for their resilience to weather changes, especially when you consider that in countries such as Puerto Rico 85% of residents are without power following the Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Costa Rica’s amazing natural landscape has seen tourism becomes one of the leading industry’s, especially eco-tourism but with 25% of the country’s land protected there is controversy surrounding the installation of new hydroelectric turbines, for example the Reventazón project, and Indigenous groups contesting new projects such as at Diquís.
Furthermore, the positive outlook in terms of energy generation is slightly warped when you look at figures surrounding air pollution in Costa Rica due to the number of gas guzzling automobiles. 54% of the country’s gas emissions come from transport, and 41% of that come from personal vehicles, meaning cars and motorbikes. The government have committed to reducing their emissions and so are trying to encourage the use of electric vehicles for private and public transport, knowing they can supplement the increased energy requirements from their hydro generation.
Again, we can see that the technology works, is able to meet a good majority of the energy demand and even increases levels of self-sufficiency against weather and climate extremities; the issue is proper and inclusive planning.
Case Study: Tajikstan
Did you spot it yet? The catch in the text above?
If not, I will give you a clue. In the two case studies above we are describing 100% renewable electricity generation not energy use, meaning that fuels for transport among other things are still coming from non renewable sources.
Suprisingly perhaps, the country closest to this utopian target is Tajikstan in Central Asia with an amazing 76% of all energy used coming from renewable sources.
The country is only home to about 9 million people, and with rugged mountaineous and glaciated landscapes bodes itself well to hydro electric dams. So much so that, actually under the Soviet Union’s reign Tajikstan had hydro electricity systems operating across the country. With the collapse of the Soviet Union many of these systems were abandoned. A government and private sector collaboration led to the emergence of Pamir Energy, named after the mountain range, to reestablish the hydro electric infrastructure and upgrading of distribution networks. Estimates suggest that 94% of Tajikstan’s electricity is hydroelectrically generated on a mere 5% of the potential areas.
A majority of the population live in rural areas, secluded from utilities and bringing electricity to a region with one of the world’s lowest education rate would have massive affects socially and economically.
There are many countries in the world where renewable energy generation, especially hydro is playing a big part, across Scandinavia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Nepal, Switzerland and Georgia. Places where the population is not densely packed are most likely to have success.
A study by Stanford University in this year (2017) claims that 139 countries in the world can be 100% renewable by 2050. Mark Z. Jacobson, the director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere and Energy Program, who led the program had the following to say:
“What I find most exciting about the results of this study is that every country that we examined has sufficient resources to power itself, although in the case of a couple of tiny countries with very high populations, this might require either importing energy from their neighbor or using an unusually high amount of offshore energy,”
If the examples above are anything to go by, we know that careful planning, working with local people and choosing the right technology mean that actually a future without fossil fuels is not only possible but is happening.
This is of course a brief outline of a much bigger idea but it demonstrates that the reality of a renewable and clean world balanced with nature is completely plausible. To read more details of the Stanford University study follow this link.
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