Wednesday, June 12, 2013

It’s not Utopian: 100% renewable electricity is here

Two questions for you: how many countries in the world source their electricity 100% from renewable sources? And which major European nation that is well-endowed with renewable energy resources, is the worst at exploiting them?

The answers can be gleaned from the recently updated International Energy Statistics of Electricity Generation from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy.

The sources of the statistics are many, from most countries in the world, and not necessarily directly comparable, but have been homogenised as far as possible to make them so. The figures are up to date to 2011, and in some cases 2012.

It's often said by opponents of renewable energy that too much of it is a bad thing: it results in unreliable supplies of electricity. How come, then, several countries source most of their electricity from renewable energy, and two rely on it 100%?

These two countries are Norway and Iceland. Iceland has been at it since 1980. Admittedly it's a tiny country, and is well-blessed with hydropower and geothermal, which provide 74% and 26% of the electricity respectively.

Norway, with a larger population of 5 million, has also been running almost exclusively on renewable hydroelectricity since 1980. However it also has recently added other renewables, wind and biomass (1.5%).

Another country to rely, perhaps bizarrely, on hydroelectricity is Portugal. Because of periodic droughts, the proportion of its contribution to overall electricity supply varies from year to year from between 38% and 58%. As a result, it has invested massively in wind power and now nearly one fifth the Portuguese electricity is from this source. Surprisingly solar contributed in 2012 under 1%, but biomass generated 5%.

Other countries also rely heavily on renewables. Denmark uses renewable sources for 45% of its energy: wind (30%) and biomass (15%). Spain provided its 47 million people with 31% renewable electricity in 2011. Italy, with 60 million inhabitants, now sources 17% of its electricity renewably. Germany is on 19%. France, 16%. Even the United States is higher than you-know-who at 12.7% (unfortunately, down from 1983 when it was 14.1%).

You-know-who is, of course, the UK, whose total renewable contribution is just 10%.

Britain has been developing wind energy and wave energy longer than France. Yet it has a pitiful proportion of renewables compared to other European countries.

The fault has been the unwieldy architecture of the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation and its successor, the Renewables Obligation system, which kept small players out of the market and ensured the dominance of big companies and sluggish progress, coupled, more recently, with political dithering.

The Energy Bill offers a great chance to alter this, yet it, too, has been widely condemned as being far too complicated and under-ambitious, especially now that a decarbonisation target is not included.

The EIA figures also show that the United Kingdom ranks 10th in the world for emission of greenhouse gases, being responsible for 1.6% of global emissions from primary fossil fuel consumption for electricity generation.

Britain can, clearly, do far better, never mind all the party political wrangling over support for green technologies. If other countries can do it, so can we.

As author and commentator Paul Gipe says: "the challenge has never been technical. The problem has always been a political desire for a high percentage of renewable energy in a nation's generating mix, and the consistent implementation of policies that work".

Some form of feed-in tariff, the evidence shows from international comparisons, with targeted and consistent support for selected technologies, clearly works to the benefit of those countries implementing it.

Britain is blessed with a huge amount of wind, tidal and marine current energy. There is also a plentiful source of organic material for anaerobic digestion, and solar thermal has always been popular on a small scale. Meanwhile, there is plenty of potential for demand reduction.

Could Britain achieve 100% renewable energy?

A 2011 PriceWaterhouseCooperscenario for 100% renewable electricity recommended that Europe work together to most cost-effectively achieve the magic 100% figure, by setting up a pan-Continental high voltage direct current grid, linked to north Africa, where large solar farms could make up the difference between what countries can generate on their own and their total needs, which would, by then, have been reduced using demand management and energy efficiency.

Another scenario leading up to 2050, produced by WWF/Ecofys, foresees demand reduction, the smart grid, heat pumps, wind, solar, marine, hydro, geothermal and biomass energy as all part of a shared mix.

Zero CarbonBritain is to launch on June 17 at the Houses of Parliament a third version of its roadmap to 100% renewable electricity for the UK by 2030. Its angle includes additional land-use and lifestyle changes.

There have been several other scenarios for achieving the same target from other organisations such as Greenpeace, the European Renewable Energy Foundation and the University of Oxford.

But despite this excellent advice, British energy policy seems to be lurching in the opposite direction. The Government's current enthusiasm, demonstrated by Energy Minister Michael Fallon last week, for shale gas, is another diversion from what should be a complete decarbonisation commitment.

As Greenpeace energy campaigner Lawrence Carter said: "The Government is pandering to climate sceptic backbenchers like Peter Lilley. With everyone from Ofgem to Deutsche Bank to the Secretary of State for Energy agreeing UK shale gas won’t bring down bills, fracking could end up being a lot of pain."

The appointment of George Eustice as David Cameron's new energy and climate change advisor to the Conservative Parliamentary Advisory Board (CPAB) is also seemingly a step in the wrong direction to appease certain Tory backbenchers. He has talked of the "blight" of onshore windfarms, although he is a supporter of marine energy. At least Peter Lilley was not appointed, as was first touted: he has interests in Tethys Petroleum oil exploration company.

Nor was Lilley appointed to be chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee following Yeo's resignation: it is Sir Robert Smith, who, (where Yeo had investments in green energy) has investments in Shell, the oil company with the worst environmental record, and Rio Tinto Zinc.

With the latest news on climate change being utterly depressing, all the stops need to come out to decarbonise our energy supply.

Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain and all these other European countries show that it is possible to do so. They are all out-classing Britain.

A bright future, full of jobs and export potential, with far less global upheaval caused by climate chaos awaits us, if only the political will was there.

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