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EU: 100 Percent Renewable Energy Is Here

David Thorpe's picture
, Cyberium

Writer for Energy Post, The Fifth Estate, author of Earthscan Expert Guides to Solar Technology, Sustainable Home Refurbishment, Energy Management for Buildings and Industry, The One Planet...

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  • Jun 13, 2013

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.
Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Jun 13, 2013

France has been producing electricity for less than 80 gms-CO2/kwh for 20 years. Would you care to compare this to the emissions of all the countries in your renewable list? Germany’s electricity is 6 times filthier and she’s running out of money to subsidise her grand plans. Most of the EU’s emissions reductions have been achieved by outsourcing production emissions to China.

If the anti-nuclear movement hadn’t stopped the nuclear roll out during the 80s, we’d all have been producing clean electricity for 20 years and our climate problems would be much smaller.

Data? p. 111 here:

Thankfully the Chinese have got more brains than the EU and are rapidly deploying clean nuclear technology.


David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

 China is not a democracy. Neither, allegedly, is the United States.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

It is a mistake to look at iceland or Norway and claim some sort of success. The primary reason these two nations can generate nearly all their electricity from hydro is because they have a lot more land per person. the secondary reason is good luck in having the suitable geography for hydro.

Anyway I would ask you to look at how much electricity they use per capita (hint a lot mire than tge UK). So if you want to match them nit only do you need 100% electricity from wind in the UK but more like 300%.


I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

Its even more stark than that.  France and the UK both have almost the same population. 64 vs 65million.

In the UK we use about 350TWh of electricity while in France they generate 410TWh annually from nuclear. So their nuclear fleet is actually meeting 120% of their electricity needs not the often quoted 75%.

The difference arises because France uses nuclear for heating too and as such her electricity demand is much higher (uk 350 France 550)


So it should really be said that france produces 100% of her electricity from nuclear and about 20% of her heating needs from nuclear and hydro.  

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

 The UK has plenty of good luck being well endowed with the lion’s share of European wind and marine energy resources. Since the 1970s, it is political will that has directed the choices for investment in energy R&D. This is why the UK lags behind other, less well endowed, European countries in exploiting renewable energy.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

Also measuring the amount of wind or solar is a terrible metric.  Far better is to measure the amount of coal gas and oil burnt per capita. This way you take into account efficency.

Via this better metric the UK uses less oil, a lot less coal, and only a little more gas than beloved Germany. We are more energy efficient and emmit a good portion less than Germany!  They should follow the UK example and become more efficient not us follow them into 30p/kwh electricity

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

 So as France retires its nuclear fleet it is going to have to find more efficient non-electrical ways to provide heating for its population.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

I hate Internet experts.  Every country in the world is stupid for not embracing the obvious ample wealth happiness and wholesomeness that are wind turbines and PV cells. The thousands of scientists and engineers that designed our NATIONAL grid and our NATIONAL infrastructure they’re all just stupid they after all didn’t have a degree from the university of Internet experts

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

If you know me, you should know that I promote energy-efficiency and demand management above all else.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

France currently has more nuclear than it needs and I believe they have an EPR or two under construction.

Its more likely than not that france will follow the USA and extend its nukes from 40 to 60 year lives and perhaps even another extention after that. 

If you want wind mills and its difficult for the uk with good resources and only 350 TWh demand how easy is it going to be for France with 550 TWh demand?

Also around 100,000 french are employed by tgeur nuke industry. Do you think the job protectionist french are going to want to reduce that to less than 5,000 with CCGTs? Or do you envisage a fairytale wind solar france generating 550TWh from those two?

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

Why try to paint a negative picture of the UK then who are more energy efficient than the germans

Geoff Russell's picture
Geoff Russell on Jun 13, 2013

David, I’m a little confused. Are you trying to heat up the planet? Or do you simply not care at all about climate change?

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

I might as well ask how come the fossil fuel industry, if it is so successful, has to rely on such a staggering amount of public subsidy, $1.9 trillion (according to the IMF), far more than renewable energy? [see] If it is such a wonderful thing rely on fossil fuels, how come they need this subsidy? I think that claiming that renewable energy is a pipe dream when it clearly works, while proclaiming the virtues of fossil fuels, counts as misrepresentation.

In a presentation, David Lipton, the IMF’s First Deputy Managing Director, has said that: “We do not cover subsidies for renewable energy because they involve a small share of energy use”. He is not calling for their abolition.

The reason why it is interesting that these countries rely on renewable energy is that it says a number of things: firstly that it is political will rather than technology which determines the precise fuel mix of a nation, and secondly that a national grid can be adapted to work with many types of fuel input.

I note also that Statoil has been forced to abandon attempts to explore in the Arctic Circle, and that the UK purchases some of its renewable energy from Norway.

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

It’s not black and white. The UK could do far better. It’s houses, for example, are terribly inefficient.

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

Your comment makes no sense.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 13, 2013

I don’t think you will find many people who are against hydro and geothermal energy (accept for some environmentalists perhaps). Both these sources are proven, reliable and cost-competitive. The only problem is that they are severely limited in terms of total capacity. Norway and Iceland together account for less than 0.1% of the global population. 

The primary issue is the heavily subsidized deployment of renewable energy technology which is neither cost-competitive nor reliable. According to the BP statistical review, these sources supplied about 1.5% of global primary energy in 2011 (solar and wind electricity were adjusted upwards for this primary energy conversion). This 1.5% of our energy supply received $88 billion in subsidies in 2011 (IEA WEO 2012), implying that we would have to fork out almost $6 trillion per year if all energy received this amount of support. 

True, fossil fuels (which delivered 87% of our energy in 2011) received about $0.5 trillion in subsidy when looking at global market prices. However, the vast majority of these subsidies are in oil & gas exporting developing countries simply selling energy closer to the price of production in order to promote economic growth. In this sense, it cannot really count as a subsidy because the product is still sold for more than the price of production (only less than the global market price which is determined by the most expensive source on the market). 

Environmentalists often greatly inflate the fossil fuel subsidy by including externalities. This completely discounts the most important fossil fuel externality: the very industrialized civilization we are lucky enough to live in today.  If we implemented some law today that said that fossil fuel consumption must reduce by x% yearly from this point onwards, the global economy would implode almost instantly as growth becomes impossible and debt-defaults ripple through the system. 

In addition, such an assessment assumes that renewables will have no negative externalities. However, at higher penetration rates, wind turbines, solar panels, large-scale energy storage and massive HVDC networks will have enormous external impacts in terms of land and material use, e-waste, rare-earth mining and visual/sound impacts.

We are stuck with fossil fuels until we find something scalable that is cost-competitive, reliable and publically accepted. Any attempts to force the issue before this point can only end in tears.  

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

France’s EPR is way over budget and over schedule. France has a good coastline for marine and wind.  It also has reasonable solar resources. As a largely agricultural nation it has much to benefit from investment in anaerobic digestion, for CHP and grid connected biogas. Countries will produce different mixes of electricity sources depending on their renewable resources. In every case demand reduction would be an inherent part of this mix. In a column like this you can’t argue for every specific location, and it’s easy for you commenters to appear to pick holes because accurate answers require much analysis and can be responed to here. However, in my original column I link to several different scenarios for how Britain could become 100% renewable. Others are alluded to. Every country in Europe would produce and is producing its own scenarios. There are scenarios for the United States.

The point  about renewables is that they are very location specific on a small scale, but on a large-scale they can be shared. The whole of Europe is in the process of opening up its energy market and will create a transcontinental interconnected smart grid, which will include high voltage lines that, all being well, will even connect to North Africa as well as to many offshore wind farms. In the late ’20s you will see more and more large solar electric plants in the deserts of North Africa. Much of this electricity is expected to be exported to Europe and benefit the African economy.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

Again compared to Germany the uk housing stock is more efficient using less energy (mosrly because we have fewer homes per head and on average our homes are smaller too)

So for the sake of balance why not do a post congratulating the UK for achieving more without having had to put up wibd mills and PV panels

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

Of course a one off nuclear build is going to be expensive

What is known for sure though is that the Americans built a hundred reactors and did not go bankrupt but are the richest nation on earth. The French built 60 reactors and did not go bankrupt but are the sixth richest nation on earth. 

So building lots of reactors is certainly affordable if you want them to be. The chinese will likely have two hundred reactors built or under construction by the end of the mext decade. If such a poor countey can do it so can america and Europe. Instead you prefer to cheer dirty Germany

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

Well, you know the United States has already implemented such a law. Perhaps you have heard of the American Energy Manufacturing Technical Corrections Act, which was passed at the end of 2012, a modification of the Enabling Energy Savings Innovations Act. This promises to produce a boom in the energy efficiency sector.

The U.S. market for energy efficiency and services topped $5.1 billion in 2011, according to Pike Research, and is now expected to reach $16 billion in sales by 2020.

Then there is legislation called <a href=””>FERC Order 745</a>, or ‘Demand Response Compensation in Organized Wholesale Energy Markets’ to give it its full title (FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).

Since its implementation in March 2011, it has stimulated a lot of hard work. The ruling states that grid operators will have to play the full market price, otherwise known as the locational marginal price, for demand response resources in real time and day-ahead markets. In short, it means there’s money in negawatts.

Although there are only a couple of states where it has so far been implemented, energy reduction has increased by over 800% in a year for one grid operator, PJM. Participants in their economic demand response scheme are making millions of dollars. As people learn how to play the market, there is potential for a whole lot more profit.

Innovation is about seeing 10 to 20 years ahead, and in that time frame we can see that the smart grid will be implemented and there will be many more electric vehicles on the road. These can effectively become decentralised power stations. Aggregated together they will provide a significant reserve.

Part of the future lies in finding ways to support ancillary markets, such as spin and non-spinning reserves and building micro-grids so that electric vehicles can participate in these markets.

Instead of tears, I see people making millions of dollars.


David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

 I’d rather congratulated on putting up windmills and PV. The 2.5 gigawatts or so of PV on roofs and in fields appears to be having an observable effect on the need for daytime electricity production, according to analysis by Chris Goodall in this item:

He concludes that: “it’s a reasonable hypothesis that summer daytime electricity production on sunny days is being depressed by up to 2 GW –  5-6% of total demand.”

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

Despite the protests of the Internet experts coal gas and oil will continue to grow and come 2050 usage wilL be higher than it was in 2000

The smart thing to do is put the subsidy into efficency and enabling technologies. So stop cheering germany for wasting capital and time building pv plants and cheer google for developing the self drive car.

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

It’s interesting that you resort to insults rather than actually discussing the content of the reports On possible future scenarios that I link to my article. If the quality of debate on the Internet is poor, then I don’t think I’m contributing to it. Rather, its comments like this that lower the tone of what could be informative debate.

It’s not me who has called anybody stupid. People in the past, who designed the National Grid and national infrastructure, did what they have done with the best of intentions. But our knowledge of unforeseen and unintended impacts has improved. We are undergoing a massive shift of our industrial base towards greater sustainability, and it’s not all going to happen overnight, and the supply chains and the details, and the regulations, and the enforcement, all of that is on a learning curve.

And there’s a lot of money to be made.

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 13, 2013

 I have not cheered dirty Germany. I fully accept that Germany’s emissions have gone up recently. They are on their own journey.

Neither have I dismissed nuclear energy. I merely pointed out that China is not a democracy and the USA is, and that the European pressurised water reactor is not the great hope EDF once touted it to be.

Perhaps the new design which Horizon looks like it’s going to build in Anglesey will be. But we have to wait two or three years for the generic design to be accepted by the Office for Nuclear Regulation. With nuclear power, safety must be paramount, and it takes a long time to build a nuclear power station, whereas many renewable energy plants can be built in a much shorter timescale. And the question of what to do with nuclear waste has still not been solved. Nevertheless, that it is better to build nuclear power stations now in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Yet public opinion, like it or not, has been against nuclear power for many years in the USA and it is, unfortunately, a democracy, unlike China which does not respect human rights. Perhaps you would rather the USA was more like China.

As for thorium, I sincerely hope that it works, but it doesn’t yet.

I don’t know why you insist on positioning me in places where I have not declared a position merely to knock me down. Perhaps you just need a straw dog to aim at to make yourself feel right. Well, it’s not me.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

So you have gone from one absurd post to another. In the uk you are looking at ten percent CF max and by the nunber of roof PV systens I’ve seen not due south and shadowed by trees or satellite dishes ect id imaginet it would be less. This means 2.5GW solar in the UK which cost some £4B plus to install will generate less than 2.2TWh out of our about 350TWh demand.

By comparison I would say if we spent that 4 billion pounds insularing the 6 million worst homes your looking at a saving in the region of 40TWh considerably more than solars 2.2TWh

Or perhaps just as good if that 4B was spent builing 6 x 1GW line to France you are looking at perhaps another 30TWh of importing French nuclear

I K's picture
I K on Jun 13, 2013

The uk is a perfect example because the grid makes available real time grid data. So you can actually postulate possible technology deployment and how they would impact the grid.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 13, 2013

Energy efficiency is great (as long as it is actually cost effective) and it is really nice that the US has a $5.1 billion energy efficiency market. However, we have to keep things in perspective. 

Why is the US not totally stagnating like the rest of the developed world? The answer: fossil fuels. Cheap natural gas from fracking together with some of the best coal reserves in the world grants the US very cheap electricity by developed world standards. In addition, the US can still use the dollar’s reserve currency status to exchange billions of freshly printed dollars and other IOU’s for lots of imported carbon – primarily through the $400 billion spent on imported oil and the $300 billion trade deficit with coal-guzzling China. Without these fossil fuel bonusses (which are more than two orders of magnitude greater than the little bit of energy efficiency you mentioned), the US economy would be a much truer reflection of its enormous fiscal imbalances. 

Talking about two orders of magnitude, even a 4 million strong EV fleet (optimistic projection for the US by 2020) would have an energy storage capacity two orders of magnitude smaller than the electricity produced by the grid every day. The rate of solar PV deployment will have to increase by two orders of magnitude to reach the rate necessary to sustain the capacity needed to supply half of global energy. The 2011 CO2 emissions reduction in the USA was about two orders of magnitude smaller than the respectve increase in China. And despite half a century of optimistic renewable energy promises and projections, fossil fuels still provide two orders of magnitude more energy than all renewables other than hydro. 

Perhaps the scariest one is that the third of the global population still surviving on less than $2/day want nothing more than to increase their material consumption by about two orders of magnitude to be like rich western folks. The heavy industrialization necessary to make this happen can come only from one source: increased fossil fuel combustion. 

Given these hard numbers, vilifying fossil fuels and insisting on abating CO2 in the slowest and most expensive ways possible (e.g. solar panels and EVs) not only seems illogical, but downright dangerous. Such renewable energy ideology really has the potential to bring massive turmoil either by pushing the highly endebted global economy over the brink and/or by continuing to prevent effective CO2 abatement leading to irreversable climate change. 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 13, 2013

David, this post does not address the concerns of knowledgeable renewable skeptics.

Geothermal and hydro are very special because geothermal is baseload, and hydro is dispatchable; but they are also small in a global sense.  The two giant renewable resources, solar and wind, are variable.  

Electrical demand can be divided into two broad categories: baseload, which accounts for about 60% of electrical use, and time-varying, which is the remainder.

Traditionally, these categories are served by a combination of baseload power plants (e.g. coal, nuclear, or geothermal) plus load-following power plants (e.g. natural gas or hydro).  Of course the baseload can also be served using (variable renewables + load following) or (variable renewables + storage).  And of course, the time-varying load can be served by any of the baseload options coupled with curtailment (i.e. discarding produced electricity, or not producing electricity that could be made for very low incremental cost).

The problem with energy storage is that thermal energy storage is the only kind which appears both scalable and affordable, and it is not compatible with wind or solar PV.  For example, lead-acid batteries cost about $0.2/Wh (US$), so that a 15 hour system would cost $3/W and would last about 1 year with deep cycling; using shallow cycling would cost about $6/W, but would last maybe 6 years; this would add $0.18/kWh to the cost of electricity ($200/kWh*2/365/6), plus another 20% for the efficiency loss.

Lead-acid batteries are extremely mature, so they won’t be dropping in cost.  Liquid metal batteries offer the hope of future cost reductions.  Assuming a 2x cost reduction, the result is still that stored electricity costs way more than fossil fuel.

Solar and wind also have outages that last more than 15 hours, and seasonal imbalances.  For these cases, a thermal power plant  is required, burning a fuel such as biogas or stored hydrogen.  The problem here is that once the thermal backup plant is built, it can produce power from fossil fuels at very low incremental cost: $0.02 for coal or $0.03/kWh for natural gas. 

So the biggest concern with renewables is that geothermal and hydro are not enough to power all of society, and solar and wind, while very large, can’t grow to more than 30% individually or 40% combined, before the need for unaffordable storage makes them unaffordable.

I have not read the 100% renewable plans you’ve linked, but others that I have read typically rely on massive over-builds with production curtailment (implying very high cost), or very high utilization of biomass (which looks suspiciously unsustainable and bad for food production and wildlife habitat).

Additionally, the large renewables (solar and wind) have a very large visible impact (they gather dilute resources and therefore must cover a very large amount of area), which suggests that they will encounter poor public support and reduce land available for wildlife, as they grow.

These concerns make “100% renewables” a risky option (i.e. high risk of failure or greatly delayed success).  By comparison, France’s and Sweden’s success at decarbonizing electricity (using a combination of nuclear and hydro) make nuclear an option with low risk of failure.  And milestones like 20-40% of power from renewables is not reassuring; this only addresses the easy part (wherein no storage is required).

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Jun 14, 2013

“The heavy industrialization necessary to make this happen can come only from one source: increased fossil fuel combustion.”

Not necessarily, if you take into account decentralized cheap solar powered heaters, cookers, and coolers. The thing is you forget about what really solar power is: it’s allmost everywhere, like wind. It’s variable, yes, but that problem isn’t that big. Fossil fuels also have had that problem, and will only increase in the near future. Renewables, on the other hand will have marvelous energy storage options in just a couple of years; for the moment net metering is a very healthy option.

Whether we like it or not we’ll have to change to renewables. So it’s better to pay the price now than to wait and see what happens. If everybody changed their lifestyle to a more sustainable one then the industry simply will have to follow, or die.


David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Jun 14, 2013

This is turning into a very interesting discussion and I am grateful for all the comments which are given me pause for thought. Unfortunately I am pressed for time and can respond to all of the points made and will be away next week, however I will do my best.

The comments about the number of deaths ascribed to coal burning compared to those from nuclear power stations I fully take on board. In Europe, much of the concern about health hazards from burning coal in industry is addressed by the Large Combustion Plant Directive. This means the imminent closure of many polluting power stations, unless they take steps to mitigate their emissions using flue gas desulphurisation. Therefore several coal burning power stations in the UK and many others throughout the European Union will be closing in 2015, including Ironbridge, Kingsnorth and Grain.

Some commentators mention energy storage and baseline requirements. One technology that has not been mentioned is solar thermal. Whereas solar PV has reached grid parity in many Sunbelt regions including Italy and Spain, concentrated solar thermal power has yet to do so, but shows great promise. Plants using both of these technologies can be erected in one fifth to one quarter of the time it takes to build and commission a nuclear power station of compatible size.  I appreciate that there are many problems. A report by  the Carbon Trust for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change found that there are critical barriers to deployment of CSP in industrial applications, namely the low awareness, lack of confidence, and unattractive payback periods. An intervention focussed on demonstration of plants would directly address these critical barriers, they said. A major advantage is that heat can be stored for up to 8 hours after sundown and used to generate electricity from molten salt.

I wish that some commentators had at least read the reports I link to and can critically appraise them, instead of arguing a priori.

One commentator here both criticises nuclear sceptics for needing education in the benefits of nuclear, while simultaneously criticising renewables enthusiast’s on the basis of what has happened in the ’90s and ’00s (Amory Lovins etc), while the period of recent history has seen, for example costs fall dramatically especially in the area of PV and offshore wind, whereas a 40 MW wave power installation, the largest in the world is now being deployed off the coast of Scotland.

I quite agree that none of this makes most countries ‘100% renewables-ready’. But the scenarios I link to or not about today or next year, but a transition up to the year 2030 or 2050 according to the report.

On timescales, in Britain at least, suppose Horizon is going to build, as it expects, two nuclear power stations on Anglesey. The time from this announcement until their commissioning is not expected to be sooner than 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Technology Strategy Board, backed by the Department for Business Industry and Skills is funding research and the development into energy storage and smart grids so that it becomes a market-ready service, and offshore wind is undergoing major developments, and the European Grid is to be modernised and expanded as I mentioned in a different response.

Many other scenarios anticipate a pan-European, cross-Mediterranean SuperSmart Grid with an overlaid HVDC Super Grid. in PricewaterhouseCoopers’s 2050 vision, the development of a pan-European, cross-Mediterranean SuperSmart Grid would enable electricity production at the best sites for each technology, regardless of national or regional borders and distance  to the central European load centres. This both increases the efficiency of the system and reduces the intermittency problems. 

This would enable the development of a highly diverse mix of European renewable generation capacities at the most suitable renewable sites. It would combine both centralised generation through large, single units such as large CSP plants, offshore wind farms or large biomass power plants, and decentralised generation with smallscale units such as roof-mounted PV, smaller onshore wind farms and biogas power plants. 

Due to differences in geography and population density, the power mix, although very diverse at a European level, would still be skewed towards single sources in a national or regional perspective. Regional SuperSmart Grid clusters would have developed to maximise the efficient use of local resources. The share of wind would be high in the windy North Sea region, the share of solar power high in the sunny south of Europe, whereas the Baltic Sea region and eastern Europe would be rich in both wind and biomass. 

This scenario does raise concerns about the sustainability biomass, however. Short rotation coppice on non-arable land is preferred.

The mountainous regions in Scandinavia and the Alps would provide hydro generation and storage resources. A general tendency would be that the peripheral regions, including North Africa, supply the central European regions with a share of their electricity supply. All clusters would be strongly interconnected via the HVDC transmission grid. The North African 2050 power system would mainly be based on onshore wind power and solar (including CSP plants with storage and PV), with significant differences depending on resource availability. 

In some countries, especially on the western and eastern coasts, wind power would be dominant, whereas the majority of power generation in the central desert regions would be CSP. Because of the high overall share of CSP, electricity for both local consumption and for export would be completely dispatchable throughout the year36, using CSP plants with storage, in conjunction with other renewables as appropriate. 

North African exports to Europe would come from all countries in the region, but exports from Egypt would be limited by the large growth of its domestic electricity demand. In total, we assume that the North African countries would produce 60% more electricity than they consume in 2050 and that there would not be any interruptions in electricity trade between North Africa and Europe due to political conflicts. Intermittent sources such as PV would also be widely used in a decentralised manner to support off grid and small scale local demand. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that €500bn will be invested in transmission and distribution networks by 2030. We may also need an additional investment of approximately €180bn by 2030 in ICT alone to deliver Smart Grids. 

But what are the first priorities for investment? And do we have enough understanding of the opportunities and challenges to ensure that investments made today will deliver the Smart Grid vision? According to one study, Smart Grid solutions could contribute more than 2Gt of CO2e savings annually by 2020, mainly through enabling renewable power and optimising the power generation and transmission and distribution network. Smart Grid demonstration projects today are testing the full potential of the savings, which could be accelerated if a range of new services are developed.

To drive investment, political certainty is required. That is why we need political agreements to curb emissions, decarbonise agency supplies, and not in a way that, as in the shale gas explosion in the US, merely allows the export of cheap coal and emissions elsewhere in the world.

I K's picture
I K on Jun 14, 2013

Imagine a world that wants to generate 100,000 TWh of electricity a year from say solar what sort of area needs to be covered?

Assumptions average 15% CF location and 20 percent efficient panels. 

1km2 recieves 1GWp of solar radiation which gives 0.2GWp of electricity to give 0.26TWh annual output.

100,000 TWH / 0.26 TWh = 385,000 km2

That is an area larger than Germany (357,000 km2)

So we would need to paint the whole of Germany black with PV. Would sure look interesting from space.


BTW the area needed would actually be about 3x as much as you need to tilt and space the panels you can’t lay them flat. So you are looking at covering Germany plus italy plus the UK in PV panels. What is going to happen to the energy balance of those areas which now reflect back a lot less sunshine? You’ve opened tje windows of your greenhouse (stopped burning FF) but painted the floor black (mass pv) is your green house any less warm?

Hands up if you knew that was the sort of area needed??

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jun 14, 2013

I don’t know why IK believes that the world exists in two dimensions rather than the three dimensions we’re all used to

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jun 15, 2013
Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jun 14, 2013

How much energy, after 50 years of excessive cheering – after consuming hundreds of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of Euros – does the combined wind and solar industry produce?”

Look an any exponential function of X and tell me where you think solar is at this particular moment in human history.  It is obvious to all but the willfully blind.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jun 14, 2013

IK, you say that a lot, that a global grid is necessary prerequisite.  But I don’t get the reasoning behind it And nobody else that I’ive heard says it. Can you explain to me why you think a global grid is necessary?

I K's picture
I K on Jun 15, 2013

With a global geid you can position you pv plants to give you constant output so no storage required.  You can go a step further and position pv plants to be somewhat load following. 

So its a many nation grid or a battery bigger than Germany.  Both are difficult but battery storage two magnitudes more difficult

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Jun 15, 2013

So if solar could somehow transform the solar energy it collects into another fuel, like the methane found in natural gas…

…then a global grid would not be a necessary prerequisite, right?


David Thorpe's picture
Thank David for the Post!
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