Thursday, January 29, 2015

Let there be light

The Economist has produced an excellent Special Report called Let There Be Light in this week's edition on the present and the future of renewables and energy efficiency in a modern world of low oil prices, constantly developing technology, and globalization.
In its usual clear and concise way, the Economist paints an unusually rosy picture - compared, that is, to the usual gloomy outlook offered by the media - of the progress of the renewable energy sector, how it has become robust and relevant, and how it may still save the world.
Among the plethora of factoids in the Special Report are the following:
  • Despite the current low oil prices, futures markets are still expecting it to rebound back to around $90 a barrel by the early 2020s.
  • In 2013, an extraordinary $550 billion was spent on subsidizing fossil fuels, which, as The Economist points out, "favours the rich, distorts economies and aggravates pollution".
  • Solar, wind and other renewables, by contrast, have seen average investments of around $260 billion a year worldwide over the last five years, an unprecedentedly large amount, granted, but one that still pales into insignificance when compared to the hydrocarbons industry.
  • The International Energy Agency (IEA), generally considered a conservative and fossil fuel-friendly organization, predicts an increase in overall demand for energy of 37% over the next 25 years or so, significantly lower than the historic 2% per year increase of recent decades. But, as behaviours change and energy efficiencies improve, the traditional link between economic growth and energy use is less rigid than heretofore: for example, the USA's economy has grown by about 9% since 2007, but its demand for finished petroleum products has actually fallen by 11%; German households use less electricity now than they did in 1990; etc.
  • In 2013, global renewable power capacity increased by over 8%. Almost two-thirds of that capacity was hydroelectricity (which increased by 4%), and the rest comprised a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc (which together increased by 17%). In the European Union in 2013, by far the largest portion of new electricity generating capacity (72%) came from renewables, as it has done for the last six years. In China, increases in renewables investment were greater than increases in fossil fuel and nuclear capacity put together, and its 2013 investment of $56 billion in renewable energy amounts to more than in all of Europe.
  • 53% of the $224 billion invested worldwide in new renewables capacity in 2013 was in the form of solar power, the first time it has exceeded the new contributions from wind.
  • The cost of solar panels has come down by a factor of five in the past six years (and almost 80-fold since the 1970s), and it is conservatively expected to at least halve again over the next twenty years. Emerging "third generation" solar technologies, which capture a much broader section of the light spectrum, and which can be 3-D printed cheaply and installed as film or paint on almost any surface, are set to revolutionize solar technology and reduce installed costs still further.
  • Biogas now accounts for a tenth of total gas consumption in China, with an estimated 42 million household turning their animal and human waste into methane.
  • Breakthroughs in electricity storage can make the economics of intermittent and renewable sources of energy improve drastically. America, Germany, Japan and South Korea are leading the charge in this area, and investment in electricity storage is expected to reach around $5 billion a year by 2020.
  • About 1.2 billion people worldwide currently do not have any access to electricity, and a further 2.5 billion are "under-electrified", receiving an unreliable and scanty electricity supply.
  • Poor people, who have to resort to kerosene for light and heat, are effectively paying over one hundred times more per kilowatt-hour than electricity users in rich countries, not to mention risking the increased danger from fires and accidents.
  • The collapsing cost of solar power and the advent of efficient LED lighting have revolutionized the prospects for power and light in the poorer parts of Africa and Asia, although the third part of the puzzle, storage, is still lagging behind. The use of solar lighting in unelectrified sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 1% to 5% in just the last 5 years.
  • The efficient management of electricity demand can also have a huge impact on energy usage and costs, in particular the matching of demand to supply (and not the other way around, as is traditional). One way of doing this is the use of so-called "negawatts", paying people to not use electricity during peak times in order to avoid utilities having to turn on the most expensive (and often dirty) power generators to meet peak demand.
  • As power is used more efficiently and overall demand declines, electricity generation over-capacity in Europe is now estimated to be around 1,000 GW, or 19% of peak load, much of it already mothballed and all but written off.
  • "Microgrids", such as the one at the University of California San Diego, which essentially run their own electricity systems, often with just a single emergency connection to the main outside grid, are increasingly challenging the traditional monolithic electricity utilities, and the IEA suggests that such innovations could eventually reduce overall peak electricity demand by up to 20%.
  • Energy efficiency, sometimes referred to as the "fifth fuel", is up to four times cheaper than producing new generating capacity, and an estimated $310-$360 billion was invested in energy efficiency measures worldwide in 2012, more than in new renewables capacity or indeed in new fossil fuel capacity.
  • The most obvious energy savings are to be made in more energy-efficient buildings (heating and cooling buildings accounts for about 31% of overall energy consumption).
How refreshing to see renewables treated in such a serious and positive way, rather than the rather sneering and dismissive tone so often employed by our current Canadian government, and any number of ignorant journalists like The Globe's Margaret Wente (wind power will never replace coal or gas because it's not always windy, etc - well, duh!)
Food for thought indeed, and a shot in the arm for foot-dragging environmentalists (and small-time solar power generators) like me.

New figures from the United Nations Environmental Program released on 31 March 2015 indicate continued progress for renewables.
Worldwide investment in renewable energy (which, in UNEP's figures, excludes large-scale hydroelectric projects, and so consists mainly of wind, solar, small hydro and marine power) rose by 17% in 2014 over 2013, the year on which most of the above figures are based. Renewables now provide a not insubstantial 9.1% of the world's electricity (up from 8.5%). This increase in investment was in spite of (although also, to some extent, because of) continued falling prices for renewable technologies, so that the increase in installed capacity of renewable energy is actually even higher than these figures suggest.
Once again, the largest increases were in China (which spent $83.3 billion, a 39% increase over the previous year) and USA ($36.3 billion, up 7%), followed by Japan, Britain, Germany and, surprising to me, Canada ($8 billion, up 31%). Solar power contributed about 55% of the overall increase, and wind about 37%.

No comments: