On Feasibility and Viability of Renewable Energy
I start this writing with a pictorial metaphor that is the theme for this essay– picture 1 is a simple home with some solar panels and picture 2 is something like a Sua Pan covered by solar panel – which way Botswana?
We sure live in interesting times – energy experts and researchers, even some academics have often demonstrated very split minds and results on the feasibility of future renewable energy. Especially so regarding the very crux of the matter – the EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) and the EPBT (Energy Pay Back Time) to the confusion of worried people and the pleasure of the so called “deniers”. Of course, this is bickering in an ebony tower, mostly, and it’s like the passengers of Titanic trying to choose a life boat with the best warranty.
However, the so called “greens” have grown strong lately. Their objections to “no-worry-deniers” (often in media and various authorities) and still wide spread ignorance among ordinary salary people (to make a difference to unemployed wage people), and a resilient concentration on avoiding a possible end of life on Earth, is maturing, as far as I can see. It must be the “climate change” effects that even a blind can see (as my grandfather use to say) . And population migration, xenophobia, no money to buy the products of an industrialism running without harness – remember old Henry Ford (my worker must be paid enough to buy a car)? Hurricanes, no electricity for days, beautiful beach houses flooded and polluted air/water. Just to mention a few modern drawbacks!
So, of course the number of worried people increases – and they are often basing their opinion on their intuition. As well as many “experts” must do – and that’s a crux that makes people turn to their inside instead of listen to facts and turn to metaphysics of the time (the space, more praying and so on). Are we mentally lost in a globalized world? But many have mobilized – we even have a TCM (The Climate Mobilization). Many people are now acting and this is encouraging to me!
We are today forced to make use intuition and guesstimates. Nothing can be fully “EROEI’d” prior to action! And action is needed urgently and should have come latest in the 1960’s to be fully in use today. Is it better late than never? We don’t fully know but we know that we can hardly pay for it today. Some brains are telling us, that we now have a last chance albeit it will cost more than we have in our pockets.
My question is – can we take it step by step or must we mimic US and the G20 here in Africa? Let’s start and see what the chances are for the already industrialized world, maybe “postindustrial” is a better word. We have to study a number of late texts, books and blogs by writers like McKinnon, Heinberg, Greer, Sarkar and others to find an answer on the feasibility to start, and we will find that the feasibility is there but what about long time viability?
In other columns, I have given Richard Heinberg and David Finlay of the Post Carbon Institute ample attention on the feasibility of renewable energy and discussed their eye opening book “Our Renewable Future” but management and viability are in the concept, too – more on this later! In fact, most writers from G20 are dealing with their country-centric problems. But we must realize - their problems are not exactly ours!
Let us quickly look into their problems – of which 100% renewal energy is the main one to keep them going as currently (e.g. including the industries, world military rule, petro-dollar and subsequent money-printing, media imperialism, lifestyles a s o). In short, they realize that money must be spent to keep a modern colonialism alive. It is therefore absolutely natural that they are not making the financing a great problem – invincibility rules and must continue! I’m sorry to say this – but it’s the truth for African countries and many others!
We cannot put much hope to a writer like Bill McKinnon (from the 350.org fame) when he’s writing a book about “A World at War”, underpinning that the West is at war regarding the resources (well, we know that!). He can go on writing the Democratic Platforms for coming years (he wrote the one for this year). But even an excellent writer like Richard Heinberg from the famous Post Carbon Institute is unfortunately basing “Our Renewable Future” findings on the same – but it doesn’t work completely for him, as we will see later.
Today there seems to be an understanding that US can go on as it does today at a cost (and we here know where the payment comes from). This is irritating when discussing our global human survival, as I see it. South America, Africa and Asia must discuss it from another angle! The G20 people is a minority and we are the big majority and instead of proposing more technology, we probably have to pinpoint what less technology can do – and this needs more “footwork” by distressed peoples.
I now have to confess that I’m heavily basing my conclusions on an Indian professor, Sakal Sarkar. He finds the “war” metaphor very inappropriate and tries to discuss the future where “G120” have something of a consensus (or ought to have). His points are:
The “feasibility concept” might be very unfortunate. Even blinded by muscle and optimism, the 100% renewable basis is doubtable – the hope for more expensive technology is, maybe, feasible but not viable. But he agrees with McKinnon that we “need to build a hell lot of factories to turn out the thousands of acres of solar panels and wind turbines at the length of football fields and millions and millions of electric cars and buses”. Sakar is also referring to David Roberts that puts it as follows, very vividly:
“Well, have a look at Solar City’s gigafactory, … It will be the biggest solar manufacturing facility … covering 27 acres, capable of cranking out 10.000 solar panels a day – a gigawatt’s worth in a year. At the height of its transition to WWS (wind, water, solar), the US would have to build around 30 gigafactories a year devoted to solar panels, and another 15 a year for wind turbines. That’s 45 of the biggest factories ever built, every year. It is [even for an American] a mind boggling pace of building…”
My comment – maybe that’s the business idea? There’s already about 50 wind turbine factories in the US but most solar panels are Chinese – pocket the Chinese ones and the US corporations are forever in business and able to print “sun-and-wind dollars”!
How we here in Africa should handle 100 m high aluminum turbines standing on several thousand tons bases and many hundreds of hectares of solar panels will be a subsequent dilemma for us. The little water we have is already earmarked – we here in Botswana have salt, perfect for concentrated solar plants but not the needed water!
However, the viability problem will sort this out in the G20, I’m sure. Already it’s clear that a wind turbine has only a 20 year lifespan and in Germany a 1000 of their ab. 25,000 turbines must be exchanged every year and Germany has so far just been able to replace coal and nuclear electricity (some days). That’s only a ¼ of the energy cake – there is something like a ½ cake made by fossil fuel left to replace. Another thing is – the climate change results in so much bad winds that old statistics never indicated. What hurricanes do to renewable can be seen from photos on the net! Imagine – climate change is met by renewables but is often winning round 2 (the viability round). I think we seriously have to look into “appropriate technologies” including energy savings here in Africa!
But Prof. Sarkar is giving Mc Kinnon right regarding “we are building a huge amount of shit” from the renewable drive. Quoting him we read:
“Remember that all machines and all products wear out and have a limited lifespan. The same holds for solar panels, wind turbines and machines with which we make them. They have to be replaced, sooner or later, even factory buildings. Remember also that inorganic nonrenewable materials cannot be fully recycled, because the entropy law also applies to materials. As many in the ecology movement have been saying for quite a few years now, if it should go on like this, we humans would soon need at least two more planets – one as our resource base and the other as our waste dumping site”.
Myself, I suddenly remember – not many years ago some EU countries wanted to dump their waste here in Africa, and worst thing - there were many country leaders interested in the proposed deals with the ones that robbed us of our resources and then wanted to dump “shit” here! Conclusive colonialism? Another Sarkar quotation:
“…the true production process in the industrial age … is not a cyclical but a continuous linear process, that begins with resource extraction and ends with dumping waste in landfills or in the atmosphere or in the waters, while midway (if we are lucky) giving us consumers some satisfaction and fulfilling some of our material and immaterial basic and non-basic needs.”
This install started with some words about EROEI and Prof. Sarkar’s writings on this issue are also highly interesting and giving me new doubts about the feasibility and viability of a hefty and costly 100% hurried renewable future here in Africa.
We are not curing our increasing obesity, now - we have to start dieting, saving and get the right dress by time! Let us see what Prof. Sarkar says about EROEI and Net Energy (abridged by me):
When we change to so called renewable energy and can pay for initial transitional costs, we must remember that (if we are able to implement just some few small steps) that the concept is neither free from CO2 emission, nor generally pollutions-free, nor sustainable – for instance: clean energies and engines today are just a little cleaner and still have emissions. And it must be understood that all kind of energy, produced of any kind of machines, for many years are produced by a decreasing amount of fossil fuels and emitting scaring amounts of pollution!
It’s interesting that Richard Heinberg, the co-author of “Our Renewable Future” lately (Sept 2012) has responded to comments on the book as follows:
“We concluded that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to using renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we would all be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy.”
From all studies so far it is clear that it is assumed that solar and wind energy yield an sufficient amount of net energy – and probably done to attract investments in a world where a few owns much more than governments and nations. (Note that investments are going down significantly now when oil is very cheap!)
The difference between feasibility and viability is crucial! This is an interesting fact that we must keep in mind, prior to take loans from IMF/WB or even AfDB for becoming “green”. The private investors know this and are already withdrawing from the ring or field. The crux of this matter is the financing – by our neo-liberal, global investors profit makers or a more balanced concept of public welfare?
Before I discuss my idea of how to handle the matter here in Africa, I cannot but knock down another fine contribution to the dilemma by another professor. His name is Ugo Bardi and a distinguished member of the Club of Rome:
“I still want to know if the following can be done and does the EROEI include it all plus the extra energy demand I haven’t thought of):
1. Mine the raw materials using equipment powered by solar panels.
2. Transport and convert metal ores, eg. bauxite-aluminum, using equipment run by solar panels and in a factory built using the energy from solar panels.
3. Make the finished panels in a factory run by solar panels, including building and maintaining the factory.
4. Transport, install and maintain the solar panels using equipment running on solar panels.
All this is presently being done (mainly) with the energy from fossil fuels. How will it be done when they are gone?”
I have a proposed conclusion how to do it a non-US-centric way here below (a quotation from my own writings, for once):
Proposed feasible and viable first steps to a renewable future for a not very industrialized country:
Step One - let’s create a program for improving and saving electricity by lessen the power used for individual houses and install solar panels everywhere including community service buildings. With GoB support, BPC can make it a “purchase loan scheme” like the ones they (and the Housing Corporation) already have. As the BPC power is already there in most cases and for the time needed to overcome the intermittent problem, it seems to me very simple: some panels, transformer/converter and a battery installment is all that’s needed as long as there is the BPC backup. Consequently, it is an energy saving concept rather than a complete renewable future solution and a step towards a more decentralized provision than the “G20” advice we read about.
Interestingly, savings of domestic and institutional consumption might make BPC able to do necessary improvements on their delivery network to make possible inclusion of larger scaled wind and solar production units (and include the 20% of settlements still not connected). It is often stated that existing, conventional production and delivery system cannot take more than 5% of “outside” intermittent energy without expensive and time consuming upgrade of existing facilities. But a hurdle already overcome in many of the G20 countries – reports are available on the net and too many study trips can be avoided, for sure!
Step Two could be to start medium scale solar and wind plants, scaled for small villages and urban neighborhood units – 2-5 ha unused fields or natural impediments. This is often a concept used in the Nordic countries I’ve seen, and the scale is acceptable environmentally due to the minimal impact. In short, this kind of planning- wise approved initial steps might improve savings and also result in an improved employment situation and, thus, recommended by this writer, and not a conclusion in the books we have been penetrating. Many large consumers like urban industries seldom have their roofs plastered with solar panels (to my astonishment not even for hot water) as well as most greenhouses for vegetable production that also need lots of power but are seldom using solar panels. Here are more savings possible that might result in fewer large scale plants (that often have negative environmental impact).Food for Thoughts !?