The renewables revolution is fast gathering pace and we are now just a few pieces of the jigsaw away from an ultra-low emission grid
It's happening, people. On Sunday, one out of every five light bulbs in your home was powered using wind energy. If you own three TVs and two games consoles (you know who are), one of those was powered using wind energy as well. You would need 10 light bulbs to find one that was powered using coal.
This surge in wind power was the result of particularly favourable weather conditions, but this weekend was not quite the anomaly its record performance suggests. According to new government figures, renewable energy generation was up 43 per cent during the first quarter of the year, meeting nearly a fifth of demand. Yes maths fans, you're right, that means every fifth light bulb was lit using renewables during those cold winter months.
Meanwhile, in Spain, comfortably over a third of power came from renewables during the first half of the year, while more than half came from low-emission sources once nuclear power's contribution is added to the mix – that is every other TV powered using zero-emission electricity. The picture was similar in Germany where coal generation fell during the first half of 2014 as renewables output soared to account for 28 per cent of the power mix – you can do your own light bulb calculations now. Even in the previously fossil fuel-addicted US change is afoot with a new government report detailing how close to five per cent of power now comes from the country's fleet of wind farms.
Something truly remarkable is happening. Renewables are working; in most cases even better than their advocates suspected was possible. The share of clean energy on the grid in many of the world's most powerful economies is increasing at a rapid clip, and all without the blackouts or serious technical challenges critics predicted. The idea of a renewables-dominated energy future is no longer the sole preserve of eco-activists, in fact in some influential quarters it is becoming close to orthodox thinking. Renewables are now part of the mainstream, statistically, conceptually, and politically.
Moreover, while the build-out phase for renewables coupled with a scandalous failure to tackle coal power across Europe meant there was initially little impact on emissions from the power sector to show for clean energy investment, there are now increasingly encouraging signs renewables can and will start to replace fossil fuels. There is now plenty of evidence to show you do not need backup fossil fuel power to cover every megawatt of renewable capacity you add to the grid, as well as proof that each MWh of clean energy generated helps avoid emissions that would otherwise have been released.
Of course, supporters of renewables need to be wary of any triumphalism sparked by this flurry of record performances, hugely encouraging as they may be. The renewables industry's recent progress comes with a lengthy caravan of caveats trailing in its wake.
First, the string of broken renewables records across Europe over the past 12 months are the result of both increased capacity and a remarkably wet and windy winter that gave a boost to both wind and hydropower output. Renewables' inherent intermittency issue remains present and correct, prompting the perennial question: what happens during a dry and still month? The answer, obviously, is that some backup power capacity is needed, be it through standby power plants, cutting-edge demand management technologies, or interconnectors to neighbouring regions where the rain is reliably falling and the wind is almost always blowing (or Ireland as it is otherwise known). The complexities of the energy market and the power of the incumbent suppliers in turn mean further incentives are needed to ensure they build this necessary backup capacity, resulting in a quasi-nationalised energy market where the absence of a strong carbon price means we subsidise clean energy generation and backup energy generation.
Second, the intermittent nature of renewable energy output also necessitates balancing payments, where wind farm operators, for example, are paid compensation to not generate power when peaks in supply cannot be matched to peaks in demand. You do not have to believe that wind turbines are the work of the devil wreaked on the English landscape as punishment for our immoral lifestyles to accept this is a frustratingly inefficient arrangement.
Third, the cost of virtually all kinds of renewable energy may be falling fast, but for as long as climate and health externalities associated with fossil fuels are kept off the books, cost concerns over clean energy alternatives will remain. The initial build-out costs for the renewable energy infrastructure that is now delivering record levels of output has pushed up energy bills (albeit not by as much as its critics claim) and that has created challenges for manufacturing industries and those living in fuel poverty. Although it is worth noting that the Telegraph reports today that the same British manufacturing industry that has spent several years warning it will be crippled by high energy costs is now lauded as the "lowest-cost manufacturing economy in western Europe".
Finally, regardless of your views on the aesthetic merits of wind turbines and solar panels, renewables have brought with them land use impacts that cannot be ignored. Whether it is wind farms changing the vista of upland landscapes or biomass power plants requiring fuel from local forests, the clean energy generated by renewables projects come with varying land use demands. Fossil fuel power plants obviously also impose their own land use demands, but the high energy density of coal, oil, and gas mean it is possible to argue they require less land, even if they bring with them much higher environmental risks overall through spills and climate impacts.
And yet nowhere is the arrogance of the anti-renewables commentariat more apparent than in its willingness to trot out this list of challenges as if no one in the green economy has ever thought of them. Not only is the renewables industry acutely aware of each and every one of these issues, it is also closer than ever to overcoming them.
Pilot projects from around the world are demonstrating how a combination of demand management technologies, increased energy efficiency investment, interconnectors, and smart grid functionality – essentially harnessing the computing power we now use to look at videos of cats falling off skateboards to drag the power grid into the 21st century – can all but solve renewables' intermittency issue. Add the fascinating work being done to deliver cost-effective grid-scale energy storage technologies into the mix and it is possible to see how a renewables-dominated future is not just a pipe dream. We are one technological breakthrough away from making a cost-effective 100 per cent emission-free grid a reality. And as the IT industry has shown, we now live in a world where technological breakthroughs can be deployed at a pace much faster than was ever possible in the past.
Energy storage and smart grid functionality, both of which could feasibly become the norm within the next 20 years, also help address the cost challenges that renewables face. Allowing us to make use of every MW generated by a wind or solar farm and release it when we want it will drastically cut the cost of clean power. Although it is worth noting it is already falling fast without the help of next-generation storage technologies. Just as you would expect with a maturing technology-based industry, the cost of renewables has fallen drastically – so much so that some parts of the world are now seeing renewables compete with fossil fuels on price without recourse to either subsidy or carbon pricing. It is a trend that is only going to continue, as solar PV efficiencies in particular quickly improve.
Land use remains a challenge for renewables, and there is a credible and compelling argument for developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies and next-generation nuclear power plants in order to take advantage of the high energy density these fuels can offer. But even here we are starting to see how community-scale wind and solar installations, not to mention floating wind and solar farms, can deliver renewable power without disrupting current land uses. Moreover, when asked, the vast majority of people still prefer a wind farm in a field to coal dust in their lungs.
I fully accept this analysis is more than a little Panglossian: global emissions are still climbing, renewables still make up a tiny share of the energy mix globally, and most experts agree the most likely course of action remains an extremely gradual transition towards a clean energy grid. But then again, there are a couple of graphs doing the rounds on Twitter comparing the wind and solar deployment predictions for the past 10 years or so from Greenpeace and the IEA with the real-world performance. Both predictions are too conservative, Greenpeace's fractionally, the IEA's massively. There is mounting evidence the energy incumbency could be getting its projections wrong again. Renewables costs are falling, barriers to its wider deployment look surmountable, and as the flurry of recent records prove, the technology is working.
The transition will continue to be messy. There will be years when renewables' performance falters, just as there will be markets where support is withdrawn too quickly, damaging the industry, and markets where support is clung on to for too long, damaging the industry's credibility. There will be an even fiercer fight back from the fossil fuel lobby than the one we have already seen. The renewables industry will face significant challenges as it scales up and battles to ensure the supply of new technologies matches soaring demand. But it would take a particularly one-eyed assessment to deny that a renewables revolution is under way. The records will keep tumbling. It really won't be that long until every light bulb is lit using clean power.
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