Fossil fuel divestment isn’t being thought through by renewable energy advocates
“Dear Aunty, is it true what Gail says – that we can meet all our needs with just renewables?”
It’s certainly true that more and renewable energy generating capacity is being added to the network every year, dears, but I’m afraid the notion that we can somehow power the UK just with renewables is somewhat fanciful right now.
What a fascinating question, dears, and one that allows me to address the place of shale gas in the wider context of the UKs efforts to reduce emissions of Greenhouse Gases.
The last few weeks have seen intense rainfall affecting parts of the UK, and leading to localised yet significant flooding in some areas – like the Somerset levels – and it hasn’t taken long for the usual suspects at Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace to start telling us these weather patterns are evidence of global climate change.
Now, I’m not a climatologist or a meteorologist, so it’s not for me to say whether this inclement weather is a result of climate change or natural variation in weather patterns over the Atlantic, sweeties, but what is clear is that we need a rational debate about it and one that isn’t politicised or used as a platform for zealots pursuing an unrealistic ‘green’ agenda.
However, if we presuppose that emissions are causing natural climatic variation to become more extreme or unpredictable, and that a significant source of those emissions is the use of fossil fuels to create electricity, it would seem sensible to try and do something about that and shale gas has a valuable role to play in that and so, yes, it has a vital role in our energy mix.
There are several reasons for this: firstly, burning natural gas to generate electricity produces around half the CO2 of coal (which currently supplies almost half of the UKs electricity needs) and so if we can use domestically sourced gas from shale to help us cut back on coal use, that will lower emissions; secondly, cherubs, we currently import a lot of gas from Europe (the transmission of which is energy intensive) and Qatar (which is liquefied for transport by sea in a horribly energy intensive process responsible for significant emissions of its own, before being shipped here in a journey that creates more emissions, whereupon it is re-gasified in another energy intensive process that is responsible for more emissions still) and so domestically sourced shale gas can reduce those imports and their associated emissions; and, thirdly dears, we will continue to need a companion for renewables like wind and solar for times when their output is naturally lower than we really need – such as a still and starry night in midwinter when there’s no wind to drive turbines and it’s dark.
But what we mustn’t do, my loves, is overlook the contribution of other industrial activities around the world that may also be contributing to climate change through the release of Greenhouse Gases. Take beef and dairy farming – known to be responsible for substantial and uncontrolled emissions of methane (a very potent GHG) from belching cattle. Or the production and use of nitrogen rich fertilisers for improving crop yields. Or deforestation to create pasture land for cattle grazing and growing food for a growing population. And many others besides.
Burning fossil fuels is clearly a sizeable contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions in the environment, but it’s far from being the only villain of the piece and we need concerted action on these other sources too.
Now, let me just make another observation about the notion of cutting back on coal use, sweeties, before Tony Bosworth at FOE comes at me saying that it will only be relevant if the rest of Europe and the world leave their coal in the ground: that may be true to some extent, but groups like FOE regularly argue this about renewables, saying that the UK needs to show leadership and that, in doing so, we’ll encourage other nations to do the same. Why won’t that be the same for a British led shale gas revolution? Why won’t others naturally follow our abandonment of coal in favour of using more gas alongside those renewables?
Finally, pumpkins, let me make one last observation before I leave you to ponder my earlier comments, and that’s about Britain’s contribution to global emissions of Greenhouse Gases and the effects of any reductions we might make here.
Because, you see, we’re no longer the industrial powerhouse we once were and so, in fact, the emissions we’re responsible for are actually quite low when compared to the USA, Brazil, Russia, India and China. Which means that whatever action we take here to reduce them, whether that’s “going all out for shale” or continuing to build renewables capacity (or, most likely and sensibly, both) the resultant drop in those emissions isn’t really going to make a difference at all. Which begs this question: are we perhaps better off making direct foreign investments in other countries to help big emitters to reduce their contribution to global Greenhouse Gas levels rather than driving up the costs of energy here?
Until next time xxx
Oh dear, sweeties, it seems that some amongst you really haven’t got to grips with the limitations of renewable sources of energy yet.
I’m afraid we can’t meet all our needs with renewables alone, and that we need other sources of energy to compliment them.
I’ve covered this topic here before, but to recap:
1. Renewable energy sources are intermittent
2. They suffer from low power density
3. Conversion of Capacity into Output is typically low
The reality, cherubs, is that whilst these challenges may one day be overcome with advancements in technology and with energy storage techniques, we need to do something different right now if we’re to reduce global CO2 and other damaging atmospheric emissions – and that means continuing to install renewable capacity whilst at the same time phasing out our use of coal and replacing it with cleaner burning natural gas and nuclear energy.
Sadly, pumpkins, a number of individuals and groups continue to signal that a world powered by renewable energy alone is available imminently, when it’s not.
They do so by illustrating plans and investment with big, headline grabbing numbers, like this from Greg Barker MP – 20GW of solar PV sounds fantastic, especially compared to the average 35GW of electricity demand we have here in the UK.
But, alas, it’s not actual output he’s talking about, bless him, but installed capacity.
Which is a very different thing when you consider that the amount of electricity produced by solar panels averages between 10 and 20% of installed capacity, and so these ambitious plans would at best generate only 4GW of actual power, equal to 11% of demand. But only during the day, because solar’s biggest limitation is that it doesn’t produce anything at night, which is often when we need it most my dears.
According to the fantastic free e-book “Without Hot Air” produced by David MacKay (before he became DECC Chief Scientist) the limitations of solar PV are quite clear:
“The power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000W per
square metre. That’s 1000 W per m2 of area oriented towards the sun, not per m2 of land area. To get the power per m2 of land area in Britain, we must make several corrections. We need to. compensate for the tilt between the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about 60% of its value at the equator (figure 6.1). We also lose out because it is not midday all the time. On a cloud-free day in March or September, the ratio of the average intensity to the midday intensity is about 32%. Finally, we lose power because of cloud cover. In a typical UK location the sun shines during just 34% of daylight hours. The combined effect of these three factors and the additional complication of the wobble of the seasons is that the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of south-facing roof in Britain is roughly 110 W/m2, and the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of flat ground is roughly 100 W/m2.”
It’s likely that we’d run out of optimally south-facing roof space long before we got anywhere near adding meaningful generation…an average 10m2 solar installation would be 22 watts per m2. I’ll let you crunch the numbers to figure out the total roof area we’d need to obtain anything like even 1GW of actual electricity cherubs.
What about wind energy?
Here’s what David MacKay has to say about that:
“The windmills that would be required to provide the UK with 20 kWh/d per person amount to 50 times the entire wind hardware of Denmark; 7 times all the wind farms of Germany; and double the entire fleet of all wind turbines in the world.”
I promise, darlings, that I’m not trying to talk down the advantages of greater renewable energy production. It’s obvious to anyone that fossil fuels in their current form will eventually run out, and that burning them to create the power we’re all hungry for releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
But we need to be realistic about what we can achieve, in a sensible time frame and at a sensible cost – both financially and to the environment (because renewable technologies also come with an environmental cost – rare earth metals are used in solar panels for instance).
Utilising domestically sourced natural gas to generate electricity is much better than continuing to extract and burn coal, and better than burning imported Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which will only increase as North Sea reserves run out. Fracked gas could be part of the equation and shouldn’t be ruled out.
Simply repeating “renewables, renewables, renewables” as some sort of mantra isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference dears.
Until next time xxx
Well, sweeties, I really wish we could, but renewables simply can’t deliver what we need right now and so we continue to need gas. And because our North Sea reserves are running out, we need fresh sources.
I know that groups like Friends of the Earth (FOE) would like us all to think that a renewable energy future awaits us just around the next bend in the road, cherubs, and that we can afford to turn our backs on fossil fuels, nuclear power and energy-from-waste (EfW) but that’s really not true at all for many reasons.
Here are just a few to be thinking about, my dears:
Firstly, and importantly, renewable energy sources like wind, wave and solar can only supply electricity, and yet most of us use gas to heat our homes and to cook with. You could pepper the land with wind turbines, darlings, and yet it still wouldn’t solve this problem.
*Remember: energy doesn’t just equal electricity*
Secondly, renewable electricity sources are intermittent. I know, I know, it’s a line trotted out all the time, but it’s true sweeties – the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine (not only do solar panels not work at night, but according to the fabulous free book by Dr David MacKay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, in a typical UK location the sun only shines for 34% of daylight hours). This problem of intermittency works the other way too: sometimes, it’s so windy that turbines have to be switched off (yet the wind farm operators still get paid, for electricity they’ve been asked not to supply).
Thirdly, the conversion of energy into electricity is low, my dears, because of the latent inefficiencies and limitations of the technologies used – wind turbines typically only put out 30% of their installed capacity as electricity, solar panels even less at between 10-20%. So, when you hear about a new wind farm with 195 MW capacity, remember that may on average only actually provide 59 MW of electricity…
Fourthly, renewables suffer from what’s known as low power density (allied to the point above about capacity factors). Put simply, to get any meaningful output requires a large area of land to be sacrificed.
And lastly for now my little munchkins, renewable energy developments are not as popular as some people would have us all believe. Onshore wind farms regularly meet stiff local opposition during the planning phase (and get turned down as a result); large scale solar farms are starting to meet opposition too, this one planned for Suffolk being rejected after a high profile campaign that starred actor Gryff Rhys-Jones; offshore wind isn’t always popular as this website at http://www.slaythearray.com will attest; and even tidal energy has proven unpopular as the Severn Barrage project shows.
So, my darlings, renewable energy isn’t the reality waiting in the wings that some people claim it is, and we will continue to need lots of other power sources alongside more wind turbines and solar panels. If we are going to continue using gas to run our homes, pumpkins, it’s better for everyone if we get our own out of the ground here rather than expensively pipe it in from one of our neighbours or, worse still, ship it half way around the world in liquefied form. That really won’t do at all.
Until next time xxx