Renewable Energy – My Take

I’ve been dying to write down my thoughts on this for years. Renewable energy has become a highly politicised topic when it really shouldn’t be – we apparently can’t have a grown up conversation about it. As a result, a lot of garbage gets thrown around about it and people often support causes that are completely against their own interests. 5 years in the Oil and Gas industry has given me a fair amount of knowledge on this subject and now that I’ve left, I feel I can give a non-hypocritical opinion. As I write this, Donald Trump has just withdrawn the US from the Paris agreement…let’s see how sensible a decision that was.

 

Most people’s knowledge of renewables is completely out of date

Have a shot at answering the following:

  1. If the UK produced 1 unit of electricity per person from renewable sources in 2015, how many did China produce in 2014?
  2. Drax power station (in Yorkshire) was the largest emitter of CO2 in Western Europe 10 years ago. In 2016, it produced enough power to power all of Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds by burning what?
  3. For every unit of electricity generated by solar PV in the UK in 2011, how many were generated in 2016 (ie 5 years later)?

 

 

The answers are:

  1. 2.5. Not only is China the world’s largest renewables producer by far – their per capita production exceeds most developed countries and continues to grow.
  2. Wood. Most people still think Drax burns coal but ~80% of its generation is now from sustainably sourced wood from the USA. It produces 7% of the UKs electricity by the way. Source
  3. 40. An astonishing rate of growth.

 

Over the past 5 years, the way the Western world produces electricity and how it plans to do so in the future has drastically changed. Unfortunately, the arguments against renewable energy haven’t.

 

So why are so many people against renewables?

The bottom line is that a lot of people make a lot of money from fossil fuels. Striking oil nets you and your shareholders a huge payout in a very short space of time. The payback time (ie the time for the cost of drilling to be paid off) for an oil well can be 30 days (!) Therefore, a certain (probably pretty powerful) group of people have an incredibly strong incentive to do everything possible to discredit anything that isn’t oil, coal or natural gas. Humans are terrible at long term planning and those in power usually desire a quick payoff to something which takes a decade to turn a profit.

Events of the last couple of years (Brexit, Trump, etc) have already shown us that it’s incredibly easy to get a huge proportion of the population to vote against their own interests. So, by portraying solar power as something which takes away jobs, or as a communist plot or whatever is probably not that difficult.

I’m not just conjecturing here either – although no one cares about how I spend my money – it is certainly where my mouth is. 30% of my savings are invested in companies involved in renewable energy and none are in oil companies (and haven’t been for more than 3 years). One of them is Drax who I mentioned above (yeah, they aren’t 100% reliable but the reason I bought into them is that they are planning on converting the station to burn 100% biomass.). When considering the long term payoff, they just make a lot more financial sense to me.

The cost of not using renewables will vastly offset the savings from using fossil fuels but that’ll all come in the future and…well…that’s long term so no one cares.

 

Money

I think if the case for increasing renewables generation can be made on money alone, most other arguments become irrelevant. Before I go any further let’s clear up a couple of common misconceptions.

 

Units of Measurement

I suspect this is only an issue in the US and UK because, for some absurd reason, neither country can use the metric system properly. As a result, articles often get confused between power and electricity consumption. I often see phrases like ‘Watts per hour’ which makes absolutely no sense.

  • Watts are the unit of power. If in doubt, power is also measured in horsepower (a stupid and completely archaic unit). So, it’s basically how much ‘ooomph’ your car (or power station) has. It would make no sense to say ‘my car does 100Hp per hour’.
  • Watt-hours are the unit of energy production or consumption. Using the car analogy, running your 100Hp car for 1 hour would burn a lot more gasoline than running it for one minute. Therefore, if in doubt, think of a watt-hour as being like a set amount of gasoline. We measure consumption of a country using Terra-Watt hours (or trillions of Watt-hours)

 

What are renewables?

I’m of the opinion that nuclear power is an excellent source which would solve a lot of our problems. Unfortunately, the amount of bunk that gets thrown around about it is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Therefore I’m not including it as a renewable source here. I’m considering solar (all types), wind, hydro, tidal and biomass.

There are multiple types of solar power generation, however, the most important one here is solar Photo-Voltaic (or solar PV). When I talk about solar power, that’s what I’m referring to.

 

Making the case

I’m focusing on the UK here but this probably applies to most developed nations to some degree.

 

The astonishing rise of solar power

When I was at high school (12 years ago), my geography textbook had a section on global warming. I remember a pie chart which showed the energy mix of the UK. Solar power accounted for far less than 0.01% of electricity generation.

Currently, it produces 4% of the UK’s electricity. I think the graph below says it all:

solar

Installed solar power in the UK. Source: DECC, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/solar-photovoltaics-deployment

Last year’s production from solar (not potential – actual production) was more than 10 TWh. That is more than half of what Drax power station produced (also mostly from renewable resources, remember!).

 

Wind power – almost as impressive as solar

Wind power used to be the one that was going to save us. It gets talked about less these days, I think it’s because people are generally pretty supportive of it now (about ten years ago, British people used to do everything possible to stop wind turbines being built within 10 miles of their homes). We give ourselves too little credit – wind power supplies more than any other renewable source in the UK – more than 12% of total generation. Check this out:

wind

The real clencher here: the figure for 2016 is only up to September. Data taken from various sources (via wikipedia)

 

Installed capacity of renewables in general

When considering all renewables in total, the picture is even more impressive:

total

This chart gets thrown around quite a lot but it is pretty impressive. That’s about an eight-fold increase in actual generation over 15 years. Source

The UK produces about 25% of it’s electricity from renewables today. This was unthinkable when I was a kid.

 

Installed capacity is one thing but how much is the actual cost?

This is the chart I usually refer to. It gives the lifetime cost of various electricity sources. The cost includes installation, generation and decommissioning. It does NOT include government subsidies, but CO2 emissions tarrifs are included:

Capture

Levelised cost estimates (ie lifecycle cost) for various sources in £/MWh. Source

Note how the costs of solar and onshore wind are predicted to reach parity of that with natural gas in two years. This does not mean natural gas will no longer be a viable source, it does mean that anyone wanting to invest long-term in electricity generation will be better off putting their money in solar or wind power.

So, with that lightning fast discussion of the cost (I could go on for hours about that), I’ll finish off by countering some of the common arguments against renewable energy.

 

‘We can’t install renewable energy because we don’t already have lots of it installed’

Sounds like a pretty stupid argument right, but this one gets thrown around all the time! Just last week the UK generated 24% of it’s electricity from solar power. However, I saw tonnes of comments saying ‘yeah but it was a really sunny day, the average generation is just 4%’.

Ignoring the meteoric rise in the rate of installation already discussed, why does it matter how much is already installed? To me, this argument is the same as folk back in 2000 who said ‘music in digital only form will never be a big thing – people want physical CDs!’

 

‘The wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time’

Absolutely! There are three issues with this argument:

  1. I don’t think we should be aiming for 100% renewables right now. We don’t even need to. If I recall correctly, cutting global CO2 emissions by ~60% of their current rate would effectively halt the rate of global warming.
  2. If your country has a proper energy mix, you will have the capability to increase generation from other sources to meet demand. Most gas power stations in the UK already do this – they ramp up production when the conditions are not favourable for solar or wind generation. Natural gas still has a vital role to play – I just advocate to decrease our dependency on it – not kill off all fossil fuels overnight.
  3. In addition to the above, there are a growing number of energy storage options. These range from pumped storage (expensive but very effective) to lithium batteries installed in your house. We already import a significant fraction from mainland Europe via subsea cables when demand is high.

 

‘We can’t add renewables to our energy mix because the National Grid can’t handle it’

Ok, we’ll just make the planet uninhabitable rather than upgrading the grid.

Besides, this isn’t even true. The grid is continuously upgraded already and I don’t recall any issues due to renewables, despite their use increasing eightfold over the past 15 years.

 

‘It’s too expensive’

I’ve gone over the costs, but I’ve only really scratched the surface there. Sure, installing solar panels or wind turbines necessitates a higher up front cost. Although fossil fuels generally have a quicker payoff, we must remember we are essentially borrowing money from the future to get that payoff. I could go on for hours about the cost of climate change. Besides, the rate at which the cost of renewables has fallen over the past few years has been pretty astonishing and there is no reason to believe that won’t continue.

Besides, having worked in the Oil industry, I can assure anyone that the cost of installing offshore oil platforms is like nothing you can imagine. A few years ago, the company I worked for installed a platform, discovered it had structural issues, and then had to tow it back to shore and scrap it. A North Sea platform costs AT LEAST £Billion.  In 1970 there were none in the North Sea, now there are several hundred, all liked by pipelines. If we were capable of doing that, we are definitely capable of installing a bunch more solar panels, wind turbines and the like, and connecting them to the grid.

Finally, look at the level of investment China are making in renewables. Being a non-elected government, they can essentially make sensible long term investment decisions (unlike most democracies which are limited by an election cycle). They wouldn’t be spending $360 Billion on this in the next 2 years if it didn’t make financial sense!

 

‘Renewables are bad for the environment’

This one seems to change every few years.

It used to be ‘birds fly into wind turbines’, which was total nonsense.

Now the big one seems to be ‘lithium mining is bad for the environment’. Any form of mining has a nasty impact on the environment. I’m not going to go after coal mining because that does so much harm that it’s not even worth comparing.

Ignoring the on-site pollution from drilling rigs (which is negligible in the UK anyway), surely it’s preferable to cause localised harm to a number of areas through mining than to potentially harm every species on Earth through global warming.

 

‘They took our jobs!’

This one seems to be a favourite of Trump. Same counter-argument as the national grid one – ‘yeah, let’s make the planet uninhabitable to save some people’s jobs’.

Besides, I left the Oil industry because it no longer made any sense to me. I was able to re-train to move into another industry – not easy but I’m sure if I can do it plenty of other folk can.

 

‘Yeah but that one project involving solar power turned out to be a scam’

Unfortunately, a combination of awful science reporting, people getting over-hyped and flat out lying have produced a few big projects which were doomed from the start. Some people take these as proof that renewable energy is just a big scam. If you ever see any of the following, it is a con and is absolutely not representative of the capabilities of renewables (I’ll happily explain why in the comments if anyone wants more details):

  • Hydrogen fuel cells in cars.
  • Anything involving drawing water out of the air using solar power.
  • Anything involving driving over solar panels.
  • Anything which contains the phrase ‘free energy’.

Some schemes (which often receive government funding) are so ridiculous I wonder whether they were dreamt up deliberately to discredit renewables.

The bottom line

This isn’t my normal type of post – I’m more into making things. However, every now and then it’s nice to respond to some of the nonsense I see on facebook or the news. If we want to get philosophical about it, I believe that fossil fuels benefit a fortunate few, while renewables are for everyone. It’s easy to point and laugh because changing our energy mix is a huge challenge, but look into it more and it turns out we are already a fair way there.

As I stated, I do think oil and gas have an important role to play in the medium term. Ironically, probably the least polluting source (hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’) has the worst reputation. However, I see no sensible reason to be ‘against renewable energy’ – it just makes no sense to take that position.

Feel free to challenge anything here or make any other arguments in the comments and I’ll see if I can respond!

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One thought on “Renewable Energy – My Take

  1. I don’t see an issue with the feasibility of a solar road, other than currently prohibitive costs. Tech roads could be very beneficial in future, if developed properly. The concept I liked the most was a road constructed of modular hexagonal panels with, in addition to solar panels, built in lighting for road markings and heaters for icing conditions. Then again, I haven’t ever heard of it since that one time.
    Also, I believe hydrogen fuel cells, though a terrible idea for cars, could have a good potential for large scale transit applications, particularly as a replacement for diesel in heavy rail. The biggest issue as I understand it is the energy density of hydrogen, but in larger volumes such as train sized tanks, significantly more hydrogen could be stored. Especially useful if the hydrogen is generated from a nuclear or sustainable source.
    Great read! I just came back from Scotland and was amazed by the amount of wind generators around. We need to do some catch up here in Canada. Lots of free space but very small focus on wind right now. My province has been happily running off of three nuclear power stations for 40 years but we’re decomissioning many of them soon. It’s a bit of a mess really. Once the reactors are at end of life, they are still expensive to maintain but not useful. They almost become parasitic. That’s honestly my biggest concern about nuclear. It’s not that they are inherently unsafe; with the correct designs and waste management they can be more safe than a gas plant. It’s that they sit as big piles of radioactive junk that drain funds for decades after they stop producing electricity.

    Like

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