It is a given that we cannot continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the current rate and expect to not suffer severe consequences for what we think of as human civilization. The major driver for climate change is the extraction and burning of the various forms of fossil fuels to provide energy. Many observers believe that mankind will not willingly trade their current lifestyles for a more environmentally friendly one. They are the optimists. The pessimists believe that humans are genetically incapable of choosing long-term gains over short-term benefits.
The assumption in most evaluations of the future is that foregoing the consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas will lead to a poorer, less-pleasant world for all, particularly those already impoverished. Is it really a given that a world with vastly reduced burning of fossil fuels must be greatly different than the one which we enjoy today? Must we give up our cars and forego those vacation trips to far-off lands? It is often claimed that our economy cannot be run on renewable energy because it is too expensive, or there is not enough of it, or it is too unreliable. Fortunately, there are those who see climate change as an opportunity to do things differently, and to do them better. While most of us have had our attention focused elsewhere, many researchers and companies have been out there trying to outdo each other in developing new techniques and new products aimed at preparing for a world in which energy consumption will be vastly different.
Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has been the most outspoken prophet of a new order in energy production. He produced a fascinating article for the journal Foreign Affairs titled A Farewell to Fossil Fuels: Answering the Energy Challenge. He made this claim:
“....a U.S. economy that has grown by 158 percent by 2050 could need no oil, no coal, no nuclear energy, and one-third less natural gas -- and cost $5 trillion less than business as usual, ignoring all hidden costs. Today’s fossil carbon emissions could also fall by more than four-fifths without even putting a price on them.”
If that was not sufficient to attract your attention, how about this:
“This transition will require no technological miracles or social engineering -- only the systematic application of many available, straightforward techniques. It could be led by business for profit and sped up by revenue-neutral policies enacted by U.S. states or federal agencies, and it would need from Congress no new taxes, subsidies, mandates, or laws.”
Lovins bases his prediction on the continued fall in price of renewable energy and the continued increase in its availability, but the critical component of his future is the increased efficiency with which we must use energy in the future. Companies have for decades been taking actions necessary to avoid wasteful spending on energy in order to maximize profit. That trend must continue and be encouraged to accelerate. Time is running out.
Lovins makes a reasonable case that enormous savings can be obtained from moving to extremely light-weight electric vehicles, more energy efficient buildings, and a more reliable and flexible energy grid. It is the latter that is of interest here.
“The United States must replace its aging, dirty, and insecure electric system by 2050 just to offset the loss of power plants that are being retired. Any replacement will cost about $6 trillion in net present value, whether it is more of the same, new nuclear power plants and “clean coal,” or centralized or distributed renewable sources.”
Renewable sources of energy are already competitive with massive, centrally located fossil fuel powered plants. What is needed is a new electric grid capable of taking advantage of smaller, more widely distributed sources inherent in an economy run on renewable energy. Think of every residence having rooftop solar panels. Think of every electric vehicle charging when energy is plentiful and contributing power back to the grid when energy is low.
The traditional grid centered on huge power plants is no longer economically efficient. These plants must be able to operate at peak energy demand even though average demand may be far less. This requires an investment in excess capacity that could have been avoided by a system with smaller, more plentiful sources that can move power efficiently from a low-demand region to a high-demand region. This is the kind of system that is inherent in a renewable energy economy.
“….U.S. and European studies have shown how whole continents could make 80 percent or more of their power renewably by operating existing assets differently within smarter grids, in markets that clear faster and serve larger areas.”
“Diverse, dispersed, renewable sources can also make the grid highly resilient. Centralized grids are vulnerable to cascading blackouts caused by natural disaster, accident, or malice. But grid reorganizations in Denmark and Cuba have shown how prolonged regional blackouts become impossible when distributed renewables, bypassing vulnerable power lines (where most failures start), feed local “microgrids,” which can stand alone if needed.”
One of the issues that arises in the discussions of global warming is the role of developing countries with respect to carbon emissions. It is often assumed that such countries will insist on—or have no alternative to—modernizing in much the way the current developed countries modernized. That path required high energy consumption and high carbon emissions. If this assumption were correct then there would be little hope that catastrophic global warming could be avoided.
There is an interesting article in The Economist discussing the state of energy production at the current time. It included a section addressing development in Africa, a continent where many have lives that are restricted and harmed by the lack of a reliable source of energy.
“FOR THE WORLD’S 1.2 billion poorest people, who are facing a long and perhaps endless wait for a connection to mains electricity, solar power could be the answer to their prayers. A further 2.5 billion are “underelectrified”, in development parlance: although connected to the grid, they can get only unreliable, scanty power. That blights lives too. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa, with a population of 910m, consumes only 145 terawatt hours of electricity a year—less than the 4.8m people who live in the state of Alabama. That is the pitiful equivalent of one incandescent light bulb per person for three hours a day.”
“In the absence of electricity, the usual fallback is paraffin (kerosene). Lighting and cooking with that costs poor people the world over $23 billion a year, of which $10 billion is spent in Africa. Poor households are buying lighting at the equivalent of $100 per kilowatt hour, more than a hundred times the amount people in rich countries pay. And kerosene is not just expensive; it is dangerous. Stoves and lamps catch fire, maiming and killing. Indoor fumes cause 600,000 preventable deaths a year in Africa alone. But candles or open fires are even worse—and so is darkness, which hurts productivity and encourages crime.”
The article refers to an “electrical revolution” that is now underway in Africa. It does not involve huge power plants gradually extending power lines to reach each remote village. Rather, it is based on the ever lower price for solar power. For lighting it is also assisted by the falling price of LED illumination. However, beyond that are a host of devices being developed to work in an environment where solar is the only source of power. Just as cell phones have leaped past the land-line phase of communication, solar power appears to be capable of leaping past the big power plant paradigm.
“But lighting and charging phones are only the first rungs on the ladder, notes Charlie Miller of SolarAid, a charity. Radios can easily run on solar power. Bigger systems can light up a school or clinic; a “solar suitcase” provides the basic equipment needed by health workers. A Ugandan company called SolarNow has a $200 low-voltage television set that runs on the direct current (DC) used by solar systems. A British-designed fridge called Sure Chill needs only a few hours of power a day to maintain a constant 4ºC. A company in South Africa has just launched solar-powered ATMs for rural areas with intermittent mains power.”
“Other companies offer bigger systems, for $1,500 and upwards, which can power “solar kiosks” and other installations that enable people to start businesses. Beefed up a bit more, these systems can replace diesel generators that will power stores and workshops, mill grain, run an irrigation pump or purify water. At an even larger scale they become mini-grids. A $500,000 aid-funded project in Kisiju Pwani, once one of the poorest villages in Tanzania, uses 32 photovoltaic solar panels and a bank of 120 batteries to provide 12kW of electricity, enough for 20 street lights and 68 homes, 15 businesses, a port, the village’s government offices and two mosques.”
Africa, as a continent, has enormous solar power potential. Eventually, as economies grow and living conditions improve regional electrical grids or a continent-wide grid will have to be established. Meeting the power needs with renewable energy sources will provide a healthier environment for both Africa and the rest of the world.
It is interesting that the world’s most wealthy countries and the world’s poorest countries all face a common problem: increasing their power efficiencies so that they can live in a world dominated by renewable energy sources. Both have the need to design electrical grids that efficiently manage these sources. Although they begin from quite different points, perhaps they can learn from each other’s experiences.