I am frequently told by the nay sayers that getting any more than a tiny fraction of the UK’s energy from renewables is impossible (here’s one typical example of Fox News style research). They’ll present elaborate reports that attempt to prove as much. However I often find that this merely reflects “confirmation bias” on their part.
The spectacular growth rate of renewables in Germany has frequently made them the poster child for renewables roll out. But perhaps we ignore the fact that many other countries are doing a good deal more with renewables. Take Portugal. They have recently reported a 3 month period where they achieved 70% of the electricity generation via renewables, substantially more than the 20% of electricity from renewables frequently quoted for Germany.The Portuguese achieved thanks to some clever management of their grid. 37% of their electricity represents hydroelectricity, a combination of some legacy dam projects and newly installed capacity. Also the Portuguese have begun to use these not just to generate power, but also to store it. Thus if it’s a windy night and their wind farms (27% of total generating capacity, on a per kWh basis) are running but nobody is using, then they simply shunt the power into pumped storage. The next time demand hits peak, they use the hydroelectricity to even out any peaks and troughs.
The ultimate bottom line? Portugal cut its coal consumption by 29% and its gas consumption (for power generation) by 44%. The country was also a net exporter of electricity (by 6%) over this period.
What is perhaps more remarkable is that solar energy, the sort of energy source we’d directly associate with a hot Mediterranean climate, currently does not yet figure hugely in Portugal (currently less than 1% of total per kWh output), although that’s set to change. This is why I suspect they’ll have little difficulty achieving 100% (actually for brief periods they’ve already done that, but I’m talking over a full year period). Solar energy is useful in hotter countries because when solar energy reaches peak efficiency and output, tends to be when electricity demand is at its highest point (due to air-con demand). So it’s a useful form of “load matching”.And of course Portugal is hardly the only country in the world who gets by with a majority of its electricity from renewables. Norway gets 99% of its electricity from renewables (mostly hydro). Iceland gets 100% of its electricity and 81% of its entire primary energy consumption from renewables (mostly hydro and geothermal, overall Iceland is arguably a net exporter of renewable electricity once you factor in its use of them for smelting and industrial purposes). Sweden gets 50% from renewables. Both Sweden and Iceland also get much of their winter heat from renewable sources also. Ireland has (for brief periods) achieved 50% of electricity demand from its wind farms alone. In short anyone who speaks to you “with authority” that it is impossible to get much more from renewables is talking through his a….armpit 😉 and I would urge the reader to point out as much to this individual. There is no reason why other nations with good renewable resources, such as the UK, cannot achieve the same.
But don’t forget the elephants!
Of course, before we start pulling out the victory cigars and congratulating ourselves on a job well done. Let’s not forget that electricity is only a small portion of total energy consumption. According to the IEA about 17% of total final consumption is electricity, the remaining 83% is everything else (heating, transportation fuels, industrial feedstock, fertilizers, etc.).By way of example, in the UK (full energy consumption stat’s available here), about 20% of consumption is electricity. About 36% is transportation fuel, with a similar amount (37%) going towards heating and cooling. Much of the heat demand is highly seasonal in its consumption, typically peaking in the winter months. This tends to favour an energy source that can be easily “bunkered” and stockpiled over the winter, which is why currently most of this load is met by Natural Gas and fuel oil. The Heat is on
I see a few possible solutions, firstly minimisation of the problem. Better insulation of houses can greatly reduce the heating demand. The previous labour government proposed that all future UK homes should be at the very least “Passivhaus” standard (meaning the house is so well insulated that it need little or no supplementary space heating) or better yet “zero carbon” (with the aid of building integrated renewables the house cancels out its own energy demand). I have tended to favour the former, as I feel it’s more achievable and practical. Either way it shows what can be achieved.The Swedish, Germans, Danes, Iceland and Finland, meet much of their heating needs (which are substantially greater than the UK’s) via CHP (combined heat and power) or district heating systems. Some of these are run on biofuels. Even if run on natural gas however, CHP can produce a significant cut in carbon emissions (by 25-30%), as well as reducing costs by cutting fuel consumption.
Solar thermal is another energy source often underrated in the UK. Some people seem to think it doesn’t work very well here. But it would surprise you how much sun the UK receives (averaged over a year) and the near constant demand for heat in the UK throughout the year for hot water purposes, ensures it won’t go to waste.
Moving down the road
Transportation is dominated by oil, 95% of it in the UK, because petrol is such a versatile fuel. I discuss the various future paths (with a bit of the history) of cars here. I would firstly point out that the vast bulk of car journeys are within the range of existing electric vehicles. Longer distance vehicles could be operated via hydrogen, either consumed in a fuel cell, Stirling engine or indeed an ordinary high efficiency IC engine. Of course in the short term the technology isn’t commercially mature and the hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure to support such vehicles doesn’t exist.Fortunately vehicles in Europe are getting ever more fugal with their fuel consumption (unfortunately the lassie faire policies of the GOP means this had not translated across the Atlantic….I’m sure they’ll figure it out after oil prices takes another jump tho!). Volkswagen have just announced their latest 1L car (which they’ve been working on for quite some time now), which they plan to put into limited production, capable of an incredible 0.9 L/100 km’s (about 282 mpgimp). On an NEDC cycle that yields a carbon footprint of just 22 gCO2/km ! The car achieves this via a series plugin hybrid drive train. This means it’s essentially an electric vehicle. The difference between it and a pure EV is that it has a small high efficiency diesel engine “range extender” fitted, which tops up the battery when required.
Of course public transport is substantially more energy efficient than even the car above. Improving here would greatly decrease oil consumption.
But as I said at the beginning, if there’s one thing to take away from this story it is that there are solutions to our problems. The path to get there will not be short, and I’m not suggesting it will be easy. But it is certainly achievable, it’s merely a matter of a lack of the proper incentives to drive the process on.