Updated on November 2015 with the latest data from the REN 2015 report
About a year ago I wrote an article about the current state of play as to the performance of renewables. How they were doing in real terms, compared to what levels of growth are needed to offset dangerous climate change and peak oil. Well as we’ve just finished teaching for the year and marking season starts again for lecturers I thought it would be useful to repeat the exercise.
Old Renewables v’s New Renewables
I’ve used the same methodology as last time. I’ve included the figures for both GW’s installed, separating electrical, thermal and fuels out (where possible) and then including the resulting TWh’s that such growth in capacity would yield. If I managed to get a reliable TWh, PJ or mtoe figure then its included (centre justified to make it clear that its an actual not an estimated figure). Any figure in the TWh rows that is in italics and right justified represents an estimate based on known capacity factors. The bulk of the data presented comes from the most recent, or past, REN 21 reports. Where information is lacking, I’ve used figures provided by the IEA reports.
Look at the figures, in particular comparing the five year average to the performance last year, several trends are evident. Most notably, there seems to be a consistent trend of growth amounting to 550-590 TWh/yr. Different sources seem to do better than the other in different years, but this trend seems to remain.
There has also been a distinct slow down in hydroelectricity. While Hydro has previously been one of the largest sources of renewables growth, it was only 7.8% of 2014 growth. In 2014 it was outperformed by wind power and solar PV, while it was also outperformed by solar thermal back in 2013. Similarly biomass growth has been strong in some areas, but sluggish in others, although the overall trend is clearly upwards.
This of course suggests a trend, whereby the older renewables sources are starting to top out, but the gap is being filled by strong growth in the newer renewables. This incidentally solves a question I’ve heard asked for sometime. The logic was that as hydroelectricity was “all used up” once it stopped growing, renewables output would cool. However this isn’t what’s happened.
Furthermore, this “all used up” argument regarding hydroelectricity. Its something I’ve been hearing for over ten years, yet the hydro figure still keeps on creeping up. At least as far as large scale hydro I reckon we’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel, with 1,000 GW’s of install capacity. However there is still quite a lot of potential when it comes to pumped storage and micro-hydro schemes. So don’t be surprised if this number continues to creep up. Although its less of a concern if it doesn’t as the output from the newer renewables is eliminating its importance.
Of the new renewables, solar is growing particularly strongly. PV grew by 22%, down on its previous high for 2013 of 39%, with CSP growing by a similar amount. While Solar thermal growth was only 8%, overall it is rapidly becoming the world’s most important source of solar energy.
Much of this growth, in particular solar thermal, occurred in developing nations. So again another important development is that developing countries are avoiding some of the lockin that has plagued efforts to get the West off its fossil fuel addiction. The growth in solar thermal is quite important in this regard, as the primary means of energy consumption in most homes is heating.
Wind power grew by 51 GW’s, up on the 45 GW’s of last year. Also the dominance of wind is being threatened by the strong growth in solar, in particular PV. As PV matures it could well be the main source of future growth in renewables. Even so wind power still represented the largest source of growth, some 22% of all growth in renewables. So any thought of wind energy slowing down are probably premature.
A hot topic
You may notice that my figures for geothermal energy are a little muddled. This is because the REN 21 report seems to be accepting the issues regarding Heat pumps. That is to say that unless you can guarantee a COP of greater than 3 (ideally in excess of 4) from these, then operating them on a fossil fuel heavy grid makes it somewhat dubious to call them a form of renewable energy (the latest report even has a side bar explaining this), something I’ve discussed myself in a prior post. So for this reason I’ve separated out the direct geothermal heat use and heat pumps. Due to this statistical change we can’t get a reliable figure for the GW’s installed in 2014, but we can easily estimate the TWh‘s.
Doing better, but must try harder
Of course, before we start pulling out the victory cigars, I recall estimating that in order to phase out fossil fuels at a reasonable rate we’d need to add close to 1,000 – 1,500 TWh/yr. Exactly how much depends on the amount of growth in energy demand year on year and the fact that only about 18% of TFC (Total Final energy Consumption) is electricity, the rest being heat, transportation fuels and feedstock to industry. Cycle efficiencies and the need to bunker fuel will require further capacity added to counter the inherent inefficiencies in such processes. Needless to say, all the PV panels and wind farms in the world aren’t going to do much good without the right infrastructure to plug into, as I discussed in a more recent post.
So the message would seem to be that while renewables are doing well and the industry is maturing, we’re still only adding about half to a third the capacity needed. So its still a case of doing well, but could do better. This is why I’m particularly worried by suggestions that subsidies to renewables will be cut, as I don’t think we’re at the stage yet where that can be done. Certainly not when fossil fuel prices are low and we have the defacto subsidy of them in the form of no carbon tax.
Part of the solution or part of the problem?
Of course the response of some when faced with the fact that renewables aren’t performing strongly enough, is to say that this is why we need nuclear power. However that’s part of the issue here. Nuclear is increasingly becoming less a part of the solution and more part of the problem.
The data in table 2 come mostly from the IEA KWES reports, But as far as the 2013 and 2014 GW‘s figures, as well as the 2014 TWh figure (2013 TWh‘s coming from the IEA), I’ve used the World Nuclear Industry Status Report. Part of the problem in recent years has been its become increasingly difficult to get reliable data about nuclear energy, as this article discusses. For example, the IAEA still records the presence of the Japanese reactors shut down since Fukushima in terms of total installed capacity, even though most haven’t generated any electricity for several years now. In the fantasy limbo world of the IAEA Japan’s reactors are still all up and running! For this reason I’ve included a line above where I’ve added back in the 274 TWh‘s we’d expect to get from Japan’s nuclear reactors (for the benefit of those who’ve drunk their share of the Nuclear kool aid!).
Even so, which ever way you look at it, nuclear is now on something of a downward trend, losing an average of 3% of installed GW’s per year, with an overall drop of 16% in TWh‘s since 2010, which might well represent the point of “peak nuclear”. Overall nuclear is producing only a quarter of the TFC energy we’re harvesting from renewables (9,452 TWh‘s from renewables v’s 2,359 TWh‘s from nuclear) and this is a gap that’s very likely to grow rather than shrink.
I would expect this current downward trend to reverse itself in the next year or two, as I’m aware that there are many large scale nuclear building projects that are due to be completed in the next few years, notably in China and India. So expect the IAEA to make a big deal about this in a few years time, conveniently ignoring the current downward trend. However it will probably be only a temporary reprieve as any growth in developing nations is likely to be outweighted by nuclear shutdowns in the West.
Are you suggesting that reactors migrate?
In the UK for example by 2026, the earliest possible date at which Hinkley C could start operating (and even that’s looking increasingly unlikely), 19 of the UK’s 20 reactors will have shut down and suffice to say 2 reactors to replace 19 isn’t favourable odds. In the US just 5 reactors are under active construction against a total of 100 reactors of an average age of 30 years (28.5 years average age worldwide) that need to be replaced. Assuming a maximum 45-50 year operating live (there are no reactors greater than 46 years of age still operating) this means that unless there is a dramatic change in US national energy policy in the next decade or so then its very likely that nuclear power use will undergo a dramatic decline in America.
And even in France there is bad news. As WNISR 2014 points out all French reactors are only licensed to operate for 30 years. In theory if they don’t get a life extension (and its likely a number of those built in the same era as TMI and Fukushima won’t) then its possible that some (perhaps a large number of them) will shut down over the next couple of years. Currently France has but 1 reactor under construction…very slow construction!
Meanwhile the Finish Olkiluoto 3 project has gone from the bad to the farcical. The current estimate is that Olkiluoto 3 will commence operations in 2018-2020, nine years late and at an estimated cost of 8.5 Billion euro’s (original budget was 2.7 billion euro’s!). So frustrated are the Finn’s that they’ve basically kicked out all the Western contractors from bidding for any other nuclear projects. They seem to plan on giving the contract to the Russians (you know you’re desperate when you rely on Russians to build anything with the “nuclear” word in it!).
So in essence what’s happening is that we’re seeing the world’s nuclear capacity migrate from Western countries to developing nations. However its very probable that we’ll still end up with an overall decline and a generally downward trend in global nuclear energy output. Keep in mind that to reverse the current trend would require adding 6-15 GW/yr of nuclear just to stand still. Any sort of growth, such as the IAEA’s target of 6.65 GW/yr. I pointed to in a prior article, would thus require a build rate of closer to 12-20 GW/yr, which is well above current built rates of closer to 4 GW/yr (or roughly 27 TWh/yr, about 5% of the construction rate of renewables!).
And keep in mind that the historical maximum build rate for nuclear of 30 GW/yr back in the 1970’s (assuming a capacity factor of 90%) amounts to about 225 TWh/yr, roughly a third the rate at which renewables are currently being installed. The fact is that no matter what way’s you twist the figures there is no way nuclear is going to make any kind of a dent in the sort of energy needs we’ll need to add over the coming decades. Even the most demented tinfoil hat wearing LFTR cheerleader has to accept this fact.
In short the report card for nuclear, if it were a student of mine, would be instructions to come and talk to me as we need to have a long hard chat about whether the student wants to remain on the course or not. As current performance, a lack of engagement nor can-do attitude, and a failure to set realistic targets (and then meet them) is likely to lead to them being thrown out of uni.
And there will be great rejoicing?
However the death of the nuclear renaissance creates a problem for renewables. For it would suggest I should take the 595 TWh/yr figure above and deduct 99.3 TWh/yr away from it. Quite a lot of the renewables we’ve been installing recently, particularly in the west, has been replacing nuclear capacity and not fossil fuel capacity. Or indeed increased electricity demand from growing economies. So in reality low carbon energy installation needs to increase by a factor of between three and five.
I’m not trying to construct a pro-nuclear or an anti-nuclear argument by pointing this out. I’m merely pointing out that we are where we are. And as a result, replacing nuclear at the same time as phasing out fossil fuels does make that slope of the mountain that little bit steeper.
This is of course why I’ve long banged the drum about energy conservation. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to give up their car or become a vegan (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt if people did!) or run off and join a hippy commune. But clearly if there’s going to be gap between what can be added by renewables and the amounts of energy the world demands, then this means we have to cut consumption to compensate. Certainly the idea that we should effectively subsidise fossil fuel consumption or wasteful habits is something that needs to change.