Recently Portugal has managed to pass that key milestone of achieving 100% of its electricity from renewables over several days, an improvement on the 70% of a few years ago. Granted its more normally an average of 48% from renewables, through a combination of wind, hydro and solar. This is encouraging news, as it debunks the many myths regarding renewables (that you can’t get 100% of power from renewables, or that it will lead to an increase in emissions, etc.). And it also makes Portugal another (although only occasional for the moment) member of that exclusive club of countries (or regions) who are able to get 100% of their electricity from renewables.Long term members of this club are of course Norway, Iceland, Uruguay and Paraquay. However several regions of other countries are also members. Quebec for example (population 8 million, 100% renewable electricity), the German states of Schleswig-Holstein (population 2.8 million) or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (1.65 million) or the Canary Island of El-Hierro all get 100% of their electricity from renewables. And temporary members of this club also include Denmark, who has been getting as much as 140% of its electricity demand from wind on occasions, although a more normal average figure is closer to 57%,with 44% of total output coming from wind energy alone. Much of any excess is shared with Norway and Germany, from whom Denmark generally buys back power during periods of low wind.
The end result has been that the carbon footprint of Danish electricity has fallen significantly over recent years. Assuming 4,000 kWh’s per average household, the carbon intensity of Danish electricity now averages 202 g/kWh (although it can go substantially lower at times). This represents a 33% fall in emissions intensity over one year and has to be compared to a UK figure of about 420 g CO2 per kWh (again yearly average, it generally floats between about 560 and 350 g’s). So clearly things are moving in the right direction in Denmark.And there are plenty of other countries doing well too. Scotland and Ireland now consistently get over 50% of their electricity from renewables (57% in the case of Scotland), Sweden 52% (which much of the rest coming from biomass fired CHP or nuclear), with Georgia its close to 85% (mostly from dams). Costa Rica drifts up to 100% renewables on occasions, as too does Austria (63% is more typical thought although some parts of the country are consistently above 100%). Many of the states mentioned are also occasional exporters of renewables, and are certainly more likely to be exporting renewable electricity than buying in fossil generated power.
As always, its important to point out that electricity is merely 20% of total final energy consumption (actually closer to 18% according to the latest IEA report), with much of the rest taken up by heating and cooling of buildings, transportation energy and material processing (rough break down here). Also agriculture related carbon emissions are growing strongly. But clearly a combination of energy conservation and mass roll out of renewables is starting to have an effect. And crucially it means we can debunk many of the myths about renewables.One myth we can debunk is that you can’t operate a grid where a majority of the power comes from intermittent renewables. Actually the grid in countries like Germany or Denmark is more stable than in others with a fossil fuel/nuclear heavy commitment. Obviously a number of the “temporary” members of our 100% club will probably, in the longer term, have to invest more in energy storage to close the remaining gap. Fortunately the technology to do that is already available and the amount of storage needed is often overestimated. And are renewables a “job killer” like the Republicans claim? Actually, the opposite is true. The renewables industry in Europe employs over one million people with a turnover of £143.6 Billion. And most of those jobs didn’t exist a few years ago. So clearly its creating jobs not taking them away.
Another myth is that carbon emissions won’t fall, indeed they’ll go up with renewables (due to “back up”), is also debunked. In almost every case a rise in renewable installation, even if it comes from intermittent sources, means falling emissions and fossil fuel plants being shut down.
There will probably need to be some base load of thermal plants (likely CHP) maintained as a backup (presumably running on fossil fuels with CCS in the interim, then biomass or stored hydrogen later). Exactly how much is difficult to say. But certainly the end result is less fossil fuels burned and lower emissions. And if your concern is peak oil, those resources get stretched out for that bit longer into the future. Indeed, pull down fossil fuel consumption below a certain threshold and peak oil ceases to be a worry for much of this century (and by then at current rates, we could well have replaced it all).
Like I said, the situation isn’t perfect, but there is plenty of encouraging evidence. Unfortunately, we have to balance that with the situation in the UK as a whole, which isn’t encouraging. Here an outgoing Scottish energy minster recently compared being a renewables investor in the UK to being in a Soviet Gulag. The Queen’s speech did make some vague references to doing something about climate change, but no specifics.
Its therefore no wonder investor confidence in the UK energy sector is at an all time low. And keep in mind that the Green economy in the UK is a £46 billion industry. And many in the energy sector had been banking on the assumption that growth in renewables would represent the bulk of new jobs to replace those lost in the oil industry’s recent downturn. So the impasse in UK energy policy is having a very real impact that cannot be ignored. All to placate the swivel eyed loons of the UKIP wing of the tory party.
Meanwhile, the main reason for all of this hold up (Hinkley C) has been delayed….again! (I told you to get used to hearing that!) And of course the EU referendum threatens catastrophic consequences if it goes the wrong way.Oh, and Trump wants to renegotiate the Paris conference. Ya, America isn’t even the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide any more (that would be China), there are oil producing states whose economy will take a hit from events in Paris (some parts of the US will actually benefit, as noted earlier renewables tend to create jobs). Yet all of them signed up to the Paris deal. But because one ignorant egomanic, wasn’t in the room, we have to renegotiate it. Ya, and maybe we should renegotiate the Congress of Vienna or the Lateran treaty while we’re at it!
And speaking of Austria, it’s possible that the Austrian far right might win the Presidency in this country soon. No doubt, with a load of climate deniers and islamophobics in charge, they’ll probably do as the Tories did….all but guaranteeing that in future Austria will be beholden to Middle East oil producers (why is it that those on the right don’t understand the concept of irony!)
So suffice to say, the one unfortunate fact is that the major obstacle to getting anything done about climate change is not technical. Its ideological dogma.