Your burning energy questions answered: Part III

How can the world move quickly to a fossil-fuel free economy, and what is the role of businesses in the transition to clean energy?

In this final segment of the Global Energy Prize series, nuclear energy expert Tom Blees from the United States answers these questions from Eco-Business readers with a discussion on whether or not solar and wind energy can support a carbon-free economy on their own. And finally, what lessons are to be learned from islands, whose isolation begs for innovative solutions such as energy production from the surrounding seas?

Brooks Keene from the United States asked: IEA has more or less acknowledged that global oil production has or will soon peak (see: http://www.fcnp.com/commentary/national/10587-the-peak-oil-crisis-the-ieas-road-show.html). What implications does this have for the need to decarbonize our economies, and what role can businesses play in leading the way towards creating policy frameworks that create the right incentives for navigating the road ahead?

 

Answer:

While there are different opinions for when the world reaches “peak oil”, most agree that we either have already hit that mark or will soon do so. Assuming that’s the case, the response of businesses depends to a great degree on what businesses we’re talking about. The oil companies would seem to have little incentive to make major changes (short of prospecting for more oil), since their costs are always passed on to consumers, in either shortages or gluts. They’re looking at many more years of virtually guaranteed healthy (if not obscene) profits as long as the majority of transport depends on gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuels based on petroleum.

That being said, gas companies have a tremendous incentive to take advantage of concerns about peak oil, especially now that fracking is expanding almost exponentially. The push to convert automobiles and other ground transport to compressed natural gas has been with us for a while and can be expected to increase, especially if fracking continues to expand–though anti-fracking pressures based on environmental concerns may affect that, in some countries more than others.

Though some environmentalists have embraced natural gas as an alternative to coal in electrical generation, this is a Faustian bargain that is driven more out of desperation than logic or conviction. Those who are pushing the hardest for an all-renewables future know that they need what is euphemistically called “backup power” for when solar and wind facilities aren’t producing. How one can call the system that provides about 75 per cent or more of one’s energy “backup” is a mystery, but so it is in today’s energy politics.

The hard data available to date indicates that the only way we can decarbonize—eliminating both oil and gas—is to employ nuclear power as backup, and to devise methods of using renewables plus nuclear and biomass to make the transportation fuels we need, in addition to the electricity that our societies will come to depend on more and more in the future. Businesses not directly involved in the energy sector have few options in terms of directly affecting the course of energy policy. Sure, we see some businesses putting up solar arrays or making other politically correct token gestures, but these are window dressing that relies on subsidies, not really consequential in the effort to decarbonize human energy systems. The decisions that matter will be made within the energy sector, and those decisions will continue to accommodate the fossil fuel industries—be they coal, oil, or gas—unless governments lay down the law and force through policies that make it impossible for the status quo to continue. Carbon taxes are a first step, but support for a massive buildout of nuclear power (as we see in China today and to a lesser degree in some other countries) is critical to making progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful way.

In a similar vein, Shadi Saboori posed this question:  What would be an optimal way to create incentives for businesses to transition to renewable energy (and one that is politically realistic)?

Answer:

This is touched on in the previous response. Assuming that the term “renewable energy” doesn’t include nuclear power, the options for businesses that wish to transition to renewables are dictated primarily by the degree of subsidization offered. Customer demand is also a factor, such that if a company believes that hyping their green credentials by putting solar panels on their roofs will help business, then it’s more likely that they’ll take that step even if it costs them money in the long run. Thanks to generous subsidization by many governments, however, businesses can make it a paying proposition because, unlike many homeowners, they have the wherewithal to put up the sometimes fairly large sums up front, knowing that they’ll more than make back their investment over time due to tax deductions, generous depreciation and other allowances, and especially feed-in tariffs.

While all these incentives do encourage businesses to transition to renewable energy, is that necessarily a good thing from a societal standpoint? After all, the only reason that it’s at all profitable for the few companies that do it is because a large base of ratepayers are splitting up the cost amongst themselves (usually unknowingly). In other words, while such deployment (of solar, usually) makes things appear to be progressing in terms of societal transition to renewables, it’s simply not economically rational without the subsidies, so the wealthy (the companies that do it) are taking advantage of the less well-heeled individual citizens. If everyone were to attempt to transition to solar thusly, it would obviously be impossible, since there would be no pool from which the subsidies could be derived.

When it comes to large energy-intensive industries, even massive solar arrays can’t hope to provide the energy they’ll need, which is why some of Germany’s major industries with long histories in that country are either demanding specially reduced electricity rates or threatening to leave the country. Germany, of course, is where renewables—particularly solar and wind—have had enthusiastic government support for the last couple decades or so. Of course when the government cuts a discount energy rate deal with such industries to offset the steadily climbing electricity costs, it transfers even more of a burden onto the shoulders of regular consumers, forcing their escalating rates even higher.

Ultimately, the truly consequential decisions about a nation’s energy policy will be made by governments, with individual businesses moving in one direction or another based on their economic self-interest. And if Germany and Denmark—as the two nations with the longest history of continued government support for non-nuclear renewables—are any guide, the transition to an all-renewables future is nothing we can expect to consider viable in the foreseeable future.

The final question from Berend Jan Kleute of Bluerise BV touches on the use of remote islands as examples of self-contained energy systems: Island environments have unique characteristics that make them interesting to provide a general view of how possible integration of renewable energy (RE) systems can be implemented.  Tropical islands usually have the greater potential of conversion using traditional RE technology (wind, solar) given their resource availability. Unfortunately islands very often lack the luxury of interconnection to a large grid, and the limited space and resources make energy storage and widespread deployment of these traditional RE systems (due to intermittency) unfeasible. The lack of an effective storage/buffer solution limits the penetration potential of traditional RE sources. What role do you foresee for different RE systems, including wind and solar, and in particular baseload RE technologies such as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and Seawater Air-conditioning (SWAC) to achieve a 100 per cent energy self-sufficiency of tropical islands?

Answer:

Even in the most environmentally cooperative islands (breezy tropical settings) wind and solar alone will simply not be able to lead to 100 per cent self-sufficiency without considerable energy storage, not something that’s heretofore been demonstrated at scale except at great expense. OTEC and SWAC theoretically could provide true baseload power, but these two also have yet to be scaled up.

As someone who spent a couple decades working on some of the world’s stormiest seas, whenever I consider the often glib assurances that OTEC and wave power and other such systems will someday carry a meaningful amount of the load in supplying mankind’s energy demands, I cannot help but be skeptical. For while such systems may scale up and perform quite well for months, Mother Nature has a way of kicking up the power of the ocean in ways that are truly awesome to behold, and when that happens even the sturdiest manmade contraptions are often brought to ruin. I suspect it is difficult for many people who hold out high hopes for such systems—or for many of those who design them, for that matter—to truly appreciate what they’re up against. For my part, having experienced hurricane-force winds several times in the Bering Sea and a hurricane in the Caribbean that broke wind speed records, I would have to say that I’ll believe these ocean-tapping systems will work over the long haul when they’ve been deployed and operated successfully for many years.

One technology that I believe will soon be seeing widespread deployment on island groups is plasma converters, which I wrote about in my book Prescription for the Planet. I’ve posted a chapter on this technology online for those who wish to read about it in detail. These systems allow for efficient recycling of virtually everything, being essentially molecular deconstructors. Disposal of municipal solid waste, sewage sludge, discarded tires and other waste is especially problematic for islands, what with limited space for landfills and water contamination issues that can sometimes result. Plasma converters eliminate the need for landfills altogether and allow waste materials to be converted into electricity (usually extremely expensive on islands) and building materials. They also do away with the need for an entirely separate recycling infrastructure, since everything can be discarded in any mix and the plasma converters will sort it all out. Another bonus for island groups that have problems with reef destruction: the inert glassy slag resulting from treating wastes can be used to build artificial reefs, or to augment the surviving reefs.

But even if all the islands’ waste is efficiently converted and the electricity from it is piped into the island grid, there will still be a shortfall. Barring dependence, to one degree or another, on either fossil fuels or nuclear power, I suspect that islands that can manage the cost of substantial wind and solar systems will end up adding the cost of as much storage as they can muster and their citizens will learn to live with energy rationing and occasional failures. Several companies are prepared to provide small modular nuclear power systems, however, that could serve islands perfectly. The Russians are also planning on deploying reactors on barges, and these could also provide all the energy that island groups require. I believe the next couple decades will see more and more island groups turning to nuclear power, which has a very small footprint (or none, in the case of floating or submerged systems), low operating and maintenance costs, and no emissions.

About The Global Energy Prize

The Global Energy Prize is one of the world’s most respected awards in energy science, awarding over US$1million every year for outstanding energy achievements and innovations.

Thus far, the Prize has been granted to 24 scientists from around the globe, including past Laureates from the US, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, Ukraine, Russia, and Japan. The President of the Russian Federation participates in each year’s award ceremony held at the conclusion of a week-long celebration of the awardees’ work, Laureates’ Week.  Other world leaders who have supported the prize include the former US President George W. Bush, former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, former French President Jacques Chirac and current Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

The Global Energy Prize rewards innovation and solutions in global energy research and its concurrent environmental challenges. The degree to which a development contributes to the benefit of humanity is a key driver in deciding the recipient of the Prize.

The panelists

The award-winning scientists on the panel provide a global perspective on a wide range of topics that directly affect Asia, for example, renewable energy industries, national energy policies and climate science. They are all members of the International Award Committee chosen to determine this year’s Global Energy Prize.

Tom Blees from the United States is a nuclear power strategist and pro-nuclear environmentalist, and a member of the International Award Committee for the Global Energy Prize. He is also the president of The Science Council for Global Initiatives and the author of Prescription for the Planet – The Painless Remedy for Our Energy & Environmental Crises. Blees has been a consultant and advisor on energy technologies at international, national and state levels.

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