Renewing renewables (part 1 of 2): The case for change

While the deployment of large scale renewables (mostly solar and wind) has started, the situation is such that without major changes, coal and nuclear will likely become the predominant energy sources in the decades to come. However, there is a strong case for why none of the latter energy sources should be adopted on a large scale as the solution. In this series of two articles is a clear case for change to a renewable-based economy.

Coal: an unwanted but likely outcome

Few economists would deny the era of a petroleum-based economy is coming to an end. Supplies of oil are vanishing fast; despite variations in reported supplies most experts agree that within a few decades “easy” supplies of liquid fossil fuels will vanish. The cost of oil can only go up as the supplies become rare or more difficult to access (e.g. deep sea extraction, tar sands, residual reserves).

However, other non-renewable supplies are still largely abundant, especially coal. While renewables are struggling to compete financially with the current cost of cheap (and transportable) energy, coal’s low financial cost (oil was four times more expensive than coal for energy production purposes in 2006) makes it an easy replacement for oil. The world will probably come to rely on coal once again, and even derive liquid fuels from this resource, as the cost of the process will still be cheaper than that of oil (technology to convert coal into liquid fuel does exist, in fact it was already used during the Second World War).

This trend is already highly visible. Countries like China and the USA (which are likely to remain the two largest economies in the 21st century) are both investing heavily in coal-based energy. In China alone, every single week at least one new coal-fired power plant opens and almost none of the power plants are oil-based. Furthermore, both of these countries are rich in coal reserves.

The prospect of energy security through a coal-based economy can be seen as a life saver for energy-starved communities, but would really be a time bomb from a climate point of view! As a reminder, 2010 was declared the year with the highest global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in recorded history. The finding highlights the failure of over 20 years of international climate change negotiations. While the debate on climate change is clearly over and warnings of serious consequences of inaction are abundant, we do not seem to be changing course from what is rapidly becoming an unavoidable catastrophe impacting future (and even current) generations. We have passed the point at which, no matter what we do, significant changes will happen; it is just a matter of how bad these changes will be.

A shift to a coal-based economy would commit us to this self-destructive path for decades to come. With viable renewable technologies available today, there’s no excuse for choosing the “easy” coal option. 

Why nuclear is not the solution

Nuclear fission: Many nations have turned to nuclear energy to cut down GHG emissions to avoid reaching dangerous atmospheric build-up. Nuclear has been a hot debate for many years and despite nuclear’s promising start at the end of the Second World War, cheap oil has managed to put the technology in the background, with the notable exception of a few countries like France.

Nuclear would indeed allow nations to significantly reduce their GHG emissions; however there are a few major issues with nuclear fission.

First, most current nuclear reactors rely on fissile uranium (U235 isotope) and the process is highly inefficient. Only about one per cent of the caloric content of the fuel is retrieved while the rest is turned into nuclear waste that will last for thousands of years. At about 30 per cent (less than that of modern coal fired plants), the thermodynamic efficiency of current nuclear plants is rather low as well. If nuclear was to be applied and sustained in the long term, we would need to use advanced nuclear reactors (“breeder reactors”) which more effectively enrich uranium into plutonium. These reactors, such as the Super-Phoenix nuclear plant in France, are much more efficient. About 75 per cent of the original uranium is used effectively. However, using plutonium reactors poses serious global security issues as plutonium can also be used to derive nuclear weapons.

Secondly, uranium is not a renewable resource. If uranium were exploited on a large scale (especially for the non-breeder reactor process), power plants would quickly exhaust uranium ore resources (the time scale is about the same as that for oil or gas).

Furthermore, dealing with nuclear waste (transport and disposal) is still a problem, especially if this process was applied on a much larger scale.  To date, no country has developed a permanent solution to even the relatively small amounts of nuclear waste generated in today’s power plants.

And finally, past and recent accidents involving nuclear plants are putting further doubts on a larger scale implementation of this technology.

Nuclear fusion: Nuclear fusion is seen by many as the Holy Grail of clean energy as it could produce unlimited amounts of energy, mostly from sea water, without nuclear waste and other unwanted consequences. However, the reality is that we are still far from exploiting this technology. Major breakthroughs still need to be achieved to stabilize and confine the reactions. Most experts predict that nuclear fusion will not be commercially available for another 50 years. However, we are running out of time. We cannot afford to wait or put all our hopes on fusion.

While it appears that coal and nuclear are the easy solutions to energy security in the coming decades, both would be unwanted outcomes. In the second part of this series of articles (Renewing Renewables: The path for change), I address the case for renewables and the changes required if we are to avoid the nuclear/coal scenarios.

Sylvain Richer de Forges is head of sustainability at Siloso Beach Resort.

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