The future of energy – decentralised renewables

Why the Future Belongs to Decentralized Renewables, Not Centralized Hydrogen and Giga-Scale Nuclear November 18, 2016 by Energy Post

“……….Let me develop the real reasons why conventional renewables are likely to emerge as the dominant primary energy sources in the first half of the
21st century. The fundamental advantages of renewables, as revealed by practical experience in China as well as in industrialised countries like Germany where an energy transformation is well under way, are these.As they scale renewable energies do not present greater and greater hazards. Instead they are relatively benign technologies, without serious riskThey are clean (low to zero-carbon); they are non-polluting (important in China and India with their high levels of particulate pollution derived from coal); they tap into inexhaustibleenergy sources; and they have close-to-zero running costs since they do not need fuel. They are also diffuse, which should be viewed as an advantage, since this means that renewable sources are decentralised, and can be harvested by both large and by small operations. So they are eminently practicable.Some advantages of renewables are not at all obvious and need to be made explicit. Fundamentally, they are scalable. They can be built in modular fashion – one solar panel, 100 solar panels, 1000 solar panels. As they are replicated in this fashion so their power ratings continue to rise, without complexity cutting back on efficiency. This cannot be said of nuclear reactors, which have an optimal operational size – below which or above which the plant under-performs.

Moreover as they scale they do not present greater and greater hazards. Instead they are relatively benign technologies, without serious risks.

 

When they use hazardous materials, such as the cadmium in Cd-Te solar, the solution would be to recycle materials in order to minimise the use and waste of virgin materials.

Most importantly, the superiority of conventional renewables lies in their cost reduction trends which are linked to the fact that they are always the products of manufacturing – and mass production manufacturing, where economies of scale really play a role. This means that they offer genuine energy security in so far as manufacturing can in principle be conducted anywhere. There are no geopolitical pressures stemming from accidents of chance where one country has deposits of a fossil fuel but another does not. Manufactured devices promise an end to the era in which energy security remains closely tied to geopolitics and the projection of armed force. As Hao Tan and I put it in our article published in Nature, manufacturing renewables provides the key to energy security.

Manufacturing is characterised by improving efficiencies as experience is accumulated – with consequent cost reductions captured in the learning or experience curve. Manufacturing generates increasing returns; it can be a source of rising incomes and wealth without imposing further stresses on the earth. Add to these advantages that renewables promise economic advantages of the first importance: they offer rural employment as well as urban employment in manufacturing industry; they offer an innovative and competitive energy sector; and they offer export platforms for the future.

The real driver of the renewable energy revolution is not government policy, or business risk-taking, or consumer demand. It is, quite simply, the reduction of costs

This is to list the advantages of renewables without even mentioning their low and diminishing carbon emissions. Indeed they offer the only real long-term solution to the problem of cleaning up energy systems.

With all these advantages, it is little wonder that China and now India are throwing so much effort into building renewable energy systems at scale. These are not exercises undertaken for ethical or aesthetic purposes, but as national development strategies of the highest priority.

So the real driver of the renewable energy revolution is not government policy, or business risk-taking, or consumer demand. It is, quite simply, the reduction of costs – to the point where renewables are bringing down costs of generating power to be comparable with the use of traditional fossil fuels, and with the promise of reducing these costs further still. Supergrids are also being promoted for renewables, but these are very different conceptions, based on integrating numerous fluctuating sources in IT-empowered grids, offering the same practicable, scalable and replicable energy future.

Against these advantages, the obstacles regularly cited are small indeed. There is the fluctuating nature of renewables, which can be addressed by various forms of systems integration (smart grids, demand response) and of course through energy storage, which is moving into the same kind of cost reduction learning curve that has characterised solar and wind power, promising rapid diffusion of both commercial and domestic energy storage units. With rapidly falling costs of storage providing the buffer that can even out fluctuating levels of generation, there is no further serious argument against renewables……..

by 

This article is based on a scientific paper by John A. Mathews, Competing principles driving energy futures: Fossil fuel decarbonization vs. manufacturing learning curves, which was published in Futures in November 2016 (.http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016328715300227)

John Mathews is author of the Greening of Capitalism: How Asia is Driving the Next Great Transformation”, published by Stanford University Press: http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=24288. His latest book, “China’s Renewable Energy Revolution” (co-authored with Hao Tan) was published by Palgrave Pivot in September 2015: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/chinas-energy-revolution-john-a-mathews/?isb=9781137546241.

See his author’s archive on Energy Post.

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