February 26, 2016

Is large scale renewable energy sustainable?

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Is large scale renewable energy as sustainable as you think?

There are four overlapping types of sustainability: Social, Economic, Political and Environmental. The success of a renewable energy project depends on delivering value in each of these spheres, and by no means are they mutually exclusive.

You need only look at the Mekong River to see where large scale renewable can be done wrong. Hydro-Powered Dams are largely deemed preferable to coal, but this overlooks the impacts they can have on the ecology of river systems and the communities who depend on them to survive.

The Mekong is the world’s 12th largest river and offers an astounding amount of energy ripe for development. With the number of Dams on the river being set to increase from 3 to 19, it will improve opportunities, living standards and development in an impoverished region. But, the environmental, socio-economic and Geopolitical implications of the development are likely to be fraught. The River flows through 4 countries: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China. The Dams will be built and deliver greater benefit to the areas in the river’s upper course; the damage will be felt in the lower course. This means that China is set to benefit the most and Vietnam the least. Relations between the two are far from cordial at the moment and additional conflicts do not ease the toxic climate.

70 million people depend on the river for their livelihoods and disruptions to sediment, fish migration and flooding will be enormously disruptive to the rural economy. Hydro electric dams are celebrated for decreasing carbon emission. However, whether they cause a net decline in green house gases is debateable. This is because, decomposing organic matter trapped in reservoirs release methane, a green house gas more than 4 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What are the alternatives?

Partisan interests are keen to dismiss smaller scale renewable energy projects as inefficient, but localising energy production challenges the inefficiencies that currently exist in the market. The energy industry is currently dominated by natural monopolies. This means consumers lose out because the high start-up cost restricts competition giving big businesses the freedom to set prices as they like. Two-thirds of California is covered by Pacific Gas and Electric and ineffective regulation  has made these problems worse.

The uptake in renewable energy will stabilise energy prices. But, the inefficiencies of utility companies DNO’s (Distribution Network Operators) including Scottish and Southern Energy, Northern Power Grid and Electricity North West have prevented this from being implemented.

 Ofgen the UK’s government gas and electricity regulator has been attempting to improve the deal for the public for a number of years with little to no effect. By forcing DNO’s to hand over their monopolies on new grid connections it is one of a number of ways to make the market more efficient. New renewable development is largely being undertaken by SME’s and private individuals. With the bulk of new power generation stemming from renewable projects it is a vital first step in improving the UK’s energy market and mitigating some of the increase in cost associated with the new infrastructure investment.

Unlike large scale non-hydroelectric renewable developments, solar voltaic and onshore wind energy has less potential for negative ecological, seismological and socio-economic externalities. Though they share a high upfront O&M cost as a share of total costs their lower energy output means they produce electricity at a higher cost per KWH. Unlike hydroelectric projects which operate at 90% efficiency there is a significant room for improvement for solar and wind power. It is the improvement in efficiency as well as falling costs which have improved the viability of large scale projects.

Whilst this is good news in its own right there are unique challenges facing the scalability and sustainability of photovoltaic cells and wind turbines. The former is currently hampered by its reliance on non-renewable resources. Namely Indium, a metal that has no significant deposits anywhere on earth, it is only found in 10 minerals in the earth’s crust. Currently it is extracted in limited quantities alongside zinc, but with only 10 years worth of supply remaining and cost reaching $1000 a kg the need to develop energy sources that are not reliant on this mineral is clear.

The cost of solar cells has fallen exponentially in the last 30 years and with new developments in the pipeline; namely the multi junction solar cell which can convert sunlight to energy with a theoretical efficiency of 86.8% and a demonstrated performance of 43%. These panels have yet to move away from their metallurgical confines.

Wind energy subsidies whilst helpful in ensuring the growth of the technology aren't infalable. There are instances when it has caused unfair levels of subsidy, through the practice of derating, where developers maximise their returns by claiming the largest subsidy on a small generator, then installing a bigger turbine to generate more energy than declared. The practice is inefficient as a bigger generator could have been installed maximising the sites output. It siphons public funds away from other projects and fuels public opposition to new installations.

Whilst not so much an indictment of wind farms sustainability, it does raise concerns about the misallocation of public funds. Green energy is the future of our energy production. We face a number of challenges to achieving a 0 carbon economy, but after the positive outcomes of the Paris climate talks perhaps that day isn’t as far off as you might think.

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