In the years ahead, the battle of ideas will be waged using the arcane language of energy policy. But make no mistake – these are matters of life and death. Many millions of lives hang on the outcome of the decisions that will be made. Without transport fuels, food-supply chains could collapse. Without means of heating in winter, people could freeze. Get the balance between retreat from carbon fuels into low-carbon energy wrong, and billions face the lethal consequences of a climate in accelerating meltdown. In that scenario, the Four Horsemen would be hard at work, aided by the world’s crashing economies.
On the green side of the argument, the renewables industries argue that they could power the world completely, given the chance, and with surprising speed, assuming parallel efforts are made in energy efficiency. One conference of experts has put the time needed to effect a full transition away from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewables, by consensus, at as little as 20 years. With a growing proportion of renewables in the energy mix, advocates argue, there will be many benefits, for nation and planet alike. More renewables means more local energy, which means more local economic activity and more local employment – the green new deal that we hear so much about these days. The security of nations would improve: military security, food security and water security alike. With local energy an empowering factor both literally and metaphorically, we would have a much greater chance of preserving democracy against advancing extremist forces, both religious and political. We could avoid not just the terrible economic costs of runaway global warming, but we could soften the landing as we pass peak oil production and the taps start to shut down on oil-importing nations, depriving them of the lifeblood of their economies.
Progress supporting such optimism about renewables has, on the whole, been encouraging of late. In 2008, for the first time both the European Union and the US added more capacity from renewables than from fossil-fuel and nuclear sources. Global solar photovoltaics production, for example, rose 85%. Such growth is possible, even in a time of recession, because some 73 countries have set renewable power generation targets, and at least 64 of them are attempting to hit those targets. Notably, 45 countries and 18 states or provinces have feed-in tariffs – a temporary levy on all energy users – who pay premium prices for renewable electricity. From April next year, even the UK will have one of these.
The upside of government market enablement programmes, allied with pioneering investment, is becoming ever clearer. In Germany, renewable electricity generates more than 15% of total electricity, and renewables provide almost 10% of all energy. German renewables displace more carbon-dioxide emissions than the annual sum total produced by German cars, and save the economy some €17bn ($24bn) in conventional energy costs. Sweden generates fully 40% of its energy from renewables.
On the traditional side of the fence, however, some defenders of conventional energy have become disturbed by the rapid growth of the renewables markets, and have started to argue openly against renewables. EDF and E.On have advised the UK government to cut back renewables in favour of nuclear. The energy giants declared efforts to reach 35% renewables in the UK electricity mix – as the government intends (and as is required by EU undertakings) – to be not only unrealistic, but damaging to nuclear plans. They argue, in particular, that the intermittency of renewables will require additional carbon-fuelled power plants.
Renewables advocates reject this. German renewables companies demonstrated in 2007, in a nationally scaled experiment, that a mix of distributed renewable power technologies could produce baseload electricity in a secure and reliable manner without help from conventional power, meeting both continuous baseload and peakloads round the clock regardless of weather conditions. Renewables advocates also point to the encouraging R&D developments in energy storage, in smart-grid technology and inplug-in electric vehicles, whereby batteries in vehicles are charged by day and discharged by night into the grid, or directly into buildings.
What EDF and E.On are really saying, in their belated opposition to too much of this newfangledness, is that there might not be the money available for both renewables programmes and a nuclear renaissance.
Oil giants have also been owning up to an aversion to large-scale renewables. Both Shell and BP have decided wind and solar power are ‘not economic’. BP’s CEO has said that solar PV (photovoltaics) will never be economic without technological breakthroughs. What a contrast in perspective with the UK PV Manufacturers’ Association, which predicts residential grid parity between solar and conventional electricity, even in cloudy Britain, within five years. We shall soon find out who is right.
Just as EDF and E.On are increasing their regrettable attachment to the status quo, and no sooner do renewables begin to show true promise, than BP and Shell start to retreat in dogged defence of the business they know best, even if it means burning massive amounts of gas to melt liquid oil from tar sands. In this, they are choosing to sideline the threat of premature peak oil, professing that global supply can go on meeting demand for many years to come. The UK government strongly supports their point of view, as the recent Wicks Review of energy security shows. As I have pointed out in earlier columns, many people now believe a steep post-peak descent in global oil production is just around the corner. Big as our incentives for retreat from fossil fuels should be, for reasons of climate change, the threat of premature peak oil ought to be redoubling our sense of urgency.
But there are profound cultural issues at work that hold back the collective response. Gillian Tett of the Financial Times has argued that the banking elite cocooned itself in a ‘social silence’ over the true worth of its assets in the run-up to the credit crunch. The oil industry would seem to be wrapped in a social silence on the depletion of its own assets.
Two visions of the future are being offered. One side proposes accelerating the use of fossil fuels and nuclear power for many years, with or without carbon capture. In the case of oil, they also offer the assurance that there are no insurmountable problems with access to raw material. The other side proposes reducing clean-energy costs and expanding renewables mass markets that will humble the projections of many supposed energy pundits and eventually displace most, if not all, unsequestered fossil-fuel and nuclear generation. They also offer some hope that the shock of peak oil can be softened, too, if we act fast enough.
Governments and investors will be paying their money and taking their choice in the face of this battle of ideas. A viable future on the planet rests on their decisions.