The planet has a two-fold long-run energy problem.
First, as demand rises, it has to generate enough electricity to keep the lights on.
Second, it needs to wean itself off greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.
Each individual objective will be hard enough to achieve. But trying to do both at the same time…well, that’s likely to prove really tough.
So what’s the answer?
I’ll give you a clue – it’s not renewable energy.
At this point I fully expect to receive flak. How can anyone suggest that ‘green’ renewables aren’t best way to meet global electricity demand?
So let me say this straightaway.
The world’s fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas, of which the latter is the cleanest) will expire at some point in the future. And that supply is irreplaceable.
I don’t want to get into the climate change debate today. I certainly don’t want to get bogged down in the political dogfight over President Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change (other than wondering what the accord has ever actually achieved). But it clearly makes sense to find a viable and practicable alternative to continued burning of fossil fuels.
So in theory I love the idea of sustainable green renewable energy. Yet it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Two of the main types of renewable energy are solar and wind power. But they’re both intermittent. In other words, solar panels don’t generate electricity in bad weather while wind farms don’t produce it on still days. So there are no guarantees on supply. While storage capability is being developed, it has remained “a challenge”, according to The Grid Scale Energy Storage Technologies Market 2017-2030 report.
Renewable energy technologies are still relatively new, so they may still lack much-needed efficiency. Installation of wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric plants is relatively expensive, while maintenance and electricity distribution costs are high.
What’s more, wind energy isn’t nearly as environmentally friendly as most green groups claim, notes Matt Ridley in The Spectator.
“You may have got the impression from…the obligatory pictures of wind turbines in any BBC story or airport advert about energy that wind power is making a big contribution to world energy today,” he says. “You would be wrong. Its contribution is still, after decades — nay centuries — of development, trivial to the point of irrelevance.”
Even when combined, wind and photovoltaic solar supply less 1% of global energy demand. The vast majority of renewable energy used around the world is traditional biomass, meaning burning wood or animal dung as fuel.
Further, the environmental impact of wind turbines – both during the manufacturing process and in operation – is also far greater than most environmentalists admit, while solar has its own issues.
Turbines are made of non-renewable resources while hazardous materials such as sulfuric acid and toxic phosphine gas are heavily used in solar panel manufacturing.
“[It] is not obvious that the production of wind turbines and solar cells is sustainable, that the materials have been sourced in a sustainable way, or that the industries are capable of recycling the technology in the future,” says Dr Simon Davidsson, the earth scientist who conducted a study on the environmental impacts of green energy.
Davidsson also notes that recycling the materials used to create wind turbines is extremely difficult and that turbines have short operational lifespans.
Back to the storage challenge: storing wind energy in batteries for later use actually raises both energy use and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to the University of Texas Energy Institute. The latter’s researchers found that using battery storage consumed between 8% and 14% more electricity per house.
And there’s another risk with solar and wind power. It stems from global warming itself. Even if problems such as intermittency are somehow solved, renewables can only work if the world’s climate changes at a pace which is “just right”, i.e. it doesn’t worsen so much that it renders them useless, notes Gary Johns in The Australian.
If climate change creates more clouds, calms the breeze or stops rivers flowing, renewable energy will become even less reliable. Extra windy conditions could cover solar panels with dust. More extreme weather in the form of superstorms could shatter fragile windmills. Even the US Environmental Protection Agency admits that “the impact of climate change on wind and solar power is still a developing area of research”.
Garry Johns has examined the effect of climate change on power from renewable sources. He notes that better energy efficiency in the heating and cooling of buildings sounds desirable. But a US study covering 10 zones across the country found that buildings in half of these areas would miss the net zero-energy target due to the effect of projected climate change.
Another example: despite high hopes for wind energy, the Fant Applied Energy Report 2016 on projected climate changes across southern Africa suggests that long-term “mean wind resource potential” will “most likely” remain unchanged by 2050. But “decreased wind speed during winter along the coastal South Africa is a problem because winter is the season of…high electricity demand.”
On ‘hydro’, the de Queiroz Renewable Energy 2016 Report on the impact of climate change on hydropower in Brazil found most projects “highly susceptible to changes in water inflow patterns”. Energy will be lower because “average precipitations are projected to decrease and drown periods are likely to increase in the Amazonian region”
All in all, then, renewables are likely to become less reliable the more they’re needed.
Even allowing for all efforts to promote it, renewable energy is set to provide just 29% of the world’s electricity by 2040, according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s the same forecast percentage as coal, which I believe will actually be lower by then as more green regulations and carbon taxes are imposed.
So if neither renewables nor coal will do the trick, what will?
If you’re one of my readers at Strategic Intelligence, you’ll know what I believe is the answer. But if you’re not, to find out this out – along with more information about Strategic Intelligence including details of the latest book by my colleague Jim Rickards – just click this link.