Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail recently wrote that people who think renewable energy can replace fossil fuels are living in a fantasy world.
Having spent the last twenty plus years in the renewable energy 'space' my husband and I couldn't resist correcting this claim so we each tried to set the record straight. I placed his response after mine.
No one who understands our fundamental dependence on fossil fuels expects solar, wind or biomass to replace oil and gas in the next few years. I agree with Ms. Wente, we must not indulge in magical thinking. However, in the real world the transition to clean renewable fuels is already happening.
I suppose there were folks watching the Wright Brothers floundering with their new invention, tsk, tsking and eye rolling and disparaging their efforts. Did airplanes replace cars? Yet, look at how significant a role they play in society today. We face a daunting challenge maintaining our standard of living and paying the real costs of our fossil fuel addiction.
We now have an entire planet of people who witness and desire a certain quality of life. We have, via technology, trade, and transit routes created expectations that this quality of life is achievable for all. There is no way to provide for that scenario by following the same formula we did in the West for a hundred years. That is a dangerous fantasy. We used the initially cheap and abundant supply of energy dense oil and gas to power unprecendented economic growth. That party is over and Ms. Wente would serve her readers well by acknowledging this and not dismissing the very technologies that will be used alongside the remaining very expensive (and not just in dollars) oil and gas left to power our lives.
Let’s be clear about our present situation:
The price of oil and gas will continue to rise and cause havoc to our economy because:
An increasing share of one’s income is going to transportation. The price of using modern technology (fracking, deepwater and arctic drilling) to go to the ends of the earth, literally, to produce the last “available” oil and gas resources is very high. (filled up your tank lately?) As companies and communities are forced to deal with the expense of cleaning up the messes they create, the price will go up even further. Renting a drilling platform for deep-sea production cost at least a million dollars a day and that is only one part of the supply chain. My own three twenty something children have little desire to spend their meagre earnings participating in this situation and use public transportation as their main source of getting around. At the moment, we are a family of five adults sharing one Prius. So yes, we still rely on fossil fuels but this scenario is a far cry from the driveways dominated by 2, 3 or even 4 cars per household, and that was a blue collar one, that I grew up with.
An increasing share of one’s income will be required to buy food since modern agricultural practice is wholly dependent on ever more expensive fossil fuels. We, in the West will manage those extra costs but for most of the world it is the difference between having one meal a day or two or three. It can be argued that the “Arab Spring” and unrest in other developing nations is directly related to the sudden rise in the cost of basic food-stuffs which is directly related to the cost of fuel.
Oil production margins are tight. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room between world daily production and world daily consumption of oil. This is great for corporate share prices which rise at the least indication of “trouble” anywhere in the world where oil is produced or shipped but it leaves consumers and businesses in a budget nightmare.
There was plenty of oil and gas supply when only a small percentage of the world’s population had access and need for it and it was basically spurting out of the ground. Now, every economy in the world has come to rely on fossil fuels. Just when supplies are tight and very expensive we have far more people consuming the product. Even the recent drop in consumption in NA and Europe (due mainly to new fuel standards and the financial meltdown) does not compensate for the growing appetite for fossil fuels in China, India and other developing economies.
The world is increasingly dependent on electricity to power everything. Many devices and appliances, so integral to modern economies do not require massive amounts of base load supply. The oft-cited boogieman – intermittent supply - of renewable energy sources like wind and solar are actually perfect for dealing with this. Manufacturers of appliances are finally creating products that can be synched with electricity supply versus being “on” all the time. Solar is the perfect peak electricity supply as air conditioners are used most on hot, sunny days. We’re not there yet, but given the same respect that lead to new ways to reach formerly unreachable oil and gas, the clean tech industry will be able to meet much of our electricity needs. Is it not wise to free up remaining oil supplies for food production, health care pharmaceuticals etc. and let people transport themselves around using electric vehicles?
Driving a few blocks here and there to pick up milk, or go to the mall, exhibits a sorry lack of either knowledge or respect for the energy dilemma we are in. We will transition to a much reduced fossil fuel dependent world, the question is what does that look like and how can we manage to do this is the most peaceful and fair manner? People who believe that all is BAU in terms of energy are the ones living in a fantasy. Putting forward a balanced perspective on the possibilities and promise of renewable technologies is what is required to create a future livable world. It will take great doses of knuckle whitening determination and having one’s (possibly wet) feet firmly planted in the real world; many of us are already using our time, talent and money doing this. Eventually everyone else will too, because while facts can be dismissed, ignored and denied, reality happens!
And now a word or two from my husband who has dedicated the last 25 years of his life dealing with the technological challenges associated with solar energy.
In the real world….. Solar generation was the number one new generation capacity installed in Europe in 2011 where it was greater than new wind and natural gas combined. In 2012, 60% of all net new generation of Europe’s new 29GW of capacity was from solar based generation. Europe added almost all of Ontario’s current generating capacity in one year and most of it was solar!
In the real world….. in Germany, they have reached 22GW of electricity production from solar generation, which can power one third of the country during a weekday and half on the weekend.
In the real world….. Solar electricity installed is one-third the cost today compared to 2006. It is now cost effective in many regions with little or no government incentives. It would be completely cost effective if governments worldwide, according to the International Monetary Fund, eliminated the $1.9 trillion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel and nuclear industry. The International Energy Agency estimates that all renewable energy has a subsidy of $88 billion per year.
With the advent of the different variations of the electric car, plug-in hybrids, smart grids, centralized and distributed storage, the world is in the middle of a fundamental transition in our energy based economy. It started about 20 years ago and it will take about another twenty years to complete. This transition is happening much faster than even most solar experts had predicted let alone what the average person understood.
Welcome to the real world of the 21st century where energy will be distributed, clean, cheap and ubiquitous compared to the last century where energy was centralized, limited, dirty and not addressing issues related to the environment, people’s health, security, and price.
President and CEO
Ubiquity Solar Inc.