Author: Hooman Peimani
Energy Review, Vol 4. Issue 1. 2022
The single major barrier to the rapid expansion and the full integration of renewable energy in the global power mix has been its intermittent nature as a source of energy. The urgency of addressing this challenge has become especially prominent since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As experienced in all the continents, the frequency, scales and scopes of various natural phenomena, namely record high temperatures, forest wildfires, droughts, rains and floods, have since demonstrated the urgency of achieving the net-zero carbon emission target for the global energy mix, including its power mix’s portion.
The target is currently set to 2050 without any well-defined and globally-accepted plan of action covering all the energy-consuming sectors and a clear implementation schedule and with no enforcement authority, verification system and punitive measure for non-compliance. Without the latter as a necessity for ensuring the required systematic global efforts well before that date to prevent an environmental catastrophe, any global agreement on this objective will practically become a public relation event confined to announcing inadequate aspirational goals with no guarantee for their achievement.
This reality became evident one more time during the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (COP26). The event was rich in pledges and broad statements of intent to tackle some of the factors behind increasing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (e.g., methane gas pollutions, deforestation and coal financing), but lacked any verifiable commitments towards such ends. Remarkably, it dodged the real issues (namely a clear schedule for ending fossil fuel consumption by 2050) and refused to even set an aspirational date for eliminating coal power as evident in its use of the vague timeframe of “as soon as possible” for this matter.
The mentioned natural phenomena have also revealed the inadequacy of the ongoing efforts for the required transition from the existing fossil-fuel dominated global energy mix to a sustainable one and the limits of the available renewable energy technologies towards this end. In particular, such inadequacy and limits are demonstrated in the delayed, but absolutely necessary, replacement of the global power mix dominated by fossil-energy with a sustainable and, therefore, green one.
Undoubtedly, those natural phenomena, as the worsening climate change’s indicators, and the frequent hurricanes with increasing destructive power in the same period, also argued by some experts as the same indicators, have surely signified the intermittency challenge of renewable energy, and, thus, its inability to end the current dependency on fossil energy. However, this challenge has not been limited to solar and wind energy resulting in disruptions and/or major fluctuations in their respective facilities’ power generation. Rather, it has also become quite evident in the case of hydro energy. In fact, many hydro dams in just about all the regions, including Asia, experienced a significant lowering of their power generation in 2021 when a substantial decrease in wind-generated electricity due to natural causes also occurred.
The culprit was the phenomenal high temperatures, which reduced the water reserves of many hydro dams, resulting in a significant reduction in their power generation. This development has raised doubts about hydro power’s reliability - known globally as the only type of renewable energy capable of continuous generation of large-scale baseload power.
Consequently, the development, which had previously been experienced at a smaller scale in different parts of the world during extra-ordinary hot seasons, challenged the idea of the availability of renewable option to address the intermittency challenge of wind and solar generators as used in countries such as New Zealand. Interestingly, New Zealand’s power mix also include fossil energy (about 30%) to address the fluctuations in its power generation caused by the intermittency nature of its renewable-based power generators dominated by hydropower.
Combining nuclear energy (capable of generating uninterrupted large-scale power) and the intermittent types of renewable energy (particularly wind and solar) is the available solution to address this intermittency challenge while reducing and eventually ending dependency on fossil energy for power generation. To a varying extent, certain countries such as China, India, Russia and the UAE have resorted to this option by expanding the share of nuclear energy of their power mix, while many others, particularly in Asia, and, increasing so, in Africa are building or planning to build nuclear power generators (e.g., Bangladesh, Jordan, Nigeria and Turkey). Heavy dependency of these countries on fossil energy will continue until they can actually install the necessary combination of nuclear and renewable capacity to completely replace fossil energy in their power mix.
Yet, this available option is a non-starter in many parts of the world especially Oceania (e.g., Australia and New Zealand), Europe (e.g., Germany and Italy) and, to a lesser extent, in parts of Asia (e.g., Japan and South Korea) because of the strength of anti-nuclear sentiments. In particular, the availability of much cheaper coal (e.g., India and Poland) and gas (e.g., USA) in many countries has created a barrier to a rapid expansion of their nuclear power sectors, despite the absence of any strong anti-nuclear sentiment. Referring to gas as a “transitional fuel” towards realizing green power mixes has provided a convenient context to justify and, in fact, perpetuate the environmentally-unsustainable consumption of gas for power generation, among other applications, for many countries.
In the absence of a viable and globally-acceptable green option, the net-zero emission target by 2050 for power generation is unachievable. Unsurprisingly, achieving such target for the broader global energy mix is out of the question, given the unsuitability of renewable energy for the major energy-consuming sectors, especially heavy industries, and the absence of viable green alternative energy types for them. Considered as a potential type of energy for such sectors, large-scale production of green hydrogen has many unaddressed challenges, including required gigantic amounts of fresh water, which is globally scarce and becoming scarcer thanks to global warming. It equally demands a phenomenal amount of green electricity for electrolysis of water and for liquefaction of hydrogen at around -250 degrees Celsius necessary for its storage and transportation by tankers when pipelines are not an option.
In such a situation and in absence of a major sustainable effort to expand by several folds particularly the wind and solar energy capacity to meet future increasing demand for all the applications met today with them and other applications currently not met (e.g., boiling water, heating and cooking in residential and commercial settings), large-scale production of green hydrogen would at least slow down the expansion of renewable generation capacity for existing needs accounting for a fraction of the global demand for electricity.
As a factor, this development would prevent or postpone the installment of the necessary green energy generation capacity towards the net-zero emission target for the global power mix by 2050. It would also lead to a rapid depletion of scarce freshwater resources to worsen existing water scarcity in many parts of the world only to exacerbate unintentionally global warming and, thereby, aggravate climate change. Needless to say, to avoid this scenario, desalinating seawaters would not be a realistic solution, given it requires a huge amount of green electricity on top of that for electrolysis, among others.
For as long as the intermittent nature of renewable energy persists, which can only be partially addressed by lithium batteries, the current drive for expanding the share of electric vehicles (EVs) of the global transportation fleet, if it continues, will surely make the 2050 net-zero target for the global power mix simply impossible. The resulting remarkable growth in electricity demand to charge EVs’ batteries will only lead to the growing dependency of this mix on fossil energy when the required green electricity is unavailable. It is obvious that meeting other energy demands, now mostly met with gas and oil derivatives (e.g., public transportation, aviation, boiling water and heating) with green electricity as a necessity for achieving the global net-zero emission energy mix target would further turn the more modest net-zero emission target for the global power mix into an unachievable aspirational goal.
Given this reality, expansion of renewable energy will be a positive, but inadequate measure to prevent a global environmental disaster. Securing a green and, thus, sustainable global power mix as a core component of a sustainable global energy mix demands addressing the intermittency nature of the existing renewable technologies for which there is currently only a few conceivable options. Of these, the following are most prominent.
1. A combined nuclear and renewable energy power mix should be promoted after addressing the safety concerns about nuclear energy in those countries opposing nuclear energy. Within this context, the emerging small modular reactors (SMRs) should be especially encouraged as a more affordable option for many countries, especially low-income ones, which can be realized in a much shorter period of time and at a lower cost than the existing large power reactors.
2. New green technologies for continuous power generation must be developed to address the intermittency challenge of the existing technologies (solar, wind and hydro) in a combined power mix.
3. For those sectors whose energy needs cannot be met by green power (e.g., heavy industry and shipping), investments must be made in technologies to reduce and filter their GHG emissions as much as possible.
4. Investments should be made in technologies to use the gas pressure of these sectors’ emissions for power generation before their release from stacks while filtering them to reduce and eventually totally extract toxic substances from their emissions and, thus, purify emissions to get air quality to a harmless level for the environment.
Hence, it is high time to call for a purposeful global discussion on the aforementioned options and any other feasible ones while encouraging the expansion of green power generators. Without such discussion to be followed by a commitment by all the countries for implementing appropriate policies with detailed timetables, taking verifiable actions and be clearly accountable to a globally-accepted supervisory body, the current expansion of renewable energy could not secure even a green global power mix by 2050. Rather, it will perpetuate the status quo as the inadequacy of the in-use renewable technologies as intermittent sources of power generation when the global power demand is growing rapidly for well-known and not very well-known (e.g., rapid growth in the number and use of mobile phones with their growing electricity-intensive apps)) reasons, will force countries to fall back on fossil energy to increase their power generation.
Notwithstanding the expanding awareness about the unsuitability of fossil energy and various national, regional and international calls to end its consumption, the growing consumption of especially gas and coal over the last two years by many countries, including those with declared commitment to the zero-emission target, in Asia (e.g., China and India) and Europe (e.g., Poland and UK) for particularly power generation serves as a proof for such undesirable prediction.
(Dr. Hooman Peimani is a Senior Research and Policy Leader with 30 years of experience in consulting, academia, analysis and monitoring of global energy security covering energy and environmental issues and related geopolitical topics. He is currently focused on Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America.)■□■