Closer than you think

Remember this post, about Sweden’s new year’s resolution to give up oil by 2020?

According to Jeremy Faludi at Worldchanging.com, it might not be as difficult as you think.

For example, currently, 6% of Europe’s electricity generation is from renewable sources. If they wanted it to be 100% by 2025, they should expand renewable energy generation by about 15% per year, every year, compared to other power sources. (This does not mean 6% now, 21% next year, 36% the year after, etc. It only means 6% now, 6.9% next year, 8% the year after, etc.) This sounds small, and in fact is less ambitious than their current plan to grow renewables from 6% to 12% by 2010. That would require increasing renewables’ share by 17% per year. But if Europe kept growing its percentage of renewables by 15% per year until 2025, they would be at 100% green power. Perhaps such a policy would be both more ambitious and easier to achieve.

Who’s in?

18 thoughts on “Closer than you think

  1. I will put it bluntly. This is bullshit. You arrive at the 6% by, as the report mentions, hydroelectricity. For practical purposes Europe’s hydroelectric potential is exhausted.

    For simplicity’s sake calculating with a 50% hydro component, a 32-fold increase in the other sources’ contribution is required. That requires a 20% growth per year. Provided that electricity use does not increase. Given the current trend to partially electrically powered vehicles this is unlikely.

  2. My eight-month-old son went from ~8 lbs at birth to 12+ lbs today.

    He’s well ahead of schedule to weigh 300 lbs by his sixth birthday.

    N.B., I’m a huge fan of windpower. But using it to generate more than ~20% of a country’s electricity gets you into some very complicated territory involving things like peak loads and D&T. It is /not/ a linear progression.

    Totally random cultural note: in Britain, being pro- or anti-windpower seems to split along funny cultural lines. I don’t quite understand how it works, but there seems to be something going on there. I’d be interested to hear your take on it.

    Not that the article was talking only about windpower. But it is the fastest growing renewable just now.

    But as to your question: I regret to say I’m out. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but 100%? No. Not even close.

    Doug M.

  3. As a matter of fact, Sweden’s hydroelectric potentail isn’t exhausted at all, but it doesn’t figure in their plans. They don’t want to use the remaining untouched rivers.

  4. I should say that setting extremely ambitious and very long term targets is quite typical of the SAP. For example they plan to completely eliminate fatal car accidents, by unknowns means, and they sound really serious about it. For the longest time they meant to close all nuclear plants by 2010, and were very insistent about it, until they sorta forgot. By the time the deadline approaches, so much time has passed that it’s no longer politically embarassing.

  5. @Doug – the good thing about any move to electrically powered transport, as Oliver mentions, is that as it’s stored electricity it’s a great way to smooth wind output.

    Culturally speaking, I quite agree. There is some weird association for a lot of people between nuclear power and machismo.

    @David – that’s exactly Faludi’s point. Rather than fix a numerical target for some point in the future, which is easy to forget about at first and then binge to catch up, break down the job into annual chunks.

    @Oliver – well, wind and solar capacity is doubling every 2 years, so 20% annual growth is rather behind the curve.

  6. My eight-month-old son went from ~8 lbs at birth to 12+ lbs today.

    Which is a life or death issue and tested thousands of times.
    I am not saying that it is impossible. If we were to spend at the level of life or death issues, we could probably do it. But at the expensive of everything else important. Which would be a catastrophe. We have a working electricity generation system, but we need more daycare and medical research into gerontological conditions.

    Yes, wind and solar power are growing, driven so by subsidies and hype. Neither can grow exponentially as were required to sustain this growth rate. And not solving the load, distribution and storage problem. Electrical transportation will not solve that. People will recharge their cars over night. If anything this will necessitate larger subsidies as it makes basic load power plants cheaper.

    Furthermore, we are talking about an issue that is not a problem. Energy is a huge problem. But it is irrational to equate energy with electricity. Our electrical energy is largely generated from native sources, apart from some countries that have irresponsibly switched to natural gas. And it is generated with very low and carefully monitored and steadily improved emission of harmful substances.

    It is likely that our current energy supply, heavily depended on oil and natural gas will have to change before 2025. But if that happens, electricity is not the problem. Transportation and to a lesser extent heating will be the problematic areas.

    This is building a strawman to avoid having to tell people that in 2025 universal car ownership may become impossible.
    Not only is this dishonest, but it takes away the pressure to do really effective things, which are many, like improved insulation, waste to heat schemes, solar heating, public transport, improved urban structures, recycling, geothermal heating, etc…

    I’ll put it even more bluntly. As soon as oil becomes scarce we will have to increase our use of nuclear power and coal, even up to liquification technologies.

  7. Oliver´s position is only partly correct.

    The main problem is not technological, but economic in nature. The biggest advances can be made by utilizing energy-saving technology. This, however, will only work if energy is priced more realistically. Although oil and gas have risen in price during the last few years, the prices that they command certainly don´t reflect externalities like the consequences of climate change etc. The same is true with regard to nuclear power which is much more massively subsidized than any of the renewable energy sources, esp. by the waiver of insurance requirements. If the utilities had to insure reactors against catastrophes – like they have to insure any other power-generation plant -, the price of nuclear-generated electricity would immediately skyrocket and eliminate it from the menu of energy choices.

    Energy regulation and energy taxation policies are likely the most important parameters of future developments. Technologically it´s absolutely feasible to transfer our economies from the age of fossil and nuclear fuels to that of renewables within a few decades (at least if the term “renewables” isn´t restricted to stand for one alternative source only – like wind, e.g. – but encompasses all the available options, from geothermal and solar to wind, biomass, and, first of all, SAVINGS).

    Savings have only one pseudo-externality: they require politicians to understand that high energy prices have more long-run benefits than short-term disadvantages. This insight, however, is currently very rare. The German state of Hesse is trying to force energy companies to reduce their prices right now. Cheap energy is the panacea du jour. It isn´t going to speed up the energy transition process; instead, it will likely decelerate it significantly.

  8. “Transportation and to a lesser extent heating will be the problematic areas.”

    Of course. And Germany has developed technology that can deal with some of these problems – like the Transrapid. The Transrapid technology, however, will possibly be deployed much faster in China than in Germany. Possibly in India, too. Etc etc.

    BTW, the patent on which the Transrapid is based dates from 1936. That was about the time that some economists completely unknown to the present-day mainstream suggested considering energy – rather than gold – as the basic underlying of an economy. Contrary to Ray Kurzweil´s claims, there are no signs for an acceleration in the implementation of fundamental scientific insights on a broad scale.

    And then there is the increasing threat of the military use of nuclear technology – a development for which the current U.S. administration bears a lot of responsibility by demonstrating that the possession of nuclear technology is the best insurance against military aggression currently on offer. Is it really a coincidence that this policy of recklessness originates from a government that appears to be not very concerned about environmental pollution and energy waste?

    If we implement low-price energy policies now, we will indeed – as Oliver seems to fear – have to live with energy rationing in the future, at least in the transportation sector, esp. regarding air transport.

    There is an enormous amount of money being channelled into resources right now – about a trillion dollars. This will mean larger supplies and lower prices in the intermediate future. If that intermediate future is going to be dominated by the same policies that turned the 80s and early 90s into wasted decades – energy policy-wise – after the energy shock of the 1970s, then no-holds-barred resource wars will be on the agenda.

  9. If we implement low-price energy policies now, we will indeed – as Oliver seems to fear – have to live with energy rationing in the future, at least in the transportation sector, esp. regarding air transport.

    No, air travel is just a small part of our energy needs. And in many cases it is not essential, except for some islands’ economy.

    What I really fear is that some day we’ll have to tell people in the suburbs that they won’t be able to afford two or three cars to a family. And that as a consequence the value of the house they put themselves into debt for 20 years for has dropped by half.

    The biggest advances can be made by utilizing energy-saving technology.

    Nope. They biggest reduction can be made by not doing what required the energy in the first place. If you don’t drive to the shop, the fuel isn’t used.

    the prices that they command certainly don´t reflect externalities like the consequences of climate change

    I really doubt you can rationally value all externalities. If you flood a valley for a dam, have you done harm by destroying the original enviroment or have you done good by creating a lake birds stop at and people find joy at? What’s the worth of a changed fish population a powerplant causes by heating a river?

    Even in things you can give an answer, the answer is far from undisputed. Can you assign a risk to a level of radiation that you would bet your life on? Might there be interactions between several types of pollution that make the mix worse than the addition of each type’s harm?

    Personally I wouldn’t mind Europe becoming a bit warmer.

    they require politicians to understand that high energy prices have more long-run benefits than short-term disadvantages

    A short term disadvantage is not without long term harm. What we spend now on daycare and medical research will have beneficial effects later, which cannot be made up for by later spending. I will again put it bluntly. Electricity is not the problem.

  10. There’s one paradox with ‘oil wars’ in a world of great scarcity: if you’re that desperate for the stuff, what do you use to fuel the tanks, ships, planes and missiles you’re using to invade? Because of hang-ups about ‘giving our troops the best’, modern military machines must be about the most wasteful and high-maintenance devices ever produced.

  11. The prices of gas and oil have increased over the years but this has nothing to do with shift in season. Similarly nuclear power has subsized than any other renewable resources.

  12. Similarly nuclear power has subsized than any other renewable resources.

    If we spent all that money, we better use it.

    On a larger note, this continent is facing oil & gas shortages, a demographic transformation, a need to raise the living standard in the eastern half, a need to improve education and infrastructure, to spend more on R&D, to increase defense budgets and to secure the “near abroad”. All these problems are not avoidable. Therefore I still claim that we must avoid further large projects we can avoid.

  13. I don´t have the time to write a complete response now. I would just like to point out to Oliver that we are looking at an estimation problem with an order-of-magnitude error margin. It also needs to be noted that the risk is largely not one of underestimating the cost of renewables but one of underestimating the real cost of fossil-fuel-based and nuclear energy.

    Don´t we have large enough militaries to protect our societies against maybe 100000 Muslim militants? What might alter that calculation is the prospect of those militants concentrating their efforts on attacking one single nuclear plant.

    Renewable energy creates a lot more jobs and leads to a self-sustaining economy. Try to figure the costs of supporting five million jobless into the energy equation.

    The demographic transformation just won´t happen as envisaged. We will import as many foreign workers as we need. The whole scenario is based on the premise of perpetuating policies that are detrimental to the creation of a full-employment economy forever. I think we are nearing a point where a majority of the population starts to take a more broadly-based view of the factors that need to be added to the accounting baseline after the micro-economic details have been taken care of.

    Factor prices are a concept that has largely gone out of fashion in economics. It is instructive, however, to look at the development of factor prices during the industrial revolution and the population explosion with which it coincided. Remember that the vast increase in productivity was accompanied by a steep rise in income taxes. Present-day economists appear to believe that such developments are logically impossible. They may now no longer be possible where labour productivity is concerned – apart from specific high-tech processes like semiconductor production -, but indications are that energy productivity can indeed be increased as much as labour productivity was during the industrial revolution. When this starts to be realized by larger numbers of people, we will be able to see that the demise of Manchester capitalism in the middle of the 19th century was a major turning point in history that may have an equivalent in the future by a departure from the seemingly inescapable trajectory towards resource wars. However, without more accurate energy pricing this new revolution won´t happen – just as the industrial revolution wouldn´t have taken its course without a major shift in factor prices.

    (I singled out air transport as possibly being highly problematic, because it´s the technology area where there really don´t seem to exist any alternatives to current technology on the drawing boards. Scram-jet technology really doesn´t qualify as a real-world alternative. With regard to automobiles, however, it´s not at all inconceivable that the replacement of current engine technology can be achieved quickly enough to avoid a breakdown of personal mobility. It needs to be remembered, though, that cheap-energy policies will hinder rather than enhance that process. Fixing rents in Moscow for half a century didn´t improve standards of living in Russia. Neither will efforts to fix energy prices help us avoid the pitfalls the Soviet Union fell into.)

  14. They may now no longer be possible where labour productivity is concerned – apart from specific high-tech processes like semiconductor production -, but indications are that energy productivity can indeed be increased as much as labour productivity was during the industrial revolution.

    I am afraid this is a much abused principle. Energy use per unit of GDP has fallen, but not energy use per capita or in absolute terms. This is to be expected. After all we gain nothing by heating our homes warmer than desirable, only the increase in volume will need more energy. My TV uses the same amount of energy whether I can get 3 channels or 30. That we can increase our wealth without increasing energy use does not mean that we can trade wealth for energy by slowing down our increase in wealth to use less energy to the same extent.
    By the same logic I could make statistics about agricultural production/GDP and say that in 30 years we may be able to get by with eating microscopic quantities of food.

  15. No. Your LCD-TV uses less energy than your CRT. Your OLED-TV will use even less. So there is a savings component – and it is very large.

    Higher prices are required to finance the investment into energy sources that can be tapped in order to meet the increasing demand for energy that results from poor people becoming wealthy. Otherwise increasing energy efficiency would have the rather paradoxical effect of fossilizing current energy production infrastructure. Beijing would remain a massively polluted city because oil would be relatively more affordable for the Chinese in the context of reduced demand in countries that are at the forefront of innovation in energy production and utilization. Ultimately it is an ethical question whether we want tax emails, personal income etc. or consumption and energy usage.

  16. So there is a savings component – and it is very large.

    In some areas. On the whole our main uses of energy, housing and cars, are not affected. In fact, efficiency uses have gone into making heavier and faster cars.

    Beijing would remain a massively polluted city because oil would be relatively more affordable for the Chinese

    That is not ours to decide. I am confident the Chinese government is seeing the national security implications of foreign oil.

    Ultimately it is an ethical question whether we want tax emails, personal income etc. or consumption and energy usage.

    There’s nothing wrong with taxing fuel instead of labor. I am all in favor of higher fuel taxes in exchange for lower income taxes. But it is counterproductive to even think about electricity. Fuel is the only problem worth thinking about. We need to encourage a switch away from oil. That requires that we not make the alternatives more expensive.

  17. Heavier and faster cars are very susceptible to higher oil prices. People buy smaller when gas costs more.

    Electricity is such a small part in the cost of running an electric vehicle compared with the fuel costs of an internal combustion engine that i don’t see how doubling the price of electricity would matter

  18. I believe optimum utilisation of resources is must. And if they follow this path, they are surely not far away from their goals.

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