The biggest frustrations of the UN sponsored climate change talks are the endless blockages that are seemingly caused because the potential solutions to rising greenhouse gases appear insurmountable: Yet the solutions are staring the negotiators in the face.
Energy efficiency could provide half the abatement required to meet the “emissions gap” between where the world is heading and what it needs to do to meet the global target to cap emissions at 450 parts per million, or a better than even chance at capping global warming at 2C. It can do this at little or no extra cost. And a new study to be released in the new year will say that renewable energy alone could provide the other half of the abatement needed from now to 2030, again for little or no extra cost.
The findings by the International Renewable Energy Agency – to be included in a document called ReMap 2030 and released in January – suggests that this can be done by doubling the penetration of renewables in the global electricity market to 36 per cent by 2030.
Much of this will be taken up by “modern renewables” such as wind and solar, and biomass. The level of “traditional” biomass, which some question is renewable at all, will fall sharply in this scenario.
This, the study will say, could be done at no additional cost to business as usual, which is probably taking the world to around 21 per cent renewables by 2030. That’s because the cost of modern renewables has fallen sharply, although because of the high upfront capital cost of the renewables, and the resistance of the incumbent fossil fuel industry, it would require additional and consistent policies.
Nine of the 26 countries analysed, including Australia, would reach 40 per cent renewables penetration by 2030, in the scenario that IRENA is painting. That’s a little ironic because Australia may well be heading in the other direction on renewables.
“The role of renewables is not yet fully appreciated,” Dolf Gielen, the director of IRENA’s innovation and technology centre in Bonn said at a briefing on the last day of formal negotiations at the Warsaw climate talks.
“There is big gap between what countries see and think is happening, and what is already happening in the market. There really is a need to catch up with the market developments.”
Gielen points to solar PV as an example, noting that “official forecasts’ suggest 450GW of solar PV in 2030. That would be slower than current trajectories, and he suggests that 1,200GW of solar PV is more realistic. (Australia’s Energy White Paper had similar problems translating what already happening in terms of costs and deployment into realistic forecasts).
The IRENA report is not yet finalized, but the substitution cost is estimated at less than $2.80/gigajoule. Furthermore, the health benefits, and the CO2 benefits bring the equation down to a net saving of $2.10 to $13.50/GJ.
That cost is likely to come down. Gielen presented a series of graphs that illustrated the findings, but did not release them because they may be revised before the final report in released in January. But these graphs, from an earlier briefing, gives the general idea.
Gielen says that a few things would need to happen to make this come to pass – the early retirement of fossil fuel plants, modal shifts in transport, and the encouragement of new technologies. Storage is one of these. The World Energy Council, which in October released a report nd Bloomberg New Energy Finance that demonstrated that renewables, especially mature renewable technologies such as wind and solar, are cost competitive with fossil fuel, said during the week that fossil fuels could be phased out entirely with 15-20 years if storage solutions became commercial.
Gielen said renewables would work best combining with energy efficiency measures – he says the two are very complimentary.
The conclusions reached by IRENA are also interesting because most conventional forecasts, would have you believe that carbon capture and storage and nuclear will play a greater combined role than renewables in the abatement of greenhouse gases.
Gielen said that the abatement potential of renewables is twice that estimated by most people – at around 6GT a year – and this was borne out in a different session hosted earlier in the week by the Global Carbon Capture Institute, where the economist Lord Stern said that while energy efficiency could, renewables might only account for 20 per cent, with carbon capture and nuclear making up the rest.
The problem with these two latter technologies is the massive cost. In CCS, it is also a question of whether it will work. Even CCS proponents privately concede – that because of the cost – it will have little application in the electricity sector, although it could be valuable (or even an essential) option in the industrial sector, where there is no other available option.
The huge price struck by the UK government for the proposed construction of the Hinkley nuclear reactor has brought clarity to the massive costs of nuclear energy. Few governments would, or could, stand behind a nuclear plant with loan guarantee, production guarantees and insurance guarantees in the way the UK government has had to do.
Which is why the new developments in renewables is so important. Nuclear proponents spend most of their time muddying the field for renewables, saying they are expensive and unreliable. But the subsidy agreed for the Hinkley plant alone is nearly as big as the subsidies paid for the entire global renewables industry in 2012, and most national grid operators have concluded that having 100 per cent, or close to it, renewable penetration is not difficult. Getting to 40 per cent in major economies is really no problem at all.
Gielen said renewables would work best combining with energy efficiency measures – he says the two are very complimentary. Given that energy efficiency and renewables could achieve all the abatement required, then any further abatement provided by nuclear and CCS would simply mean that emission reduction targets could be even more ambitious.
Mark Radka, the director of the energy program at the UN Environment Program, spoke of the “surreal” atmosphere of the climate talks, caused because there was little realisation of the opportunities at hand.
“There is still a great deal of mis-information out there,” he said. “Look at the developments on things like solar PV. Some delegates still think the status quo is at it was in 2004.
“What is necessary in these negotiations is to realise what is possible – it could give a real sense of enthusiasm and optimism to the negotiations.”
Still, one of the main barriers is that the fossil fuel industries is simply resisting change. The incumbent generators fight against energy efficiency and renewables, because of the damage it is doing to their traditional business models. Fossil fuel companies are still invested $675 billion a year in R&D on finding new fossil fuels.
“The perception is that renewables are expensive,” says Elisabeth Press, the executive secretary of IRENA. “The narrative around renewables has to change.”