Friday, 26 October 2012

Why we don’t need to leave the gas on

This week, we learned from an ICM poll on energy sources that two-thirds of people would rather have a wind turbine near their house than a shale gas well. Overall, 64% of people would prefer their energy to come from renewable sources, with only 7% preferring fossil fuels.

That’s all very well, say the fossil fuel proponents, and of course we all want clean energy eventually, but for now we need coal, oil and gas because renewables just can’t fill the energy gap. Burning carbon is just a necessary evil, right? Right?

Wrong. The “necessary evil” argument is, in fact, a bucket of pure distilled cobblertosh. Here is my attempt to debunk a few myths about gas power vs. renewable energy.

1) There is enough renewable energy to power the world. This can be demonstrated by a simple calculation. According to figures from the Centre for Alternative Technology's Zero Carbon Britain report, it’s perfectly possible to power a good, “Northern-style” quality of life with around 16,800 KWh per person per year[1]. This assumes that we live less wastefully – with good public transport and car-sharing schemes, efficient and comfortable homes, more local food and manufacturing, less throwaway consumerism, less frequent flying, and so on – but that we also continue to have stuff like fridges, TVs, good public services, hospitals, sports stadiums, cinemas etc.

Meanwhile, according to Government energy advisor Professor David Mackay, there is enough wind, solar, tidal, wave, hydro and geothermal energy out there to provide 22,000 KWh/person/year, even on a world of 9 billion people. This assumes that we use existing generation technology only, on a realistic scale, and is still more than enough to give everyone on the planet a good quality of life.

2) We already know how to solve the variability problem. The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine (well, it does, but you know what I mean). Renewables don’t always give us power exactly when we want them. There are at least five solutions to this: energy storage, demand management (e.g. using smart appliances that only draw power when energy is abundant), a good source mix (sun plus wind plus hydro plus tidal), energy sharing between countries/regions, and using wood, grass or waste gas in back-up generators. According to the Zero Carbon Britain Report, the combination of these five options is already good enough to allow us a zero-carbon electricity grid. The best of the five options is probably storage, and so as this technology improves we’ll be able to rely less on the others (especially wood/grass/biogas-burning generators, which come with sustainability risks of their own).
3) There are perfectly good heating alternatives. Buildings and/or water can be heated by solar power, ground and air source heat pumps, and a limited amount of sustainable wood fuel, with electric heating to fill the gaps.

4) The technologies will improve as we go along. We need to get to zero carbon as fast as possible, to have a decent chance of avoiding runaway climate change. For example, leading climate scientist James Hansen states in his recent book Storms of my Grandchildren that we can only afford to burn the conventional oil and gas we have already found, and should immediately stop drilling for any more; we must also immediately pull out of "unconventional" fuel sources like shale gas and tar sands, and halt global coal use by 2030. The technologies we have are already good enough for this transition, but will almost certainly improve as we go along – allowing us to minimise the riskier options like bioenergy. The important thing is to get started, and begin moving in the right direction by shutting down fossil fuel extraction and consumption infrastructure, and replacing them with efficiency and renewables.

The main problem with the Government’s proposed new “dash for gas” is that it takes us in exactly the wrong direction. Yes, we probably want to shut down the coal plants and coal mines first, and leave existing gas-fired power stations running for a little longer; but building new ones would lock us into decades of new carbon-burning infrastructure and shut out the clean solutions that we desperately need. These solutions already exist, and – if fairly shared - are already good enough to give everyone on the planet a good quality of life. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Much of the research in this article is based on a not-yet-released project I’ve been working on with the UK Tar Sands Network and a graphic design team. This will show how the world can be powered without fossil fuels, in the form of an infographic and accompanying briefing. Watch this space for updates...

[1] The final page of the Zero Carbon Britain report shows a total consumption of 804 Tera-Watt hours (TWh) per year plus exports of 174.4 TWh per year. When this total of 978.4 TWh/year is divided by the predicted 2035 UK population of 71 million, it comes to just under 13,800 KWh/person/year. However, according to a recent study, the UK’s CO2 emissions (and therefore energy use) should be counted at about a third higher than is usually reported, because of all the energy used to manufacture goods overseas that are then imported into the UK. In Zero Carbon Britain 2030, this “overseas factories” figure should be significantly lower, as many more things are produced locally and more efficiently; however, to ensure that I am being absolutely fair and as cautious as possible, I’ve added 25% to the amount of energy needed for a good quality of life, to make sure it definitely includes all the manufacturing required. This brings the total to around 16,800 KWh per person per year.