The climate movement and “100% renewables”


in Economics, Politics, The environment recently sent around a strategic planning survey to people on their email lists. It sought to inform their planning on which campaigns to prioritize. The questions, however, took for granted that the only plausible or desirable way to prevent catastrophic climate change is to commit to an immediate transition from our mass dependence on fossil fuels to a global economy 100% based on renewables like hydro, wind, and solar.

I’ve written before about how climate change policy planning requires the consideration of multiple dimensions of uncertainty simultaneously. We shouldn’t choose strategies where we only succeed if other unknowns work out favourably for us (reducing the cost of renewables, dealing with the intermittancy problem, rebuilding energy grids). Even in terms of researching geoengineering, I can see the sense of evaluating whether it could be a backup plan if mitigation proves too hard, or if powerful positive feedbacks kick in. (That said, Gwynne Dyer paints a frightening picture where disputes over how quickly and energetically to begin geoengineering could be the spark for global conflict.)

I can see why pledging 100% renewables makes life politically simple for environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs) and activist groups. Most of their supporters and allied organizations are deeply opposed to nuclear energy, though the threat of climate change has brought some around. Likewise, they tend to oppose big dams and (arguably) most large industrial projects. Too often, they assume that massive reductions in energy demand will be achieved through improved efficiency, though considerable evidence suggests that as people around the world get richer, their demand for energy rises substantially as they choose air conditioning, high-energy forms of transport, and other lifestyle benefits long taken for granted in rich socities. (Though activists sometimes do support large solar farms, wind farms, run-of-river hydro projects, electrified transport, and other large-scale climate-friendly infrastructure.)

Rejecting low-carbon energy options like nuclear power stations and large dams (both of which are very expensive and carry with them a variety of forms of damage and risk, from methane release from hydroelectric reservoirs to the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation) makes for a more harmonious coalition among groups demanding aggressive action on climate change, but it introduces new risks into our long-term planning. In his excellent Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, David MacKay convincingly argues that a future where energy use levels are adequate and more equitably shared around the world requires us to “say yes” to big electricity sources that do little or no damage to the climate:

Because Britain currently gets 90% of its energy from fossil fuels, it’s no
surprise that getting off fossil fuels requires big, big changes… Given the general tendency of the public to say “no” to wind farms, “no” to nuclear power, “no” to tidal barrages – “no” to anything other than fossil fuel power systems – I am worried that we won’t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, we’ll settle for half-measures: slightly-more-efficient fossil-fuel power stations, cars, and home heating systems; a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations.

Solving climate change quickly enough to avoid intolerable damage requires the rapid deployment of all low-carbon energy generation options. It’s better to spend the money and accept the other costs and impacts of multiple pathways to a sustainable future than it is to bet everything on one possibility and hope to our good luck.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan July 22, 2017 at 9:59 pm
. July 23, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Hundreds of new dams could mean trouble for our climate

Using rivers and dams to make electricity is often touted as a win for the climate, a renewable source of electricity without the greenhouse gases that come from burning fossil fuels. But it turns out hydropower isn’t quite so squeaky clean—and with countries around the world poised to erect hundreds of new dams, that could have big implications for future emissions.

Reservoirs already contribute roughly 1.3% of the world’s annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the study finds—about as much as the entire nation of Canada. It also suggests future reservoirs will have a bigger impact than expected, largely because they emit much more methane, a potent warming gas, than once believed. The methane is produced by underwater microbes that feast on the organic matter that piles up in the lake sediments trapped by dams.

For existing reservoirs, the new study found a slightly lower total amount of greenhouse gases—770 megatons per year—than previous studies. That’s because the researchers used a new, lower estimate for the total size of the world’s reservoirs, Harrison says. But the higher methane emissions per unit area mean that the impact of future dams could be larger than expected.

. July 23, 2017 at 3:14 pm



. July 23, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Although hydroelectricity is often promoted as ‘clean energy’ with respect to its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, an emerging field of research is discovering that the reservoirs associated with hydroelectricity often have substantial GHG impacts. Reservoirs directly emit GHGs to the atmosphere as organic matter decomposes in their waters. In addition, reservoirs often replace landscapes which are GHG sinks.

BC Hydro has estimated that Site C’s reservoir could result in a net GHG impact which is equivalent to approximately 147,000 tonnes of CO2/year. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of approximately 36,000 vehicles in the Lower Mainland. BC Hydro has claimed that this is an upper bounds estimation which is only valid for the first 10 years
after the reservoir is filled, and that emissions would be negligible after this time period. However, BC Hydro has provided little justification for this 10 year limit. A close examination of the methods used in obtaining BC Hydro’s estimate suggests that, until a more comprehensive estimation is produced, it should be assumed that Site C’s reservoir would have a net GHG impact which is equivalent to approximately 147,000 tonnes of CO2/year over the entire life of the reservoir. Although the electricity produced by Site C would produce
relatively less GHG emissions than electricity produced through certain other means (e.g. coal), this does not change the simple fact that Site C would have a significant GHG impact which is deserving of attention. This is especially true given that the BC Energy Plan requires “all new electricity generation projects *to+ have zero net greenhouse gas emissions.”

Milan July 23, 2017 at 3:25 pm

For context, “In 2015, the most recent annual dataset in this report, Canada’s GHG emissions were 722 megatonnes [millions of tonnes] of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2 eq)”.

“Electricity production in Quebec and British Columbia relies on abundant hydroelectric resources, resulting in more stable emission patterns across the time series.”

B.C.’s 2015 emissions were about 61 million tonnes. If the estimate for Site C above is correct, the dam would represent less than 1/400th of B.C. emissions.

Canada’s 2030 climate target is to cut national emissions by 199 megatonnes, to 523 MT. Nobody yet claims that Canada has a plan in place to meet that target, and that target isn’t sufficiently ambitious to represent a fair Canadian contribution in a global mitigation effort which will cap warming below 2 ˚C or 1.5 ˚C.

. July 23, 2017 at 3:32 pm

A green red herring
Better to target zero emissions than 100% renewable energy

The goal, after all, is to curb global warming, not favour particular technologies

In June the Chinese province of Qinghai ran for seven consecutive days on renewable energy alone; in the first half of this year wind, solar and hydro generated a record 35% of Germany’s power.

But not every target is helpful. To see why, consider that goal of 100% renewable energy. It makes solving climate change seem deceptively easy. In fact, though wind and solar can generate all a country’s electricity on some days, renewables still account for less than 8% of the world’s total power output. Moreover, cleaning up electricity is only part of the battle. Even though gas-fired heating and cooking can be at least as big a source of greenhouse-gas emissions, renewable heating gets minuscule attention. Transport policy is erratic, too. Carmakers may hit their goal of annual sales of 10m electric vehicles in a decade, but battery-powered road haulage, shipping and aviation are dreams. A much-quoted claim that America could rely on wind, solar and hydro alone for its electricity has recently been witheringly criticised by a group of respected academics (see article).

Most important, a 100% renewables target confuses means with ends. The priority for the planet is to stop net emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Putting too much emphasis on wind, solar and other renewables may block off better carbon-reduction paths. After decades of investment, it is wrong to leave nuclear power off the table. Carbon emissions in Germany actually rose because it chose to phase out nuclear power and so burned more coal. New technologies, such as “direct air capture” systems designed to separate carbon dioxide from the air, may in time prove vital.

Likewise, greater energy efficiency could reduce emissions by even more than deploying renewables would. Indians last year consumed twice as much energy from newly installed air conditioners as they produced from new solar farms. More accurate metering of energy consumption could encourage companies and households to rein in power demand.

At what cost?
Can the world thrive on 100% renewable energy?

A transition away from fossil fuels is necessary, but it will not be painless

But all energy transitions, such as that from coal to hydrocarbons in the 20th century, take many decades. It is the rate of change that guides where investments flow. That makes greens more optimistic. During the past decade, solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind energy have been on a roll as sources of electricity. Although investment dipped slightly last year, the International Energy Agency, a global forecaster, said on July 11th that for the first time the amount of renewable capacity commissioned in 2016 almost matched that for other sources of power generation, such as coal and natural gas. In some countries the two technologies—particularly solar PV in sunny places—are now cheaper than coal and gas. It is no longer uncommon for countries like Denmark and Scotland to have periods when the equivalent of all their power comes from wind.

In 2015 Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and others argued that electricity, transport, heating/cooling, and industry in America could be fully powered in 2050-55 by wind, water and solar, without the variability of the weather affecting users. Forswearing the use of natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power and stationary batteries, they said weather modelling, hydrogen storage and flexible demand could ensure stable supply at relatively low cost.

But in June this year Christopher Clack, founder of Vibrant Clean Energy, a firm, issued a stinging critique with fellow researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the journal in which Mr Jacobson et al had published their findings. They argued that a narrow focus on wind, water and solar would make tackling climate change more difficult and expensive than it needed to be, not least because it ignored existing zero-carbon technologies such as nuclear power and bioenergy. They claimed the models wrongly assumed that hydroelectricity output could continue for hours on end at many times the capacity available today, and pointed to the implausibility of replacing the current aviation system with yet-to-be-developed hydrogen-powered planes. In their view, decarbonising 80% of the electricity grid is possible at reasonable cost, provided America improves its high-voltage transmission grid. Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

. July 24, 2017 at 1:54 pm

The dubious environmental justice of 100% renewable energy

The manifesto calls for Canada to initiate a shift to 100% renewable energy based on so-called research that holds such a shift is possible within two decades. The research is by a cult academic at Stanford University named Mark Jacobson who comes up with utterly impractical plans to power regions with renewable energy. His plan to power the New York state includes unproven, overrated, and inappropriate technologies such as offshore wind a mile deep along the entire coast of Long Island, and concentrated solar power, which needs tremendous levels of insolation to work and as such has ever only been built in deserts.

In most of the real world, the attempt to shift to high concentrations of renewable energies is failing. Germany has been going all out on a renewable energy system for 15 years, and they have only managed to reduce the amount of coal they burn by about a fifth, primarily by burning garbage and trees, which they are importing in vast quantities from around the world. Globally, the only regions successfully approaching high percentages of renewable energy are those that were there all along because they happen to be blessed with access to lots of hydro power, which not all of Canada is.

By contrast, a better balanced energy system that moved beyond fossil fuels by combining renewable sources with nuclear power would be easier and cheaper to develop and would require a far smaller materials and land footprint. As is well known, nuclear, like renewable energy, produces electricity without greenhouse gases. Most experts, including the IPCC, know that combining nuclear into low-carbon energy system is essential for making those systems cost-effective and adequate for expanding economies and populations.

anon July 25, 2017 at 12:00 pm

Environmentalists are experts at saying no and resisting projects – useful for blocking dirty energy, but a hinderence to the emergence of clean kinds. Like everyone, they want a high energy lifestyle with no drawbacks or consequences.

. July 31, 2017 at 10:23 pm

Your Guide to the Bitter Debate Over 100% Renewable Energy

On this week’s Energy Gang podcast: A review of the ongoing dispute over Mark Jacobson’s modeling of a renewables-only energy system.

. July 31, 2017 at 10:57 pm

Climate talk must go beyond being anti-pipeline, outgoing environment minister says

Murray steps down from Ont. Liberal cabinet, joins environmental think-tank Pembina Institute

. July 31, 2017 at 11:01 pm

“Murray refuses to say whether he agrees with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that pipelines can be built and expanded while meeting Canada’s international commitments on climate change.

“Pipelines and energy infrastructure in Canada, there is an architecture in there that has to be transformed,” he said Monday in an interview. “To pull out pipelines as a separate discussion from nuclear plants or from other types of infrastructure that are carbon intensive gets you into a conversation that I think is often a no-win conversation.””

R.K. August 9, 2017 at 8:47 pm

Aren’t the endless woes associated with all attempted nuclear construction in democratic countries cause enough to write it off as a politically- and economically-plausible climate solution?

Milan August 12, 2017 at 5:07 pm

I agree that there are lots of problems with nuclear power, though the ones environmentalists often worry most about aren’t necessarily the most serious.

I think the two biggest problems are cost and the slow pace of construction (which are related – for plants where capital costs are a huge part of the total, long construction times add a lot to cost).

Recently: The History Behind South Carolina’s Nuclear Debacle

For countries which are potential nuclear weapon powers or which have growing nuclear arsenals, I also see proliferation as a major reason to question nuclear deployment.

By contrast, I think routine radioactivity, waste, and accidents are all comparatively tractable problems and the kind of risks and burdens we should accept to constrain climate change.

Oleh August 12, 2017 at 8:39 pm

I live in British Columbia where there there is widespread opposition to the large Site C hydro project because of the impact on local environment. The prevalent view among environmentalists is to shut it down because of local impact and the assumption of uncecessqry demand in British Columbia. However I do not hear much about how that low carbon emitting energy could then be sued to replace fossil fuel use in the US.

Is it not the case that the electricity can then be sold to the US to replace electricity created by fossil fuels?

Would that Revenue not help pay for British Columbia schools and health care?

Climate change is an issue that rosses all borders. We should also think beyond our narrow borders when thinking of solutions.

. August 12, 2017 at 9:09 pm

OTTAWA — Government officials and energy industry representatives are eyeing key changes that could deepen ties between the three countries’ oil, gas and electricity industries as the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation kicks off next week.

Energy ministers in Canada, Mexico and the United States have so far struck a conciliatory tone ahead of the August 16 talks, a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric in which he threatened to dismantle the deal in favour of more U.S.-friendly policies.

Energy trade and investment ties between the three markets have been highly integrated since the NAFTA came into effect in 1994, but all three see several opportunities for further integration, nudging the continent closer to forging a North American energy bloc — a grandiose plan that has been tried, and repeatedly failed, for decades.

The premise: in an increasingly uncertain energy market, harmonized economic and environmental ties between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico could position North America as the dominant energy superpower.

Milan August 12, 2017 at 9:40 pm

Because neither government is serious about dealing with climate change – and both are deeply influenced by the fossil fuel industry – Canada-U.S. energy cooperation is likely to make the problem worse.

The article above talks about using a revised NAFTA agreement to force through the Keystone XL pipeline.

Generally speaking, multilateral trade and investment agreements seek to protect giant potential fossil fuel projects from the risk that governments will tighten environmental and climate regulations. One of the many things we need to do is change the global trade regime to favour controlling rather than worsening climate change. That means respecting the right of states to enact new climate legislation, allowing states with domestic carbon taxes to charge them on imports, supporting low-carbon technology transfer, discouraging international air travel and shipping (or at least subjecting them to the same carbon taxes as domestic activities), and much more.

See: Carbon tariffs, WTO rules allow carbon tariffs

All that said, if governments were serious about dealing with climate change, more integrated energy grids would be valuable in many ways. See: HVDC transmission for renewable energy (especially the comments below)

In part, the state of the nuclear industry in North America is demonstrative of how our governments lack seriousness about climate change. In the U.S. a growing set of nuclear plants are being shut down because they cannot compete with cheap gas – permanently removing major sources of low-carbon power from the grid. At the same time, new nuclear construction has become virtually impossible in democratic countries. See: Olkiluoto, Flamanville, and Hinkley

China is building a lot of new reactors, though I am concerned about what will happen when they eventually inevitably have a major accident that the public finds out about. The panicked nuclear shutdowns in Germany and Japan after Fukushima Daiichi set a worrisome precedent.

. August 15, 2017 at 10:09 am
. August 15, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Nuclear capacity could more than double by 2050, says IAEA

The long-term potential of nuclear power remains high, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest high case projection, which sees global nuclear generating capacity increasing 123% by 2050 compared with its current level.

. August 25, 2017 at 8:57 pm

A second area ripe for improvement is energy. When NAFTA was signed, in 1992, America was in secular decline as a big energy producer. The fracking revolution changed that. America produced an average of 9.4m barrels of oil a day in 2015, up by 80% compared with a decade earlier. Mexico has changed, too. Reforms now allow greater foreign investment in its oil and gas industry. NAFTA opened up trade between America and Canada but exempted Mexico from some of its obligations. America now does ten times as much trade in electricity with Canada as with Mexico. An upgraded NAFTA could bring about an integrated North American energy market. That will require a streamlining of the process by which America grants permits for cross-border grids and pipelines.

. September 11, 2017 at 9:31 am

The problem is, our current business-as-usual trajectory takes us to a world that’s about 3.5C warmer. That is to say, even if we kept the promises we made at Paris (which Trump has already, of course, repudiated) we’re going to build a planet so hot that we can’t have civilisations. We have to seize the moment we’re in right now – the moment when we’re scared and vulnerable – and use it to dramatically reorient ourselves. The last three years have each broken the record for the hottest year ever measured – they’re a red flashing sign that says: “Snap out of it.” Not bend the trajectory somewhat, as the Paris accords envisioned, but simultaneously jam on the fossil fuel brakes and stand on the solar accelerator (and also find some metaphors that don’t rely on internal combustion).

This is a race against time. Global warming is a crisis that comes with a limit – solve it soon or don’t solve it

We could do it. It’s not technologically impossible – study after study has shown we can get to 100% renewables at a manageable cost, more manageable all the time, since the price of solar panels and windmills keeps plummeting. Elon Musk is showing you can churn out electric cars with ever-lower sticker shock. In remote corners of Africa and Asia, peasants have begun leapfrogging past fossil fuel and going straight to the sun. The Danes just sold their last oil company and used the cash to build more windmills. There are just enough examples to make despair seem like the cowardly dodge it is. But everyone everywhere would have to move with similar speed, because this is in fact a race against time. Global warming is the first crisis that comes with a limit – solve it soon or don’t solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing.

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