Energy #4 – In Defence of Renewable Energy

It’s time that people stopped whining about the short term impacts of renewable energy, and asked themselves the fundamental policy question related to electricity generation:

What energy future do you want?

If that question is asked directly, there is little doubt in my mind that the energy future we all should want will be centred around renewable energy technologies.

But that is not the question many are discussing. What we have right now is a cacophony of voices protesting the push towards more renewables: wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric, and other technologies. It is too costly (most renewables), too noisy (wind), uses up arable land (solar), creates traffic problems (waste incineration), floods forests (hydroelectric), and so on.

All of these objections are, to a greater or lesser extent, correct. However, they all completely miss the point.

The way our society is currently structured (i.e. we no longer live in caves, subsisting as hunter-gatherers), we need a certain amount of energy, whether it is to heat our homes in colder climates, or to cool our homes in warmer ones, or to allow us to move from one place to another, or to make this computer work. We have a number of options available to us to get that energy. We have to make choices – hard choices – and optimize those choices.

The complainers have it the wrong way around. They want to set up each choice as a target, and then see whether it’s perfect. That’s counterproductive. All will fail.

Instead, you should establish goals you want to achieve, then develop a road map to achieve those goals. If any given choice doesn’t achieve the goals perfectly, and there is no better option, you try to improve that choice so that you get closer to perfection. In short, choose the future you want, then make it happen.

Now, before the environmentalists have a cow (probably not allowed anyway), yes it is certainly true that the first step is to ensure that our use of energy is as efficient as possible. We should only generate or obtain the energy we need. It is stupid to generate energy and then waste it. (Duh.)

We will disagree on what constitutes waste, though. I am not a tree-hugger. I don’t believe that our only energy solution is taking tepid showers, with no water pressure, at 2 AM. I don’t believe that “the environment” demands that I ride my bicycle in January (although my waistline might).

Yes, let’s not waste it, but we don’t have to adopt a paleo lifestyle to save the environment. If you want to, fine. I don’t.

So, for the sake of argument let’s start with the assumption that we want to have as much energy available to us as we choose to use. We promise to use it as efficiently as possible (yes, you do have to make sure the house is well-insulated, and the lights are LEDs), but no-one has to promise to do without.

Now we have to ask the question: what criteria should we apply to choose the sources of that energy?

Let’s focus on electricity. Space heating and motive fuel have some subtleties that are different from electricity generation. Better (and simpler) to focus on the big one.

If we are establishing the ideal future generation method or mix, there are certain criteria or attributes that most will agree are crucial in assessing what is ideal:

Dispatchable. This is primarily a technical issue. You must be able to supply electricity when you need it. This may be by generating it when you need it, or by generating it at other times and storing it, but if we want to achieve the goal of having as much electricity as we choose to use, then when we choose to use it we must have it available.

Distributed. Electricity supply is distributed if it is not concentrated in one place. In modern use, though, distributed electricity generally refers to supply that is smaller scale, and closer to load. This is partly a technical issue; electricity degrades (the amount available is reduced) if it has to be moved a long way from supply to load. It is also partly a security issue. A few large supply sources are more vulnerable to disaster or attack than many smaller supply sources. It is also partly a social issue. Large supply sources mean that some people bear the impacts of supply disproportionately relative to their use of that supply.

Sustainable. An energy future that won’t last very long just means that a new future has to be chosen, and soon. If you had a ten year supply of magenta kryptonite that will provide all the world’s electricity, but then will run out, you had better start planning now for what to do in year eleven. Non-sustainable choices can sometimes have a role, but most would agree that supply choices that will last a very long time are preferred.

Environmentally Safe/Benign. There are a range of views on how much environmental damage is acceptable from electricity supply sources. Every choice will generate some damage. The goal is to minimize that damage, and/or choose what kinds of damage are more acceptable than others. For example, are we willing to kill off a species of fish in order to reduce noxious emissions into the air? If so, how much emission reduction is required to justify the kill-off of any given species of fish? Is salmon worth a million kilotonnes of carbon, while the snail darter is only worth a hundred thousand kilotonnes? (We might not like the questions, but we do have to ask them.)

Affordable. In all of this, we want every benefit for free, not just eventually, but right now. This is not realistic (again, duh), but there is an ongoing tradeoff between the other criteria (especially environmental impacts and sustainability) and how much we are willing to pay. This is not just being crass or cheap. A Bentley may be a wonderful car, but what it has to offer may not be worth $250,000 to me (even if I had it). Now, maybe leather seats and clean air are not a perfect equivalence (I am absolutely going to get emails about this), but the concept is the same. Once we know the prices, which of the benefits of given electricity supply sources are we willing to buy?

My thesis – and of course I didn’t invent this reasoning – is that choosing an electricity supply future is an iterative process on two basic levels.

First, you look at your supply options, and rate them against the criteria. This involves assessing which criteria are more important than others, and what combinations of advantages and disadvantages are acceptable. It also involves the painful admission that no supply option is perfect.

Second, for each supply option you look at how that option can be optimized as part of an energy future. This may involve mitigating impacts, reducing costs, or combining options so that the combination is better than individual elements.

This is iterative because, as you mitigate and combine options, the overall ranking of possible energy futures changes, and new ways become available to optimize and further adjust the rankings.

If you look at this analysis from the 100,000 foot level, you can predict where it will go. All energy sources on earth come ultimately from nature, either through energy provided by the sun, or through energy locked in atoms. In electricity supply, our technological challenge is to find the optimum method of converting that natural energy into electricity that we can use.

We can use the sun’s heat directly to heat our homes (through building design, or through solar thermal systems), but to make electricity from solar heat we generally have to convert it to steam, then to mechanical energy, and then to electrical energy. This can work, and has limited environmental impacts, but it doesn’t work everywhere.

The sun’s photons are known to cause certain materials to release electrons: the photovoltaic effect. This is more direct, but there are technical limits that make it very difficult to get more than about 30% of the energy from those photons. (Yes, I know there are ways, but the difficulty grows exponentially.) Luckily, there’s lots of photons available, so we can waste some of them.

The sun’s heat (assisted by the moon’s gravity) causes the air and water on the earth to move around naturally. We are able to harness that movement as mechanical energy in wind turbines, hydroelectric power, tidal power, and wave power. These are renewable, in the sense that they will be around as long as the sun is around, but each has its own impacts. The natural world is less “natural” if we have machines dotted around the countryside, harvesting the energy nature provides.

The sun, through photosynthesis, causes plants to grow. The biological material from those plants stores the sun’s energy, which can be released through combustion. We can use this approach with new materials (trees), or with much older materials (coal, oil, natural gas), but in each case the problem is the same. At the same time as we release the energy through combustion, we release a bunch of other things that are harmful to the environment. Unless we mitigate these effects, there is a serious problem with these energy supply options.

We also have, at the other end of the spectrum, huge amounts of energy locked into atoms. For the non-physicist like me, the easiest way to understand this is that atoms and their components are complex, dynamic, high energy systems in delicate balance. If that balance is upset, they come apart and release all that energy, either through fission or fusion. The Darlington Nuclear Station maximizes the fission process, then harnesses the energy produced. The sun is our best example of fusion. We haven’t yet figured out how to replicate that process.

The problem with fission (and likely even more so with fusion) is that it is like riding a wild horse. There is a lot of energy there, but it is always on the edge of being out of control. (As Scotty used to say “She’s gonna blow, Captain!”) In order to harness that energy, without killing ourselves in the process, we have to build increasingly sophisticated control systems around the energy source. The refurbishment of Darlington is expected to result in a $500 million generating source, surrounded by more than $10 billion of control and protection devices and systems.

There are people (not me) who study how complex systems work. What they find is that, as you increase the complexity, you increase the risk, regardless of how hard you try to mitigate. The theorist often said to be the originator of the law of complex systems, John Gall, argued that certain categories of complex systems must always fail. The only exception is complex systems that have grown organically from simple systems. That principle, often called Gall’s Law, would likely apply to generation from nuclear fission.

This suggests that current nuclear generation, based on complex systems, will necessarily fail. We would have to design a new approach to fission generation, or crack the fusion challenge, in order to look at energy futures relying on these options.

In addition, it is clear that conventional nuclear futures have significant disadvantages (cost, radiation impacts, non-distributed, etc.) that make them less likely to be the core of the energy future of choice.

Distill this high level view down to its essence, and there appear to be three categories:

• Nature gives us heat, light, and movement. We can capture the energy in those natural processes. This is the renewables option.

• Nature has many carbon-based substances. We can burn those substances and release the energy locked inside (as well as the harmful substances they contain). This is the fossil fuels option.

• Nature is built from atoms and their components, full of pent-up energy. We can force those components to release that energy, holding on for dear life. This is the nuclear option.

Conceptually, the first looks like the most promising, and so at the 100,000 foot level we should at least see whether we can make it work.

That doesn’t mean we ignore the other two categories.

If we can figure out how to release energy through combustion, without releasing harmful substances at the same time, maybe that is viable, either in general or for particular applications. “Clean coal” is an oxymoron today, because no coal is currently clean, but maybe it can be made to burn clean in the future.

If we can re-think the process for releasing the energy of atoms, so that it does not require an out-of-control system in order to work, that could be viable too.

We should at least explore solutions to those problems.

However, that still leaves renewables as the apparent front-runner.

Renewable options have negatives, too, but they start with obvious advantages. Sunlight, wind, air movement, and water movement are available essentially everywhere in the world, including the places where people live and consume electricity. The overall amount of energy in these processes is orders of magnitude greater than we will ever need. We have well-understood, and generally simple, technologies already available to harness this energy (although obviously they could be improved).

There are impacts, of course, but here is the key. Many of those impacts can be mitigated, leaving an energy future that meets the criteria of environmentally benign, sustainable, and distributed far better than fossil fuels or nuclear are ever likely to achieve.

For example, wind turbines generate noise. So do highways. We don’t ban highways. We figure out ways to have highways while minimizing their noise pollution, through setbacks, sound-deadening structures, etc.

Hydroelectric facilities impact fish populations and wildlife. So do cities. Our solution is not to live and work in caves. Instead, we seek to have our cake and eat it too: build more housing and industry, and at the same time aggressively expand wetland and other natural areas.

I could go on. For most of the complaints about renewables, there is either an answer or a fix. We can optimize these technologies.

There are, in fact, two legitimate issues for renewables: dispatchability, and cost.

On the first, dispatchability, renewables are guilty as charged. Nature provides energy, and we harvest it when nature makes it available. In general, we can’t change the timing. Hydroelectric is an exception, since we can store the water behind the dam, but that has a negative impact: downstream flood effects on wildlife and the people who live there.

On the other hand, because there is so much renewable energy available, there is always some to be harvested somewhere. Taking it only when we need it, where it is available, then becomes a cost issue. We can match renewable energy supply to load, but at a transmission cost.

Of course, the better solution is storage. Effective storage solutions, which are not yet fully mature technologies, but may be close, will convert at-will renewable energy options into a fully dispatchable renewable energy system. Again, the only problem is cost.

So all dispatchability roads actually lead to the second issue, cost. Except for hydroelectric, current renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar and tidal power and wave power, are expensive.

Now, let’s not blow this out of proportion. How much does nuclear cost? Even after $20 billion of the cost of nuclear was artificially moved to another “pot”, so that it no longer looks like nuclear costs, our nuclear options are today still forecast to jump well into double digit levels. As the cost of wind goes down, the cost of nuclear is going up, and will continue to go up (complex systems, remember). We may already be at the point where wind, even with storage, is cheaper than nuclear, particularly when the cost of adding dispatchability to nuclear is added in.

Even solar is not completely out of reach. Solar may take longer to get to competitive cost levels, sure. If we can move the cost of distributed solar generation (rooftops) to below twenty cents per kilowatt-hour, it will compete head to head with conventional power, but that is not on the horizon. Even at forty cents, which is within range, it will likely be cost-effective when environmental impacts are taken into account.

What it comes down to is a cost question. We have to ask ourselves, how much are we willing to pay today to have the optimum energy future, especially when our neighbours are not willing to take the same steps? At what point will the high cost of electricity, and the lost jobs that may generate, be too much for the environmental and other benefits we are achieving?

But if the only real, unresolvable complaint about renewable energy is cost, then let’s deal with that issue head on. Let’s not throw out the energy future that is the hand’s-down winner on environment, sustainability, and diversity, because we don’t want to spend the money.

Ask the question directly. Are we as a society willing to pay $X to have cleaner air, and a better energy future? If so, then the next question is who should pay, and how? Should it be part of the cost of electricity, so that businesses face high electricity costs, or should it be a cost borne by society, funded by taxes? Should we be pushing our neighbours to take the same steps, so that our competitive position is not injured by our desire for a cleaner environment?

What is important is that we can’t lose sight of that first question. If Ontario has to spend $5 billion a year extra for a clean energy future, are we willing to pay?

That’s what it’s really about, so let’s have that debate, and stop going off on pointless tangents about noise, and fish, and arable land. Those are problems to be fixed, not objections to the renewable energy future.

    –    by Jay Shepherd January 26, 2015

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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