energy & climate change: sustainable is cheaper

Renewable energy

Technologically speaking, we have all the tools at our disposal required to change the energy infrastructure, and averting runaway climate change. There is no technical or financial reason why this World should not be powered by renewable energy by 2040. The barriers to development are artificial - wrong incentives, weak politics, and insufficient long-term profit seeking on some parts of the energy industry.
Renewable energy technologies have reached technological and market maturity, and can compete with conventional sources in terms of cost. Wind energy is already now cheaper than most conventional fossil-based energy generation.

Renewable energy technologies include:

    • Hydro-power involves damming rivers or valleys, using the power  of water streaming from higher grounds to run turbines. Hydro-power output can seasonally change due to different water levels in the rivers.

    • Wind turbines generate electricity from wind and therefore subject to changing output. Wind turbines installed in exposed locations (mountain tops, off-shore generate a more balanced electricity output.

    • Solar PV: converts sunlight to electricity: Prices have come done drastically over recent years thanks to mass production. Solar PV has the obvious disadvantage of not having electricity when the sun does not shine.

    • Solar thermal: is widely used to heat water for household and industrial purposes - significantly cheaper than conventional heating

    • Solar thermal power generation: uses reflector to concentrate the sun rays on a heat carrier that drives a conventional steam turbine. This technology can be applied in utility scale and has the advantage that heat can be temporarily stored, thus allowing stable base load electricity output.

    • Conventional biofuels: convert biomass (sugar cane crops, palm-oil, etc.) into fuels. Is associated with destruction of rainforest (rainforest is burnt in order to gain land for plantations, and competing over land with food crops, pushing prices of basic food staples in developing countries.

    • Algae biofuels: grown in reactors to produce fuels. Not yet commercially competitive at this point.

    Columbus' egg: storing electricity...

    The main technological barrier to implement large-scale renewable energy infrastructure from the technology perspective is electricity storage. Renewable energy  are not  primary energy carriers like oil or gas, but utilise natural powers (the sun, wind, flowing water) to generate electricity. The electricity is therefore  only available when those powers are available, and electricity cannot be stored in the volumes required to support demand requirements. In order to store electricity, it has to be converted to energy carriers, such as pumping water to higher grounds, or converting water to hydrogen with surplus electricity (when the sun shines, the wind blows)  that later can be reconverted back to electricity with fuel cells. Due to the lack of economics of scale an strategic R&D programs this technology is still to expensive to be applied in utility scale.

    ...and market distortion: U$500 billion  anual subsidies for fossil energy

    However, the main barrier is not so much a technical question, but a political. An estimated U$ 544 (2012) billion in direct and indirect subsidies for fossil energy and the lack of a real agenda forward distort the market balance and real prices of non-renewable vs. renewable energy technologies.

    Wind mills are a simple technology. Electricity generation from wind is allready cheaper tham most conventional (fossil-based) electricty generation

    Solar tehermal power plants concentrate sun rays on a heat carrier that drives a steam turbine, allowing stable base load electricity generation at reasonble cost. The technology could replace most conventional power generation in arid areas

    Fossil energy receives significantely higher subsidies than renewable technology. Global subsidies for fossile energy amounted to U$ 544 billion in 2012 (IEA, 2013)

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