Why talk of a system based on 100% renewables does more damage than good

Written by Evan Byrne, Account Manager in Madano's Energy practice.

Did you hear the good news? It turns out climate change is actually really easy to solve. If we move to a system with 100% renewables we’ll have solved the problem.

Some British and American politicians have recently latched onto this major revelation. They’ve proposed this be adopted as actual energy policy with some quick fixes for the minor problem of economic and social inequality thrown in for good measure (see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal).

As that insurance Meerkat say, simples!

This reflects the way politics has gone. Incredibly naïve or if I’m being cynical deliberately manipulative and calculating politicians gunning for votes offer a nice, cushy, easy solution to a complex problem to an electorate that is ill-informed on the realities of an issue.

Let’s review some recent examples:

‘Let’s just exit the EU, that’ll solve everything’

‘Let’s just build a wall, that’ll stop illegal immigration’

‘Let’s just spend some more money, that’ll end economic inequality and poverty’

‘Let’s just nationalise the railways, that’ll make the trains better’

And on and on it goes. All sides are guilty, peddling ‘pie in the sky’ thinking on a complex issue to provide an easy answer in the hope of votes. Voters don’t like complexity, they like ‘on-demand’ solutions.

In the fight against climate change this has materialised into a simple solution: 100% renewable energy. While a nice soundbite, unfortunately the physics behind energy generation don’t change.

A 40% renewable system (let alone a 100%) wouldn’t work.

Our grid is a century old. It wasn’t designed for volatile and intermittent renewables and at present can realistically only handle a certain penetration of renewable generation. Continue to pile more renewables onto the system and that will lead to rolling and regular blackouts, as happened in the well documented case of South Australia.

Even if someone did find an entirely new grid lying around that solves this problem, and then managed to install it, there remains the intermittency issue.

When the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining, there is no generation. Simples! One could argue that renewable energy simply isn’t necessarily the best way of generating large amounts of energy full stop, at least compared to more energy dense alternatives.

The obvious advantage of renewable options is that they have low carbon emissions and are therefore good for the climate. But if you were to rely entirely on renewables to generate either all, or a sizeable majority of your energy capacity, you must go big in order to compensate for the intermittency and energy density issues.

In the case of wind and solar, this means that farms must become larger, in terms of sq. footage. But even stretched over many acres, these sites might still not produce anything like the level of reliable energy generated from conventional power plants that might typically use considerably less real estate.

That is not to say that renewables will not play an essential role in our future energy system. Decentralised, locally installed (such as rooftop solar) and distributed renewable energy will almost certainly form an important part of the future energy mix, specifically helping to reduce cost to consumers and demand on the grid. This will be important in the context of soaring global electricity demand if we decarbonise transport and heating by moving to electrified systems.

In my view, reliable, baseload energy, which will ultimately have to come from nuclear power, or conventional energy (i.e. fossil fuel) with some sort of carbon capture, will be necessary. Our lives and businesses are dependent on ‘on-demand’ energy. A 100% renewables system would not be able to provide for our current needs, and moving to one would mean we would have to change our ways of living, adapting to the use of less energy in total, and less reliable energy day to day (i.e. the end of on-demand energy).

Turns out, tackling climate change is not ‘simples’. But a good first step – the essential first step – in the fight against it, is for vote-chasing politicians to stop peddling nonsensical, easy solutions. Energy ultimately is driven by hard science. You cannot democratise hard science, or just ignore it, in the pursuit of the most popular solution.

Either politicians must start to recognise publicly that our way of life is dependent on ‘on-demand’ energy – which renewables cannot provide – or admit the move to such a system would irrevocably change our world, (a change people may not support).

In order to truly win the fight against climate change, our leaders must at least start to communicate the challenges properly first.

Madano advises clients across the energy and industry sector space – if you’re interested in learning more please drop me or the team a line. You can also follow Madano on Twitter.