Non-renewable fossil and nuclear fuels dominate world electricity supply. In 2015, world electricity generation accounted for 13 percent of the world’s fossil fuel and nuclear energy (primary energy) consumption. However a further 25 percent of the world’s primary energy production is lost in the conversion of that energy into electricity.[i] Hydroelectric and non-hydroelectric renewable energy sources accounted for about one-quarter of the world’s electricity generated, with hydroelectricity dominating the renewable electricity supply (i.e., about 70 percent).[ii]
Of all the initiatives we can undertake, rapidly switching electricity generation systems to renewable energy will have the biggest impact on extending our fossil fuel reserves timelines and reducing pollution. At the same time, making improvements in the efficiency of energy conversion into electricity, and the use of heat co-generation technologies in producing that electricity, would also save major amounts of energy.
If a risk-mitigating market switch to renewable energy is going to occur, then not only must renewable energy replace three-quarters of the total electricity generated (and the associated energy that is wasted), but renewables must also replace a large part of the 63 percent share of primary energy supplied to industry, transportation, and non-industrial commerce sectors for non-electricity energy uses.[iii] The early stage progress toward the electricity market switch, and the mountain still to be climbed, are highlighted in the figure above.[iv]
What is proposed below may come across as idealistic and unrealistic. You might cite all the reasons why we can’t do these things. I am working under the assumption that the near-to-medium term future will not be “business as usual.” I assume that a cold climate switch is going to happen, and that risks like climate-forcing volcanism, pandemic flu, and severe drought will eventuate in my lifetime.
I am writing this section (extracted from Revolution: Ice Age Re-Entry) for people who realize that we cannot ignore natural climate change, or the extreme global warming temperature peak that is upon us. Nor can we ignore the abrupt fall in temperature that this extreme trough-to-peak outlier portends.
We have three options under the above scenario: (1) continue believing in anthropogenic global warming and going about business as usual; (2) deal with this when the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan; (3) rapidly implement risk mitigation plans, that is, anticipate these potential events and move to reduce our vulnerability. None of these options is without pain—the pain is suffered either now at one price, or in the future at a much higher price.
Pivotal to ensuring that a global energy switch moves ahead rapidly is the need to send the right messages about climate change, and provide the economic incentives that will motivate business and society as a whole to make changes. These messages must also convey the reality of our finite and dwindling energy and water reserves, and the damage we are doing (greenhouse gases, pollution) by using these resources. By refocusing the climate and resource messages governments can then engender the right sense of urgency and motivation for people and businesses to act and help switch the energy system to renewables.
Higher oil prices achieved through the perception of energy scarcity and the unveiling of catastrophic risks will be a more powerful motivator for businesses, transportation, and industry generally (i.e., the largest energy users) to rapidly switch the energy system than the perceived need to mitigate anthropogenic global warming.
Governments play an important role in regulating their national energy markets and consumption through a number of different mechanisms. State-based control of energy industries versus promoting a competitive marketplace is the most obvious means of market regulation. Governments also make decisions on what national energy resources are exploited, and when, through government investment and the sale of exploration licenses. Government regulation can come about from the building of hydroelectric dams and geothermal or nuclear power plants, the sale of oil and gas exploration licenses, the use of fuel subsidies, or by promoting renewable energy through the use of feed-in-tariffs (premium-priced supply contracts). Internationally, governments together with the United Nations and its inter-governmental organizations (i.e., IRENA, IPCC) are the key architects of the world’s transition to renewable energy.[v],[vi]
Governments are also able to legislate and implement policies, as well as educate and incentivize all levels of society to change their consumption habits. Governments at all levels also have significant budgets, capital expenses, and public sector finances to oversee. That’s an awful lot of purchasing power to lead the switch to renewable energy.
In order to switch the world’s energy system quickly, major public and private investments will be required for ensuring the required energy infrastructure is put in place. This includes making the investments in renewable energy capacity (at the national and municipal levels), in local smart grids and regional super-grids, in long-distance high voltage direct current transmission links, in biomass-to-biogas and biofuel production, and biomass-biofuel and synthetic fuel filling stations, as well as electric road (vehicle recharging) and rail systems.
These big infrastructure projects need to be financed by both public and private sources. Some of the main financing options were reviewed in Chapter 8 of “Revolution: Ice Age Re-Entry“. Higher oil prices, as indicated above, would provide a greater economic incentive for switching industries and sectors to renewable energy, because the loss of profits is a powerful motivator.
Feed-in tariffs (i.e., long-term energy supply contracts), regulated by governments, are awarded to renewable energy suppliers at a higher price per kilowatt-hour than the price given to non-renewable electricity suppliers.[vii] This pricing difference reflects the higher electricity supply costs at this stage of renewable energy’s technology and market development. Feed-in tariffs have been widely used around the world to promote a rapid expansion of renewable energy capacity by helping incentivize investment in renewable energy systems.[viii],[ix] The European Commission concluded that “well-adapted feed in tariff regimes are generally the most efficient and effective support schemes for promoting renewable electricity.”[x]
Big city governments are leaders in the promotion of renewable energy, particularly in combination with energy efficiency improvements. Some cities and governments have been forward-thinking in managing and risk-mitigating climate change for their people.[xi],[xii],[xiii],[xiv],[xv]
Progressive government and city leaders use their planning processes and purchasing authority to source national and city energy needs from renewable sources, and to ensure that reductions in carbon dioxide are achieved (i.e., by mandating lower vehicle emission standards, promoting decentralized renewable energy sourcing, etc.). These progressive governments also implement building codes and set energy efficiency targets for buildings. Progressive governments also ensure waste is processed for biogas, while investing in renewable energy public transportation systems, among many other actions. Cities that are investing in renewable energy public transportation systems include Oslo, Bogota, San Francisco, and Melbourne.[xvi]
By introducing standards for building energy use and efficiency, municipalities can have a direct influence on new construction and the retrofitting of existing buildings to higher standards of sustainability. Municipalities can also influence the replacement of old equipment that uses a lot of energy with more efficient items. Municipalities and the public sector generally can ensure that public heating systems are switched to renewables.
More than 90 percent of transport energy comes from oil and liquid fuels. To have any meaningful impact on switching transportation energy systems, it will be important for municipal and national governments to facilitate the switch to renewable energy transport systems (i.e., electric rail and road), especially in cities and on the main intercity routes.
In the shorter term, setting stricter fuel economy standards for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards for small vehicles[xvii] and other classes of vehicle transportation will promote an industry-wide downsizing of engine capacities. Stricter fuel economy standards will also promote the development of lighter, smaller, and lower maximum velocity vehicles. Older vehicles not complying with stricter emissions regulations would be phased out over time.
Two main options are available for both central and city governments, as well as commercial enterprises, to move transportation to renewable energy systems. First, public and private initiatives can be used to switch internal combustion engine vehicles to renewable biomass-waste generated biogas and liquid bio-fuels,[xviii],[xix],[xx],[xxi] and to synthetic fuels.[xxii],[xxiii],[xxiv],[xxv] These renewable fuel options for combustion engine vehicles are available right now.
A switch to renewable biofuels will be greatly assisted by higher oil prices, once it’s realized that peak-oil and peak-discovery are behind us, and once a carbon tax is implemented. An economic imperative is needed to support this biomass-biofuel switch, and a higher long-term oil price will support the business case for investing in biomass-biofuel conversion production capacity and vehicle refueling infrastructure.
Compressed natural gas (CNG) has been in use for decades in some countries and is already powering 20 million-plus vehicles worldwide, offering society a tried and tested renewable fuel alternative.[xxvi] In New Zealand during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the government incentivized vehicle conversions to CNG, establishing a precedent for government intervention to direct market responses to fuel scarcity. More widespread biomass-biogas use will require new policy initiatives and commercial support. Major investment in refueling infrastructure and biomass-derived biogas production facilities will be required, along with the retrofitting of vehicles using biogas conversion kits.[xxvii],[xxviii]
Biofuels derived from irrigated crops are not a viable renewable energy solution for transportation, because they would have a major impact on irrigation water use in stressed water basins around the world, and would lead to greater deforestation.[xxix]
The second option for switching transportation to renewable energy systems is by electrifying road systems and accelerating the development of the electric vehicle market. With such development of electrification infrastructure, transportation could be moved more rapidly to electric-powered systems.
Electric cars are already a reality and in an early phase of market adoption around the world. The technology for electric vans and buses is at an earlier stage of market development, while electrification for long-range trucks and buses needs further development. The electrification of road infrastructure has started, but this will require major public and private investment before it becomes widespread.[xxx],[xxxi],[xxxii]
The emergence of fuel cells using hydrogen for transportation is also an interesting area of development. Hydrogen generated for fuel cells offers scope for providing motive power for small cars, buses, trucks, and specialty vehicles.[xxxiii] In the long run, the integration of renewable energy-driven electrolysis systems for splitting water to release the hydrogen fuel will make this technology fully renewable. This water-splitting process involves the use of sunlight and specialized semiconductors (i.e., a photoelectrochemical process), and requires further development.[xxxiv]
[i] International Energy Outlook 2017. Release Date: September 14, 2017, Report Number: DOE/EIA-0484(2017). Data extracted from. Table F1. Total world delivered energy consumption by end-use sector and fuel. https://bit.ly/2NM2GPG. (Accessed 06/04/2018). [ii] U.S. Energy Information Administration. International Energy Statistics. Generation of Electricity Billion Kwh. https://bit.ly/2JtfawJ. (Last Accessed Jun 01 2018). [iii] International Energy Outlook 2017. Release Date: September 14, 2017, Report Number: DOE/EIA-0484(2017). Data extracted from. Table F1. Total world delivered energy consumption by end-use sector and fuel. https://bit.ly/2NM2GPG. (Accessed 06/04/2018). [iv] Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration. International Energy Statistics. Generation of Electricity Billion Kwh. https://bit.ly/2JtfawJ. (Last Accessed June 1 2018). [v] European Commission. Energy Strategy and Energy Union. Secure, competitive, and sustainable energy. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/energy-strategy-and-energy-union, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/enforcement-laws. [vi] Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Office of Energy Market Regulation (OEMR). https://www.ferc.gov/about/offices/oemr.asp. [vii] National Renewable Energy Laboratory. State, Local, & Tribal Governments. Feed-In Tariffs. https://www.nrel.gov/technical-assistance/basics-tariffs.html. [viii] US Department of Energy. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Feed-in Tariff Resources. https://www.energy.gov/eere/slsc/feed-tariff-resources. [ix] US Energy Information Agency. Feed-in tariff: A policy tool encouraging deployment of renewable electricity technologies. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=11471. [x]https://web.archive.org/web/20090509184329/http://ec.europa.eu/energy/climate_actions/doc/2008_res_working_document_en.pdf. Page 3 of 38. [xi] National Renewable Energy Laboratory. City-Level Energy Decision Making: Examples from 20 Cities. https://www.nrel.gov/technical-assistance/blog/posts/city-level-energy-decision-making-examples-from-20-cities.html. [xii] Renewable Energy in Cities: State of the Movement. https://www.renewablecities.ca/articles/renewable-energy-in-cities-state-of-the-movement. [xiii] City of Vancouver. Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. 2016-2017 Implementation Update. vancouver.ca/green-vancouver/39764.aspx. [xiv] Tania Urmee et al., “Green Growth in cities: two Australian cases.” Renew. Energy Environ. Sustain. 2, 43 (2017). T. Urmee et al., published by EDP Sciences, 2017. DOI: 10.1051/rees/2017007. [xv] 100% Renewable Energy Cities & Regions Network. http://www.iclei.org/activities/agendas/low-carbon-city/iclei-100re-cities-regions-network.html. [xvi] Top 5 Green Public Transport Projects Globally. https://impact4all.org/revealed-top-5-renewable-public-transport-systems/. [xvii] The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). 2017 Global Update. Light Duty Vehicle. Greenhouse Gas and Fuel Economy Standards. Zifei Yang and Anup Bandivadekar. https://www.theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/2017-Global-LDV-Standards-Update_ICCT-Report_23062017_vF.pdf. [xviii] Optimal use of biogas from waste streams. An assessment of the potential of biogas from digestion in the EU beyond 2020. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/ce_delft_3g84_biogas_beyond_2020_final_report.pdf. [See transport sector page 39]. [xix] Clean transport, Urban transport. Green propulsion in transport. https://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/urban/vehicles/road_en. [xx] European Biofuels Technology Platform. Liquid, synthetic hydrocarbons. http://www.etipbioenergy.eu/images/synthetic-hydrocarbons-fact-sheet.pdf. [xxi] IRENA, 2017, Biogas for road vehicles: Technology brief. International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi. [xxii] J. Shen et al., 2002, “Opportunities for the Early Production of Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) Fuels in the U.S. An Overview.” US Department of Energy, 8th Diesel Emissions Reduction Conference (DEER). August 2002. https://www.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/pdfs/deer_2002/session4/2002_deer_shen.pdf. [xxiii] Synthetic Diesel Fuel. https://www.dieselnet.com/tech/fuel_syn.php. [xxiv] Synthetic Fuels. http://www.futurecars.com/futurefuels/synthetic_fuels.html. [xxv] Paulina Jaramillo et al., “Comparative Analysis of the Production Costs and Life-Cycle GHG Emissions of FT Liquid Fuels from Coal and Natural Gas.” Environmental Science & Technology 2008 42 (20), 7559-7565. DOI: 10.1021/es8002074. [xxvi] NGV Global’s Natural Gas Vehicle Knowledge Base. http://www.iangv.org/. [xxvii] Alternative Fuels Data Center. Natural Gas Vehicles. https://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/natural_gas.html. [xxviii] Are natural gas cars a real alternative? https://www.energuide.be/en/questions-answers/are-natural-gas-cars-a-real-alternative/198/. [xxix] Global Water Security. Intelligence Community Assessment, ICA 2012-08, 2 February 2012. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Special%20Report_ICA%20Global%20Water%20Security.pdf. [xxx] European Roadmap Electrification of Road Transport. 3rd Edition, Version: 10. June 2017. [xxxi] European Commission. Electrification of the Transport System Studies and reports. Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. 2017 Smart Green and Integrated Transport. https://bit.ly/2syrC3y. [xxxii] Trafikverket. First electric road in Sweden inaugurated. News release 22 June 2016. http://www.trafikverket.se/en/startpage/about-us/news/2016/2016-06/first-electric-road-in-sweden-inaugurated. [xxxiii] U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Fuel Cell Technologies Market Report 2016. Prepared by Sandra Curtin and Jennifer Gangi of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, in Washington, D.C. https://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/10/f37/fcto_2016_market_report.pdf. [xxxiv] Hydrogen Production: Photoelectrochemical Water Splitting. https://energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-photoelectrochemical-water-splitting.