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A 100% renewable future: Yes we can

Posted by James Page on 23 November 2012 at 8:43 am

So President Obama gets a second shot at cutting carbon. It will be a tough call, but he should remember that some of the leading renewables manufacturers are from the USA, and the export potential is huge. At least three other leading economies have their work cut out keeping the lights on, never mind climate change.

The tsunami in Japan last year put an end to new nuclear generation there, and the crisis is far from over. Over a thousand highly radioactive fuel rods are still sitting in pools 30m above the ground, cooled by emergency systems. They need to be removed one by one and safely stored. The plant operator TEPCO said last week the total clean up costs could be $125 Billion.

Germany had already decided to phase out nuclear. The public there has long embraced renewables - especially solar, which the older generation refer to as 'their pension'. Germany has 30 gigawatts of solar installed - half their electricity demand, on a good day. This staggering achievement stems not only from the feed in tariffs (thanks to an SDP/CDU/Green Party coalition) but also from banks that would 'say yes'.

But although the German government expects the renewables content to reach 80% by 2050 the question remains where the remaining 20% will come from. There are times when the sun doesn't shine, nor the wind blow. The coal lobby is strong, and there is a serious danger they could make a come back. But there is a late runner that could fill the gaps with stored renewable energy, and do so much more economically than batteries. German solar research institute ZSW has just built a 250kW plant that converts electrical energy, water and carbon dioxide into methane, using Sabatier process, better known for applications onboard spacecraft.

Such a system could lead to 100% renewables, a scenario that Photon, the world's leading solar journal, believes to be entirely plausible, given political backing. Of course solar and wind generation would have to continue to grow but as they have achieved a momentum of their own this is likely to happen anyway. Long before 2050 there will be gigawatts of solar energy generating electricity without feed in tariff subsidy at a price with which even coal cannot compete.

Meanwhile the UK is only months away from many coal-fired electricity plants being closed for good, and the government is keen to go nuclear ( with the help, ironically, of the Japanese) underwritten by the taxpayer. The guaranteed electricity price is yet to be set but is sure to be well in excess of the 5p that Photon estimates new solar electricity will cost to generate in 2030. 

Other means of storage will be possible in the UK, such as electric vehicle batteries and hot water. And unlike Germany our peak electricity use is in the evening, so west facing roofs will play a greater role. There is still time for the government to make the right decisions, and invest in technology suited to this century rather than the last. It cannot be left to the market. To make the carbon cuts needed we need to look much further ahead.

Photo by Michael Mees

About the author: James Page is a chartered engineer and is head of engineering at Joju Solar. All views expressed are his own. He stores solar energy under the kitchen floor.

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