The lockdowns around the world imposed in response to Covid-19 led to reduced energy use and carbon emissions, and also to cleaner air. Now we have seen how life looks with fewer planes, cars and less pollution, some are hopeful that we won’t want to revert back to old-style transport and energy systems. Indeed, some have seen the drastic action taken in response to Covid-19 as a small ‘dress rehearsal’ for what we will have to do to limit the potentially even larger impacts from climate change: we will have to cut back massively on activities leading to carbon emissions, while ramping up ‘green’ approaches.
Sadly, that may not happen. The climate change threat may be perceived as less urgent and longer term, and demand may return for all the things people think they want and have been deprived of, so emissions may rise again. However, governments have come up with corporate restart/rescue funding programmes, and there have been pressures on them to focus on stimulating ‘green’ technology options. Lord Stern said:‘We should only be bailing out firms that are going to contribute to tackling climate change’. António Guterres, UN general Secretary, said ‘Public funds should invest in the future by flowing to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and climate’.
One focus would clearly be renewable energy. The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol, noted that ‘the plunge in demand for nearly all major fuels is staggering, especially for coal, oil and gas. Only renewables are holding up during the previously unheard-of slump in electricity use’, and the IEA said that, despite this, and continued economic constraints, ‘renewables demand is expected to increase because of low operating costs and preferential access to many power systems.’
Renewable energy had already been strongly promoted as a response to climate change and air pollution problems, for example in proposed Green New Deals in the EU and in the USA, but now they are being pushed as part of the post-Covid recovery. However, not everyone is convinced that renewables can deliver in any of these roles. Certainly, at least until recently, they have often been seen as expensive, unreliable and of marginal relevance except in a limited number of locations. At present renewables, including hydro, are supplying around 26% of global electricity. Can we expect them to do a lot more?
Can renewable deliver?
The simple answer is yes. A key thing that has change is that renewables are now economically competitive with conventional energy sources in many locations. For example, Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that utility-scale solar farms and onshore wind farms now offer the cheapest source of electricity for about two-thirds of the world’s population. So Forbes depicts it as full speed ahead as markets back cheap renewables in a post-C19 restart, presumably aided by stimulus packages. The International Renewable Energy Agency’s post C-19 Transforming Energy Scenariosees renewables expanding tosupply 86% of electricity by 2050. Some scenarios from academia put the potential of renewables even higher- at up to 100% of all energy globally by 2050.
Is any of that realistic? Can renewables really replace all fossil fuel and nuclear power as some suggest? Or will there have to be other changes, including radical reductions in energy use and lifestyle? That is the main focus of my new book ‘Can Renewables Deliver?’ It notes that, according to REN21’s 2019 Renewable Energy Status Report, modern renewables had expanded their share in final energy consumption by an average of 4.5% over the last ten years, whereas global energy demand had only risen by 1.5%. However, although the total global renewable share is growing, it still only around 26% of power and 11% of all energy, and squeezing coal out has been proving to be hard in some countries. So it’s a race against climate disaster, with rising demand offsetting, and in some cases overwhelming, emissions reductions.
Nevertheless, in the new book, I argue that, with wind and solar power output growing ‘at an annual average of 20.8% and 50.2%, respectively, over the past decade’renewables are doing well. Moreover, in some sectors power demand is actually falling. Indeed it’s fallen back to 1994 levels in the UK. And with new nuclear and Carbon Capture and Storage pretty much stalled, backing renewables (and further energy savings) is the best bet. In the post-pandemic context, money will be tighter, so better use will have to be made of it. But it seems clear that a green package, including renewables, is the best option for repairing the economy after the coronavirus crisis. An Oxford University study claims that it will deliver higher economic returns, short term and longer term, than conventional stimulus spending. In 2019, with costs falling, renewable capacity reached over 2.5 TW globally, expanding by 7.6% and accounting for 72% of new energy projects. That seems to be the way forward, although, along with energy saving, it will have to be much accelerated, if we want to limit climate change to survivable levels.
There will of course be problems. Some of the renewable energy sources are variable, so that ways have to be found to balance grid systems. As I describe, it can be done, for example using smart grid demand management, long distance supergrid link-ups and local power storage systems. This in fact may lead to a system which is cheaper to run that the one we have now, since variable supply and variable demand are better matched. Renewable sources are also diffuse and low energy density, so that large areas may be needed to collect sufficient energy. That can lead to land-use conflicts and eco-impact issues in some cases, and I explore the implication of these issues in some detail. They may for example put a limit on how much we can rely on biomass.
As I indicate, there will also be other strategic and geopolitical issues to face as renewables expand globally, as well as the even larger issue of whether energy use will, can or should expand continually. Certainly some look to a stable state economy as the only viable future on a planet with finite resources and carrying capacity. However, one of the core messages of this book is that, whatever we do about wider growth and consumption generally, for the moment, renewables are one area that can and must grow rapidly if we want to respond to climate change and air pollution.
David Elliott is Professor Emeritus of Technology Policy at The Open University and author of Renewable Energy: Can it Deliver?, which publishes 10th July 2020 from Polity.