Published on May 1st, 2013 | by Guest Contributor


Biggest Barrier To 100% Renewables Is In Our Heads

May 1st, 2013 by  

This article originally appeared on PV Solar Report. (For releated reading, also see: “70%, 80%, 99.9%, 100% Renewables — Study Central“)
By Rosana Francescato

100 percent renewables

The future is here — it’s just unevenly distributed. This old quote found a new application at the Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy conference in San Francisco last week. An international crowd of energy experts, financiers, clean energy advocates, elected officials, government employees, academics, and more gathered there to discuss how to bring the renewable energy future to all.

Even those in favor of renewable energy have been known to debate how much of our power it can provide. But at the conference, the question was not whether we can get to 100%. Instead, speakers asked, How do we get there? And how soon?

Answers vary, and multiple approaches are needed — many of which were shared at this event. Out of all the details and perspectives, a few themes came to the fore.

Our thinking is out of date

What’s the biggest barrier to 100% renewables? According to keynote speaker Frances Moore Lappé, it’s all in our heads. That’s because it’s hard for us to see beyond our mental map and cultural filters. Instead of talking about scarcity and limits to growth, which are part of this mental map, she believes that to find solutions we need to reframe the issue.

An animated Frances Moore Lappé

An animated Frances Moore Lappé

Other speakers echoed this sentiment and urged us not to let what we see today cloud our vision of tomorrow. After all, the one given in the world of renewables is that a lot will change. We too need to change when it comes to how we approach the problems.

We need to look at things differently. For example, why not switch to driving electric vehicles? Is it just because we’ve internalized and accepted the reality of gas-powered cars?

The same principle can be applied to the power industry itself; the industry’s current reality isn’t the only one possible. It’s bound to change as renewables make more sense economically, climate change becomes harder to deny, and consumers gain more control of power generation. Some say the industry won’t be recognizable by 2050.

In moving beyond our set views, we may realize that more is possible than we think. People said it wasn’t technically possible to integrate as much renewable power into the grid as Germany has done — and yet it was done, with no adverse effects.

Predictions underestimate the growth of renewables

That’s just one of many predictions gone awry when it comes to renewables. Keynote speaker Eric Martinot, after providing many examples of fast growth in renewables, noted that we’re already exceeding conservative scenarios. Projections from the World Bank and others have generally been a decade off or a factor of 10 lower than actual outcomes. That’s right: we’re heading down the path to 100% renewables more quickly than predicted.

Examples are plentiful of regions on this path. In Freiburg, Germany, the average household energy consumption has been reduced by about 80%. For 2050, Germany as a whole is aiming for 80% renewable electricity, Denmark for 100% renewables. San Francisco has an earlier target of 100% renewable electricity by 2020; Lancaster, California, has set a goal of 100% renewable energy for the same year.

Some areas have already reached 100%. Case in point: Rhein-Hunsrueck, Germany. Starting with energy efficiency and moving on to generating its own power, the region of 101,000 inhabitants now produces not 100% but 104% of its energy from renewable sources. The future is here.

Technology is not a barrier

So what’s holding us back? Speaker after speaker emphasized that despite many misconceptions, it’s not technology.

The many roadmaps we already have — such as IEA’s World Energy Outlook, recent NREL studies, the IIASA Global Energy Assessment, and the REN 21 Renewables Global Future Report — all show that the barriers to 100% renewables are not technological.

That’s not to say that technology isn’t important. Solar and wind forecasting will play a role in moving us to 100% renewables, as will demand-response technologies, storage, and microgrids.

We already have viable means of storing energy, and they’re only getting better. But most storage is not yet on the grid, because  the grid was built when it was thought energy couldn’t be stored — another example of how we need to change our thinking.

And our thinking needs to include transportation and buildings. Going all electric would reduce global energy demand by 32%, and EVs can help support the grid by storing power and sending it back to the grid when it’s needed there. Buildings, representing 25% of global energy use, can be made more energy-efficient.

A study of conditions in 2005 and 2006 showed that in that period, California could have met its electricity needs for 99.8% of all hours from solar and wind — without using demand-response, much storage, or oversizing. In Mexico, a combination of wind and solar can greatly reduce intermittency problems, with hydro or geothermal easily making up the remainder of electricity needs. Those who doubt these assessments need look no farther than the increasing number of areas that have already reached 100% or are close to doing so.

As more regions move to renewables, more people will see the value of making the switch. That increased public awareness and acceptance will help overcome the real challenges, which are social and political.

Renewables make financial sense

Costs can also be a challenge, but that too is changing quickly as renewables become more competitive.

The biggest cost of renewables is in the up-front investment; once they’re in place, they don’t need to be supported by infrastructure like pipelines. Many can be sited locally, reducing the need for costly transmission lines.

Nuclear power is not a good option when it comes to costs. Nuclear requires large subsidies and plants need upgrades and repairs, which always seem to cost much more than projected.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel costs are rising, even if you don’t count the many externalities like health care costs. We’re all paying for fossil fuels, in the form of $600 billion in subsidies in the last 60 years. What did we get for that? Increased power costs. When we subsidize renewables, on the other hand, our costs decline. So what’s the better investment?

Investors are catching on. For example, they’re beginning to understand solar as an asset class and are realizing it’s a great bet: It’s a proven technology, it harnesses an unlimited source of power, and the default rate on solar projects hovers around zero. Solar provides a hedge against volatile future power costs.

Investments in renewables are expected to double by 2020 or 2030. Given the way renewables tend to outperform predictions, perhaps we’ll see that even sooner.

And new business models are emerging to finance renewables as well as to lower their costs. That includes programs supported by the SunShot Initiative that help lower the soft costs of solar, which now account for about half the cost of solar systems in the US.

Local action is key

Given that we have the technology and the favorable economics, how do we get to 100% renewables?

We need strong, stable policies like Germany’s feed-in tariff, which has led to 40% of renewables there being owned by individuals. And that brings us to an important point. Power needs to be decentralized and controlled more by individuals and communities.

Hundreds of communities are getting into the action with policies and targets to support renewables. Some are taking up community choice energy, which allows local governments to pool residential, business, and municipal electricity loads and to purchase or generate on their behalf. It provides rate stability and savings and allows more consumer choice and local control.

Other communities are taking their own paths to renewables. Lancaster, California, for example, decided to become the solar capital of the world and is making progress toward that goal. This didn’t happen from the top down — it happened because the community decided it was important. With the will to make the change in place, it wasn’t hard or costly to implement policies to support the community’s goal, such as streamlining the permitting process.

Greensburg, Kansas provides another great example of a community-driven move to renewables. In 2007, 95% of the town was destroyed by a tornado. The community decided to rebuild in a more sustainable way, and now Greensburg is living up to its name as a showcase for how a community can go green.

Part of the crowd of 180 conference attendees.

Part of the crowd of 180 conference attendees.

Renewables are for everyone

As you can imagine, Greensburg is not a hotbed of radical environmentalism. But it’s a fine example that when it comes to renewables, there’s something in it for everyone. We need to remember this as we tackle the many misconceptions we face.

The people of Greensburg built on their farming ancestors’ heritage of conserving resources, reframed to fit their modern situation. Indeed, conservatism at its heart is compatible with protecting our planet. If that’s not compelling enough, most conservatives care about public safety and national security. And for most people, conservative or liberal, the strongest argument for moving to renewables is the economics.

Whatever the angle, it’s crucial to get the message out that renewables make sense. According to Kirsten Hasberg, that will be facilitated by the democratizer of communication, the digital revolution. She’s founded a new media outlet where she invites us all to participate in harnessing the power of that revolution, Energy Democracy TV. Another way to get involved and learn more is to join Go 100% Renewable Energy, a campaign just launched by a coalition of leading NGOs — including the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, which organized the conference.

As Stefan Schurig of the World Future Council reminded conference-goers, the path to 100% won’t be easy. Resistance tends to get stronger the more successful our efforts. But he left us with a well-known quote that’s worth repeating here:

First they ignore you,
then they laugh at you,
then they fight you,
then you win.

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

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  • TigerGreen

    It would be wonderful to get our European Heads of States to agree that in the end they will have to rely on Renewable Energy supplies; and I sincerely hope that we can do this. However, the other thing that we have to do, is to persuade our own youngsters to use less. As it is every baby that has been born in the last century, uses a lot more electrical/fossil fuel energy than their parents did. i.e. the increased demand for energy is not a matter simply of increasing population, but the new demand is logarithmic.

    Perhaps even more crucially this applies to the use of fresh water by humans. One would think that rather than try to import water from another country – whose own water naturally helps to balance the salinity of the seas and to ‘feed’ the coastline environment – the western seaboard country would decide to limit not only its imigration, but also its own population growth from the bottom! But this does not seem to have occured to the government of the UK.

  • Jairin peluquin

    I’m convinced they propose but who changes his vision of oil companies,( ) they are the ones to change so that I am actually works.

  • Ross

    We’re already moving between the fighting and winning stages. The main challenge is winning quickly.

  • Eric Martinot also stated in his ‘Epilogue: Speaking Personally’ in the REN21 Report he authored, “As to what “predominantly” means, I would say something like 80-90%. I don’t believe that we can reach “100%,” as many now advocate, although “100%” is a useful political and social archetype. Rather, I think we need to allow for a modest share of fossil fuels to accompany renewables, particularly those needs that are most difficult to meet with renewables, including freight transport and shipping, high-temperature industrial process heat, airline travel (unless we start using passenger airships again), and some natural gas use in power grids to balance variability.”

    Altho there was a time where I would hoped to have seen a 100% renewables deployment, now after being in the trenches for a number of years, and having formally studied renewable energy systems technologies and sustainable development, based on a quality of life so many in the west have become accustomed to, thermodynamically, I tend to agree with him that perhaps 80-90% is attainable, and not 100%. Well, not until there is A LOT of improvements in materials science, and IF AND ONLY IF people can give up their carbon-emitting, consumerism-bent lifestyles. And altho I have am doing my part to keep my carbon footprint well below the average of most of the USA citizenry, we know the latter two lifestyle changes ain’t gonna happen.

    • Ross

      That’s defeatist talk. There are already parts of the map at 100%+ renewable power. Those areas will grow and join and it will get easier as it progresses. There are no fundamental technological or economic barriers.

      • Let me also add to my comment to arne-nl below. Technology is not a/the panacea. We need to also include conservation, less consumption and not decouple this/these from invoking energy efficiency measures. I also think achieving 100% renewable energy technologies penetration depends a great deal on one’s geographical predisposition and access/availability.

        Ok, so the goals are set high at 100% so at least 80-90% is achieved. But I also think the unintended consequences of massive deployment of these technologies requires consideration, too. I think we need to temper our enthusiasm over renewable energy potentials with some sound science, er thermodynamics, and resource management, as well.

        • Ross

          We need less open cycle consumption not less consumption.

          If we can close the cycle or connect it to an effectively infinite resource reservoir (solar and wind power and the Sun) then we do not have to limit our consumption.

          There’ll be no telling the Chinese, Indians, Indonesians and Africans to temper their lifestyle ambitions because what they want is unsustainable.

          In parallel with solving the global warming problem humanity must also recycle raw materials that cause other forms of environmental damage or find less damaging equivalent methods.

          Acid rain and global warming. There are two unintended consequences of coal burning.

          The nature of the new energy economy is greater distribution, decentralisation, improved coordination and diversity of sources. Almost by definition the new is better than the old and likely to have less serious unintended consequences.

    • arne-nl

      Your comment does not make a lot of sense to me.

      You don’t explain why we can only reach 80-90%, and can’t do that last 10-20%.

      You don’t see that 80-90% is a terrific start that will buy us valuable time and that on the way there the technologies to get us to 100% will present themselves.

      You don’t seem to know that our attitudes towards slavery, child labor, animal welfare, women’s rights, homosexuality, etc have changed dramatically over the centuries (and continue to change) and that this is also true for our attitude towards the planet.

      • I think one of the biggest problems/challenges facing business is the notion most think sustainability is predicated on capitalism, consumerism and generating more–often failing to take into account the notion that there are indeed resource limits. So, let me try to address one application, storage.

        It may take awhile, but I think we can get close to 100%, mind you close to 100% electricity from renewables without storage, as long as the schema for managing the smart(er) grid can come into play. Dubious right now when this world wide energy web (WWEW) will happen–and if hacker havoc on SCADA systems of transmission and distribution communications networks aren’t sorted out, it will be difficult to manage the flow of electrons. I mean, we can even manage intrusions on the i-net without having computer systems compromised. I know from first-hand experience, engineers in the renewable energy industry are trying to emulate many protocols developed for the WWW world, which is always going to be a work in-progress. This will be no different for a WWEW.

        Additionally, there are material constraints for manufactured renewable technologies e.g. rare Earth metals required for hydrogen fuel cells proton exchange membranes (PEMs). I think these fuel cells for converting hydrogen into electricity are best left for hand-held devices and perhaps stationary applications e.g. homes and buildings, and waste heat can be utilized. not automobiles. Same applies to lithium ion batteries for use in automobiles. And this brings me to thermodynamics…

        I think this is best explained by my colleague, Lindsay Leveen when he testified to the US Senate Subcommittee For Energy and Water Development back in 2010:

        “Moore’s Law, Thermodynamics and Lithium Batteries: To drive the learning rate in PEM fuel cells and similarly lithium secondary batteries thermodynamic and reaction kinetic constraints have to be overcome. The reason why thermodynamics places constraints is that the functioning of these systems depends on chemical reactions. Thermodynamics determines how much useful energy can be derived from a chemical reaction. But we know that the thermodynamic constraints cannot be overcome as the laws of thermodynamics cannot be challenged nor avoided. ICs do not undergo chemical reactions to function, but all batteries and fuel cells do involve chemical reactions to deliver energy. It is these chemical reactions that are limiting the possible learning rate.”

        His predictions back then stand. These battery or car manufacturers have gone bust, bankrupt, or are on the verge of going belly up: Coda Automotive [today], Fisker [close to bankruptcy], Tesla Motors [ran out of money in March], A123 [now B456], Nissan LEAF [this electric car’s price was by $6,500 or about 18% of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) back in January] — at least the folks at Chevy seem to know a bit about thermodynamics and have applied this better than other car manufacturers to their Volt.

        Don’t get me wrong. I understand that it usually takes 15 years for new prime movers, innovative clusters and long-wave business development cycles to mature. I just think the public would be better served IF WE DID NOT OVERSELL, because there is already so much distrust for the renewable energy sector in the lay public. In my book, attaining 80-90% is pretty darn good-ok, -let’s achieve this, then chip away at the remaining 10-20%, ja?

        • arne-nl

          Your comment is a wonderful (but not very helpful) mixture of pessimism and cut-and-past science talks about thermodynamics. I am sorry, don’t want to be blunt, but you have muddied the waters further, for both me and yourself.

          The parts about hacking the WWEW or renewable energy being constrained by rare earth metals is symptomatic for yoru world view in which you seem to be putting to sleep each glimmer of hope with an overdose of pessimism. Seeing that you still believe in the ‘hydrogen economy’ explains at least a part of your pessimism.

          But the real kicker is that you state that Tesla has run out of money in March. Where the hell did you get that wisdom from? Never mind, I think I already know the culprit. The last time I checked, their stock was doing pretty ok at more than $50 and they have made a profit in the first 3 months of 2013. You should be more critical of the sources you draw upon. There are many anti-EV ideologues out there that cleverly hide their true colours by injecting some sciency sounding arguments into their writings. Don’t let them fool you. Tesla is doing fine and the Model S is a smash hit.

          That whole copy-paste part of thermodynamics is completely lost on me. And it is not for a lack of understanding. What are you trying to prove? Wrt to EV’s, I just sidestep all these so-called ‘scientific’ or economic objections by my simple litmus test: does it work? Now you go out and apply this simple question to the Tesla Model S. For many happy owners, it works! Many people who are buying that car previously didn’t contemplate anything electric, and certainly aren’t buying it because they think of themselves as treehuggers. I hate to use that cliche, but because of that you can not call the Tesla Model S anything else than is a paradigm shift.

          You also uncritically copy the interpretation of the LEAF price cut from the EV naysayers. They have undoubtetly told you that Nissan decided to slash the price of the LEAF as a last ditch attempt to revive sales. In reality, Nissan has been hampered by the strong yen and has been planning to open up manufacturing facilities in the US and UK for quite some time. They have now done so, and that enables them to reduce the price of the LEAF and sell more cars. They also made a few improvements that increase the range. Better car, lower price. This was known for some time, and many prospective buyers have postponed their purchase because of it. That’s all there is and LEAF sales are on the rise again. The LEAF will never be a big hit, but neither was the 1st gen Prius.

          Renewable energy is dropping in price fast, investments are on the rise, the field of electricity storage is vibrant with activity, and many undiscovered technologies still lie ahead of us. By simply going for it, we will make it happen. We will find alternatives to rare earth metals, we will discover new deposits of lithium (as recently happened in Wyoming), we will learn how to deal with those pesky hackers. There is enough reason for optimism.

  • Thank you for this! And we have to continue to fight against nonrenewable energy ideas that bring us steps backwards: Stop Misleading Energy Pipedreams with your signature! Remind Congress that we don’t want to be misled into conclusions based on distracting statements that suggest that energy “independence” substitutesfor real energy security.

    Please, if you can pass it around, it would help get this to Congress sooner!

    Thanks, Maria

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