Renewable Energy: Our Children, and Their Children’s Life May Depend On It
Many of us, in the developed world, may not confront in our daily lives the reality that we are walking down a point of no return from climate change, one where human survival will be difficult. Its soon to be inexorable consequences may be felt after we die, so if not us, then our children, and grandchildren, and their children will have to survive and likely die faced with such planetary conditions. The problem is simple: We have a system that generates greenhouse gases far beyond the earth’s capacity to absorb it, thus warming the planet, and wreaking havoc on earth’s delicate climate systems. Capitalism’s answer to the problem is decoupling GDP growth and energy consumption. Renewable energy is the magic that will let capitalism have its planet and eat it too.
The developed world drags its feet to a solution at the Climate Change COP meetings: It is buying itself time so that it can change it energy system but not its politico-economic one. It needs time for its corporations to enter, dominate, and profit from cheaper and more efficient renewable energy that might hopefully save humanity. Thus, we see the recent advances in renewable energy. 50% of Sweden’s energy is provided by renewable sources; it is striving to be 100% fossil fuel free. In 2015, 90% of Costa Rica’s electricity came from renewable sources with the goal of being carbon neutral by 2021. Nicaragua produced 54% of its June 2015 electricity using renewable energy; it aims to go for 90% by 2020. Germany has produced up to 78% of a day’s electricity from renewable sources. All these efforts and breakthroughs combined have made 2015 a record year in worldwide investment and implementation of clean energy.
Yet, renewable energy is not the silver bullet that will defeat climate change. It is simply one essential part of the solution: While we can’t shirk off the responsibility of fundamental socio-politico-economic change necessary to address climate change, renewable energy will still play an important role in the transition to it. Thus, we must understand its policies and limitations.
First, it is important to understand that renewable energy (excluding agrofuels and biomass) is diffuse and intermittent. Diffuse means that it requires a lot of equipment (e.g. solar panels, wind turbines) to harvest it. This makes renewable energy expensive. Secondly, being intermittent means that renewable does not provide a steady stream of energy but surges and lulls (e.g. solar energy in a cloudy versus clear day). Thus, without drastic improvements in battery technology, a steady backup source of energy is needed such as fossil fuels, nuclear energy, biomass, and bio-fuels.
Natural Resources Examining the countries that use a lot of renewable energy, it is clear that natural resources play an important role: the lack of conventional sources of energy and the wealth of renewable ones. Costa Rica, Sweden, Nicaragua, and Germany are all greatly dependent on the global energy market for imports of oil and natural gas. This is a large part of their motivation to seek out alternative energy sources. Their great natural resources serve as an opportunity: Costa Rica has strong sunshine and great reserves of hydropower. Sweden has access to biomass from its forests. Nicaragua has strong winds, strong sun, and 19 volcanoes. Germany may be the exception: While not endowed with such wealth of renewable energy sources, its innovation is driven by another resource: its people. Germany’s strong environmental movement[i] and communities have been pivotal in both the renewable energy movement and the government’s decision to completely phase out of nuclear power by 2022.
Energy Democracy In 2000, 6.3% of Germany’s electricity came from renewable sources; by 2015, it was almost 33%. What is so valuable to learn about Germany’s renewable energy transition is that unlike other places where renewable energy is provided by large companies, Germany’s renewable energy production comes from communities, grassroots organizations, and start-ups. The government first facilitated the investment, installment, and generation of renewable energy through direct investment subsidies (e.g. money to install solar panels in schools) and soft loans with fixed low interest rates. Secondly, and most importantly, the government prioritized renewable energy over conventional energy. The government mandated power utility companies first purchase (at a fixed price) and use excess energy from renewable energy producers (e.g. households, firms, co-operatives) before turning on their own power generators. In short, it democratized access to the grid: Anyone could produce and sell electricity through renewable energy.[ii]
During periods of lull in renewable energy sources, households could draw power from the grid. At the end of the month, the electricity provided by the household would be credited against the amount used. This made it possible to recuperate the costs of one’s investment in renewable energy and even generate money for themselves and their communities. Instead of relying on large corporations to generate renewable energy, individuals and communities could generate renewable energy. Involving the community facilitated the introduction of structures such as wind turbines that often provoke NIMBYism (not in my back yard). As a result of the greater demand in renewable energy machinery, unit prices dropped due to greater scales of production.[iii]
Decoupling of GDP and Energy The transition to renewable energy in developed countries is based on the “decoupling” of GDP growth and energy usage. This is achieved partly by greater energy efficiency, but also by a shift from energy-intensive production into less polluting ones and services. This is partly due to greater environmental standards and public opposition that pressure energy intensive production to take on the costs of their environmental destruction. So, production of First World goods goes to Third World countries - contributing to their increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet, climate change is global. Shifting energy intensive production to poorer countries doesn’t solve the problem. We are still left with an unsustainable global system where people’s jobs and livelihoods are dependent on producing profits for a few. We must transition out of dirty energy and into clean renewable energy. Thus, we must learn from leading countries such as Germany. Yet, if we forget that renewable energy is simply one part of the solution then it won’t be enough.
written by Dae-Han Song (chief editor, World Current Report)
[i] One of the reasons for Germany’s strong anti-nuclear movement may be the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown of 1986 on Germany: Parts of Germany was showered with nuclear fall-out, large swaths of contaminated fields were destroyed, and people were ordered to stay inside for days.
[ii] This system, the feed-in tariff, bought electricity from renewable energy producers at a fixed cost by taxing electricity usage.
[iii] Germany’s government is currently shifting from this feed-in tariff system to an auction one. The purpose is to create a more predictable source of power. One of the likely impacts is that it will result in a greater dominance of large corporations that can provide power at a cheaper price by taking advantage of scales of production.