Reason to believe

Could the best argument for for renewable energy be that it is economically viable?

There are many good reasons for pursuing renewable energy, quite apart from climate change. The first and obvious reason for interest in renewable energy is that it is renewable. Thirty-five years ago, it was thought that almost everything was about to run out.

With comfortable hindsight today, these fears seem quite ridiculous, but they were very real and very pressing in 1973. There was a world oil crisis, the Yom Kippur War threatened Middle East supplies, and OPEC first came to public attention by restricting production. It seemed quite obvious that oil was running out very rapidly.

The energy industries responded with major efforts to look for renewable energies, which by definition could never run out: power from the Sun, the wind and the tides.

Those worst fears have not been realised. After 1973, oil did not run out and in fact proven reserves increased fairly steadily for the next 30 years. Huge reserves of natural gas were discovered. Nuclear expansion proceeded apace with a six-fold global increase in 13 years, until the Chernobyl disaster brought orders to a halt.

The proven reserves of coal in the UK were nearly 1,000 times our annual consumption and it became clear that there was no immediate shortage of energy. The urge for renewable energy because it was renewable steadily evaporated. Fortunately for those of us working in renewables a splendid new reason appeared: global warming.

No Global Warming

The global temperature is an average over the whole planet and, in the 1990s, it was seen to be rising. Fears gained momentum: the ice-caps would melt, sea-levels would rise and the world would drown. The greenhouse effect was blamed, with CO2 the main culprit. The public mood was for action. By 1997, concern was world-wide and the Kyoto Conference produced a protocol that has been ratified by 174 countries.

The evidence was presented convincingly enough. Past CO2 concentrations are captured in layers of ice laid down in places such as Greenland and Antarctica and measurements from ice-cores can take us back 1,000 years. Since 1750 there has been a 30 per cent increase in CO2 levels, attributed to human activities starting with the industrial revolution, and the increase in CO2 is accelerating.

To quote Wikipedia on global warming: "Currently, the Hadley Centre maintains the HADCRUT3, a global surface temperature dataset, NASA maintains GISTEMP, which provides a measure of the changing global surface temperature with monthly resolution for the period since 1880 and the NOAA maintains the Global Historical Climatology Network (GHCN-Monthly) data base which contains historical temperature, precipitation, and pressure data for thousands of land stations worldwide."

For 20 years before Kyoto 1997, global temperatures were rising by nearly 1.4° per century. That would be enough to make the climate of London warmer in 2100 than the French Riviera is today. To tackle global warming, a massive programme of carbon reductions was undertaken by a number of signatories to the Kyoto Agreement.

As well as being never-ending, renewable energies are carbon-free and global warming was widely advertised as a major reason for supporting them. Unfortunately, this reason too has been substantially weakened recently.

First of all, to the consternation and embarrassment of many scientists, global temperatures have not increased significantly since Kyoto 1997. The global temperature has only moved up and down by a fraction of a degree and, over the last five or six years, it has hardly changed at all, by less than one-tenth of one degree. Global warming has actually stopped since Kyoto 1997.

I took up the CO2 issue in 1980. My team had made substantial contributions to the SOx issue (tracking sulphur emissions) and to the NOx issue (which was dealt with by careful control of combustion conditions) and we turned to COx. To limit CO, you just control combustion conditions but we noted the continuing build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere and we looked at the records of global temperatures for the previous 40 years.

There were temperature fluctuations up and down by a fraction of a degree but there was no sign of an upward trend. Despite continually increasing CO2 levels, global warming had stopped 40 years before.

This comfortable conclusion in 1980 did not indicate a lack of awareness of more serious possibilities. A global warming scare of even greater proportions than that which faced the Kyoto delegates had been building up in the 1930s, over-shadowed only by the looming prospects of World War Two.

Fortunately, by the time hostilities had ceased and scientific attention could return to this other threatening global catastrophe, temperatures were dropping. All the way through to 1980, when my team looked at it, there was absolutely no global warming over a 40-year period.

Furthermore, if we look back to before the 1910 to 1940 pre-war scare, there was just as large and significant a 30-year trend in global temperature downwards. In 1910, it looked as if an ice age was on its way. Scares followed by sighs of relief seem to characterise the ups and downs of the global warming issue.

Since Kyoto 1997, a huge effort has shown that there are long-term changes in global climate due to man-made emissions. For instance, the ice caps seem to be melting, which is climate change, but, evidently, that is local warming, as the global temperature has not been rising recently. Despite the ups and downs and levelling-offs and the current ten-year stand-still, we can be 90 per cent sure that the long-term trend is upwards and that global warming will eventually resume.

With this trend established, the key question for each country to ask itself is: "Is it worth reducing our emissions even if it damages our economy or slows our growth?" Most of the richest nations, the 36 signatories to Annexe 1, say yes and agree to limit their emissions, but 80 per cent of the signatories to the Kyoto Agreement say no.

The biggest countries of all, China and India [and the US, who have not even signed the Agreement] are happy for others to take action, but will not undertake to reduce their own emissions. Evidently, global warming is no longer the main reason for such countries to pursue renewable energy.

Nevertheless, they are actively doing so. They must have more compelling reasons, and I suspect that most governments find good, plain, selfish reasons more compelling than worthy, self-sacrificing ones.

Local energy

The UK has always had its own supplies of energy, with a coal industry going back to the Middle Ages and woodlands before then. We weathered the 1973 oil crisis with discoveries of oil under the North Sea and, when natural gas was discov-ered, we felt able to run down our coal industry with a dash for gas in the early 1990s. We are used to being energy rich.

But we now face a new prospect: our oil is running out, gas is following a similar path and the coal industry is a shadow of its former self. Having to import energy for the first time in history is very worrying for the UK.

In Texas, oil production peaked back in 1970, but US consumption continued to rise, demanding massive imports, mainly from the Gulf. The cost of having to protect overseas oil interests in Kuwait and Iraq, as the US has done in recent years, makes local supplies of energy look very attractive indeed. They may avoid global war.

Renewable energy is local. Your wind and sunshine are your own, and avoiding costly energy imports is a compelling, selfish reason for a country to want renewables.

Transmission and operating costs

Nature delivers renewable energy freely to remote locations and this can save transmission costs. Where there is a high voltage power system, as in the UK, local generation can be directly connected into the low voltage network and there can be significant savings, avoiding the additional transmission costs normally associated with extra generation. In developing countries,when there is no power network to collect renewable electricity, it is possible to do without one altogether. This represents a very substantial saving indeed, compared with any other method of supplying power.

In Afghanistan, for example, only 10 per cent of the popul-ation is connected to a mains supply and nearly two-thirds of the country lies in the remote heights of the Hindu Kush, so renewable energy is the way forward for most.

During a visit to Afghanistan in 2006 to press the merits of small wind turbines, I found that the cheapest competing generators were small 1hp units running on petrol or diesel. They cost only a few hundred dollars but I was offered second-hand units for a fraction of that price - $50 or less!

These generator sets were lying around unused, because nobody could afford the fuel to run them. They were purchased with foreign aid funds provided for capital investment but with no provision for on-going running costs.

Lowest energy costs

Energy from the Sun and from the wind is free and there are normally few running costs. In a developing country, supported with foreign aid funding, there is considerable financial advantage in renewable energy investments which have little or no on-going operating costs.

Developed countries too can benefit from very low operating costs. Having spent the capital up-front, the on-going cost of energy does not change. Price stability looks particularly attractive in a period when oil and gas prices can double in a single year.

I am now about to make myself unpopular. I am going to suggest that renewable energy could actually become economic.

This suggestion is unpopular throughout the renewables industry because, if governments got to hear of it, they might think that commercial forces could now take over and that would be the end of subsidies. The suggestion is also unpopular with the nuclear lobby and the gas and coal industries. They do not want to know that wind energy is putting their futures at risk by taking pole position.

True costs of generation are usually difficult to determine reliably at any point in time not least because they are extremely commercially confidential. It was easy to determine the price of wind power accurately when there were NOFFO (Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation) support schemes in place. The price to be received for each unit of electricity was bid in by the suppliers and the cheapest got the contracts. It was highly competitive and carefully monitored, with everything open to public scrutiny, and so those prices can be relied upon. The last such round was the third Scottish Renewables Obligation (SRO3), and those are the prices now being paid to the winners of the contracts for various wind farms in Scotland.

It is difficult to find such reliable and non-partisan costs for the other sources of energy. UK government white papers are probably as independent as it is possible to achieve. The cost of carbon emissions is another complication. Carbon costs are by no means universally agreed but, in the UK, avoiding emissions gains well-defined carbon credits, so a more definite figure can be given.

Comparison of SRO3 prices with government white paper figures for coal and gas and nuclear power are becoming a little dated now, but at least they provide a reliable starting point. At that stage, gas was the cheapest but wind turbines on good windy sites were well within the range of gas prices, especially if carbon costs were included. Since then, gas prices have risen dramatically recently and the signs are they will continue to do so. They tend to follow the price of oil, which has doubled in the last year.

Renewables capacity has been doubling every three or four years for at least two decades and this trend continues unabated, with long waiting lists of orders. Considerable savings of scale are to be expected. As a rule of thumb, a 10 per cent reduction in cost can be expected for any type of equipment if you double the manufacturing capacity, so wind turbine and solar cell prices will inevitably come down quite a lot and quite soon.

As wind power costs fall and gas costs rise, the very real prospect is that renewable energy could soon be economic in its own right, without any subsidies. At that stage, renewable energy will not need to concern itself with the other reasons for wanting it.

If and when it is the cheapest method of generation, it will be the power source of choice.

Don Swift-Hook is secretary of the World Renewable Energy Network
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