We’ve discussed the issue of nuclear energy and how it relates to climate change on Debating Europe, but we’ve not really looked in-depth yet at the alternatives. We had a comment come in from Joe Thorpe, who was highly critical of the ability of renewable technology to “fill the gap” that would be left if we abandoned fossil fuels:
Wind farms have a habit of producing unwanted energy & no energy when it is most wanted. Again, my taxes should not be wasted on this farce. You have to keep conventional power generating systems running in tandem with wind for when there isn’t any wind, so we are actually wasting energy not saving it.
Is Joe right? Will renewable technologies ever be ready to take over from fossil fuels? And, looking into the future, is it realistic to believe that Europe’s energy needs might one day be met almost entirely by renewables? We spoke to Stephen Kamphues, President of the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas (ENTSOG), and asked him what he thought:
In the medium-term, I see the price of renewables going down. Wind-farms, for example, are getting larger and larger. Now we’re going for 5 megawatt and 6 megawatt turbines, so they get larger and cheaper. So, after a while, I would expect to see renewables getting cheaper. One thing that disturbs lots of people is subsidies, but those are getting less and less. The other thing is the volatility, so what you need is alternatives, or good storage technology.
This question of supply “volatility” is exactly the issue Joe raised in his comment. Without adequate storage technology, isn’t there a “bottleneck” when it comes to renewables? We spoke to Rainer Hinrichs-Rahlwes, President of the European Renewable Energies Federation (ENREF), and asked him to respond:
I’d rather call it a challenge which has to be met. The basic technologies are there: there are pump storage technologies, there is battery storage, there is compressed air storage, and so on. But it seems an even more important part of the solution would be smart technologies: smart metering, smart demand-side activities to shift the load at those times when energy is more abundant than at other times. So, for a fully renewable system there will be some storage, but smart technologies will play an even bigger role.
What about the idea that Europe could one day satisfy all of its energy from renewables? And, even if this is realistic, is this sensible? As Peter Schellinck argues in our comments, perhaps greater emphasis should be placed on diversity of supply?
Diversity is the key to dealing with the world’s renewable energy requirements. In doing so we have to be responsible and respectful for Mother Nature and apply the cradle to cradle principle. When one realizes that it took some 15 years for biofuels to represent +/- 3% of our energy package, how long will it really last for renewables to be a credible supply and what damage or risks does it cause (increased food challenges)?
Here’s how Rainer Hinrichs-Rahlwes responds:
We believe much more could be done by 2020 already. In 2020, less than 10 years from now, 50% of our energy needs could be covered by renewables and the remaining needs would be covered by those plants that are already in operation. We will definitely not need any new coal-fired power plants. We will certainly, for a certain transition period, need flexible sources like natural gas, but there will not be the need to have big new capacities. There is existing capacity of fossil fuels which will not be switched off immediately, but will continue their normal life-cycle.
As for the question of diversity – well, definitely we will need a mix of all renewable energy technologies: there will be the various forms of wind technology; there will be solar technologies, photovoltaics and electricity; there will be hydro (although my impression is that there are some, but only some, additional capacities for hydro); there will be various forms of biomass used; there will be geothermal energy, etc. With a mix of all these technologies we could, by 2050, cover Europe’s energy needs.
What do YOU think? Are renewable technologies ready to take over from fossil fuels? And can Europe ever be 100% powered by renewables? Or is the supply from renewables too volatile? Is it, even, a “farce” to invest in researching alternatives to fossil fuels? Let us know your thoughts in the form below and we’ll take your comments to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.