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Hitting green limits

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The unspoken flaw in the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” and the various forms of green new deal that are meant to bring it about, is that renewable energy is supposed to simultaneously replace existing energy sources and provide the additional power for an entirely electrified economy.  The problem, for now, of course is that renewable energy is doing neither. 

As the latest edition of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy points out, “strong growth” in renewables increased their share of global energy to just four percent; with wind and solar accounting for just three percent.  Despite this:

“Primary energy consumption grew at a rate of 2.9% last year, almost double its 10-year average of 1.5% per year, and the fastest since 2010…

“By fuel, energy consumption growth was driven by natural gas, which contributed more than 40% of the increase. All fuels grew faster than their 10-year averages, apart from renewables, although renewables still accounted for the second largest increment to energy growth.”

Indeed, with fossil fuels accounting for 85 percent of the global energy mix, it is no surprise that:

“Carbon emissions grew by 2.0%, the fastest growth for seven years.”

It is into this energy environment that governments around the world have begun to subsidise electrification technologies such as the electric car; which is intended to finally wean humanity off its addiction to petroleum.  This, however, is where market economics stymie the project – as the environmentally conscious Swedes are beginning to discover.  Without the additional power generation and grid infrastructure, mass ownership of electric cars makes no sense; but without mass ownership of electric cars, investing billions of euros, pounds, dollars and yen into building the excess generating capacity and grid infrastructure makes no sense either.

A small amount of electric vehicle ownership – such as we currently have in the UK – is viable since penetration is currently too small to impact the grid or to create too much additional demand for power.  Raise ownership to Sweden’s levels, however, and things begin to breakdown.  As Jesper Starn at Automotive News Europe reports:

“An increase in government grants sent sales of electric cars surging by 253 percent in the first five months, but the rally could be over before it has really started.

“Demand for electricity in Stockholm and other cities is outgrowing capacity in local grids, forcing new charging networks to compete with other projects from housing to subway lines to get hooked up…

“While Sweden was still exporting more than 10% of its electricity output last year, its aging grid is struggling to ship the commodity to where it is most needed. Demand in the main cities has grown a lot quicker than expected. It can take as long as ten years to build new cables and that means Stockholm is not expected to be able to significantly boost power use until 2030, according to local grid manager Ellevio.”

The reality, of course, is that a combination renewable, hydroelectric and nuclear power will at best provide a fraction of the electricity currently generated with fossil fuels.  As a consequence, there will be no fourth industrial revolution; because we will be unable even to power the technologies we currently have.  Indeed, even with a major expansion of low-carbon electricity generation of the kind envisaged in the green new deal, we are still going to have to give up a lot of the activities, goods and services that we currently take for granted.

California – which has been leading the charge in deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies – is having a small taste of the world after fossil fuels this summer as high temperatures collide with a lack of generating capacity.  The California Independent System Operator Corporation put out this alert last week:

“Consumers are urged to conserve electricity especially during the afternoon when air conditioners typically are at peak use. Consumers can help avoid power interruptions by turning off all unnecessary lights, using major appliances before 4 p.m. and after 10 p.m., and setting air conditioners to 78 degrees or higher.

“Because of widespread heat, the ISO anticipates energy demand reaching a peak of 42,800 megawatts (MW) this evening. Also, two units with a total generation of 1,260 MW are offline due to mechanical failures. The Flex Alert is being called in response to the high electricity demand and the reduced generation.

“The ISO earlier in the day issued a Restricted Maintenance Operations (RMO), which requires generators and transmission owners to postpone scheduled maintenance, to keep grid assets available for use.

“Flex Alert conservation could reduce the risk of further emergency measures, including rotating power outages.”

In short, curb your electricity demand or we’ll curb it for you.

In its way, this situation in California is similar to Britain’s near miss last March in that both were due to conventional generation being temporarily unavailable.  However, as low-carbon generation replaces fossil fuel power plants in future, the extra capacity needed to cope with severe weather events – which are themselves predicted to become more frequent – will not be temporarily offline or mothballed; it will have been scrapped.  And it is into that intermittent and under-supplied future that the techno-utopian green new dealers want to plug their electric vehicles, 5G communications, flying cars and cryptocurrencies. 

Good luck with that!

As you made it to the end…

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