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What – exactly – are the proponents of renewable energy trying to tell us?

Last week we saw yet another headline proclaiming that another country had produced all of its electricity from renewables.  This time it was Portugal; the week before it was the UK that – for all the wrong reasons – went “coal free”.  Before that, Germany and Denmark have, on occasion generated all of their power from renewables.

Judging from the headlines, you would be forgiven for thinking that we don’t have a problem.  The switch from fossil fuels is clearly well underway.  Perhaps the UK government was correct to slash the subsidies given to renewables, and to give local communities the right to object to more windfarms.  After all, it is surely only a matter of time before fossil fuels are a thing of the past:

“Oliver Joy, a spokesman for the Wind Europe trade association said: ‘We are seeing trends like this spread across Europe – last year with Denmark and now in Portugal. The Iberian peninsula is a great resource for renewables and wind energy, not just for the region but for the whole of Europe.’”

“James Watson, the CEO of SolarPower Europe said: ‘This is a significant achievement for a European country, but what seems extraordinary today will be commonplace in Europe in just a few years. The energy transition process is gathering momentum and records such as this will continue to be set and broken across Europe.’”

In truth, of course, we face climate and energy emergencies that require the rapid large-scale deployment of all of the renewable technologies we can muster.  Britain’s widely celebrated “coal free” evening was the result of failures and maintenance work taking seven coal-fired power stations offline.  It was only the time of year and the good weather that enabled the Grid to continue supplying ordinary households; and it was only the time of day that prevented a raft of business disconnections.  In the case of Portugal – which generates a large portion of its electricity from hydro and wind – going entirely renewable was the consequence of severe Atlantic storms that brought unusually heavy rainfall and high winds; hardly something to celebrate:

“To draw such conclusions from a spell of unusually bad weather in Portugal is of course good publicity, but to claim that a spell of bad weather in Portugal represents an achievement for renewable energy is nonsense.”

We are still dangerously exposed to fossil fuels.  In the UK, the main alternatives are the semi-renewables – large-scale biomass and hydroelectric (which cannot be sustainably expanded) – and nuclear.  Tide, wave, wind and solar energy barely scratch the surface of the UK’s current energy needs. In short, the triumphalist headlines detract from the severe energy/climate emergency that we will face in the very near future.  What we need is a sober evaluation of our prospects of using renewable energy to maintain an economy that was built on fossil fuels.  Such an evaluation is more likely to highlight the 360 or so days that Britain, Denmark, Germany and Portugal couldn’t generate their power from renewables rather than the four or five freak days when it did.

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