Report: The limits to renewable energy
What would a world with a 100 per cent renewable energy mix look like? And which are the limits to integrate renewable energy? In order to slow the pace of global warming and achieve a sustainable society it is clear that we need to increase the share of renewable energy globally. But today the integration of renewables is still progressing very slowly in many countries. The report “The Limits to Renewable Energy” explores the use of renewables today and the obstacles for further expansion.
Common examples of climate mitigation include reducing energy demand and shifting energy production from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But what are the limits to integrating renewable energy? And what does a world with a 100 per cent renewable energy mix look like?
Different renewables in different countries?
While some countries have a very high share of renewable energy, others still rely heavily on coal, oil and gas. But there are also great differences when it comes to the mix of different renewables. For example, Norway has a very high share of hydropower while its Nordic neighbour Denmark has much more wind power.
A number of factors can explain a country’s preference for one type of technology over another. Academic research indicates that growth in renewable energy in any specific country is less motivated by climate change concerns or fossil fuel costs, and more by the presence of strong lobby groups looking to support national industry.
National industry is in turn more likely to have grown where there are natural resources to support the early development of an industry. For example, the biomass boiler industry in Austria and the wind turbine industries in Germany and Denmark. Public interest and acceptance for particular types of renewable energy are driven by multiple factors, including support of local jobs and industry, visual impacts and public awareness of climate change.
Challenges in increasing renewables penetration
There are a number of challenges associated with building a renewable energy system. For example when it comes to transmission of electricity, heating and transport. But there are also social, economic and political aspects that need to be taken into account. In order to increase the penetration of renewables worldwide innovative solutions to these problems are required.
Maximum renewable energy penetration will bring with it a massive transformation of electricity networks and the way electrical power is transmitted, generated and sold. The electricity system of the future needs to be highly flexible to rapidly adjust to the variable power output of renewable energy sources.
In addition to effects on generation and transmission, characteristics of renewable energy converters disrupt the way conventional electricity markets function. Market structures need to evolve to integrate renewable power properly.
Heat and transport
Energy consumption for heat and transport is a significant proportion of overall energy use in Europe. However, these are both sectors that have traditionally been heavily reliant on fossil fuels – for transport, through the use of petrol and diesel-fuelled cars; and for heating, through the use of oil and natural gas boilers in buildings.
To decarbonise transport, we either need to incorporate biofuels, such as biodiesel, or switch to hybrid, electric or hydrogen cars. For heating, particularly in urban areas, the main approaches are through district heating or electrification of heat, or a combination of the two.
Social, political and economic implications
On a local level, societies may benefit from municipal and community-owned renewable energy schemes. In such schemes, the centralised nature of power is decentralised, giving end-users more control over the whole system.
On a national level, renewable energy may create new jobs in the industry and support moves towards a long-term sustainable development plan with lower risks associated with fuel import volatility, carbon prices and political tensions. This is particularly true where countries are highly dependent on fuel imports.
The trade in electricity between countries is less prone to political tension than trade involving oil and gas. Naturally, some countries have more energy resources than others, but differences in electricity resources are smaller than those relating to fossil fuel reserves.
Climate change is likely to affect future migration patterns. The latest IPCC report described the African continent as the one that will be most affected by climate change. As a consequence, Europe is likely to see increasing amounts of climate refugees. At the moment, Finland and Sweden are the only countries in the world with an official policy concerning environmental migrants in their official immigration and asylum policies. This may be subject to change as weather trends become increasingly less predictable and more severe and the number of “climate change refugees” increases.
The cost of renewable power has been decreasing for decades and dropping faster than anticipated. Now, renewable power uptake is increasing the electricity prices and requires government support. However, in the long term, as technology matures, the costs of running an entire energy system on renewable energy will be lower and subsidies on fossil fuels are likely to fall away.
Conclusions and recommendations
We already have the technologies, the proven business cases and the infrastructure to support wider integration of renewables into energy systems. What is holding us back? Who is holding us back?
For some, there is a fear that the scale of available renewables is insufficient to meet all of our energy demands. What happens if we go down the route towards 100 per cent renewables? The goal is not to cover and crowd the landscape and let the horizon to disappear under tens of thousands of solar panels or large wind turbines, but instead use renewable sources in smart ways. To meet future demands we need to create more interactions between sectors and systems.
One of the biggest challenges in the energy sector is matching the timings between generation and consumption of energy. On a “good” energy day, the sun blazes and the wind howls and fills our electricity grid with cheap, renewable energy. On a “bad” energy day, the skies are grey and the wind is still and we rely on backup from hydro or conventional generation. On good days we should also be furiously energetic and use as much energy as we can – and on bad days we should turn to quieter pursuits.
Digitalisation, energy storage and demand response are the keys to helping future energy systems maintain balance as we move from separate energy consumption. The generation of energy for heat, electricity and transport is interconnected through storage, monitored through smart meters, and changed through voluntary shifting of demand.
Time is running out to make unprecedented changes to the way we work and live if we want to continue to work and live in a world that resembles the one we have today.
All over the world initiatives are being taken to minimise carbon emissions and the impacts of climate change. The increase of renewable energy is key to achieving a climate neutral, sustainable future and it’s a solution that is already being implemented in many different countries. The limits to renewables are not technical, or financial, or regulatory – they are the ones we set for ourselves and for each other.
The limits to renewable energy
About the authors
Dr Tanja Groth is the lead Economist within the Energy Business Unit at Sweco. She leads on the provision of socio-economic, financial and economic support across Sweco’s energy project portfolio. With more than 10 years of experience working on renewable energy and low carbon projects in the UK, Northern Europe and South-East Asia, she has an established track record in seeing projects through from feasibility to operation.
Vijay Shinde, Grid Services Lead as Sweco UK, has over 18 years’ experience in delivering specialist technical and regulatory advice on project delivery across the UK’s energy sector. He is retained by investors and developers for specialist advice in energy storage, onshore and offshore transmission networks, solar, grid and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Robin Meade is a Chartered Landscape Architect with over 20 years’ experience in landscape planning and design. Robin’s diverse experience includes the assessment and design of large-scale infrastructure, including onshore and offshore wind energy development, highways, rail and airports. He has also been influential in developing guidance for seascape and townscape character assessment.
Panagiotis Kefalas, a junior energy engineer, holds a M.Sc. in Sustainable Energy Systems with Distinction from the University of Edinburgh and a B.Sc. in Power Engineering from Warsaw University of Technology. Panagiotis works on the Grid Services team and is involved in projects dealing with battery storage, EV charging infrastructure, and PV estimations among others.