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Will we burn fossil fuels to power wind turbines in the future?

08 April 2019

Vasilije Manovic, Professor of Carbon Systems Engineering, Cranfield University, discusses how the push for clean energy may be prompting some unexpected solutions to Goal 7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Will we burn fossil fuels to power wind turbines in the future?
Image credit: Jason Blackeye/Unsplash

The hard realities of an energy system based on renewables will soon be with us, causing far more problems than are realised.

Renewables don’t offer a quick fix, and we need to get the transition from ‘black’ to ‘green’ technologies right to avoid some hugely costly - and ridiculous - anomalies.?

Goal 7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals describes the need to expand infrastructure and upgrade technology to provide clean and more efficient energy to encourage growth and help the environment.

Calculating and meeting and CO2 reduction targets

Global CO2 emissions flattened out between 2014 and 2016, but started to increase again in 2017 (up 1.6%) and are predicted to have been up 2% in 2018.

The main causes have been identified as being the increasing use of oil and gas, and the ongoing use of coal by developing countries in particular in support of their economic growth.

Theres mounting pressure for governments to move more quickly and be more radical in their response. Formal revisions of national emissions-reduction targets will be made in 2020. And in the meantime, the UN is subject to active international campaigns to introduce much tougher CO2 targets.

We can all agree that the future needs to be based around sustainable energy technologies. But there needs to be a more open-eyed and systematic evaluation of the full costs - both financially and interns of carbon footprint - of different energy generation options.

Fundamental to the issue is the actual whole-life costs of introducing more renewables. For example, taking into account the full range of environmental impacts from creating a new renewables infrastructure, the mining and industry involved in supplying vast amounts of minerals and metals.

The problem of energy storage

Most significantly of all, calculations need to include costs of creating buffer storage.

All we’re seeing at the moment is the carbon emission benefits from introducing renewables as a minority of energy supplies, all done at a reasonable cost.

But this will quickly change when renewables start to form a majority of energy supply - because, suddenly, supplies will be at the mercy of the intermittent nature of renewables and the demand for storage.

There are, as yet, no technological answers to the need for mass battery storage. It’s been estimated that the UK alone would require all the available resources of lithium on the planet to provide the necessary battery buffer.

Whatever technologies and methods are used will mean large increases in costs to energy customers.

Acting in the long-term interest

Other cost issues need to be considered, such as the actual carbon footprint involved in the increased use of natural gas by many developed economy governments as a means of reducing carbon emissions.

The process in itself is cleaner, but what about the potential for pipeline leakages of methane (which has a warming effect that's estimated to be 80 times that of carbon dioxide)?

In the US between 2010 and 2017, the natural gas network leaked 17.5 billion cubic feet of methane, constituting a similar impact to large coal-fired power station for a year.

Leaks have reached a level of 2.3% - and if they reach 3% then the study claims there will have been no environmental benefits at all from moving from coal to gas power plants.

Alternatives to conventional power stations can involve more complex footprints.

The UK is one of the world’s largest importers of wood pellets - coming mostly from the USA, Canada and Latvia - for use as bioenergy feedstock. Wood-burning power plants like this have traditionally, and misleadingly, been counted as being ‘zero carbon’.

The positive impact of capturing carbon

Being more realistic about the whole costs of renewables isn’t an attempt to undermine their long-term importance.

But it’s critical for the transition period that governments and their policymakers understand the full picture and the necessary compromises, and avoid making a headlong rush for renewables without considering the sustainability of the transition.

In particular that means an open mind when it comes to what are the most effective and workable transition technologies. The prime example is Carbon Capture Storage (CCS).

CCS has tended to be marginalised in recent years due to the obvious additional costs and loss of efficiency in power generation. But in this clear-eyed context, CCS is a workable option in terms of balancing financial costs and meeting carbon reduction targets.

Rather than focusing on the negative, frightening messages around climate change, there are many reasons for feeling optimistic, and because of the new CCS technologies in particular.

Our recent research, for instance, has demonstrated the real potential for reducing global CO2 emissions by 8% just through the use of CCS to de-carbonise the iron and steel industry economically, hitting 2050 carbon targets by 2030. This wouldn’t be possible if there was a sole reliance on renewables.

Introducing more CCS, just as one transition technology, will create jobs, encourage more investment, and allow a genuinely sustainable basis for a future of renewables.

  • Prof. Vasilije Manovic, Professor of Carbon Systems Engineering, Cranfield University