‘Debunking’ myths of sustainable energy

Feasible application for solar and wind technologies is electricity generation rather than transportation, which is likely to remain dominated by oil

The term 'sustainable energy' has become a 'buzzword' and a 'catchphrase' that is widely used by people who understand its meaning, but do not know what transiting to a sustainable energy future really entails. This is perhaps not surprising given the very common myths and fallacies surrounding the sustainability agenda.

The first myth is the claim that "We need to use renewable energy technologies because oil is running out". Yes, it is true that oil is a finite source that could run out one day, but the reality is that such a day is very distant in the future and the world should not wait until this day comes to switch to other resources. Rather, this transition will happen, albeit gradually, well before that day. With this in mind, Sheikh Yamani the Saudi Arabian oil minister during the 1970s put it quite elegantly "Just as the Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, the Oil Age will not end for lack of oil". This is true because the oil age, at least for some applications, will end only when cheaper energy sources are found.

Profitable business
In other words, we should be concerned with 'the end of cheap oil' rather than 'absolutely running out of oil'. It is well known that as time passes, irrespective of demand factors, the price of oil is likely to increase because it becomes harder to extract, especially when bearing in mind that the world has already passed the global peak of oil production.

All of these factors add to the price of oil (which has witnessed a 5-fold increase over the past decade) and as long as oil prices remain high, the viability of other energy sources (including nuclear power) will be entertained. For example, it is only at the current level of oil prices that oil sands (and other unconventional sources of energy) become a profitable business.

However, it is not quite as simple as this; many commentators would argue that oil pricing is more about politics, greed and speculation than a question of availability of supply. We also need to remember that although economics are important, other issues such as technical and environmental factors have a major role to play in deciding which energy source to pursue. 

This takes us to the second common myth which is that "Renewable energy has the potential to replace the need for oil altogether". I am a big fan of solar and wind power, but even I would not dare to imagine that they will replace the need for oil completely. We need to remember that the most feasible application for solar and wind technologies is electricity generation rather than transportation, which is likely to remain dominated by oil for the foreseeable future. What people also tend to forget is that we use oil for a lot of things, not just to generate electricity or fuel our cars.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of all goods in the shops involve the use of oil in one way or another. We need to recognise that using solar and wind power will never replace the need for oil altogether. It can make our oil reserves last longer and hence, instead of burning it, we should maximise its use for other useful and added-value applications such as petrochemicals and plastic manufacturing.

Renewable electricity

If we consider the application of electricity generation, here comes a third myth: "100 per cent renewable electricity is a foreseeable reality". Some people think that all that stops us from achieving this is the high cost. They forget about technical hurdles and difficulties that prevent them from achieving this ambitious dream. Leaving aside the often overlooked massive transmission and distribution requirements needed to accommodate large-scale contributions from renewables, the technical issue of intermittency is yet to be solved. Let's face it: you cannot rely on solar and wind power during a windless night.

Even if you are willing to put up with the inconvenience of your computer or TV cutting in and out, it will damage the equipment. You cannot, therefore, escape the reality that there will always be a need for a back-up power supply. Studies have shown that trying to operate a back-up diesel-power generator in a stop-go mode is extremely inefficient. In fact, a fossil fuel back-up system uses as much fuel backing up renewables as it would if you just eliminated the wind and solar inputs.

The only possible way to attain a 100 per cent renewable electricity system seems to be when you have abundant hydro back-up. For instance, the electricity sector in Denmark has been able to make an extensive use of wind turbines, partly because it is backed up by Norwegian and Swedish hydro power. The last myth is the hopeful assumption that "Scientists will soon come up with a 'silver-bullet' energy source".

One does not need to be a pessimist to realise that the world will not be able, anytime in the near future, to discover a universal energy source that will solve all of our problems and address our needs. Just because some brilliant scientists have completed successful experiments, this does not mean that they will be scalable into a universal source of reliable energy.

Many scientists are indeed researching wonderful and innovative ideas to produce clean energy such as the conversion of waste cooking oil to biodiesels. However, their efforts will always be too small to do much good for the world because even if it proves successful, it will only become a part of an energy mix that is feasible for a few parts of the world. Every energy technology we hear about today has (or soon will have) the potential to supply a portion of the energy mix in particular world region.

Clean energy source
It would, therefore, be unwise for any country to 'put all of its eggs in one basket' and ultimately rely on any one energy form. Additionally, we need to encourage any attempts to produce a clean energy source because part of our problem is that we are not focusing efforts to address our joint challenges. Look around you and you will see fans of solar power are fierce enemies of wind power, busy attacking people who are advancing the solar agenda. 

So, there is a factor of competition, driven by the fact that people have different vested interests and commercial interests. Such competition, in spite of its potential benefits, is likely to slow down our transition to a sustainable future.

However, the biggest problem is that we tend to view energy issues from the wrong angle. Just as we would not accuse someone of having the wrong sized feet for their shoes, we need to move away from assuming that we simply have to supply enough energy to satisfy our needs. In other words, it is wrong to focus just on energy supply and forget all the creative things we could be doing on the energy demand side.

We should be rationalising demand with respect to supply and prioritising consumption. Energy efficiency and conservation measures will not eliminate the need for fossil fuel power, but would facilitate producing energy more efficiently by making power stations run nearer design capacity as opposed to having spare stations running to take up unexpected demand. Thus, moving to pursue a sustainable energy future should not just entail diversifying and greening our energy supplies, but also unlocking the value gained from energy efficiency.

(Dr Yasser Al Saleh is working for INSEAD Innovation and Policy Initiative, Abu Dhabi. The opinion expressed in the article are his own.)


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