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Readers Respond Day 6: Can We Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy?

Several countries have announced ambitious goals to be powered completely by renewable energy, while other nations set smaller, incremental goals. These high aspirations have sparked quite a debate amongst industry experts, and we here at Renewable Energy World are curious to hear what you, our readers, have to say.

So we aksed you to add your own voices to this imporant discussion:

What are the major barriers that countries face in order to reach 100 percent renewable energy — is this goal always achievable or desirable?

We received an overwhelming number of responses (thank you!), which will be updated here daily.  If you didn't get a chance to share your opinion, let your voice be heard in the comments below and submit your answer to our poll.

Dr. Carl Kukkonen
VIASPACE

Is 100 percent renewable energy achievable?

Yes, but it is easier in the Philippines than in Scotland. 

100 percent renewable electricity can be economically achieved using a combination of biomass, geothermal and hydro electricity for reliable 24/7 base power (~60 percent), and intermittent sources such as solar and wind, backed up by bio diesel or biogas generators.

Dedicated biomass energy crops will play an enabling role. Biomass can also replace oil by producing biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials.

Is there enough land to grow energy crops? This key question was answered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations which determined on a global scale that sufficient “additional agricultural land could be brought into production without encroaching upon areas of high ecological or social value, once forest, protected areas and the land required to meet increased demand for food crops and livestock is excluded”.

The tropical climate in Southeast Asia, Central and South America and Africa is much better for growing biomass than in Scotland. These areas can use their natural resources of sunshine, warm weather and rainfall to grow biomass for themselves, and to export pellets or biofuels to colder regions. Many of these tropical countries are underdeveloped, and growing and processing biomass will provide employment for their people and provide electricity for their economic and social development.  The monies spent will stay in their country rather than going overseas to pay for imported oil. 

Colder countries like Scotland will need to obtain their extra biomass and biofuels from the warmer countries, but will benefit by having a diverse set of suppliers, and will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are helping the developing world without the need for charity.

Because biomass can be stored and used at any time, it plays a unique role in renewable energy.

Dr. Carl Kukkonen is CEO of VIASPACE, a U.S. renewable energy company. VIASPACE grows Giant King Grass, a high yield dedicated energy crop for electricity production and bioenergy. Previously, Dr. Kukkonen directed a research center at the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University. 

Stanley Pruss
5 Lakes Energy LLC

Not only is a complete global transition to a global clean energy economy feasible, a strong consensus is emerging that the transition is inevitable.  Investment in advanced energy technologies, now over $250 billion per year, is on a trillion dollar trajectory — commensurate with the magnitude of investment necessary to enable the transition — while creating robust, sustained, market opportunities for decades to come. 

New economic efficiencies for distributed generation resources, energy efficiency implementations, aggregated demand management capacity, energy storage and transactive energy will combine to largely supplant investment in baseload infrastructure. 

The cost disparities between clean technologies and fossil fuel combustion, already trending sharply in opposite directions, will deepen with fuller future accounting of health and environmental externalities.

Market surveys are identifying a growing inclination for self-generation.  Already over 700 U.S. businesses derive 100 percent of their energy from “green” power sources, including Intel, Kohl’s and Staples.  Walmart, the largest commercial deployer of solar energy in the world, has a 100 percent clean energy target.  Greater future focus on resiliency and adaptation will only yield greater interest in achieving similar goals by others.  The urgency of climate change is likely to accelerate these trends. 

The confluence of investment and market opportunities, technological innovation, the sheer force of economic trends and the exigencies of climate concerns constitutes a powerful impetus for high penetration of advanced energy systems.

Can it be done? 

In the last two years numerous analyses of the feasibility of transitioning to clean energy have been undertaken by NREL, the International Energy Agency, the United Nations, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Stanford University, the University of Delaware, Google and others.   These studies explore the requirements, barriers, resource availability, materials availability, logistics, and costs through a variety of analytical frameworks.  Remarkably, they generally yield the same conclusion:  A complete global transition to clean energy is both technically and economically feasible; the barriers that exist are social and political.

Stanley Pruss is a principal in 5 Lakes Energy LLC.  Until August 2010, Mr. Pruss was the Director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Michigan’s Chief Energy Officer, and Special Advisor on Renewable Energy and the Environment under Governor Jennifer Granholm.  

Check back tomorrow for more insights.

Find out what industry executives had to say here.

Lead image: Microphones via Shutterstock

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Bob Parkins
Renewable Energy Consultants

Using the Philippines as an example, geography renders the answer exceptionally difficult.  An archipelago with approximately 7,107 islands, the Philippines does not have a unified national grid.  Every island has its own grid — it must stand alone, finding solutions independent of the other islands. Hence, there are as many solutions as there are islands. 

Outside of this geography challenge, there are other barriers to conquer:

  1. Energy conservation:  The first order of business is to minimize energy waste.  The cheapest kWh is the kWh not consumed. Energy conservation for new construction and existing renovation is essential.
  2. Transmission lines:  Some renewables, like wind, geopower and large solar, often must be transmitted via transmission lines to serve their loads, consuming valuable capital.
  3. Energy Storage:  With reduced conventional base load generation, the nature of renewable generation will require energy storage to help fill the gap between energy production and demand. 
  4. Smart Grid: Resource Scheduling is essential to match renewable generators with demand, coordinate storage, and shed loads during peaks. This is particularly important for areas like Manila (population 10,000,000+).  Without thermal base load plants to carry the burden, a Smart Grid becomes essential. Effectively predicting weather conditions as it impacts renewable generation and scheduling is also important.
  5. New Technologies: Advances are needed in energy storage, Smart Grids, and weather prediction.  Other promising technologies are tidal and ocean current power.  They could be huge resources.
  6. Land Management: Where land is scarce, decisions must be made on how to use it. Should it be reserved for agriculture, solar farms, homes, job creation? A coordinated approach is needed.   

Conclusion: Achieving 100 percent renewables in the Philippines will be difficult.  Advances in new technologies, planning, and huge infrastructure investments are needed. However, social issues may override some of the needed investment.

Bob Parkins is an independent engineer and solar consultant who serves clients worldwide. He has extensive solar and utility experience and offers a full slate of technical and project management services.  He currently is advising on large solar projects in the Philippines, Chile, Mexico and the U.S. 

Perry Bell
Solar Energy USA

Is 100 percent renewable energy always achievable or desirable? Yes, but it will not happen overnight and it will differ from location to location. Just like mainline power today, it is a blend of many resources, some being renewable, future power will be a blend, as well.

Our current power consists of coal, nuclear, natural gas, biofuels, wind, hydro and solar. As coal falls victim to EPA standards and issues related to health from emissions to mining pollution, it ultimately has to end and be replaced. Water contamination during mining will cause this to happen to natural gas, as well.

Coal has been subsidized from it's inception for over 100 years and nuclear is no different. The main difference is that nuclear has high cost and no ROI. The cost to build a nuclear facility, produce energy and decommission the facility is larger than most other power sources and cannot exist without extreme subsidies.

As one technology becomes obsolete to another, ompletely renewable dependence is very likely. Since it is already achievable on a small to medium scale, it is just a matter of time. That time may be 10 to 100 years from now, but it will happen and scale up. The key that will assist this, but is not confined to renewables, is power storage, which solves remote and power waste issues and helps people live in what was once an unsuitable area. It will also contribute to efficiencies of current power sources and ultimately help renewables.

Perry Bell takes his experiences learned as president with one of the nation's largest replacement window companies and radically changing the way home and business owners look at paying for power. Solar Energy USA, his first renewable energy venture, is a national provider of affordable solar solutions and the largest residential solar company in Georgia.

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Tom Langdon-Davies
Regen SW

There are two broad categories of barriers to 100 percent renewable energy, which are technical and non-technical.

In general the non-technical barriers are the more challenging for governments, but let’s first look at the major technical roadblocks:

  • Supply/demand matching. This either requires a major non-intermittent element such as hydro or geothermal, or large overcapacity to meet peak demand, either on dark midwinter evenings or hot windless summer afternoons.
  • Grid strengthening. A grid designed for renewables will have costly strengthening requirements. For example, in the U.K. most domestic renewable installations are limited to 4 kW unless expensive strengthening is implemented. Similarly, bringing offshore electricity from western Scotland to population centres is costly and takes time.
  • Smart metering. In order to control peak demand, more extensive and sophisticated metering, voluntary outage, and tariff systems are required. These are time consuming to install for large numbers of consumers.

Non-technical barriers include:

  • Planning and regulation. Bureaucratic time lags will impact on deadlines particularly where decision systems need adapting.
  • Skills. Training for the design, construction and maintenance of many developing technologies takes time
  • Interaction with other industries. Tourism, agriculture, other land use e.g. when creating hydro reservoirs
  • Consumer and community resistance. Particularly in countries with a culture of community protest against change, e.g. onshore wind farms in the U.K.
  • Intergovernmental co-ordination. The Scottish and U.K. governments have competencies over different aspects of implementation

Tom Langdon-Davies is an associate of Regen SW, a leading centre of sustainable energy expertise and pioneering project delivery in southwest England and nationally. He is an expert on the governance and leadership of private and public bodies, and is available to advise boards in renewable energy and other related industries.

Doug Rode
Hydrogen Safety, LLC

For any country to embark on a strategic course that will impact many future generations is never easy to execute.  For those us who can remember President Kennedy’s pronouncement to put a man on the moon energized a nation of engineers to collaboratively solve the myriad of technical issues.  It is noteworthy that the U.S. had the political will coupled with the human and financial resources to successfully accomplish that goal.  However, the major challenge of converting to 100 percent renewable energy for most countries is quite daunting if not impossible.

No one country can solve these technical problems in isolation.  Countries must rely upon the world’s engineering community to focus on making renewable energy technologies not only more risk tolerant and efficient but also affordable.  The commitment of necessary resources may not be forthcoming because the economic incentives are insufficient and non-sustainable.  This could change if some unforeseen calamity struck the world’s fossil and nuclear fuel supplies but the probability of such an event is better left to naysayers.

The aforementioned countries and others also have a host of indigenous variables, which generally encompass such factors as availability and stability of renewable energy sources (wind, sun, water), population concentrations, geography, weather fluctuations, and political stability.  These factors cannot be easily changed and therefore can limit the growth of renewable energy within a given country. 

Everyone wants to connect to the internet, watch cable TV and enjoy the 21st century home comforts.  It is very questionable that without a practical mix of renewable energy and fossil fuel driven power, will the electricity and heat be available for all people within a given country. The leaders’ motivations may be pure but the financial and technology realities unfortunately can’t support such lofty and admirable goals of energy independence solely through renewable energy. 

Doug is the managing director of Hydrogen Safety, LLC, an engineering consultant whose focus is upon providing its global based clients with strategies to better manage their technology risk exposures.  This is especially relevant with deployment of renewable energy technologies.  Services include risk assessments, accident investigations, and emergency planning.

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Mike Holly
Sorgo Fuels & Chemicals

Many countries could likely achieve nearly 100 percent renewable energy.  However, it may not be desirable for the economy or even the environment.  Wind and solar have potential, but are uneconomic.  Some renewable energies, like hydropower, geothermal and sugar cane ethanol and biomass power, are economic, but have limited potential.  All five can have environmental problems.

The use of renewable energy should be determined mostly by free markets.  Free markets would also encourage the development of lower-cost and cleaner renewable and other energy technologies.  The role of policymakers should be limited to valuing the environmental externality advantages of the various renewable energies and also fossil (oil, coal and natural gas) and nuclear fuels.  

Politicians must stop promoting the monopolization of the energy industries, especially electricity and natural gas utilities.  They should also discontinue the arbitrary picking of winners and losers with mandates, subsidies and environmental exemptions, especially those favoring corn (and recently cellulosic) ethanol and also biodiesel in the transportation sector, and natural gas for heating and electricity, along with wind power.  The use of corn for ethanol has many problems, including competition with food, and cellulosic ethanol is even more uneconomic. 

The failure of the U.S. to regulate the natural gas industry is allowing the dumping of undisclosed chemicals into the ground with unknown effects.  Moreover, politicians are wasting money by requiring the replacement of coal with gas for electricity generation since it cannot reduce greenhouse gases unless methane leaks are held to under 2 percent, while estimates are as high as 10 percent.

Heavily-subsidized wind power backed up with inefficient single cycle gas turbines is doubling total electricity costs, using as much natural gas and emitting as much carbon dioxide and other pollutants compared to just using efficient combined cycle turbines burning natural gas without wind power.

Mike Holly is chairman of Sorgo Fuels & Chemicals.  Sorgo has been pursuing ethanol and electricity production from sweet sorghum. Mike was formerly an alternative energy engineer and business analyst with the Minnesota department of energy.  He holds masters degrees in chemical engineering and business administration from University of Minnesota.

Kimeu Jonathan
Energy Management Centre

The evidence of climate change all over the world is already with us. The list of climate change related disasters is growing long every day some of which have huge economic and social impacts. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the years 2001 to 2004 were among the five warmest recorded worldwide since 1861. Further, a study from MIT showed that, since the 1970s, major tropical storms both in the Atlantic and the Pacific region have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent. According to IRNI humanitarian news and analysis, some of the climate change related disasters which have been reported so far include, hurricane Katrina and Sandy in the USA, heat waves in Europe specifically in France and even extreme drought experienced in the northern parts of my country Kenya in 2012. 

Use of fossil fuels has been identified as one of leading contributor of greenhouse gases which lead to climate change, therefore any effort to reduce their percentage in our energy generation mix and increased use of renewable energy is highly desirable. This will help in slowing down climate change hence minimizing related disasters. 

The majority of new electrical capacity around the world in the coming decades will be built in developing countries, the same countries that are at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change. This provides a big opportunity to introduce renewable energies, which will eventually be more economical because greenhouse gases and its effects will be eliminated, while also providing numerous other benefits, including reduced vulnerability to volatile global energy prices, greater energy independence, and a competitive stake in a growing global market.

The main challenge for developing countries to achieve 100 percent renewable energy power generation is the amount of initial capital required. Developing countries generally have limited basic infrastructure like roads and transmission grind network, this is going to add to the capital investment. However, the social and economic benefits from renewable energy investment, by far exceeds the cost and especially to the future generation.

Eng. Kimeu Jonathan is the managing director of the Energy Management Centre based in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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Katy Collardson
CertainTeed Solar Services Group

While 100 percent renewable energy is a noble goal, there are several factors that need to be considered prior to embarking on this path.  Most notable is the grid infrastructure required.  Popular renewable resources are largely reliant on a stable grid, currently fueled by non-renewable sources.   A grid that is supplied solely by renewables must be a Smart Grid that can adapt to fluctuations in power caused by weather changes.  This modern utility infrastructure is costly and takes time to install. 

In addition, one should consider the environmental costs of both the new grid and the existing one, weighing the impacts of keeping the status quo against the impacts of sourcing and installing new renewable energy components.  While it is important to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, it should be recognized that there is an impact to installing new equipment and letting old facilities sit idle.  Programs should be looked at from all angles before proceeding to ensure that well-meaning actions do not have unintended consequences.

This is not to say that these countries should not pursue the goal of 100 percent renewable energy.  This simply highlights a couple of the major considerations to take into account when working toward such an objective.

Katy Collardson is a technical supervisor for CertainTeed Solar.  A NABCEP certified PV Installation Professional; she has worked in the solar industry since 2006 as an installer, designer, project manager and trainer.  She has a B.A. in German from Colorado College and an MBA, with a Certificate in Sustainable Technology, from ASU.

Rob Wilder
WilderHill Clean Energy Index

It too long has been wrongly believed that renewables, typically being viewed as completely intermittent, can’t as a fact of physics or economics pierce some arbitrary ceiling such as 25%, 50%, 75% or even 100%. That false notion needs to be put away.

Parts of Germany are now nearing 100% renewables. Germany is an industrial leader setting its own positive example. Moving on, whether reaching 100% near-term in every place is desirable depends on specifics of each country and situation. Three things to ask include: How much do alternative ‘conventional’ dirty fossil fuels cost there now; can inexpensive storage, like pumped water be built, and are there abundant resources like wind or solar that can be inexpensively harvested? 

Scotland's wind and natural topography that could make use of pumped water storage, along with a potential super-grid linking it to solar and baseload geothermal, may be enough to overcome moderate-costs of natural gas or coal that could otherwise set a low-price bar.

Political will is the fourth and most crucial factor of all. The upfront costs of moving from conventional gas, coal, nuclear are huge. The fossil fuel industry is adept at painting their products as the only serious ones for any country of gravitas that wants "real power." But Fukushima had awful cost overruns when it built a nuclear plant even without disaster. Once regarded as low-risk and cheap, nuclear now looks fraught with risks plus huge costs that stretch out beyond the horizon.

If one considers ocean acidification, rising sea-levels, and climate risk, along with dropping costs, then the question remains: why isn’t "100% Renewables" the conventional answer ahead?

Dr. Wilder is chair of the index committee for WilderHill Clean Energy Index (ECO). He also manages WilderHill Progressive Energy Index (WHPRO), and co-manages the WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation Index (NEX). He holds a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara and Law Degree from University of San Diego.

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Jon Pietruszkiewicz
Project Manager, Renewable Energy, Black & Veatch

We should ask when and at what cost?  One hundred percent renewables is achievable at a cost and it may be a reasonable future goal where alternatives are currently relatively expensive. It is likely that islands and other isolated grids which require high amounts of expensive imported fossil fuels will be first to set such goals.  One hundred percent renewables is achievable if a grid can be supplied with sufficient flexible resources (e.g. flexible renewable resources, energy storage, demand response, interconnection and energy market mechanisms, or ability to curtail excess variable renewables).  When there is a lot of geothermal, biomass and hydro to supply electric system flexibility for intermittent wind and solar, it will also be easier. It will be easiest if pumped hydro is available. Otherwise, without flexible renewables, expensive storage will likely be required.

Jon Pietruszkiewicz is currently a project manager for renewable energy projects at Black & Veatch. Previously, he was an Associate Director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and spent almost three decades as a manager at Bechtel where he led the creation of EnergyWorks.  Jon is a registered professional mechanical engineer in California and is a Certified Cogeneration Professional.

Dr. Eugene Preston

Whether a country can switch to 100 percent renewables or not depends on whether it is an industrialized society or not.  Suppose we wish to power an island that is blessed with mild weather year round, sunshine, wind, and light loads that are mostly lighting and food refrigeration.  Such a system can be powered with wind and solar and battery energy storage.  The main obstacle is the initial cost of the system.  If the energy usage is low per person, the system is probably affordable.  

However, a country with a heavy industrial load at nighttime needing reliable 24/7 constant power at a low cost will find that it's not possible to economically power their system using only wind and solar and batteries.  Obstacles are the high cost of energy produced and the reliability is not likely to be very good.  For a large system like Germany (or the U.S.) transmission limitations will be a major problem.  Although nuclear is not popular, it's really the only good non CO2 power source for industrial loads.

Dr. Preston has 40 years of experience in all aspects of power system planning as well as a Ph.D. in large system generation and transmission reliability assessment.  Dr. Preston currently performs transmission adequacy studies for new generators wishing to interconnect to a transmission line somewhere in the U.S.

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Renewable Energy World's network editors help deliver the most comprehensive news coverage of the renewable energy industries. Based in the U.S. and the UK, the team is comprised of editors from Pennwell Corporation's myriad of publications that ...

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