Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Rethink on renewable energy

In the couple of years, two things have made me think that it is time to rethink how we teach energy, especially renewable energy. These are the annual environmental technology exhibition in Bangkok and the answers on my students' final exams.

The exhibition in the last two years has made me think that my students, along with the general public, do not realize the scale of the renewable energy industry today. At the exhibitions, it now appears that at least half the exhibits were on renewable energy. In fact, the organizers are now promoting it as "Asian Sustainable Energy Week", not as "Entech-Pollutec" as prior to 2016. (Entech-Pollutec is still used, but as a secondary name)

Importantly, we are now at the point where more than half of all new power generation is from renewable energy.

The other thing that made me think was the answers to the questions on the final exams. Most of the students seemed to be thinking in the past.

People still think that renewable energy is expensive. It is not! Yes, that was true as recently as ten years ago, but prices have decreased dramatically. A number of reports now show that renewable energy is cheaper than nonrenewable sources. I also keeping getting the answer that a problem with renewables is they are not efficient! What?!

People are also still thinking that solar and wind power are limited by the time of day and how much the wind blows. But in fact today that is not a major problem. If this was such a problem, then why are we now building large-scale solar power plants and wind farms?

The answer is to this is STORAGE. In my opinion, the biggest advances in energy from the last fifteen years or so has been in the field of storage. Not only batteries (in which there has been huge advances), but in other forms (for example, using molten salt).

Another "myth" often given is the hazards from wind energy due to bird strikes. Two recent studies, one from the USA and the other from the United Kingdom, have shown that the number of birds killed by wind turbines is very low (0.0001%). In fact, since using wind turbines reduces the use of fossil fuel, thereby reducing the amount of pollution -- which causes many more bird deaths, the net effect may be a decrease in the number of bird deaths. It is interesting that the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB) actually supports the development of wind power (provided proper siting studies are done).

On the other hand, there seems to be very little criticism of large-scale hydropower. They have been extremely damaging to ecosystems (among other environmental and social problems) and recently have been shown to be one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases in the form of methane. Another area in which almost all environmental activists have concerns is with biofuel crops - no major environmental organizations support them anymore - do to concerns about deforestation and problems with food crops. Note they still support biofuels produced from waste products.

The thing that people seem to be reluctant to talk about is fossil fuel subsidies. This despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) [refs] have both said that fossil fuels subsidies are huge and must be eliminated. The biggest problems is that subsidies distort the markets and contribute to increased fossil fuel use and therefore increases global warming.

The following parts of energy education need to be changed:

1. Care needs to be taken to be sure the information is up to date, things are changing fast in the field of energy, especially renewable energy. Even textbooks are often out of date soon after being published.

2. We need to shift from just teaching simple energy conservation measures (turn of lights when not using, etc.) to including more large-scale solutions (larger-scale conservation in industry, better building design, electric cars, etc.)

3. More emphasis on the need to eliminate all fossil fuels. Not just reduce their usage. Subsidies must also be discussed.

4. Inclusion of the concept of distributed energy (micropower). This includes the need to change the current business model of electrical utility companies.

5. Improvement in how we teach renewable energy. Much of this is discussed above. It includes discussing current costs, energy storage, and major environmental concerns with big dams and first generation biofuels