It did not bother us earlier that green energy has a storage problem. Coal or gas-fired plants hooked to a grid can be used to meet shortfalls due to variable supplies from renewables. The shortage of renewables is not a problem so long as these sources are not the primary source of supply for the grid. Once renewables become the principal source, the reliability of grid supply will depend on grid-level storage batteries.
How variable are the supplies of renewables? In Germany, in 2019, wind energy went from supplying 59% to the grid on one day to as low as 2.6% on another. In the same year, solar peaked at 25% of the grid supply and bottomed out at 0.3%. What happens if both solar and wind are simultaneously unavailable? It would mean installing much bigger storage batteries than we are planning today, with the luxury of fossil fuel as a backup, to make grid supply more reliable.
Many may feel having two renewable sources should take care of the relative unreliability of either source. It, unfortunately, does not work that way. During a prolonged calm that typically lasts days, both sources will be unavailable at night. It can be an even bigger problem in higher altitudes, where the days are short and the nights longer.
We can either spend money now on providing a reliable grid based on renewables or continue using fossil fuels as long as we can and postpone the transition. To pretend that only coal-fired plants are fossil fuel-based while natural gas is a transitional fuel is to defer the investments that the rich countries must make in grid-level energy storage.
Arguing that all big emitters should cut emissions is to put the burden of the transition on India and China, two countries with the largest populations and very little gas supply. That is why we see the pretence that coal alone is the major source of greenhouse gases and the refusal to admit that natural gas, with its leaky infrastructure, is as big a culprit in global warming.
I have written earlier on the significant and much higher warming effects of natural gas, the so-called transitional fuel, than the rich countries claim. Current studies with actual measurements of methane leaks in New Mexico show the losses are six times the claims. This wipes out any benefit from switching from coal to gas. In any case, the United States and Europe want this swith much more because their coal-fired plants are ageing. Against a calculated life span of 25 years, the average age of coal-fired plants is more than 40 years in the United States and 35 years in Europe. They are simply making a virtue of phasing out their coal plants which are already too old to maintain.
Instead of an honest discussion about how to reach a low-carbon trajectory quickly, the politics of rich countries is how “we” can postpone our transition to green energy, with natural gas as a “transitional” fuel, thereby dumping the energy transition problem on the poor countries. The rich countries can then extract profits from selling us renewable technology and the batteries to store it. The most hypocritical of the lot are the Nordic countries, who argue they can fund the development of gas and oil fields in African countries provided the gas and oil are exported entirely to them. They expect African countries to go in exclusively for renewable energy. This is what W. Gyude Moore and Todd Moss said in a recent article in Foreign Policy, “Europe to Africa: Gas for Me but Not for Thee”.
The storage problem in renewable energy is well known. Fossil fuels are stores of energy and sources of energy, but that assumes coal, gas and oil resources are inexhaustible. Earlier, that they are not inexhaustible was considered a problem for future generations. Just as global warming was relegated to a problem of the future until droughts, heat waves, and increasingly extreme weather events convinced us the problem has arrived. It means we must plan for a grid that uses much larger quantities of renewables, which must be in place as quickly as possible. To do this, we will have to solve the grid-level energy storage problem.
The simplest storage for any grid is pumped storage, which means converting the existing hydroelectric plants to run exclusively as complementary to wind and solar energy. This system works except when inflows exceed storage levels, as often happens during the rainy season. Converting hydro turbines is also not a significant expense. Storage reservoirs already exist, and adding, if required, a small reservoir at the bottom involves low cost and virtually no impact in terms of land acquisition. The big storage reservoirs already exist, as do numerous hydroelectric plants with reversible hydro-turbines. The main problem with hydroelectric power—land acquisition and displacement—does not exist here, and new hydroelectric projects are not required. In the current scenario, using hydroelectricity for any purpose except meeting the peak load or in pumped storage mode is sheer waste.
The second is to look at how energy is being used today and what we can do about it. The transportation sector accounts for about 25-30% of the total world energy consumption. The switch to electric vehicles conceals that the battery is only for storing electricity and must be charged with grid electricity. As the batteries of electric vehicles are charged from grid electricity, they do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions: they merely transfer the problem of emissions from transportation to the grid. So we are back to the problem of storing electricity at the grid level, the critical issue of renewable energy.
Is there a way to reduce emissions in the transportation sector itself? Yes, if it is our objective to reduce emissions per person-kilometre or ton-kilometre for goods traffic, subject to the journey time remaining the same. Emissions per kilometre are the only indicator that matter. It can be done with existing technology and is well-known to all who have even cursory knowledge of the sector. All we require is replacing private with public transport, as China has been doing. Buses, metro and rail, have much lower carbon footprints than private cars, and they need no new technology.
Why, then, do we not implement this solution? The political power of the auto industry, backed by the fossil fuel lobby, prevents it—the same auto industry that wants to sell us private electric vehicles instead of private petrol vehicles. It is emission per kilometre that we need to reduce, not simply the emission at the tailpipe of vehicles. The profits of the auto and fuel industries come from how many cars and how much fuel they can sell today. To hell with our future! Capital privileges current profits over the future. That is the nature of the beast.
To answer the serious question of how to reach a low carbon path rapidly, we need to look not only at future solutions that may or may not arrive but also at ones that already exist. Instead of trying to shift the burden of the energy transition onto poorer countries, we must look at not just the total carbon emission of a country but its per capita emissions. I am not even going into historical emissions, of which the rich countries have the lion’s share but simply pointing out that it is people who consume electricity and, therefore, the emissions. Comparing the total emissions of China to the United States, with a population five times lower than China, or India’s emissions with European countries with much smaller populations, to lump all of them as large emitters is to confuse the issues. For the record, India uses 60% of its grid energy from fossil fuels instead of 68.6% in the United States. In the last three years, China has added more renewables each year than the United States and Europe combined.
There are two ways to meet the climate crisis: look honestly at the problem, and each country does its best to avert the impending crisis. I am not talking of a just share of carbon space, but that rich countries do not occupy even the remaining carbon space as the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom seem bent on doing. This means not playing games with climate targets, accepting that rich countries have to shoulder a larger share of the transition costs, and not to charge extortionary rates for patents or know-how from poorer countries. And to not single out coal while pretending natural gas is a transitional fuel. The capitalist principle of beggar thy neighbour may help rich countries in the short run but will only bring disaster for humanity.