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Renew your energy: March 2012 Archives


Some say that technology itself in neutral- it's just lumps of metal or whatever that can be used for good or for evil. In itself it has no 'values', positive or negative. What matters is how it is used. You hear this 'use/abuse' model from various sources- including the US gun lobby! But it also re-emerged at the 'AT@40' conference in March in London, called to mark 40 years since the first big Alternative Technology conference held at UCL in 1972. See my earlier Blog: http://www.environmentalresearchweb.org/blog/2012/03/back-to-basics.html

The 1972 AT gathering had looked at the range of new smaller-scale decentralised and ecologically sound technologies that was emerging then. They were sometimes presented as being inherently 'better', socially, environmentally and politically than that what existed- with nuclear power being a commonly cited example of a 'bad' technology.

That was certainly one of the key ideas behind the 'AT' Alternative Technology movement in its early years, as Peter Harper explained eloquently at AT@40. In the 1970s it was for some of us becoming increasingly clear that things were going wrong - the promises offered by science and technology were now looking more like threats - to the ecosystem and to human survival. We didn't want to abandon science or technology, but we needed something better, something that re-established or rebalanced the links between human aspirations, the cultures and wisdom our societies had created, and the planet - the ecosystem of which we were a part. The fear of eco-doom and nuclear annihilation provided the impetus for a range of counter movements and 'AT' was one, offering a set of basic principles- summarised well in the 1970s book Radical Technology.

However, looking back, as at AT@40, it is not automatically clear if you can codify social and environmental 'appropriateness' in technical principles for all time. The context changes. And as the social constructivist viewpoint says, it is in any case a process- the specific technologies that emerge simply reflect the values of those in power. So small-scale diy renewables may be challenging to the status quo in one context, but not in others. Conversely, larger scale technologies may be an imposition in some situations in others they may be liberatory. A bit of a slippery argument that, though. What is left is a set of values and basic principle e.g. as Godfrey Boyle argued at AT@40, you should apply the subsiduarity principle: technologies should be chosen and scaled at the lowest possible level /size and be as amenable to widescale democratic control as possible, with minimum eco and social impacts. But you can't fix or lock the values in the technology itself permanently: instead it's a continual social and political process.

That's certainly the 'social construction of technology' view- technology isn't just inanimate hardware, it also dependent for its creation and operation on social processes and perceptions and these are perhaps more important than the actual thing itself. For example, from a 'labour process' point of view, the Luddites opposed the new spinning technology because it took away their control over the livelihoods. They weren't opposed to the technology itself, just the way it was being used- to deskill and impoverish them. Only if the technology won't, by its nature, allow workers and society an opportunity to control it effectively should it be opposed.

Some say that nuclear power is an example of that, in that is requires tight security, hierarchical control and central elites to run and fund it. But others have argued that, whereas under capitalism, nuclear is dangerous, under socialism (or whatever variety of self-managed society you'd prefer), it could be controlled!

Against that is the belief that some technologies like nuclear power are so fundamentally flawed (e.g. by creating long lived radioactive material) they could never be redeemed- there will always be a problem, regardless of the society and its controls. A fundmanentalist green approach.

It's interesting that Greenpeace, in its response to Fukushima, didn't adopt this 'absolutists' line. It said 'it was not a natural disaster which led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but the failures of the Japanese Government, regulators and the nuclear industry' It added 'The Fukushima nuclear accident exposes the deep and systemic failure of the very institutions that are supposed to control nuclear power and protect people from its accidents', which, by implication, could be taken to mean that these problems were, in theory, resolvable. Are they preparing the way for acceptance of 'better' nuclear, under 'better' control? More likely they were simply talking up the compensation bid on behalf of those affected and seeking to toughen up the controls and costs, so that nuclear became even less viable in future!

Despite some relativistic 'sliding scale' grey areas, the 'social construction' approach does move us beyond just totting up economic and social costs and benefits in a passive technocratic way, treating technology as a fixed thing that simply 'impacts' on society: it's choice design, development and use are all social and political processes. Even so, maybe some options ought to be ruled out automatically, as always likely to be beyond the pale. Napalm for example. Or cluster bombs. But then we are adopting an absolutist, essentially 'moral', and therefore arguably arbitrary, position. If 'the enemy' (however defined- it might be hostile Martians) is at the gate, should we use napalm, or nukes, if that's all there is available that works? Maybe, but surely not if the 'enemy' is just nature, constraining our desire to continue living in the way we do! We are part of it, and we need to coexist, choosing and using technologies that do not abuse the environment or people.

Hot BRICs

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Brazil, Russia, India and China, the so-called BRIC countries, are all rapidly industrialising, or in the case of Russia, re-industrialising, and at the same time facing major climate policy issues. Basically how can they have economic growth without compromising their own, and global, climate security? A new book, 'Feeling the Heat', in the Palgrave 'Energy, Climate and Environment' series, seeks to explore how they are trying to develop energy and climate policies, focusing on internal political processes and constraints. A multi-authored text, edited by Ian Bailey and Hugh Compston from, respectively, Plymouth and Cardiff University, it's something of a companion to their earlier 'Turning Down the Heat', which looked at the politics of climate change in the affluent democracies.

While we may be familiar with the national political battles over climate policies in the UK, EU, USA and more recently Australia, the political situation in the BRIC countries, for example in terms of public reactions to what are often seen as draconian proposal for change, is sometimes not that much different- and the suggested remedies are similar. They include better communication to convince people of the need for radical change, coupled with an emphasis on the positive benefits that could accrue in terms of jobs, economic security and of course health and safety. Given that what happens in the rapidly expanding BRIC countries may shape the global future, it's well worth looking at.

What are the technical renewable energy supply options for the BRICs? Globally renewable energy supplied an estimated 16% of global final energy consumption and delivered close to 20% of global electricity production. The BRIC countries are making their mark: for example renewables accounted for about 26% of China's total installed electric capacity in 2010, 18% of electricity generation, and more than 9% of final energy supply. This along with India's smaller input, helped make Asia a dominant supplier of renewable energy, while Latin America has increased its supply of renewable energy by over 50%, with Brazil making major contributions . See REN21 2011 review: www.ren21.net

Much of this growth is based on biomass and that could expand further. The World Bioenergy Association says that biomass currently supplies around 10% of global energy, which it notes means that it is already around double the size of nuclear energy globally. But it forecasts the potential for global bioenergy utilisation in 2050 to be 20-30 times the present use. Clearly there are land-use and biodiversity issues to face, something Brazil has be battling with for some time in terms of deforestation, but also in relation to its biofuels (ethanol) programme. Large hydro is also problematic- that is the mainstay of China's programme, the only large renewable so far in Russia (supplying 21% of electricity) and also the major contributor in Brazil, accounting for 69% of the total installed capacity in 2010.

Less problematically, wind power is also expanding: China has over 45GW in place and plans to have 100GW by 2015. It is moving offshore- it plans to have 30GW offshore by 2020. The technically exploitable onshore wind resources is put at 300 GW, and offshore resources are up to 700 GW

India has 13GW of wind capacity in place on land and plans to expand that, but is also pushing ahead with solar- it is aiming for 20GW to be deployed by 2022. Brazil is also pushing ahead with both wind and solar. Solar heating is in widespread use and its wind target is 1,423MW under the PROINFA programme. The theoretical potential for wind is put at 140 GW.

As in China and Brazil, Russia's renewables programme is dominated by hydro, but in terms of new renewables, it is moving quite slowly: it currently only gets 0.5% of it power from renewables, but aims to increase that to 4.5% from 25 GW installed by 2020. However, the potential wind resource is very large. One study put the Northern Russia/NW Siberian resource at 350GW.

Of all the BRICs, China is pushing renewables the hardest- with a target of getting 16% of its total energy for renewables and low carbon sources by 2020, although Brazil has a head start in that it already gets around 50% of its electricity from hydro and has a significant biofuels programme. To move things on, some help for the BRICs and other developing countries is coming from the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP), which has recently announced the first 21 projects to be funded in its €3m 8th Programme. Five projects target China, including a study on a national-level carbon trading framework with the Energy Research Institute of the NDRC, and support for a study on smartgrid technology for integrating renewables into China's grid. REEEPs funding is made possible by donations from the governments of the UK and Norway. REEEP previously disbursed €4.7m in 2009, €3.2 m in 2007, €2.2 m in 2006 and €1.1 m in 2005.
www.reeep.org/58.20416/reeep-allocates-y3-million-to-21-low-carbon-energy-projects.htm

In their book, Bailey and Compston conclude 'China's investments in renewable energy, Brazil's deforestation and biofuels policies and India's efforts to combat black carbon offer glimpses of the opportunities, but many more co-benefit and development enhancing policies will be needed'.

In terms of funding, REEEPs input is relatively small and the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism has its limits. Perhaps more important are the internal and external political processes that define the overall strategies adopted by the BRICs. As Bailey and Compston put it, the BRICs also have other perhaps more urgent priorities, and will make comparisons with the what the already developed world is doing: 'Progress by industrializing countries in curbing their emissions will inevitably return attention to the deficiencies of climate policy in the developed countries and the need for their governments find ways to resolve political obstacles to the further development of climate policy in their countries,' with the focal strategy often inevitably being 'to prioritize policies that offer significant co-benefits alongside reducing emissions'.


The potential for renewables within the EU, new and old, is very large with several scenarios now suggesting that up to 100% of EU electricity could be generated by 2050 from these sources. Certainly it seems likely that the uses of wind power in particular will continue to expand. At the start of 2012, wind generation capacity was at around 94GW in the EU, led by Germany at about 29GW and Spain at 22GW. France was at about 6.8GW, Italy 6.7, the UK 6.5GW- it has risen since to 6.6GW with new offshore wind projects. But although so far all much lower, the new EU countries of central and eastern europe are also making their mark, for example in wind power, led by Poland at 1,616 MW, with Romania having 982MW, Bulgaria 612MW, Hungary 329MW, and the Czech Republic 217MW. And the prospects for expansion in the new EU are large. For example, the new EU renewable energy targets for 2020 are quite challenging, with many of the new EU countries expected to achieve significant increases.

However, there are also many countries on the boarders of the EU, some of them candidates for entry who might also contribute. For example, Turkey had 1.8GW of wind capacity by the end of 2011. Some others may be eligible at some point (for example perhaps Georgia, Albania and the Ukraine and even Armenia and Azerbaijan) but not most of the other ex-Soviet states in the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent Stares) further east- for example Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They have extensive untapped renewable energy resources.

These countries could well become net exporters of renewable power to the EU- since they have large resources and low populations. Their renewable generation potential, if Ukraine is included, comes to a total of about 32GW for wind and 46GW for hydro, with perhaps 50 TWh p.a. from wind and 300TWh from hydro, all by around 2020. That's similar to the total electricity consumption in the UK- and that's leaving out biomass and geothermal, which some of these countries have in plenty, which could supply electricity as well as heat. Longer term the potential is much larger. For example the total wind resource in Kazakhstan has been put at 210 GW.

It could be that as an EU wide supergrid emerges, extension into areas like this will become an important element, the wider geographical footprint ensuring better cross system balancing of locally variable renewables source like wind.

Prognosis

Although some good progress has been made, with the EU as a whole taking renewables increasingly seriously, the prognosis for the short to medium term in the eastern EU and also for those beyond, is mixed.

It is possible that many of the new EU countries will focus for now mostly on their often ample coal supplies and also back nuclear, while those further east may just focus on their gas and oil resources. Certainly, a major pre-occupation at present is getting any sort of energy they can, while trying to unlock themselves from reliance on Russia- and while also being able to sell oil and gas from the east to the EU: the current hot issue is the development of new power transmission and gas/oil pipeline links.

But it could be that as they come to realise the huge potential demand for green power in the EU, as well as the scale of their own large renewable resources, the eastern countries outside the EU, may look to exports and CDM and JI schemes, as well as to the GO Credit scheme, as a source of income.

Of course it might be argued that really they should simply use this energy themselves, so as to stop using coal, oil and gas, but there will obviously be a strong temptation to sell it to the EU- to earn desperately needed money to revitalise their economies.

The big unknown is Russia. It has a very large renewable potential (e.g. perhaps 60GW of wind by 2020 and perhaps 350GW long term), so far almost completely untapped, apart from hydro, with new renewables accounting for just 0.5% of the total power consumption. For example it only has 9MW of wind capacity in place at present, and a target of obtaining about 4.5% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, with just 25GW installed. This perhaps reflects Putin's view that 'You couldn't transfer large electric power stations to wind energy, however much you wanted to. In the next few decades, it will be impossible' and that nuclear energy was the only 'real and powerful alternative' to oil and gas, with other approaches to meeting future energy demand being seen as 'claptrap.'

There is no shortage of views in, around and outside the EU hostile to the development of renewables, but with wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and, in some locations, the new marine renewables, all expanding rapidly, it would be foolish to try to ignore what many see as the main way ahead to a sustainable energy future, and also as a major economic and employment growth area.

The above is abstracted (and updated) from a paper reviewing the Open University 'New Europe-New Energy' project in a new Palgrave book, edited by Shmelev et al, on globalization and the environment entitled 'Sustainability Analysis: An Interdisciplinary Approach'. The OU Energy and Environment Research Unit's Central and Eastern Europe renewable/sustainable energy project started out looking at options and projects in the Baltic states and then moved on, via Romania and Bulgaria, to the Balkans, including projects in Croatia and then Albania. More recently, the OU team has been involved with a major EU-backed green energy project in Kosovo.


PV Solar has been expanding rapidly, reaching over 40GW globally so far, but to some extent has become the victim of its own success. The expansion was in part a result of the various Feed In Tariffs (FiTs) introduced around the EU, but as the market built and PV cell prices began to fall, demand rose and the built-in FiT price degression mechanisms did not drop prices fast enough. The end result was that large extra costs were passed on to consumers, and in reaction to that, emergency FiT caps or cut-backs in FiT tariff levels were introduced - in Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the UK.

So, although there is talk of PV reaching grid price party within a few years in some locations, perversely, things have not been looking so good for PV, at least in the short term, including in Germany, which had seen the largest expansion, to around 25GW.

Speigal On-line carried a critical review in January, pointing out that 'in Germany, solar is by far the most inefficient technology among renewable energy sources, and yet it receives the most subsidies. Some 56% of all green energy subsidies go to solar systems, which produce only 21% of subsidized energy'.

It went on 'For the same cost, wind supplies at least five times as much electricity as solar, while hydroelectric power plants generate six times as much. Even biomass plants are still three times as efficient as solar. Because of the poor electricity yield, solar energy production also saves little in the way of harmful carbon dioxide emissions, especially compared to other possible subsidization programs. To avoid a ton of CO2 emissions, one can spend €5 on insulating the roof of an old building, invest €20 in a new gas-fired power plant or sink about €500 into a new solar energy system'.

So Spegiel says 'Solar energy has the potential to become the most expensive mistake in German environmental policy'.

Based on a report from Rhine-Westphalia Institute for Economic Research (RWI) it says that PV systems connected to the grid in 2011 alone will cost electricity customers about €18 billion in subsidy costs over the next 20 years and that, if all commitments to pay subsidies so far are added together, 'we have already exceeded the €100 billion level.'

However that's a long term projection, to 2020, and FiT levels can and should change as PV costs fall. The Federal government has already made large cuts in the FiTs for PV (15% in January with a further 20-29% cut now proposed), and is devising a new FiT scheme which, while retaining the key feature of guaranteed prices and guaranteed feed-in of the power, relates more directly to market changes.

Some see these cuts as too drastic. There have been major 'Stop to solar energy exit' demonstrations around Germany, with slogans like 'we are the energy transition'. Some radical critics claim that the reason for the cuts is that the spread of solar PV undermines the power and profits of the utilities- who have always been hostile to the FiTs.

Certainly the RWI is well known for its critical views on the green energy programme and the Feed In Tariffs. Its new report predicts that the surcharge for PV will soon increase to 4.7 cents/kWh which, for the average family, would amount to an additional charge of about €200 a year, in addition to the actual cost of electricity. But a review by the Wuppertal Insitute of some of RWI's earlier price predictions suggested that they were overestimated by up to 42%, and claimed that 'investing in these technologies is also the main driver for reducing the specific costs of these technologies and thus increases the chances of successful climate protection in Germany as well as abroad.' www.wupperinst.org/uploads/txwiprojekt/EEGExpand_report.pdf

Nevertheless, Speigal is insistent that the emphasis on PV was 'jeopardizing the country's transition to renewable energy'.

This is basically the line adopted by SRU, the German Advisory Council on the Environment, which, as I reported in a previous Blog, has argued that far too much money was being invested in solar energy. http://environmentalresearchweb.org/blog/2011/11/germany100-renewables--but-les.html

The SRU says that "Solar energy has recently experienced nothing less than an extreme and even excessive boom," and claims that PV is undermining the development of the other renewables, since the high FiT pass-through costs to consumers were so provocative.

The SRU suggested that, rather than the 100 GW PV contribution it presented in one scenario, support for PV be throttled back drastically in the German renewables programme. It claimed that the overall programme could actually benefit from this, and could still reach the national target and beyond- to meet almost 100% of demand by 2050, without much PV, which could be expanded later on if needed and if cheaper.

So is PV is out of the picture for now? Certainly there have been cut backs and there may be more, as the political and economic climate tightens. Spain for example, hard pressed by the euro crisis, have recently halted payment for all the FiTs entirely. Germany has avoided that, but PV is clearly still in trouble. Spiegel concluded 'For a time, it seemed that at least the German solar industry was benefiting from the generous subsidy rates. But the green economic miracle has, in the case of the solar industry, turned out to be a subsidy bubble.'

We have seen the same pattern emerge in the UK, and the same response- cuts, up to 70% in some cases. But this is all very short-termist. PV costs are falling and will continue to fall, in part due to the FiTs. Without the FiTs that process will now slow. You could say that we should not give up at this stage. Although the FiTs cost consumers a lot, they have succeeded in setting PV up. So now it will boom. FiTs at progressively lower levels could now cost less and help it move on faster. However it seems the political will is not there for that.

This is not to say there isn't a future for PV solar. It is well suited to meeting some end uses- daytime office power and summer air-conditioning especially, something that will become increasingly significant as climate change begins to impact. And as part of an interactive smart grid system, with demand management and storage back up , it can feed in power alongside other renewables, and energy efficiency, and play a major and increasing role. But we have to get the balance right and the message from at least some observers in Germany is that so far it has been overdone. And some argue that other renewable options will be cheaper, easier and possible better.

At the same time, we ought to avoid knee jerk reactions. In a recent report for the governments advisory Committee on Climate Change UK consultants Mott Macdonald saw PV as amongst the cheaper renewable by 2040 for the UK, possibly in the range of £43 - 78/MWh, although more probably in the range £63- 120/MWh. The only comparable options were on-land wind, put at £52 - 55/MWh by 2040, and biogas production from sewage at £51/MWh, although that is a much smaller and already developed resource. Should we really be cutting back on PV?

www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,809439,00.html

Back to basics

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Over the past couple of years I have been interviewed by a range of postgrads, journalists and media persons about the 'AT' movement in the 1970s. The term 'Alternative Technology' (AT) described a range of new smaller-scale decentralised and ecologically sound technologies that their supporters felt were better suited to the sort of society they wished to see emerge in future. But it wasn't just all talk. Some of the pioneers built prototypes (of small wind turbines, solar collectors and the like) and set up co-operatives and communities to test out their ideas in practice. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, now a well established and much visited attraction, was one of them.

With sustainable development a key issue and renewable energy no longer being a fringe utopian dream, some of the early AT ideas seem to have become mainstream. So perhaps, as we seek to find ways ahead, it is not surprising that interest in the original movement has re-emerged, at least amongst some academics. The ESRC has funded a seminar series exploring 'sustainability transitions' which it sees as 'projected processes of social change to sustainable patterns of production and consumption' based in part on a review of the lessons of the AT movement in the 1970s. That is one focus of a seminar to be held in April at Salford University. http://sustainabilitytransitions.info/

The project's web site says: 'The reason for organising this workshop is to create a context for thinking reflexively and constructively about the wider lessons and insights of the crises in the 1970s for the challenge of creating a low carbon transition today'.

Certainly the 1970s saw the beginnings of a grass roots 'green' movement, which has grown apace and become more visible now. So it is may be useful to ask why it started out then. The project blub says 'Critically the period of economic, ecological and state crisis spawned a period of conflict, contestation and debate about the future direction of society of which alternative technologies were a part'.

And it says that, now, in the 2010's 'we are once again in a period of significant structural change. Economic crisis, ecological crisis associated with climate change and crises of state response. And yet again huge degree of interest in different eco-technical responses to crisis that seems to reflect period of experimentation in 1970s'. It finishes by asking 'what are the similarities and differences between these periods when thinking about low carbon transition?'

It will be interesting to see what emerges and also to see what ideas emerge about where we go from here from another gathering on AT, this one being 'AT@40' in March at the Architectural Association in London. It has been called to mark forty years since the first large AT conference, which was held at UCL in 1972, and will be addressed by some of the original pioneers. However it's not to be just an exercise in nostalgia. It will also look to the future and ask difficult questions such as, are grass roots community initiatives marginal distractions or vital seed-beds for change? Is technology enough, don't we also need social change?

The latter issue had emerged at the 1972 UCL conference, at which one disgruntled participant said 'I came here to talk about windmills, not politics'. It was an issue that continued to be debated within the AT movement. In 1973, AT pioneer Peter Harper wrote a seminal article in issue 5 of Undercurrents, which was in many ways the house magazine of the AT movement. He said that we needed to move beyond 'AT' gadgets, and look at how things were produced. See: www.scribd.com/doc/9085962/Undercurrents-05-Winter-1973

Nearly 40 years on, this still hasn't been resolved. The AT movement would no doubt be pleased to see that most of the wind projects in Denmark and Germany are locally owned by wind coops and the like, and even a few in the UK. But some bits of AT hardware are now being produced and sold just like any other consumer products. And some of the large-scale renewable energy technologies are designed, produced and run by large companies in ways that are very different to what some of the AT pioneers may have had in mind. As AT becomes a reality, at least in hardware terms, production issues may be the new focus- who produces what, how is production organised and controlled, where should it be based and how are the benefits and costs shared?

If there are modern messages from the AT movement then one could be that, after the recession, we can't expect just to return to the comfort zone of metal-bashing industry and mass production- if we want to avoid climate change. We need a new economy and a new industry, producing new products. We know about some of the products we should be producing- green energy technology, and so on. And that's beginning to happen. But we also need to think about how and where they are produced- what that means for resources and for people. That sounds like a call for a return to the old familiar debate, all but abandoned by the conventional political parties, over and ownership and control, although cast in a new greener light.

The Campaign against Climate Change, along with a range of Trade Union groups, have called for a 'Just Transition', in which the social and economic costs and benefits of moving towards a sustainable future are fairly distributed. That is even more important during a recession, when some see clean technology as being one way to stimulate a revival. Maybe we need a dash of radical AT thinking back in the mix.

AT@40 Conference: https://mcs-notes2.open.ac.uk/QuickPay.nsf/Payment.xsp?ID=AT40