Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Clean energy: A faded shade of green

The NZ herald has an article looking at the forces both pushing the adoption of renewable energy forward and those retarding it - Clean energy: A faded shade of green.
For clean technology fans, the dawn of the 21st century appeared to be the best of times. As the world confronted the growing scientific consensus that rising greenhouse gases were driving climate change, a move from fossil fuels to renewables seemed irresistible. Clean technology looked a hot prospect.

Now that vision seems more muddied. Renewables are on the rise, but fossil fuels are fighting back. Coal mining has soared to feed China's energy appetite.

Oil exploration is expanding in the Arctic - where ice covers an estimated 160 billion barrels of oil, five years' supply at today's consumption rates, plus unknown amounts of natural gas - in New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Despite BP's catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, drilling is poised to resume at depths of up to 3300m. Regulation remains lax. Three years after President Obama talked up clean tech, it is business as usual at the White House.

Outside its front gate, hundreds of protesters have been arrested demonstrating against plans to build a 2597km pipeline to ship crude oil strip-mined from Canadian tar sands - estimated to contain 175 billion barrels, the world's third-largest reserve after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela - from Alberta to refineries in Texas. Another Canadian pipeline is envisaged to carry oil to the Pacific.

Critics fear spills and say carbon emissions from refining the tar sands will "turbocharge global warming". Nine Nobel Laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, have weighed in, saying the pipeline will fuel climate change and "endanger the entire planet".

Elsewhere, Obama is accused of reaching into George W. Bush's pro-polluter playbook as he gives Shell tentative approval to drill off the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a goal denied Bush - and of siding with the American Petroleum Institute, calculating that renewed exploitation of fossil fuels will increase jobs and relax the foreign stranglehold on America's energy supply (in this calculation at least, Canada doesn't count as foreign).

In the green camp, there is a despairing sense of clean tech opportunities missed.

"When Obama won the White House the oil business saw a threat and they rearmed," says Kert Davies, research director with Greenpeace USA. "And they sent hordes of lobbyists to Washington, and doubled down on ... campaigns to keep things the way they are. The President said some harsh things about the industry after the Deepwater oil spill.

"But in the end all US policy has bent to the oil industry. And we don't see any change."

Economic woes have also stalled investment in renewable energy alternatives.

But while frontier oil exploration and record coal sales remain the in-your-face energy reality, three inexorable, linked factors are driving deeper change.

The first is the huge energy demand caused by runaway population growth - by 2050, humankind is expected to number 9 billion, compared with 1.6 billion in 1900 - and the rise of industrial titans such as India, China and Brazil.

The second is "peak oil" - the moment when oil production reaches its highest point, then starts to decline. Whether this has occurred is contentious. It is hard to know the world's fossil fuel reserves, but they are finite.

Last year's annual report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecast global oil production would reach 96 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2035 (in June it was 88.7 mb/d), driven by natural gas and "unconventional oil" such as tar sands, as conventional crude levels out.

Extracting oil would become more expensive and leave a bigger legacy of polluting carbon. And energy demand would soar 36 per cent by 2035, with most of that extra demand coming from non-OECD nations, led by China.

Oil drives transport, but electricity generation is the key to record coal consumption. Nuclear power, meanwhile, faces an uncertain future after the meltdown at Fukushima: Germany will close its reactors by 2022 and this month's explosion at a French nuclear waste site fuelled fears about safety, radioactive waste and CO2 emissions from uranium processing.

Meanwhile, infinitely sustainable renewables - solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biofuel and ocean power - produced 16 per cent of world energy last year. The IEA forecasts that renewable use will triple between 2008 and 2035.

The third factor is climate change. When the OECD announced five "global shocks" likely to destabilise the world economy, climate change wasn't mentioned.

But money men at the sharp end, such as those in the reinsurance business, routinely factor in findings agreed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

However, if the past is any clue, switching energy sources will be a protracted, stop-start affair during which competing realities co-exist.

Sail didn't give way to steam overnight, just as steam didn't surrender to oil in an instant. Big Oil and renewables may co-exist for decades, given the complex challenge of rejigging vital infrastructure - transport, power generation and the like - in developed societies addicted to the old fossil fuel order.

But while making the transition is expensive, delaying may be more so. Studies suggest that choosing renewables increases jobs and wealth by more than expanding sunset industries. At the same time, clean energy costs are coming down, as oil costs climb.

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