As the world continues paving its way to the so called renewable energy transitions, mainly solar photovoltaic systems and wind power, there are some fundamental hurdles appearing in the horizon, despite of the overwhelming hype that these renewables are receiving in all the global media and also in the academic world to replace the fossil fuel systems.
The main alibi to promote this expansion is that the world goes straightforward to an unprecedented Global Warming and Climate Change, if drastic and urgent measures to reduce the CO2 emissions are not taken soon. There is still almost no solid reference in the different governments and in the industrial and capitalist world about the problem that also may represent soon the gradual depletion of fossil fuels and other resources, once they reach their maximum world production peaks (not when they are exhausted, which is a much more distant and imprecise date).
There is no sign or apparent willingness to appeal to consume less in helping to solve the problem (the feared and despised degrowth or powerdown, when voluntarily assumed). Very likely because accepting the premise that the world resources are finite, that they are subject to depletion and that they will reach a tipping point, when their extractions/productions will decay, automatically implies the announced death of capitalism, that demands infinite growth in a finite world like ours. In any case, the only reference mentions energy savings and efficiency improvements, by using more and more technology, thus forgetting that there has not been a single global reduction of any kind in the more than 150 years of industrial society, through which we have noticeably and continuously improved our efficiency (William Stanley Jevons and his famous paradox, still today in force).
Therefore, it seems more digestible, even within the enormity of the pollution problem of our planet, to say, we are going to eliminate the CO2, than accepting we have to change our production model. Even when it is proposed by using more and more technology, which is the main cause that has taken the world to this situation in less than 2 centuries of industrial civilization and less than half a century of technological civilization.
In one side, we can appreciate, despite of the avalanche of economic and technical statistics of huge progress in renewables, both in installed power and energy generated in the last 20 years, in reality their contribution has hardly dent in the fossil fuels contribution. Even more, despite of the successive crisis in the last three lustrum (the big economic crisis of 2008 and the Covid19 crisis in 2020), the fossil fuel energies continue their consumption growth in absolute values, beyond what renewables can offer.
On the other hand, the modern renewable energies, only produce electricity and this world, our world, is basically a non electric one. Although some functions can be electrified in theory, like, for instance, the passenger cars fleet or the railways, and there are, in fact, a tsunami of investments in electric vehicles, many other social functions, have insurmountable difficulties to be served with electric energy. These are, the civil aviation, the maritime transportation, the heavy terrestrial machinery for civil works and mining and heavy trucks for land transportation, the mechanized agriculture, the high fishing fleets, the armed forces or the cement and metallurgic industry, that in many cases cannot use electric smelting furnaces, except for few smelting of steel scrap and in few more cycles as each one degrades the output quality.
The third leg or hoof, which some renewables have started to timidly show behind the door is the one of massive energy storage and the granting of the security of supply under any circumstance and on demand, not as a function of wind blowing and sun shining. That is, the solving of the dire problem of intermittencies of these systems.
In this document I shall not enter to assess this (until now) hidden elephant in the hardware store, but as soon as the renewable systems penetration increases in the electric networks (only in the electric networks), the elephant starts to break down hardware, so it is not possible to ignore it any longer. That is why, the final values are necessarily conservative and lower than what the forced overdimensioning will obly.
If we try to assess how to cover and transition with renewables the 80% of total world primary energy used now in a non electric form and the uses of very unlikely or impossible electrification, we have to address this issue.
This document was created in 2019 and was stopped in April 2020, still lacking the review of the last chapter with the conclusiones and the final summaries of the necessary energies of installed power in Terawatts (TW) and energy generated in Terawatts*hour (TWh) by modern renewables, to get a 100% decarbonized world (in theory). As mentioned before, quite conservative figures, because the overdimensioning of installed power and generated energy, necessary to store huge amounts of electricity to solve the storage and intermittencies problems are not included in this work.
I started this document in Spanish and then I ended it in English, hoping to publish it in a peer review scientific magazine. Afterwards, taking into account that most of the reviewers in the main publications are notoriously pro-renewables and the time and delays and objections that they may impose, I decided to put it in quarantine.
Later, as hydrogen as a vector (or energy source as many still claim) was gaining momentum for a decarbonized world, some known academic and scientific colleagues asked me for opinion and I delivered them this uncompleted document. I have not received any note from them commenting errors or wrong methodologies.
I know some have used or extracted some data with my permission (I am always pro-copyleft), that may have considered of interest. Finally, an academic has asked me permission to quote or cite the document and needs any public place to give access to his readers. This has prompted me to publish it in this friendly magazine, to which I am deeply grateful for their hospitality. However, I advance it has not been peer reviewed.
It is a calculated provocation to ask potential readers with some scientific knowledge, to help me to correct (to lower or higher) the final amounts of installed power and equivalent energy needed to get the 100% decarbonization. Error admitted and I will thank any communications helping to improve the final conclusion.
English is not my mother tongue and the document has not been reviewed by an English expert in these subjects, although I expect it will be clear enough for English spoken people.
It has been amazing how in these last two years, the mainstream media and the industrial and government powers-that-be have started to hype the so called hydrogen economy; that is, as per the dominant media, the energy vector that will come to the rescue to solve the present huge economic activities that today move with or need fossil energy, that cannot be electrified and this vector will help to replace fossils by using electricity in origin and combustion, when required, at the end.
In fact, both the USA programs linked to the Green New Deal, promoted now with the arrival of the democrat Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States, as well as the efforts of the European Union to pour huge investments in programs such as Next Generation EU and similar national programs, even they try to revitalize the production, hardly hit with the 2020 pandemic, still not overcome, they already openly talk, to invest in the hydrogen economy or in the green hydrogen (the one obtained from electrolysis with electricity 100% of renewable origin), as much as investments in wind power or solar PV.
There are also foreseen investments for programs to boost energy (electricity) storage systems, basically in batteries.
This document has included a chapter dedicated to obtaining synthetic natural gas. The reason is because the smarter among the ones in favor of decarbonization with more renewables and hydrogen, have noticed that hydrogen —known since more than two centuries ago and used since more than one century ago— although it has interesting, but limited uses and applications, has also low efficiencies in their production and over all, dire problems to be stored in a safe and feasible form, specially in the huge logistic storage facilities, being so flammable, with a very low energy density, both in weight, but specially in volume and finally because its big reactivity , specially with metals that have to confine it at high pressures or very low temperatures, to which they make them brittle soon.
So they have initiated another way: to convince us to generate hydrogen and then immediately transform it into a fuel or gas liquid more stable than hydrogen, by means of known chemical processes, like, for instance, ethanol or the so called synthetic natural gas (CH4), by adding carbon from CO2 by means of the Sabatier process. So they can score a double goal claiming they are helping to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, or at least to produce a liquid fuel that is baptized as carbon neutral, to be used in the many applications where it is required and the electricity is not feasible. And also, in the case of methane, to be transported and stored through conventional natural gas existing massive infrastructures.
That’s why this process is also assessed in Chapter 7, although it is a step more in the ladder of increasing complexity.
I admit that Chapter 8, devoted to the necessity of materials to achieve this decarbonized economy with 100% renewable energies, is clearly improvable, due to its brevity. But it gives an idea of the degree of difficulty and lack of emissions neutrality that the mining and other extractive refining and transport processes imply. The works of Alicia Valero, a doctor in Chemical Engineering in the University of Zaragoza and world expert in exergy in the mineral capital of planet Earth, will be of much help to understand what we are facing to get a 100% decarbonized world by this way.
The conclusion that accompanies every abstract, is that we are facing a challenge very likely beyond our means. It is therefore an invitation to give a step forward: to rethink the required change of paradigm and our way of living towards a society eminently less consumerist. Starting, in a very first place by the most developed capitalist countries; to move to a much more austere society, focused in satisfying the minimum needs to have a human life with dignity, but leaving apart the many discretionary and superfluous expenses. Very easy to formulate, immensely difficult to carry out voluntarily. But if we do not do collectively and voluntarily, Nature will take care of placing all of us in the acceptable thresholds where all the living beings (not only humans) can considered themselves sustainable in the long term, without the forward escapes to which this industrial and technological society has accustomed us.
Full report Decarbonization with 100% Renewable Energy Systems, by Pedro Prieto
DISCLAIMER AND COMMITMENT
CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION.
CHAPTER 2. METHODOLOGY.
CHAPTER 3. THE ENERGY CONSUMED IN THE WORLD.
CHAPTER 4. AN APPROACH TO THE ENERGY VECTORS REQUIRED.
4.1. The air transport/civil aviation sector.
4.2. The merchant fleets.
4.3. The mechanized agriculture and fishing sector.
4.4. The long distance heavy terrestrial transport and other mobility sectors.
4.5. The industrial sector.
4.5.1. The cement industry.
4.5.2. The iron and steel industry and civil works heavy machinery and the mining sector fossil fuel consumption.
4.7. The armies (Navy and air forces included).
4.8. The non energy uses sector.
4.9. Overall Summary of all energy requirements that would likely need and energy vector or carrier for a 100% free emissions world with 100% renewable systems.
CHAPTER 5. HYDROGEN AS ENERGY VECTOR, PRODUCED FROM RENEWABLE ENERGIES. A
COMPLETE LIFE CYCLE EFFICIENCY.
5.1. Energy equivalences between hydrogen and the most common fossil fuels and its comparison with hydrogen.
5.2. Green hydrogen production (water + electricity by electrolysis).
5.3. Conclusions of the requirements to cover non electrificable fossil fuel functions by means of hydrogen as energy vector or energy carrier.
5.4. Electric installed power required by hydrolysis as an energy vector if supplied by solar Photovoltaic (PV) systems.
5.5. Electric installed power required by hydrolysis as an energy vector if supplied by wind energy systems.
CHAPTER 6. SYNTHETIC NATURAL GAS (SNC) AS ENERGY VECTOR, OBTAINED BY METHANATION
FROM RENEWABLE ENERGIES. A COMPLETE LIFE CYCLE EFFICIENCY.
6.1. The hydrogen required for methanation of 2,000 Mtoes of fossil fuels.
6.2. The CO 2 required for methanation of 2,000 Mtoes of fossil fuels.
6.3. Electric installed power required by methanation if supplied by solar PV systems.
6.4. Electric installed power required by methanation if supplied by wind power systems.
CHAPTER 7. THE RENEWABLES NEEDED FOR ELECTRIFICATION OF ALL THE REST NON ELECTRIC PROCESSES AND FUNCTIONS.
7.1. Electrification of the electric plants generating with fossil fuels.
7.2. Electric installed power required to replace fossil fuels now producing electricity, if supplied by solar Photovoltaic (PV) systems.
37.3. Electric installed power required to replace fossil fuels now producing electricity, if supplied by wind power systems.
7.4. Electrification of the rest of the processes and functions powered by fossil fuels.
7.5. Total electric energy needed to replace fossil fuels generating electricity and in other fossil fuels directly consumed as such in the Total Final Consumption or Final Stage Energy functions.
CHAPTER 8. A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF MATERIAL’S NEEDS
8.2. Steel for wind generators
8.3. Concrete/cement for wind generators.
8.4. Blades for wind generators.
8.5. Other materials, rare earths, etc. for wind generators.
8.7. Recycling materials
CHAPTER 9. CONCLUSIONS
9.1. Summary of renewable energy and renewable installed power needs
9.2. Economic growth must/will end.
LIST OF ACRONYMS
TABLES OF EQ
I noticed a small error in section 5.5. Electric installed power required by hydrolysis as an energy vector if supplied by wind energy systems Here you refer to solar systems at several points, although the heading refers to wind and the data appears to refer to wind too. I think maybe you used the text of the previous section as a template and failed to change some of the words from “solar” to “wind”. The report is very much needed and I will share with appropriate colleagues to try and get it the exposure it deserves. Muchas gracias por el labor al sacar adelante este análisis.
Thanks to Mark H. Burton I have corrected the mistake in section 5.5. In effect, the words referring to solar photovoltaics here, refer in reality to wind power. I will ask the editor to update the documents, both in English and Spanish
We’ll have to wait until Moisès, who has the last version of the source documents, can do it. Then we will update the PDFs.
Thanks Pedro and Manuel – I’ve shared it with a couple of climate scientist colleagues who will understand the scientific and engineering realities and maybe give some helpful feedback.