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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

Renewables: Fewer subsidies and more R&D please

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There's a good article in Slate which lays out a case for shuttling some of the funds spent on subsidies for renewable energy into R&D instead. The article's main point is that the use of solar and wind power is crawling up at a snail's pace while there is little indication that the price of these sources will become competitive. One point which not everyone appreciates is that when you are talking about "renewables" right now, you are mostly talking about biomass, a resource that is neither efficient nor clean; it shows what a tiny percentage of renewables solar and wind power currently comprise. But that's how humanity lived for most of its modern existence, until fossil fuels caused a revolution in energy use that moved us toward orders of magnitude higher efficiency, mobility and energy density (fossil fuel also had a few important environmental benefits that aren't always appreciated, like saving whales from extinction).

Advocating the use of renewables is a good thing, but for now that dream seems far from being realized. As the Slate article describes it,

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26 percent per year and solar a phenomenal 48 percent. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038 percent of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29 percent. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04 percent...Moreover, solar and wind will still contribute very little in the coming decades. In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34 percent of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42 percent. Global renewables will most likely increase by roughly 1.5 percentage points, to 14.5 percent by 2035. Under unrealistically optimistic assumptions, the share could increase five percentage points, to 17.9 percent.

Interestingly, Europe now gets less from wind than what it got before industrialization. But the crux of the matter is that 0.29% and 0.04% are hardly fighting figures. It's one thing to extol a future based on renewables, quite another to envision how this minuscule percentage can be ramped up to even something like 10% in a few decades. As eminent climatologist James Hansen put it, “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and [the] Tooth Fairy.”

So what's holding back the rapid expansion of renewables? Subsidies for one thing, according to the Slate article:

We are paying through the nose for these renewables. In the last 12 years, the world has invested $1.6 trillion in clean energy. By 2020, the effort to increase reliance on renewables will cost the European Union alone $250 billion annually. Spain now pays almost 1 percent of its GDP in subsidies for renewables, which is more than it spends on higher education. At the end of the century, Spain’s massive investment will have postponed global warming by 62 hours. Current green energy policies are failing for a simple reason: renewables are far too expensive. Sometimes people claim that renewables are actually cheaper. But if renewables were cheaper, they wouldn’t need subsidies, and we wouldn’t need climate policies.

I am thinking that it would really be a good idea if Spain spent more on education and less on renewables, but no matter how you slice the matter that's a lot of money. And it's not being spent on R&D either. Germany's solar subsidies are well-known; a recent Forbes article calls them "too large too fast". In the United States, the Energy Information Administration reports that 2010 subsidies for solar and wind were $1 billion and $5 billion respectively (compared to $2.5 billion for nuclear - which however includes loan guarantees- and $2.9 billion for natural gas).

The result is basically a massive amount of non-R&D expenditure on renewables without much to show for it. The Slate article makes the point that we need to shift much of this money to actual R&D. Trends in R&D funding on clean energy certainly seem to bear out this need; as the figure below shows, the US is spending much less on renewables than what the International Energy Agency recommends (and much less in general than what's recommended).

There is still a substantial gap to be filled when it comes to funding renewable energy (Image: IEA)

Meanwhile, polls show that for the near future, the public at large is more concerned about job creation than about the environment and therefore seems to align itself with supporting natural gas expansion above everything else.

The Slate article ends with a plea for innovating the price of renewables downward instead of subsidizing it. China seems to provide a good example of what can be done:

The solution is to innovate the price of renewables downward. We need a dramatic increase in funding for research and development to make the next generations of wind, solar, and biomass energy cheaper and more effective. Consider China. Despite the country’s massive investment in solar and wind, it mostly sells solar panels to Western countries at subsidized prices. Wind makes up just 0.2 percent of China’s energy, and solar accounts for 0.01 percent. Meanwhile, China has 68 percent of the world’s solar water heaters on rooftops, because it is a smart and cheap technology. It needs no subsidies, and it produces 50 times more energy than all of China’s solar panels.

Heavily pushing renewables right now is like trying to push a flawed model of a new computer into the market. It might feel good at the beginning but it's only going to be hugely inefficient, expensive and pointless for the future. Better to slow down the expansion and fire up the innovation.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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