Who has space for re­new­ables?

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Adair Turner

Land al­lo­cated to wind power is not lost to agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, be­cause crops can be grown and an­i­mals grazed be­tween the tur­bines.

This sum­mer, an elec­tri­cal power auc­tion in Chile at­tracted suc­cess­ful bids by wind gen­er­a­tors will­ing to pro­vide elec­tric­ity at $0.04 per kilo­watt hour and so­lar gen­er­a­tors at $0.03 per kwh, eas­ily beat­ing fos­sil-fuel com­peti­tors. That suc­cess re­flects dra­matic cost re­duc­tions over the last six years, with the cost of so­lar power fall­ing about 70% and wind-power costs down more than 30%. Fur­ther re­duc­tions are in­evitable.

Of course, the sun doesn't al­ways shine, and the wind doesn't al­ways blow, but in­ter­mit­tency prob­lems are in­creas­ingly solv­able as the cost of bat­tery and other en­ergy stor­age falls, and as smart me­ters and con­trol sys­tems make it pos­si­ble to shift the tim­ing of some elec­tric­ity de­mand. It is now cer­tain that, within 20 years, many coun­tries could get most of their elec­tric­ity from re­new­able sources at an eas­ily af­ford­able price.

To be sure, so­lar and wind farms re­quire large land ar­eas. But at the global level, there is plenty of space.

So­lar en­ergy reach­ing Earth to­tals more than 5,000 times to­day's hu­man con­sump­tion. De­mand will likely dou­ble if the world pop­u­la­tion grows (as United Na­tions fore­casts sug­gest) from 7.2 bil­lion to­day to 11 bil­lion by 2100, and if all 11 bil­lion peo­ple at­tain stan­dards of liv­ing now en­joyed only in de­vel­oped economies. And to­day's so­lar pan­els can turn only about 20% of so­lar en­ergy into elec­tric­ity (though that ra­tio will in­crease over time). But even al­low­ing for these fac­tors, es­ti­mated space re­quire­ments for so­lar en­ergy suf­fi­cient to power the en­tire world are re­as­sur­ingly triv­ial, at 0.5-1% of global land area.

For in­di­vid­ual coun­tries how­ever, the chal­lenges vary greatly, re­flect­ing dra­matic dif­fer­ences in pop­u­la­tion den­sity. Chile has 24 peo­ple per square kilo­me­ter, the United States 35, and In­dia 441 – a fig­ure likely to rise to around 570 by 2050 – while Bangladesh's is al­ready above 1,200. Uganda's pop­u­la­tion den­sity to­day is 195

per square kilo­me­ter, but could grow to around 1,000 by 2100. China's level will re­main sta­ble, at a mod­er­ate 145 peo­ple per square kilo­me­ter, with its densely pop­u­lated coastal re­gions off­set by large ex­panses of desert and moun­tains to the west.

Land al­lo­cated to wind power is not lost to agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion, be­cause crops can be grown and an­i­mals grazed be­tween the tur­bines. But higher pop­u­la­tion den­sity makes it more dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive to rely on re­new­ables alone. If South Korea, with a pop­u­la­tion den­sity of 517, tried to meet all its en­ergy needs with wind power, it would have to cover its en­tire land area with wind farms.

And in coun­tries rich enough to care about land­scape beauty, higher pop­u­la­tion den­sity makes clean en­ergy more ex­pen­sive. In the UK, where the over­all pop­u­la­tion den­sity is 267 per square kilo­me­ter, but 413 in Eng­land, the cur­rent gov­ern­ment op­poses new on­shore wind farms be­cause of their ad­verse aes­thetic im­pact. As a re­sult, Bri­tain will have to rely also on off­shore wind and nu­clear elec­tric­ity to build a low-car­bon econ­omy, adding some 2-3 cents per kilo­watt hour to the cost of elec­tric­ity.

But the far big­ger chal­lenges are those some emerg­ing economies al­ready face, and that sev­eral African coun­tries will con­front in the fu­ture. With pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties eight and 22 times the global av­er­age, re­spec­tively, In­dia would have to de­vote 4% of its land to so­lar parks to meet all of its en­ergy needs, and Bangladesh more than 10%.

More­over, in In­dia, un­like in Chile or the US, com­pe­ti­tion be­tween al­ter­na­tive land uses is al­ready in­tense in some ar­eas. For ex­am­ple, In­dia's am­bi­tion to de­velop a large man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor has some­times been ham­pered by con­tentious and even vi­o­lent dis­putes over land al­lo­ca­tion. In some parts of the coun­try, such as the Ra­jasthan desert, it will be pos­si­ble to de­velop large so­lar fa­cil­i­ties; else­where, land avail­abil­ity might limit fea­si­ble re­new­ables devel­op­ment. And while so­lar pan­els can and must be de­ployed on roof tops and in other ur­ban lo­ca­tions, the costs will be higher than in coun­tries where land is eas­ily avail­able.

That means that while re­new­ables must play a ma­jor role in de­car­boniza­tion ev­ery­where, in some coun­tries other tech­nolo­gies such as nu­clear power or car­bon cap­ture and stor­age may have to carry more of the bur­den. And im­prove­ments in en­ergy pro­duc­tiv­ity – via bet­ter ur­ban de­sign, for ex­am­ple – that en­able in­come growth while lim­it­ing re­quired en­ergy in­put be­come more im­por­tant in more densely pop­u­lated coun­tries where de­car­boniza­tion will be more dif­fi­cult.

In­deed, some of the world's most densely pop­u­lated coun­tries face a dou­ble dis­ad­van­tage; they are of­ten the most ex­posed to the ad­verse ef­fects of cli­mate change, and build­ing low car­bon economies may be more dif­fi­cult. Con­versely, al­ready-rich and lightly pop­u­lated coun­tries – such as the US, Aus­tralia, and Chile – are blessed with enough space to build low-car­bon en­ergy sys­tems at very low cost and with triv­ial con­se­quences for agri­cul­tural land avail­abil­ity or land­scape aes­thet­ics.

This may have im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions for global trade. The shale-gas rev­o­lu­tion has al­ready in­creased the prospect that en­ergy-in­ten­sive man­u­fac­ture may re­turn to the US; and, as au­to­ma­tion makes dif­fer­ences in la­bor costs less im­por­tant, low-cost re­new­able en­ergy may drive still more “on­shoring.” But that would fur­ther com­pli­cate emerg­ing economies' abil­ity to gen­er­ate suf­fi­cient em­ploy­ment for rapidly grow­ing pop­u­la­tions.

Dra­matic progress in re­new­able elec­tric­ity is a hugely pos­i­tive devel­op­ment; but the ben­e­fits are most eas­ily grasped in de­vel­oped, rel­a­tively sparsely pop­u­lated coun­tries. Many other tech­nolo­gies and well-de­signed poli­cies – both do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional – will be needed to en­able less-en­dowed coun­tries to build suc­cess­ful low-car­bon economies.

So­lar panel farm

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