Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote an article, “Life After Oil and Gas,” published in the NY Times Sunday Review of March 24, 2013. She begins by questioning the mantra that we need fossil fuels. She cites examples of countries like, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Sweden, and others that now generate over 50% of their electricity from renewable resources and conveys the impression that renewables are a lot closer at hand, and more could and should be done.
I certainly do not disagree with the need to transition to renewables, but as I have maintained, it will take many decades of consistent effort to achieve any significant market penetration. There are several points that I would like to make with respect to the article to rectify the impression the article conveys.
First, while electricity production consumes a substantial portion (30-40%) of primary energy use, it by no means consumes all. By offering examples of renewable electricity and questioning the need for fossil energy, the article conflates the two. Even in Iceland they drive their cars and trucks with oil! Second, the countries that generate most of their electricity from renewable resources rely mainly on large hydroelectric power. For Iceland, which generates 100% of its electricity from renewables, geothermal adds 25% to the 75% from hydro. Both hydro and geothermal systems produce power that can serve as base load, which is not true for the wind and PV systems.
A second point worth noting is that the overall energy consumption in the countries with high renewables component tends to be small. Per capita energy consumption in Iceland is high, but the total energy use in Iceland is less than 0.25% of the US consumption and the country is not even listed in the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Denmark uses about 1% of the US energy, while Sweden and Norway consume about 2% of the US energy use. Germany, which is considerably larger economy and uses about 25% of the US energy, has aggressively supported renewables through feed-in tariffs is now generating 13% of its electricity—which comprises 17% of total primary energy—from renewable resources: 30% hydro , 63% wind, and 7% solar. However, as noted towards the end of the article by Rosenthal, it is re-evaluating its policy towards renewable energy, which has increased the cost of power, in the face of economic uncertainty. It is one thing to achieve high renewables percentages when the overall demand is limited, but quite another to do it on a massive scale.
An important lesson that we can draw from the success of Nordic countries is that we should make best use of the resources available. Denmark finds itself conveniently situated between Norway, with a lot of hydroelectricity and Germany with a fairly substantial demand. Denmark has installed almost 4 GW of wind power, and when there is excess power available it can easily send it to Germany, and in times of low demand send it to Norway for storage as pumped hydro. Now that’s taking full advantage of one’s situation.