Beyond fossil fuels: Envisioning sustainable energy

Ulrich W. Suter, 01 Feb 2010

There is many times more than enough renewable energy to sustain all of man’s energy requirements. Capturing that renewable energy comes at massive investment costs. However, a confluence of interests is coming together to bring about the first significant steps in encouraging energy diversification and sustainability.

Oil – at odds with sustainability
The world would be a very different place without fossil fuels. Oil, above all others, has radically changed industry, has brought inexpensive mobility, provided us with food our grandparents did not even know existed, and keeps us warm. It is also a commodity that appears immune to our conventional understanding of supply and demand. During the past three decades, while per capita global GDP has increased at a rate of approximately a factor of ten per century and the per capita global energy consumption has increased by approximately a factor of two per century, global per capita oil consumption has remained constant. However, the price of oil has remained anything but constant – adjusted for inflation, the price of oil over the past three decades fluctuated wildly by a factor of ten. Oil consumption remains remarkably constant, independent of price or political factors. A further known fact is that the supply of fossil oil is finite. Using it thoughtlessly is not sustainable.

The overall consumption of oil will increase in step with the increase in global population. Fossil oil reserves are expected to last at least several decades . This puts humanity in the comfortable position to be able to plan for a solid, a sustainable approach to the times when fossil oil will not be as abundant.

It is a fact that the entire energy requirements of the world could, in principle, be satisfied by renewable sources. Among the alternatives to oil are non-renewables such as nuclear (fission), coal liquefaction and gasification, or geothermal (deep heat mining, hot dry rock heat extraction); together with renewables such as solar (thermal, photovoltaic, hydrogen generation), biomass (heat, ethanol or hydrogen production), wind, and hydroelectricity. The renewables have attracted considerable attention from the general public and politicians, and more recently also from business. The main drivers are political: fear of greenhouse gases and anthropogenic climate change, and striving for energy independency.

Can renewables compete with oil?
Not today and not for some time. However, the balance has been, and increasingly will be shifted by penalties imposed upon fossil fuels and subsidies for renewable power production. The potential of renewable sources for energy utilisation is substantial, but the increase in contribution to the global energy economy will be slow. The main reason for this are the enormous investments required in new infrastructure on a global scale (the International Energy Agency estimates that global energy investment requirements between now and 2030 to sustain current trend in consumption is USD26 trillion (or a little under twice the size of US GDP). Nevertheless, in the really long run, say by 2100, renewables will contribute the majority of all power production.

The importance of renewables
Few foresaw the social and political importance of words like “sustainable,” “renewable,” or “clean technology” and the visions behind them just one or two decades ago. Today, these terms describe industrial activity that is supported in the OECD countries and beyond by ample funds from tax payers and purchasers, through public subsidies as well as punitive taxes for those that do not convert to approved good practices. These practices are designed to help a group of fledgling young industries compete with the established competition and to create the instruments for our long-term development without loss of quality of life for those already well off and a dramatic increase in that quality for those who do not yet enjoy our standard of living. The reaction of the public to this support of renewables has come from across the spectrum – from happy approval of these measures and pleas for more financial support, to angry opponents who point to the weaknesses of new approaches and cry foul at regulatory measures distorting the market.

Although the arguments of those who demand greater subsidies are not always free of self-interest, it is difficult to imagine that the relatively dramatic changes to energy supplies required in coming decades would happen without concerted and international public support. Moreover, the gigantic sums that need to be invested to bring about those changes can not be raised exclusively from private sources. The arguments against direct government economic control, on the other hand, are also correct; too often the result of well-meaning government actions have been ineffective and even damaging, as well as being almost irreversible.

How to bring about change?
The question with which society is faced is how to effect a change in the social mindset to bring about real change. Business as usual does not seem to be a solution (“The phrase ‘business as usual’ has started to read like the end of the world” - Newsweek, 10 Nov 2008, “Why It’s Time for a ‘Green New Deal’” Christopher Dickey & Tracy McNicoll). There are three well-known models for dramatic change. First, the Pearl Harbor model: a catastrophic event mobilises everyone behind the leadership. The drawback is that a catastrophe is required. Climate change is in contrast incremental. Second, the Berlin Wall model: grass-roots dissatisfaction that leads to a situation where the prevailing order is fundamentally challenged. The major problem here is that mass movements are unpredictable in timing and outcome. Finally, the sandwich model: when top down and bottom up agree, ie, when grass-root pressures and strategy of the government leaderships coincide. Regulatory measures can be put in place and massive public means put towards their support. When it comes to the far reaching changes implied in the terms “sustainable,” “renewable,” or “clean technology,” this would mean that scientists, engineers, industrial leaders, the wider public, government and politicians would have to join forces. As unlikely as it sounds, this can happen.

An application of the sandwich model in the domain of renewable energy has recently been shown have some promise: the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative. The project has been based on the challenging premise that renewable power sources can become competitive with the oil-based economy.

A project towards renewable energy resources
In 2003 a network of about 50 scientists and engineers, from the German branch of the Club of Rome, the Hamburg Climate Protection Foundation, and the National Energy Research Center of Jordan, and headed by His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, was founded: the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC). Their motto, “Clean Power from Deserts,” attracted broad attention. This network presented a White Book to the European Parliament on 28 November 2007 and received a warm welcome. A number of leaders from the private sector prompted TREC to create the DESERTEC Foundation, based in Berlin, and comprising members mostly from EUMENA countries (Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa). The foundation created and recruited industrial members for a consortium, the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII). The 12 founding members of the consortium are ABB, Abengoa Solar, Cevital, DESERTEC Foundation, Deutsche Bank, E.ON, HSH Nordbank, MAN Solar Millennium, Munich Re, M+W Zander, RWE, SCHOTT Solar, and Siemens, an impressive cast of significant players in engineering, electric power, and finance. The long-term aim of DII is to allow most people in the world to access solar and wind power from the energy-rich desert areas (an area of 300 km × 300 km, i.e., 0.3% of the world‘s deserts, if fully harnessed, would be sufficient to cover today‘s global power demand!). The consortium will concentrate on solar-thermal power plants (CSP-Plants) in desert areas, wind plants along coastal areas, and other renewable power sources, as well as a series of long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines. The area supplied in the first stage of the project will primarily be EUMENA.

The project package is convincing because it employs fully developed, tried and relatively inexpensive technology and the HVDC transmission is of low loss (3% / 1’000 km), free of electro smog and lines can be laid underground and underwater. In other words: the project seems realisable. At least as important: the project is financially not unreasonable. Preliminary estimates put the total amount of investment at some EUR400 billion (10% of that for power transmission) spread over 30 years. Given the number of countries involved, this might be achievable.

Solar power from the Sahara may cover 15% of the European/Mediterranean electricity demand by 2040. The chances for the DII to succeed are reasonable because experienced engineering enterprises has joined hands with major power companies and strong financial institutions. Last but not least, the political establishment supports the project as a major contribution towards emission-free electricity generation. Blue print plans can be easily transferred to the South of the USA, the South-East of China, and other areas. There are, of course opponents and arguments against the project; the most often voiced reasons being complexity, political risk, as well as the risk of terrorist actions.

A model for change
The DII, even if it does not itself succeed, can be seen as a model for a promising sandwich model-approach. Of course, a convincing, competitive project is necessary, but there are many possible avenues to pursue. An excellent compilation of required global changes to move global society into sustainable mode has recently appeared: Lester Brown’s “PLAN B 4.0 - Mobilising to Save Civilisation” (Earth Policy Institute, Washington, DC,, 30 September 2009). Besides the already discussed shifting to renewable energy, it lists a number of important areas, in which an initiative of global impact and great visibility could conceivably be developed. Moreover, they lend themselves to the sandwich model of change.

Examples of this switch in thinking include:

  • an energy efficiency revolution (a revolution in lighting technology, energy-efficient appliances, zero-carbon buildings, electrifying the transport system, a new materials economy, smarter grids, new appliances and consumer behaviour, the energy savings potential).
  • designing cities for people (redesigning urban transport, the return of bicycles, reducing urban water use, farming in the city, upgrading squatter settlements).
  • eradicating poverty and stabilising the population (educating everyone, toward a healthy future, stabilising population, rescuing failing states)
  • restoring the earth (protecting and restoring forests, planting trees to sequester carbon, conserving and rebuilding soils, regenerating fisheries, protecting plant and animal diversity
  • feeding eight billion people well (raising land productivity, raising water productivity, producing protein more efficiently, and localisation of agriculture).

This recent compilation is only one group’s view – it is clear that other promising projects exist. The time has come to actually start building a sustainable tomorrow.

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Ulrich W. Suter

Professor Emeritus, ETH Zurich

Ulrich W. Suter is Professor Emeritus at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).

Professor Suter has had a distinguished career in academia at the ETH Zurich and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in chemical engineering and macromolecular chemistry. He currently works as a consultant to a number of government and private institutions, as well as being Vice President of the Swiss Academy of Engineering. Professor Suter is a member of the Swiss Re Advisory Panel; this paper is based on his input to the Advisory Panel meeting in November 2009.

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