Kind thoughts are of no consequence; actions matter.
Any discussion of energy should be considered in a few overriding human contexts, including political, technological, environmental, health and safety, cost, and security of supply.
On all these vectors wind and solar stand out as the energies that tick all the boxes.
One consideration, however, outweighs all others and it is that of the environment. You are entitled to ask why a businessman would put the environment first. Has the world of business not just reduced to profit and loss, cash flow, balance sheets, funding, risk aversion, and an overriding preoccupation with short-termism as evidenced by a 3-month reporting cycle.
So here are the reasons why the environment comes first:
One of Ireland’s great scientists John Tyndell, found that CO2 and CH4 (methane) absorb the suns radiation while oxygen and nitrogen allow sunlight to pass through.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had remained steady around 270/280 parts per million (PPMV) for circa 3 million years before industrialisation.
With industrialisation and population growth the figure stands at 405 PPMV and is rising rapidly. This means we are absorbing around the equivalent of 4 Hiroshima bombs every second into the atmosphere. 2,661,417 million such bombs have had their energies accumulate in the atmosphere since 1998.
Some of the effects of this are the following:
Global wildlife will decline by 67% from 1970 levels by 2020. This includes such events as the disappearance of the puffin population from St. Kilda because their feedstock, the sand eel population migrated northward due to heating of the local waters around St. Kilda.
The Arctic has heated by twice as much as the global average, with the result that the Northern Passage is now open for passage of ships when it never had been before. The 4 million people who occupy the Arctic are under threat, as are multiple species.
When I was on holiday in BC this year I became aware of asthma I hadn’t suffered for a few years. It seemed the whole place was on fire. Certainly, the central valley from Prince George to Vancouver (500 miles) was enveloped in wildfire produced smog.
The forest fires in Mendicino in California will take a month to extinguish. These fires and the rest of global evidence lead Gerry Brown, the Governor to say: “the Trump administration proposal to replace the (OBAMA) Clean Power Plan is a declaration of war against America, and all of humanity and California won’t be changing its emission standards”. He went on to issue order no 100 which mandated that California will be completely fossil free by 2045.
Enough energy arrives from the Sun each day to provide us with power to meet our needs many times over. Technology in the form of photovoltaics can turn sunlight directly into electricity. Wind is stored sunlight, which heats the world unevenly and, coupled with the rotation of the earth, will continue to yield energy as long as the sun shines.
This energy source is free, and it belongs to each nation. Wind and sun can never be charged for. This is in stark contrast to what the EU pays at the moment for its fossil fuels: €540bn every year. This figure includes subsidies which some states give to support the burning of fossil fuels.
The Paris agreement calls for sustainability, and each nation has a responsibility to build sustainability into its energy supply.
This challenge is one of the biggest business opportunities the world has ever seen. Many trillions of Euros will be spent on the transition to sustainability. New companies will emerge to champion the new technologies.
All the conventional measures of corporate success will be achieved. In line with the latest observations of companies like Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Amazon, there will be gigantic winners, while those that have stood and waited for the low risk phase will miss the boat.
As the Nobel Lauriate Mr Bob Dylan pointed out:
“come senators, congressmen heed ye the call,
don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block out the hall,
for he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled,
there’s a battle outside and it’s raging
will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
for the times they are a changing”
We have observed and participated in this transition to sustainability with Airtricity and Mainstream Renewable Power.
Which brings me to the core messaging I want to impart. Doing the right thing for the environment is a precursor to good business. It is one of the key inputs. I would always argue that business is as much about meeting human and societal expectations as it is about anything else.
The key challenge with wind and solar is the variable nature of their output. I would distinguish between variability and intermittency. Intermittent is about being on and off, whereas a variable can change and exist anywhere between 0 and 100%.
Wind is variable and solar is both variable and intermittent. This challenge remains the key issue to be dealt with at a technology, political, and regulatory levels.
As an aside you will notice that I have not described cost as an issue. wind comes in at a cost approximately one half that of new coal, whereas solar comes in at a cost of one third of coal in sunny climates.
Even in dark places solar is competitive. This fact is particularly important when you consider that all thermal generating plant now existing in Europe will have to be replaced by 2050. The choice for generation is clear.
As we have said the issue for government and the customer is the variability of wind.
And now a word about resource. If we dream the undreamable that all fossil fuels will be replaced by renewably generated electricity then the EU needs 900,000mw of wind, and 950,000mw of solar PV. The only place we can get this wind, in the quantity we need is offshore.
Solar PV should be harvested where the greatest resource exists, and that is around the Mediterranean basin. For resource and political reasons, this is where the bulk of our solar resource should be harvested.
We do have the capability of accessing this power now. All grids in Europe are on land, and most grid companies see their brief as existing to supply their native populations. The added complication is that they are natural monopolies. Far from existing as competitive entities, which survive on their continuing ability to delight their customers, they are driven by rules, regulations, and technical standards, which feed a conservative mindset.
What is needed is the Supergrid. This is a Europe wide grid which sits alongside the existing transmission systems. It doesn’t replace these grids. It gets back to the original idea of why a grid exists in the first place. Simply to carry the electricity from producer to customer at minimum cost.
The cheapest way of providing reliable 24/7 power is a well-designed transmission system. As an aside it should be pointed out that there is a massive resistance in all developed countries to the construction of overhead high voltage transmission lines.
Now let us apply this logic to the situation depicted above to the renewable energy resource maps. With renewable energy the great bulk of the wind resource is offshore. Overhead lines are not an option, so undersea cabling is called for.
We need a new grid to carry the offshore power to where the customers can consume. We call this new grid the Supergrid. In outline the Supergrid will look like this:
It is clear that the innovative part of this Supergrid is the SuperNode TM). We say this because
- It turns the grid into a network.
- It incorporates the new technology.
- It links the solar resource from the Mediterranean Basin to the northern wind resource.
- By capturing natural power over a very large area it helps deal with the intermittency of solar and the variability of wind.
There is another technical issue that has to be solved; the security of cables laid along the seabed. Up to now the least reliable part of offshore wind farms has been the cable bringing the electricity ashore. Most cables are laid along the seabed and ships anchors or submarines have damaged the cables. It was recounted to me in Brussels last week that Russian fishing vessels were seen parked off the Belgian coast over some undersea cables. They weren’t fishing. A suggestion was made that when they departed they left a little charge behind them that could be activated from Moscow.
We are going to have to design secure cabling networks. Developers of offshore grids will be required to guarantee the reliability of the cables. Even without sabotage, this will require special measures when cables cross shipping lanes or near entrances to harbours for instance.
Another major change that technology now facilitates is the construction of all roof-tiles from photo-active materials. Why make a roof out of inert concrete tiles when they can be made from solar panels. These will protect from the weather as well as making electricity to be stored in a battery in the basement.
On the political front, the issues as I see them are:
- Governments will have to get used to the fact that electricity generation can be remote from their borders.
- Historically the importance of electricity to an economy lead Governments to locate their generation plants within their own borders. However, none of them had a problem with importing coal, oil, gas and uranium to power their local gen-sets. Even when the fossil raw materials were being imported from unstable regions of the world, governments became accustomed to relying on them.
- There is an enhanced role for the EU in the 100% renewable energy scenario. The EU is built on the principle that mutual interdependency is the civilised way of relating to one’s national neighbours.
- Some countries are coal or other fossil fuel producers. 70,000 coal miners were employed in Poland. Norway, which could have an important role to play in floating offshore wind, has large offshore gas reserves.
- As Nicholo Machivelli pointed out in The Prince:
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”
For me, the issue never was “how will the world look at your new idea.” We all die anyway and the question is “did you give it your best shot?” and “did you walk the walk that others talked, and were you one in a million or were you one of the million?”
That’s all folks, thank you.