Five steps towards a clean energy future

Dr Bertrand Piccard
Dr Bertrand Piccard (Credit: Solar Impulse | rezo.ch | Revillard)

A contribution to EUSEW blogs by Dr Bertrand Piccard, initiator, chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse.

Those who demand an energy policy which guarantees supply security and competitive prices are absolutely right. So why do they still disapprove of renewable energies?

If we take these new energies from the grip of the environmentalists – in which they have been trapped for too long – they represent a great economic and industrial opportunity for profit and job creation. Even if climate change did not exist, it would still make sense to switch to renewable energies and clean technologies.

But to do so, there are five things we all need to know:

Diversification

No single source of energy will be able to do the job alone. Energy security will only be achieved by cleverly combining all sources: thermal and photovoltaic solar energy, wind power, surface and deep geothermal heat, hydroelectricity obtained through dams and small rivers and biomass. In addition, a temporary phase using natural gas will be needed before reaching 100 % renewables.

Storage

Renewable energies are often criticised for their unreliability, when in fact smart grids can ensure regular and large-scale distribution of the electricity they produce. It is true that energy storage has remained a tricky issue for a long time and many have failed trying to resolve it. But recently, sufficient progress has been made to allow a real worldwide deployment of the technologies.

Profitability

The cost of renewables has been plummeting for the last few years, and they are now starting to become cost-competitive. Solar electricity is now cheaper to produce in Dubai than electricity from gas turbines. According to IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency), solar photovoltaic module prices in 2014 were around 75 % lower than their levels at the end of 2009. With every doubling of cumulative installed capacity, their prices are expected to fall by 18-22 % and by 10 % for wind power installations.

As for the feed-in-tariff, it must not be seen as a subsidy, but as an intelligent way to distribute the initial investment across the final consumers. This allows money to circulate, which is always beneficial for the economy. What all these energies have in common is that they provide local jobs and profit instead of serving the interests of some remote and sometimes politically unstable countries.

Moreover, the cost and the price of renewable energies actually match, which is not the case for fossil fuels. These may have a lower purchase price, but their real cost (resource depletion, oil slicks, CO2, wars, dismantling of nuclear plants, waste, etc.) is not included in this price, which makes them much more expensive than they seem.

Energy efficiency

Will renewable energies really manage to completely replace current energy sources? If our society continues to waste energy the way it does, certainly not. We must urgently realise that developing renewable energies and energy efficiency have to go hand in hand. Our incandescent light bulbs, combustion engines, housing insulation, heating and cooling systems, electricity distribution networks, etc. are all 100 years old.

Why are we so demanding when it comes to communication technologies and not energy systems? Look at Solar Impulse: thanks to the energy-efficient technologies on board, such as our engines, which are 97 % energy-efficient compared to 27 % for regular thermal motors, we have been able to fly for 117 hours straight, only relying on the sun’s rays. If that is not proof of the potential of energy efficiency, then I don’t know what is.

Legal frameworks

Finally, to avoid the risk of distortion of competition feared by investors, it is crucial we establish a legal framework which encourages replacing archaic polluting technologies with modern clean ones. This would already allow us to divide our CO2 emissions in two. No doubt the COP21 treaty, ratified by 191 countries during the Paris Climate Conference in December, will greatly help in making this happen. But the success of the energy transition will also depend on the pioneering spirit of our governments. Let us encourage them to be ambitious.