SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 197 April 2016

Will the lights go out?

The year 2014 was the hottest ever recorded and 2015 looks set to surpass it. The El Niño ocean current, linked to an acceleration of global warming effects, has returned. Britain has been battered by storms and floods. These extreme weather events are most probably connected to global warming, driven by burning fossil fuels, like coal and gas. As this greatly strengthens the case for switching to renewable energy sources, the climate change deniers and oil companies are raising the issue of the ‘intermittency’ of renewables: for example, when the wind doesn’t blow there is no electricity produced by a wind turbine.

The headlines of the right-wing press scream that ‘the lights will go out’ if we switch to renewables, but does an examination of the intermittency question show that?

A key factor in the successful deployment of renewables will be their integration into the national electricity grid. This is already happening with the wind farms already operational, without significant problems, showing that there are no major technical barriers to be overcome. Britain is one of the windiest countries in the world, providing sufficient motive force in theory to satisfy all our energy needs. It is extremely rare that there is insufficient wind somewhere in our coastal waters to produce significant amounts of energy. This electricity could be fed into the grid, minimising the risk of power outages due to calm conditions in another part of the country.

This risk could be cut even further by developing an international power grid. It has not been attempted to any extent to date due to cost, although there are a few cables linking Britain to France and other countries. Moving energy over very long distances efficiently still faces technical problems, but investment in research could tackle this, raising the possibility, for instance, that the near constant energy that could be produced by solar cells in the sparsely populated Sahara desert could be used elsewhere.

Another way to address intermittency is to further develop ways to store large quantities of energy. In Wales, the Dinorwig power station pumps water uphill when there is a surplus of energy, releasing it downhill to drive turbines when there is a deficit. It can generate 1.8 gigawatts (1GW is power equal to 1bn watts) of power in twelve seconds. These types of power stations could be built in mountainous areas and their output fed into the national grid.

Individual batteries cannot store large quantities of energy. However, because there will have to be thousands of wind turbines, each one could have a battery built in. Taken together, this would be a significant factor in smoothing energy availability. General Electric already has such a wind turbine on the market.

Other ways to store energy are being researched. A Californian company is developing a system where the surplus energy produced by wind or solar power is used to haul rail wagons uphill. When there is an energy deficit, they run the wagons back downhill, using the momentum to generate electricity. Another possibility is storing the energy in molten salt heated by solar power, which would allow the station to provide power at night.

The cost of building new energy storage facilities would be significantly reduced if general energy efficiency was increased. This would cut power consumption and the quantity of energy needed to be stored to meet deficit situations. Insulating all homes properly would be a big step in this direction, although the Tory government is axing help to do this in its austerity drive. But the most effective way of improving energy efficiency would be to eliminate the waste inherent in the capitalist system. The constant destruction and rebuilding of factories and offices in the boom/bust cycle consumes vast amounts of energy and, more generally, energy conservation usually has low priority when profit is the overriding motive.

An obvious way round the intermittency issue would be to deploy constant sources of renewable energy. Examples are hydropower from rivers and tides, although these methods often have high environmental overheads. Damming rivers can be very damaging to natural and human habitats, an example being the Three Gorges project in China. Tidal barrier schemes are also controversial, for instance there is big opposition to the proposal to build a barrier across the river Severn.

There are, however, benign sources of constantly available renewables, like geothermal or hydropower in mountainous areas, even if natural conditions will limit their role in places like Britain. Another possibility is to use turbines on the sea bed to exploit currents. This gets over the problem of the variability of wave size limiting constant availability of power with conventional wave-power machines. This approach needs further investment and development.

Carbon capture and storage would also produce constant energy on a carbon-neutral basis. This involves burning fossil fuels, but capturing the CO2 emitted and storing it underground. The problem is that a safe method of storage has not been found. In central Africa, when there was an escape of carbon dioxide from a lake due to natural causes, a cloud of the gas rolled across the country and suffocated thousands. More research is needed to address safe storage before carbon capture should be used.

Burning renewable materials, such as corn, to generate energy (biomass), is sometimes put forward as a source of constantly available renewable energy, but the advantages in terms of cutting greenhouse gas emissions are doubtful. If profit is paramount, there are always pressures that undermine the operation of biomass schemes that aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and scams are common. Massive deforestation around the world to make way for palm oil plantations, and the use of arable land for biofuel crops, are also devastating the environment and disrupting food supply. Their use is, therefore, very problematic. If all those dangers could be taken into account – requiring a socialist, democratic plan of production able to balance human and environmental needs – biomass and biofuels might be able to play some role as a backup to wind and solar power.

Some of the ways to tackle the issue of intermittency of wind and solar power need more investment, development or research, but this should be no barrier to a rapid switchover from fossil fuels. The times when there will be insufficient wind or sun over the British Isles to meet demand will be rare, and as an interim measure existing gas-fired power stations could be used as a backup. The relatively small emissions produced by such an arrangement would not threaten the drive to a carbon-free society. Power stations will have to be kept operational to meet the very occasional demand. At the moment, power plants are kept in this state to cope with surges in demand in cold weather and so on.

Supporters of nuclear power are quick to claim that their technology supplies constant power and does not emit greenhouse gases. This is only partly true because nuclear stations are regularly closed for months or even years for repairs and maintenance. The consequences of a nuclear accident, however, are so serious that if any relatively minor safety problem does occur it can result in very lengthy closures. Even if this was not the case, it would still not be justified to use nuclear power due to the appalling results of a disaster such as at Fukushima in 2011. On balance, there is far less environmental threat posed by a temporary and very limited use of gas-fired power generation to meet occasional demand than by nuclear.

A bigger potential problem with gas is that it is currently cheaper than renewables, so its use may not prove to be temporary due to financial pressures to extend its life. If a profit-driven economic system remains in place this would be a real danger, but a planned, democratic, socialist society would be in a far stronger position to withstand this. Answering the question of whether the lights will go out if we switch to renewables, it is clear that won’t be the case if the approach put forward here is adopted. Of course, there is no sign that the capitalists intend to go down this road. It will be an urgent task for a socialist government to undertake.

Pete Dickenson

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