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Echos > 2011 > Energy Tribune - Renewable Lies

LogoOctober 12, 2011
by Andrés Cala

RENEWABLE LIES By Andrés CalaRenewable Lies

Might as well. Three years into the crisis and with two more likely ahead, it appears governments still believe they’ll be able to lie their way out of this hole. Go figure, it’s not working anymore.

A foreword though: I am not against alternative energy sources. In fact, I believe the world needs as much energy as it can get, and the less harmful the better. I’m not a scientist either and accordingly I have no moral qualm with climate change on either side of the debate. But I am seriously against being intentionally misled by leaders who are supposed to look after our best interests.

For over a decade policymakers have led us to believe that a green revolution led by renewable energy is required to improve energy security, to cut energy spending, and to avert global warming.

When the global economic crisis started, rich countries decided to direct massive financial and political capital to catalyze this revolution promising to create jobs, to cut oil import costs, and to save the world from an Armageddon.

Yet another bubble that burst. The good news is that countries that led the so-called renewable energy are backtracking after their models went bust. The bad news is that for some reason other countries insist on promoting the green revolution even as the world flirts with a double dip recession, despite the fact that OECD countries have run out of ammunition to bailout their economies.

Let’s assume that the pre-crisis world actually had the economic muscle to absorb the costs of an energy transition (which China can actually afford), but for OECD countries to prologue this failed policy is at least naïve, bordering on irresponsible. Being wrong is bad. Defending lies is unforgivable.

Denmark, which will hold the next European Union presidency, is only the most recent. Earlier this month the new government announced it was setting by the most aggressive –and unrealistic- targets of cutting carbon dioxide emission 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 –twice the EU’s target, and generating 50 percent of its power through renewable sources.

But wait… Here’s a little detail about the Danish, indeed, the European Union target of generating 20 percent of its primary energy through renewable sources: it will require a 1 trillion euro -$1.4 trillion- investment to build a grid and accompanying infrastructure to be able to incorporate that. That doesn’t take into account the actual cost of building the generating capacity.

That is utterly inconsistent with Europe’s reality. Greece will inevitably default on its debt, Ireland and Portugal have a high risk of being next, and to top it all off, Spain and Italy would inevitably also be dragged into insolvency. A recession in Europe is already expected and the ability to borrow its way out stagnant growth is completely crippled. Europe has no money to spare, plain and simple. Not Germany, not France, not the U.K.

The best case scenario is that Europe returns to slow growth by 2013, and if all goes well –which it won’t- by 2015 perhaps the continent might be able to claim the worst is over.

So how can Europe conceivably expect to meet its renewable target, especially considering the staggering investment it requires is supposed to be borrowed?

“Foremost among the challenges facing renewable energy is that somewhat bleak fiscal forecast for the US and Europe. The current environment of budget austerity and sovereign debt crises forces fiscal choices that make it difficult to sustain subsidies for renewable energy (which are still required despite improving project economics),” according to the S&P report published late last month.

The alternative energy research division of IHS agrees. “The EU’s commitment to 2020 renewables targets remains strong, but the majority of countries will miss their targets due to cuts in government renewable budgets and transmission and permitting constraints,” IHS Emerging Energy Research, a consultancy, said in a July report.

China on the other hand is outspending investment in renewable sources. By 2025 it will install more than twice the capacity than the runner up, the United States, and four times more than third place Germany.

Good for them. They have cash to spare and are happy to take the technological lead, not with climate change or security of supply in mind, but because it’s a great business opportunity. OECD countries set renewable targets and China supplies the parts to meet them. Brilliant!

Back to Europe though, and to government lies on both sides of the Atlantic, it just so happens that the three renewable energy celebrities Germany, Spain, and Italy have accumulated a 90 billion euro –$126 billion- debt in subsidies. To put that into context, that is around 35 percent of the total bailout fund that the EU created to rescue its insolvent economies.

The US is perhaps a tiny bit more realistic. The White House at least backtracked on its campaign promises to set binding targets. But it’s still spending lavishly on subsidizing renewable sources that, like in Europe, will only increase the public deficit with very little to show for it.

The consequences are obvious. All three countries, and several more, have retroactively cut their generous subsidies. The US government too has backtracked on its own commitments. “The experience in Spain, the Czech Republic, and Italy indicate the risks of a backlash to generous subsidies,” S&P said.

Policymakers not only mislead us about the green revolution, but also investors. Billions went into wind, solar, and other renewable sources with the promise of secure, fixed income until the technologies could compete with fossil fuels. Now the money is being retroactively withdrawn and renewable sources are nowhere close to being competitive.

What did that do? Thousands of jobs were lost in all those countries as projects were cancelled or existing ones became unprofitable. That is called job destruction and it comes at the worst possible moment.

Renewables energy annual growth is now forecast to slow to 9 percent at least until 2015, down from 21 percent in 2009 and double digit growth for most of last decade. Solar capacity additions likely peaked in 2010, according to IHS. That is despite costs falling drastically, as much as by 50 percent from earlier highs last decade.

Global renewable investment, excluding large hydroelectric power, increased more than 40 percent in 2010 to around $130 billion globally from 2008, according to IHS. But it will fall for the first time in 2011 and not recover its peak until 2015.

Wind power capacity additions, which contribute around two thirds of all renewables, last year fell for the first time as declines in the US could not be offset by growth in Europe and China, according to IHS. In fact, annual capacity additions will not “surpass the level of renewable capacity additions reached in 2009 before 2020.”

In terms of power output –because capacity additions are not proportional to the output- the share of renewable will increase to 10 percent from 4 percent in 2010, according to IHS, but at what cost?

With all the latter in mind, I feel betrayed. This mess is not the result of a rogue environmentalist. This is world policy negotiated year after year after year. When will OECD governments own up to their mistake?

If we are to support renewable energy as a society it better be under realistic and timely terms. It can’t be at the expense of job creation during a recession, it can’t be economically unsustainable to the point that governments backtrack on years of policies.

It can’t be based on lies.