Renewables – in a growing economy it may be impossible to get there

Hydrolakes in Aotearoa/New Zealand have had many years of low rainfall, but it is now happening more frequently. In dry years we revert to coal generation, making the transition to renewables harder.

When New Zealand hydroelectric power stations run low, we beef up electricity generation with another coal-fired unit in Huntly. But each time, environmentalists are shocked because it isn’t using renewables. How is New Zealand going to meet its renewable targets now, they ask.

Genesis Energy had planned to close Huntly station in 2018 but is still using it. Greenpeace has wanted it shut for years. The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal.

But as Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel. RNZ reported that more coal was burned in the 2021 March quarter than each of the years 2016, 2017, and 2018. 

When you have read this article, you will understand that in a growing economy it is increasingly hard to transition to renewables. Only a degrowth agenda will achieve that.

The Huntly power scheme uses coal and gas in dry years
The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel.

Despite the progress New Zealand has made in renewable energy, coal remains an important part of the country’s energy mix. In 2022, coal accounted for 13.9% of electricity generation.

Aotearoa/ New Zealand is hooked on coal. We import coal. A peak year for coal imports was 2021, but in 2022 it dropped back to 727,000 tonnes.  The fuel is burnt at the Huntly to keep the lights on, as hydro and gas fail to meet demand.

Due to rising greenhouse gas emissions, we are experiencing warmer winters and drier summers, especially in El Nino years.

So will we painlessly transition to renewables as we had hoped? As we face our climate predicament, we have to realise that over 80% of the world’s energy use still comes from fossil fuels. Let that sink in. It’s big. So it’s going to be really hard to wean ourselves off them.

Of course, the low rainfall for our hydropower dams was not new. But climate change is going to make matters worse decade by decade.

Perhaps many thought then we were the only country having to revert back to fossil fuels.

Far from it. Due to the electricity system’s heavy reliance on hydropower, its key challenge is coping with a “dry year”, when hydro inflows are low. When a “dry year” occurs, and existing hydropower catchments do not receive enough rainfall, backup is currently provided by fossil fuel generation.

There are two major proposals for ramping up our renewable electricity supply.

  1. The proposed Lake Onslow pumped hydro scheme is now costed to be $15.7 billion (MBIE). Already millions have been spent on preliminary reports. It will take five years to build and two years to fill.
  2. The offshore wind farm planned for east of Hawera. 60 huge turbines. Already the NZ Super Fund has pledged $2.5 billion for this gigantic scheme.
Due to rising coal prices and power rationing, there are power cuts in China, leaving families in the dark

Energy and Climate Clash in China

It is happening elsewhere and sometimes it is accompanied by geopolitical tensions as well. Southern China for instance, when its hydropower capacity ran low after droughts, reverted to coal. And this happened at the same time as China, angry at Australia’s support for an enquiry into the Wuhan Covid origins, stopped importing Australian coal.

There is also the move from high-energy coals to lower-energy coals. In Northern China where coal mines were flooded in an extreme weather event in May 2021, they had to move quickly to find other coal sources for electricity.

In early October 2021 a heavy downpour in China shut down 27 coal mines. So Chinese officials ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to ramp up coal production.

A heat wave in 2022 prompted several provinces to ration their electricity to factories producing lithium for batteries. There were dried up reservoirs in Sichuan province.

On Mar 8 2023 a headline on CNBC’s website screamed “China’s energy transition sees ‘staggering’ progress on renewables — and a coal power boom

With a growing economy there is growing demand for air conditioning. In July 2023 China had a heat wave. CNN business reported,

“China Energy Investment Corporation, one of the world’s largest generators of coal-fired power, says the volume of electricity it produced on Monday had hit a daily record…

China has been gripped by scorching heat waves for weeks, which authorities said had arrived earlier this year and were more widespread and extreme than in previous years.

Last week, officials said the country had beat its own record for the number of hot days over six months.”

In Europe the winds died down. Add politics

In Europe there has been a big move towards renewables, with wind and solar beefing up. But solar and wind are intermittent and less reliable. Wind comprised 27% of Germany’s generation mix in 2020.

But this all changed in 2021 when the winds died down and the percentage of the total generation dropped to 22%. So they had to revert to natural gas. Russia provided a great deal of their gas at that stage.

Over the last decade, the EU has imported more and more gas from Russia as their own gas ran out. Gas prices skyrocketed along with electricity prices.

Many commentators have attributed the reluctance of Russia to release gas at the onset of that winter to its desire to put pressure on the remaining EU countries to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Nord Stream 2 is a twin pipeline under the Baltic Sea. It had already cost US$11 billion and was ready to go. Eastern European Countries like Ukraine and Poland and the Baltic States withheld approval for two reasons.

1) Because Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 leaving 14,000 dead over seven bitter years and

2)because they feared it would give Russia too much leverage over EU and Putin too much power.

As the price of natural gas rises, so does the price of electricity. The TV agency WION reported (28 Sept 2021) that electricity prices were spiralling out of control. In France (up 149%), Spain (up 250%, UK 298%, Germany (up 119%).

They finished by saying,

“European countries are going to learn just how much their economies are reliant on natural gas.”

Brazil also had to ramp up its gas-fired generation after a bad drought.

Smooth transitioning to renewables is looking harder than we ever imagined

At a time when climate-induced droughts, extreme precipitation and heat waves are disrupting hydropower generation and storage all over the world, governments are reverting to some form of fossil fuel to generate their electricity.

And this all came at a time when electricity from air conditioning and gas or power to heat homes was under pressure. At that stage if Europe and UK insisted they want to meet their climate targets at COP26, politicians were then faced with the alternative of leaving their families in the dark without cooking facilities – or effective climate action.

China has already stated its power rationing is in order to keep its climate targets and doesn’t seem to have a renewable alternative.

And all this is without ever discussing the physics or the geology of it all. For a start fossil fuels are used in the production of solar and wind power. Secondly the energy return on energy invested for solar and wind is much lower than with oil, coal, diesel or gas, leaving less for the economy. Thirdly there is matter of all the metals required to transition to renewables.

Are there enough metals to transition to renewables?

Professor Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland has done a remarkable study of the probable  metals  required for all the batteries for all the vehicles involved worldwide and his answer in the case of cobalt, nickel, graphite and lithium is a loud NO. He says,

“The current system was built with the support of the highest calorifically dense source of energy the world has ever known (oil), in cheap abundant quantities, with easily available credit, and seemingly unlimited mineral resources.

The replacement needs to be done at a time when there is comparatively very expensive energy, a fragile finance system saturated in debt, not enough minerals, and an unprecedented world population, embedded in a deteriorating natural environment. Most challenging of all, this has to be done within a few decades. “

The zen riddle for our Government is will they recognise the predicament we are in or will they opt for Business As Usual, thereby disappointing millions of climate activists once again?

The global picture of the race for renewables

Yes, the global mega-economy gets more and more complex, we just need more and more electricity.  Despite a slight drop during Covid, by July 2021 a headline reported the International Energy Agency saying, “Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables, driving strong increase in generation from fossil fuels.”

And– would you believe it – that’s because we seem to want economic growth at all costs. If we aim for a growing economy we will always have to ramp up power production. And add the decarbonisation of transport to that and it is almost impossible to keep up.

Only a degrowth agenda will make the transition to renewables feasible.

2 thoughts on “Renewables – in a growing economy it may be impossible to get there”

  1. reminds me of a metaphor some colleagues came up with ” the transition we need is like transforming a large airliner into a flock of geese without loosing altitude or speed.”

    1. Delightful picture thanks Jack. And note NZ gas reports today (rnz firstup) says we need to invest in gas or be prepared for future power cuts. Can’t find the link.

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