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Introduction to the DebateEdit

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The transformation to renewable energy has become controversial in public opinion. This website is designed to introduce the reader to the controversy surrounding the proposition of “an electricity system based 100% on renewable power”. Many institutions are involved in converting our energy system to one based on renewable sources. There are also vocal groups who feel that this transformation is infeasible or impossible. This website aims to summarize the stakeholders, the pros and cons of the various solutions and the most controversial aspects of this debate.

Changes to an energy economy will have significant implications for all aspects of a society. Hence the stakeholders in debate surrounding the 100% renewable vision come from industry, regulatory bodies, the international community, internal political groups and the general public. All of these groups are heavily invested in the energy generation and its related industries.

Most participants in this debate agree that anthropogenic climate change is a real and immediate threat to the planet. Hence the goal of a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emission is shared amongst almost all parties. A limit of 2 degrees centigrade in surface temperature warming, as first suggested in the 2009 COP 15 discussions and agreed upon at the 2015 Paris Climate accords, is a frequent benchmark used to gauge the GHG reductions necessary in the 21st century.[1] [2] This benchmark serves to emphasis the rate at which the global energy economy must be partially or completely decarbonised to minimize the impact of global warming.

How can this decarbonization be completed in the necessary timeframe, using sufficiently reliable and scalable technologies, at an acceptable economic cost? Most controversies lie in the answer to this question. Many parties feel this can be achieved using exclusively renewable technologies. Others feel that economic and technical constraints, particularly with regards to base-load power and load balancing of electricity networks make technologies such as nuclear, natural gas or CCS systems a necessary part of the energy mix. Both of these perspectives will be discussed on this website.



Areas of controversy Edit

The controversy of the energy situation contains several areas of interest and affected parties. These participants involved on the discussion come from all areas of expertise and some tightly connected to the public and environment protection. The discussion appears when it was raised the question about the energy future, would it be possible to maintain the energy sector as it is, relying on the conventional energy sources? Or would it be preferable to transition to an energy market where the renewable sources where we only players? Or even would it be considered feasible a mix of both energy sources and still reach the environment goals?

This discussion is not only being resolved by the specialist or politics on the matter but it includes all the people involved on it, with means that all the inhabitants of the world have a say on the issue to be set and the goals to be achieved on the future.

Although, the issue starts to be discussed by the research institutions (experts on the matter) in consortium with the politicians and economist. At this stage, all the possible scenarios should be discussed and analysed in all aspects until one final solution is attained, during this process it shouldn’t be forgotten how this will affect the environment and the public living costs. This final scenario should then be transmitted to the public via mass media communication or through open debates. 

With this said, the controversy discussion takes place mainly on area of political, business and scientific debate which will utilize different media as its platform.

Main actors of the debateEdit

Public Edit

The opinion of the general public has influence on the transformation of the energy sector, as they are both customers in the electricity market and the electorate. An energy market allows the public to decide to buy electricity from renewable sources or not. In some countries it is already possible to choose to receive energy only from “green” sources, for an extra charge. Increasing public interest in such options would have a significant impact on energy industry decisions. The influence of public opinion on politicians and policy will shape the political aspect  of the energy transformation.

However, it’s fair to say that for a large fraction of the population, the cost of electricity is more important than whether or not it was produced by renewable means. Both of these factors will be a concern to the general public to varying degrees. Rising awareness of climate change may increase public interest in receiving energy from renewable sources. However, it is important that the public is informed on the debate in an objective way. In this way, societies may have an even larger and smarter impact on the energy evolution.

Independent organizations Edit

Many independent organizations perform studies on the feasibility of a 100% renewable grid. These organizations can be categorized mainly in two groups:

  • Social organizations, which are concerned with issues such as energy poverty.
  • Environmental organizations, whose main goal is to protect the environment and the impacted species.

Energy companies Edit

This group includes all the large companies in the energy sector, whose policies have the highest impact on the energy market evolution. These companies can be state owned, such as EDF, or private organisations. A private energy firm is driven by economic factors and the goal to make profit. Any nationalised energy company is answerable to its shareholders and as a result, its actions may be more influenced by political will.

Many large energy companies have encouraged growth in the green energy market by gradually leaving conventional energy production. This is in response the to the trend that renewable energies are becoming cheaper and more competitive every day. Others still hold onto conventional energy for the future as the cheapest and more reliable sources of energy available (e.g. gas, nuclear and coal).

Opinion Leaders Edit

Opinion leaders are charismatic individuals with a strong influence on people’s way of thinking. Often worshipped by the public, these people have perhaps the largest direct influence on public opinion. They may even sway the opinions of individuals who had radically different points of view initially. Unfortunately, opinion leaders are rarely experts in energy technology and their outlook may not be based on scientific consensus. Worse still, they may represent the interests of a small group or be subject to significant political bias. While opinion leaders will not change the perspective of an entire group, they may influence their decisions.

Politicians / Governments Edit

Technological transformations in energy sector are driven by three major forces: politics, economics and technology. The first one may have huge impact on two other. Energiewende is a great example – technology that was inefficient and thus have poor economics was able to quickly develop and improve its indicators thanks to political decisions. It could happen only with strong support of the German public, ready to bear the costs of this transformation. However, in most cases energy policy is not in the center of political debate, it is rather a side effect. Many people voted for Donald Trump because of his view on USA’s future even though they were against some of his opinions – like the one on fighting against climate change. This election has completely changed US approach towards energy industry. It just shows how energy policy is prone to fluctuations and sudden changes, while the transformation to 100 % renewable would require stable, long-term policy. Support for right-wingers is growing in many European countries and in most cases they question human influence on climate change and even if not, they support cheap nuclear power rather than renewables. One of the German right parties, AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland) that is against subsidizing renewables has multiplied their electorate couple times in recent years [3]. Similar thing takes place in France, where Marine Le Pen’s Front National is getting stronger. There are examples from other countries as well. Additionally, politicians may be under strong influence of different lobbies.

Geopolitics Edit

Energy is a special industry in that it has direct geopolitical implications for a country and its neighbors. The economies of many countries are propped up by the sale of fossil fuels, e.g. so-called petrostates. For these nations, political stability is connected to the success of the fossil fuel industry, both locally and abroad. For a country whose economic success is directly linked to the price of oil or natural gas, a green energy boom may have a profound destabilizing effect.

Moreover energy security is a concern for many nations lacking domestic natural resources. The transport of natural gas from Russia through the Ukraine to consumer nations in the EU has become a contentious issue for all the nations involved. According to Eurogas, 27% of Gas consumed in the EU came from Russia in 2014, most of which was transported through the Ukraine. [4] In 2008/2009 and 2014 Russia cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine, in a bid to have the Ukraine repay its rising gas debt. This is a good example of how energy supplies are used as leverage in international disputes.

Researchers / Universities Edit

The main role of universities and research institutions is to provide and develop state of knowledge concerning energy sector that is delivered to the public, politicians and other institutions. It must be done independently, to achieve objective results. In reality, many research institutions are funded by the government and energy companies, what results in biased attitude from the beginning of the research till the conclusions. Above behaviour strongly tightens research institutions with external parties, what provides unobjective results, that are shared under illusion of university knowledge.

Raw material suppliers and component manufacturers Edit

Some industries base their income on supplying materials for electricity generation. In some cases, this industry involves an important amount of employees, and has an important weight on the national economy. This is the case of coal mining in some european countries, such as Poland. If conventional electricity sources are replaced by renewables, this industry would die, which could produce serious social and economic problems.

Energy intensive companies (high-consumption) Edit

Energy intensive companies, in other words industrial electricity customers, have a downstream impact on energy transformation. What they care about mostly is price and stability of the deliveries, that is why they are highly interested in energy mix of the region. That kind of companies have quite high bargain power, since the contracts they have signed with energy companies are valuable, what makes their opinion significant.

Media Edit

Media industry is a powerful tool. It is not only television that enables opinion leaders to spread their outlook through debates and interviews. There are also movies that being interesting and effortless for the receiver, can efficiently and sometimes even imperceptibly shape public opinion. There are many examples like American “China Syndrome” and “Pandora’s Promise” or French “Tommorrow”. In productions like these, facts can be easily manipulated even if a movie is considered to be a document. One needs to remember that beside entertaining and educational role, a film can be just a tool of one of the debate actors (politics, companies) that finance it in more or less direct way.

Influential EventsEdit

On the timeline of discussion about switching energy systems into renewable ones, there are many events that have changed its course. 

First type of those are climate summits and other meetings on climate change, that took place several times in the recent history. It all started with Rio de Janeiro meeting organised by United Nations in 1992, when first actions were taken to slow down the climate changes. Second significant meeting was Kyoto Conference in 1997, that ended up with signing Kyoto Protocol, in which countries declared to reduce greenhouse emissions. The third event, that should be mentioned was the United Nations Climate Change Conference of 2015 in Paris, that ending up with the Paris Agreement, to reduce emissions as part of the method for reducing greenhouse gas. In the document, the members agreed to reduce their carbon output "as soon as possible" and to do their best to keep global warming "to well below 2 degrees C".

The other type of events that should be mentioned are industrial accidents such as Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident. Even though, there were no fatal injuries, the perception of nuclear energy has changed dramatically, changing whole attitude to energy generation. Significant part of public became more awareness of energy situation. This kind of events lead to further consequences, among others political decisions, in this case: Energiewende. The Fukushima accident contributed to success of Energiewende since people were willing to pay more for electricity being assured about safety of its generation. Events that may also contribute to perception of energy transformation are oil spills. Such accidents make public against oil&gas industry, while in favour to renewable resources. For instance, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico in 2010 led public to several protests.

Since energy industry is closely linked to government, political movements have huge impact on it. It is influenced mostly, when the decisions are made by governments of large countries. For instance, last movements of United States’ President, Donald Trump, who in 2017 decided to withdraw from Paris agreement on climate change, have already influenced public opinion and other governments. Undoubtedly, it will have further consequences on perceptions of turning energy systems into 100% renewable.  

The other kind of events, that influence desire to green transformation are economical events. As an example can be given world crises, that decelerate whole economy, also investments within energy sector. The poor economies just cannot afford energy transformation into being 100% renewable. 

A 100% Renewable World Edit

The journey to the awareness that a clean approach to energies should be implemented started during the Industrial Revolution when the level of dioxide carbon (CO2) on the atmosphere was measured and was compared to the one in the ancient ice age. During this time, on the 19th century, it was also understood that the earth without atmosphere would be must colder and so the need to protect and maintain it earn more importance.

The physicist John Tyndall was the first to discover that some gases block infrared radiation in 1859 [5], suggesting that changes in the concentration of the gases could affect the integrity of the atmosphere and lead to a relevant climate change of the world. Since that moment the “Greenhouse effect” has been studied and analysed towards a cleaner use of the energies and the industries procedures used [6].

However, the main drive towards the renewables energy at the early stages of its development was due to the scarcity of the conventional resources and a growing need to match the increasing energy demand. Because of this, steps were taken towards a possible energy sector only composed by no-CO2 emitters.

On the 90’s, an organization between the world regions, IPCC (Intergovernmental Climate Changes) was created. Its aim is "to produce a scoping paper on possible ways for IPCC to provide an assessment on the use of renewable energy resources for climate change mitigation” [7]. The first assessment report produced by this organization served as the basis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In the past, the main driver for renewable energies was the fact that fossil fuels would eventually disappear and for strategic reasons, such as energy independence. However, on the current days, it has been discovered that fossil fuel resources are much higher than expected, and if mankind follows the same trend in fossil fuel consumption, the effects on the environment will be irreversible. For this reason, renewables are have been boosted for the past years. Total generation from renewable resources increases by 2.9%/year at the actual rhythm and to achieve the goal set in the IEO2016 [8]. “Renewables account for a rising share of the world’s total electricity supply, and they are the fastest growing source of electricity generation in the IEO2016” [8].

Nowadays, there are several green lobbies that support this idea of reaching a 100% renewables energy world, like the ADEME project, Greenpeace, NégaWatt, while others defend that at this moment there is still technical flaws and political/economic matters to be resolve before there is a chance to reach that energetic point, like Vent de Colère, Save the Climate and Shift project. When asked if he thought that a 100% renewable energy economy was possible, Vincent Fristrot (co-founder of NégaWatt) said “I don’t know. I think it’s possible if we want it. All the technologies discussed in NégaWatt scenarios are well known.”

Besides all this debate, renewables energies come at a great time and offer something: an energy source that can’t be ignored. Moreover, can’t be also forgotten that the energy production of this type is clean and with no C02 emissions, similarly is more appellative for the customer that can implement the windmills or the solar panels on their property and make profit of the energy produced. In terms of the space occupation they can be constructed in areas of difficult access or even poor soils taking advantage of unused lands and creating a profit zone for the country exploiting such areas.

Main issues Edit

Grid instabiliy Edit

Electricity Grid Schematic English

General layout of electricity networks. Voltages and depictions of electrical lines are typical for Germany and other European systems.

In simple words, the electric grid of a country works by balancing instantly the demand and the supply of electricity. At all times, power generation has to match the power demand plus the grid losses, so that the grid is always balanced. If, at some point, the demand increases, or the supply goes down because, for instance, a power plant stops working, then the power consumed is higher than the power supply. This “extra” power will be provided by the kinetic energy of the turbines of conventional power plants, such as nuclear and coal, which consists of hundreds of tons of steel rotating at very high speeds. After gearing, the generators of conventional plants gyrate at the same speed following the grid frequency, because they are synchronous.

Literally, the power mismatch described before is covered by reducing the kinetic energy of these turbines, which causes grid frequency to decrease. This frequency variation takes some seconds due to these massive turbines, and when frequency decreases, the grid operator has some time to introduce more power in the grid (with a combined cycle plant, for instance). This is how the grid frequency is controlled, because if it goes beyond the limits, breakers go off causing blackouts for protection reasons. Now, here is when the issue appears. Renewable energy doesn’t provide the grid with this inertia. If the grid was 100% renewable (for instance, with only wind and solar power), when a power mismatch happens, the frequency of the grid will vary much faster, causing blackouts. This is a serious issue, but there are some solutions to it. For instance, pumped hydro storage can be used to regulate the grid, but it takes seconds to actuate. Other solutions involve compressed air storage, power to gas and synthetic inertia. Synthetic inertia allows wind farms to emulate the behaviour of synchronous spinning generators, as a “one”, following the grid frequency. However, the most promising solution for the future is the introduction of smart grids. These would allow the intelligent use of home devices, such as car batteries, to control the grid itself. This is the key of projects such as ETIP SNET [9]. According to Robin Girard, the grid instability problem can be solved with battery storage, pumped hydro and Power to gas technologies. However despite being a serious issue, many studies such as ADEME [10] don’t consider it.

Large-area compensation Edit

One of the important factors in planning renewable-based electricity systems where windmills have significant share is a number of zones that are subject to different weather (wind) conditions. The higher the number, the more stable the system should be, as it is assumed that if wind is weak in one zone, it will be stronger in another, thus the power should be relatively stable in the whole area with respect to time. Renewable supporters sometimes overestimate both – value and significance of this factor. As an example – according to ADEME study [10] the value is equal to 3 which is very optimistic assumption – as Frédérique Livet, claims – as many others used in the study – he adds.

Storage Edit

Since electricity production needs to be equal to its consumption at any time while renewable sources of energy are intermittent – energy storage devices are required to maintain the balance in a system. These needs to have sufficient capacity in terms of both - energy and power. According to Frédérique Livet currently available technologies are simply too costly, inefficient, occupy relatively large area and it is very unlikely to significantly change in the nearest future. Robin Girard claims that storage is inefficient and has not been yet developed because it is not needed with the current grid. However, according to him, there are several solutions for storage that can be developed and implemented, such as compressed air, power to gas, hydro, etc.

Costs Edit

According to ADEME study [10] , the price of electricity in France would increase to around 120 €/MWh (optimistic case) or up to 136 €/MWh (in not so optimistic cases) after the transition to 100% renewable energy.

Renewable-electricity-mix-final-report-ademe-201601

Electricity costs for the baseline scenario and the various cases (€/MWh) according to the ADEME study for France [10]

This increase will happen regardless of the decrease of prices of renewables, because of a number of reasons. First, the new renewable installed capacity will have to be higher, as the load factor of the renewable sources is very small. For example, if wind is expected to blow every four days, it means that during one day we need to harvest amount of energy that will enable to meet the demand during the whole 4-day cycle. Therefore, capacity of the device needs to be 4 times than in usual, controllable system. And this is considering the best case scenario, in which there is enough batteries capacity to store the energy. The previous also applies to transmission lines capacities, which will have to be higher. As a result, the whole grid system is enormous and thus costly - not only in terms of investment expenditures but also operation and maintenance. The only way to avoid this would be by changing to decentralized smart grids. In the case that there is not enough batteries capacity (the most likely to happen), backup conventional plants will always be needed to cope with the intermittency of the renewable supply, which needs to be taken into account in the final costs. Comparing to nuclear energy, Hinkley Point C, [11], an example of a project full of overcosts and delays, will have a guaranteed fixed price of £92.50/MWh.

When asked about the cost of electricity in an hypothetical 100 % renewable grid, Robin Girard claims that it will for sure cost more money. However, he associates this with the fact that France electricity now is based on a past investment. Comparing with Germany, in which electricity is more expensive, he claims that Germany is adapting its grid with new investments in renewable for the future, which explains the higher cost of electricity.

Impact on environment Edit

It is important to understand that environmental impacts associated with producing power from renewable sources exist. The exact type and intensity of varies depending on the specific technology used, the geographic location, and a number of other factors. The comparison between equivalence of emissions for different energy resources is shown in the figure on the right.

19691601 1452186118160264 1005399614 n

Relative amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from various types of electricity generation methods, data expressed as CO2 equivalents. [12]

  • Wind power - assessment of avian mortality for different energy resources stated that for wind turbines, the risk appears to be greatest to birds striking towers or turbine blades. Moreover, wind power has associated issues related to noise and visual and ecologic impact. As a consequence, some associations have appeared against wind power such as Vent de Colère, which is against wind projects in France. Robin Girard claims that in the ADEME report they studied the potential of the country for installing wind farms with a deep analysis (excluding urban areas, national parks, mountains, not windy places…) and determined that 3 % of the mainland area of France was enough for installing the wind power required for 100% renewable scenario. This means 17000 km² with onshore wind farms. Additionally, 1000 km² would be occupied by offshore wind installations.
  • Solar power - The production of photovoltaic devices involves the use of a variety of chemicals and materials. Those could be released to air, surface water, and groundwater in the manufacturing facility, the installation site, and the disposal or recycling facility [13].
  • Geothermal energy - Any large-scale construction and drilling operation will produce visual impacts on the landscape, create noise and wastes and affect local economies.
  • Biomass - There are global warming emissions associated with growing and harvesting biomass feedstock, transporting feedstock to the power plant, and burning or gasifying the feedstock. Another issue is Land use impacts from biomass power production.
  • Hydroelectric power - Construction and operation of hydropower dams can significantly affect natural river systems as well as fish and wildlife populations.

All above mentioned impacts of renewable energy on the environment can be defined as short term. Replacing whole electricity production with renewable resources must have any long term environmental impact, which we do not know yet.

Experts interviewed Edit

Frédérique Livet Edit

Polytechnicien, Doctor in Physical Sciences, member of the French Society of Physics, Frédéric Livet is Director of Research at the CNRS. He works in the Simap-Phelma laboratory (University of Grenoble) on materials engineering, especially on nano-objects and polymers. Frédéric Livet is a member of Save the Climate Association.

When it comes to his opinion on the debate, he is very sceptical about feasibility of this transformation. Among many other issues, he indicates enormous investment costs related to the change that would have direct impact on electricity prices and thus - the whole economy and wellbeing. He claims that the whole 100 % renewable movement is driven by the public, whose opinion is difficult to change, once it is established. He considers nuclear energy to be much more reasonable solution for current challenges of energy sector including significant reduction of greenhouse gases.

Bérnard Bonin Edit

Graduated in Physics, Bénard Bonin worked at CEA and then moved to AREVA, focusing on radio waste management. Lately returned to CEA and focused on nuclear energy as a general domain. While working for CEA he integrated a team of researchers and scientists organized in the L’Agence Nationale de la Recherche supported by the French Government. Right now he is in a pre-retirement plan from CEA.

When it comes to Bérnard Bonin position towards the controversy of 100% renewable, he assumes a neutral stand defending that “only want to provide the necessary tools for a good decision-making” and that all energy scenarios have been studied and analysed properly having in consideration all the relevant parameters. To do so, he along with his co-workers developed a software that allows to introduce the possible energy inputs and analyse through Monte Carlo Simulation if it is feasible the scenario being reviewed.

Robin Girard Edit

Robin Girard is a researcher and teacher at Mines ParisTech. PhD in Applied Mathematics from Fourier University (Grenoble, 2008) "Dimensional reduction in statistics and application to hyperspectral image segmentation". Master degree in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science from ENSIMAG (Grenoble, 2004). He is specialized in renewable energy integration, and actively participated in the ADEME report, which studied the feasibility of a 100% renewable grid for France.

Considering himself a mathematician specialized in renewable energy integration, Mr Girard believes that it is possible for France to reach a 100% renewable grid. He is concerned about the fact that most of nuclear capacity in France was installed in a 15 years period of time, which will lead to a fast change in the french energy structure in the near future, when dealing with nuclear phase out. He is positive about the challenges of renewable energy such as grid stability and storage, claiming that they all have technical solutions.

Vincent Fristrot Edit

Deputy Mayor of Grenoble since 2014, Vincent Fristrot is currently the president of Gaz Electricité de Grenoble (GEG), the gas and electricity provider for the Grenoble municipality. In these roles he has overseen an investment by the city of 2 million euros per year to reduce electricity consumption and improve energy systems. In 2001 he co-founded négaWatt, an association to analyze the green energy debate and present the results to the public. 

Bibliography Edit

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  8. 8.0 8.1 (Eia.gov. (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/ieo/pdf/electricity.pdf [Accessed 3 Jul. 2017].
  9. Vingerhoets, P., & Hatziargyriou, N. (2016). al., e.: The Digital Energy System 4.0. Smart Grids European Technology Platform, Tech. Rep. ISO 690
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 [Dubilly, A. L., Fournie, L., Chiche, A., Faure, N., Bardet, R., Alais, J. C., ... & Piqueras, U. (2015). A 100% renewable electricity mix? Analyses and optimisations. Testing the boundaries of renewable energy-based electricity development in metropolitan France by 2050. ISO 690
  11. Nao.org.uk. (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Nuclear-power-in-the-UK.pdf [Accessed 3 Jul. 2017.
  12. Ewa Klugmann-Radziemska. 2014. Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ipcbee.com/vol69/021-ICEST2014-A1026.pdf. [Accessed 3 July 2017]
  13. Tsoutsos, T., Frantzeskaki, N., & Gekas, V. (2005). Environmental impacts from the solar energy technologies. Energy Policy33(3), 289-296.
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