Sunday, April 2

Renewables: The Promised Land

The film “A Horizon Far Away”, starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, illustrates the last wave of expansion into the American West, in which settlers were lured in by giving them very cheap or even free land. In the late 19th century, the railway allowed the massive arrival of immigrants in search of land and prosperity, attracted by legislation such as the Donation Land Claim or the later Homestead Act. Some of the most impressive images of this epic correspond to the races that were organized in some states, known as LandRun or Land Rush, and that leads to the last scenes of the film.

In the 21st century, land races are aimed at the location of large renewable generation parks, in search of land, sun, wind, and connection points to the electricity grid. The starting signal has been the cost gap between fossil and renewable technologies, supported by the need to combat the climate emergency and the progressive depletion of fossil fuels, specifically “cheap” oil. As in the film, the unbridled struggle to reach a piece of land is not exempt from accidents, pushes and the occasional injury.

In the last decade, renewable They have doubled the installed power worldwide, mainly driven by large wind and photovoltaic installations occupying hundreds or thousands of hectares. During the year 2020 260 GW added, 50% more than the previous year, with China as the world leader in renewable generation, followed at a distance by the United States, Brazil and Canada, and with expectations of continuing to grow at a rate of more than 300 GW per year (the equivalent in power to 300 nuclear reactors), increasing the installed power by 60% in the next 5 years.

An expansion that is not exempt from conflicts, as in the US, where the SEIA accounts for a total of 140 GW in parks of more than 1 MW, of which just over half are already in operation. in the county of Klickitat (Washington) or in the pahrump valley (Nevada), projects of thousands of hectares are being contested by conservation groups. In Italy the government is thinking about the creation of special areas in which the bureaucratic procedures that are slowing down renewable deployment are reduced, limiting the participation of local and regional authorities. Also the mining of materials such as lithium or copper generates tensions all over the World, from Peru to Nevada. In Serbia, the authorities rejected the Rio Tinto Group lithium mining plans, like Valdeflores minein Caceres. In Spain, the avalanche of projects that have requested access to the electricity network It has put those who live in the territories on a war footing. At the end of 2021, more than 300 GW of power will be recorded, 3 times the current installed capacity, and which multiplies the maximum consumption peak by seven. Although part of the requests have been rejected and those that remain will have to go through a series of procedures before construction, including an environmental impact assessment, the conflict is served.

The environmental movement is torn between those who think that the energy transition is imperative and urgent in the face of the climate emergency, and those who perceive serious threats in the model that is being implemented. There are those who brand the arguments of those who defend their territory as visceral or NIMBY, but there are objective aspects to reflect on. The deployment of renewables is replicating the market logic that has led us to an unprecedented ecological crisis, and that does not question the limits of the planet on which we live, an aspect analyzed more than 40 years ago by authors such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen or in the report “The limits to growth”, by Donella Medows.

Between these limits are the minerals necessary for the energy transition. A recent IEA study on the role of critical minerals in the clean energy transition points out that the demand for copper, cadmium, manganese, nickel, graphite, cobalt, lithium, silicon and rare earths such as neodymium will multiply between four and six times. These materials are necessary for generation plants, distribution networks, substations, storage or electric vehicles. According to the report, a system based on renewable energies needs more materials than a system based on fossil fuels. For example, an electric car requires six times more minerals than a combustion one, while wind turbines require nine times more minerals than a gas thermal one. Even so, the study does not address the limits of these materials, as the works of Antonio and Alicia Valero.

The other big problem is the impact on biodiversity, which also has among its greatest enemies the loss and fragmentation of habitats. In May 2019, the IPBES published a devastating report that accounted for the accelerated rate of destruction of biodiversity. Also in the various reports on Planetary Limits, of Stockholm Resilience Center, the integrity of the biosphere (including the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services), changes in land use, and the cycles of phosphorus and nitrogen, exceed critical thresholds by far more than global warming.

Continuing with the current rate of consumption is not possible. The Living Planet Report, which WWF has been developing for 22 years, indicates that “we are eating the planet” at a forced pace, exceeding its regeneration capacity for years, so that our rate of consumption would require more than one and a half planets. Fossil fuels, in addition to polluting the atmosphere, have allowed the human being to expand and transform the environment, the unbridled construction of infrastructure, unprecedented mobility, and a rate of extraction, manufacture and disposal of materials and chemical substances, which It is the origin of the degradation on a planetary scale of the fragile ecosystem balances.

An energy transition led by large companies and capital is not going to change a model in which energy is managed as a consumer good, speculating on the price and lowering costs, to obtain maximum profitability. And the energy business is succulent. only renewables already represent more than 880,000 million dollars, about 1% of world GDP, and the investments in the energy sector about 2% of it. When the Platform for a New Energy Model was created in 2012, the change did not only consist of substituting some technologies for others, but also had to be based on the savings, efficiency, and social control of energy. The development of renewable energies, whose resource is distributed, is an opportunity to democratize the energy system, to the extent that citizens and governments have enough courage and intelligence to confront the powerful lobbies that dominate the sector. Also the Ecologists in Action Report “Towards a fair and sustainable energy scenario in 2050”, from the year 2015, points in the same direction.

On the other hand, in the environmental field there are people concerned about climate warming who see in this deployment the only opportunity to combat it. Drastically reducing energy consumption is complicated when there are countries, regions and households that should increase it to achieve decent living conditions, and those of us who should reduce it do not seem willing to give up certain “luxuries”. As Jorge Riechmann points out, the difficulty lies in inspiring a social majority in overdeveloped countries to “impoverish ourselves energetically”. That is why, from a realistic point of view, the most ambitious scenarios of the IEA, which propose a global reduction in consumption of 8% compared to 2020, are quite a challenge, if we ignore in them the commitment to highly questioned technologies such as nuclear and carbon capture and storage. These scenarios propose breaking with the historical trend of increased consumption, and considering an increase in the world population of 2,000 million people according to UN estimates, the reduction in per capita consumption would be a not insignificant 20%.

In addition, electricity is the sector with the highest penetration of renewables, but it only represents a fifth of energy consumption. The remaining 80% are derivatives of oil, natural gas and coal, largely destined for transport and industry. Decarbonizing the economy would imply, according to the most accepted version, that an important part of these sectors electrify their consumption, so that the demand for electricity, beyond being reduced, would tend to increase. In any of the scenarios, the energy transition will involve a large deployment of renewables, and this will mean occupying large areas of land, eliminating crops and modifying landscapes, but it will be a lesser evil compared to the climate catastrophe that is coming if it is not carried out. That it is carried out by perpetuating a centralized model of production and with the control of resources in the hands of companies is a possibilistic position, in line with the Green New Deal, in which companies and capital focus their businesses around The sustainability.

On the other hand, the remoteness of the electricity generation plants, and in general, of any extraction or production of materials, from their place of consumption, generates a disaffection effect on those who consume the products, be it energy, clothing, food or furniture. It also generates an effect of distortion of the impacts, dimensions or needs of the areas in which they occur. A disconnection that generates the illusion that everything is possible when it comes to satisfying any desire, and enormous difficulty in socially managing resources, which facilitates the concentration of power.

If we could close our eyes and imagine a fair and sustainable system, capable of meeting the needs of all people, perhaps we would think of a system in which products were designed to be durable, repairable and recyclable. Where less work is done on productive tasks and more time is spent on common jobs, enjoying time with family and friends and low-impact leisure. Where most of the products traveled a few tens or a few hundred kilometers, and where little-used devices, such as cars, washing machines or tools, were shared. Perhaps we would think that the population should be distributed in medium-sized cities and function and work around the neighborhood and the region. Where the distance transport of people and goods could be carried out by electric railway and the building was energy efficient and comfortable. Our energy needs would be much lower than the current ones, and could be covered with small or medium installations in the cities or in their surroundings, publicly managed and transparent.

We are faced with the dilemma between what they sell us as possible and what we are capable of imagining. Criticizing the current energy transition model runs the risk of being accused of being dreamers or of slowing down the fight against global warming. But there are reasons to think that this model may not be viable or desirable, and that the ecological emergency is not going to be resolved through the same logic that has generated it.