Renewables alone will not be enough

Written By: Virendra Sharma
Published: March 24, 2017 Last modified: March 30, 2017

It is shocking that, even today, around 1.2 billion people still lack access to modern electricity and that we are failing to meet UN targets on improving energy access. Power is a vital driver of development. You can’t vaccinate children without reliable refrigeration; deliver babies safely by torchlight or educate children who have to spend their days collecting firewood instead of going to school. Without electricity countries also can’t deliver the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty for goodmes to nuclear power.have the full panoply of a state visit.

Many hope investment in solar panels and wind turbines can solve this. But important as they are, they can’t yet supply electricity, night and day, at an affordable price. “We want real electricity, not fake electricity!” That’s what villagers in Dharnai, India, told a local politician after an off-grid solar electricity scheme failed to live up to expectations. They couldn’t run the fridges and fans they planned. What they wanted was the cheap, on-demand electricity we take for granted in the developed world. What they got was a poor imitation.

Despite recent developments in renewable energy, fossil fuels aren’t about to disappear. According to International Energy Agency projections they will still produce more than half the world’s electricity in 25 years’ time, with big increases in the developing world. Coal will also remain a key ingredient in making vital materials such as steel and concrete, which will see increasing demand as the world gets richer.

The GMB has long been warning of the failure of an increasing reliance on intermittent renewables here in the UK and how South Australia has followed similar policies and is now facing blackouts. But at least for now the UK is able to have the conventional power it needs on standby – albeit at a price which makes the real cost of renewables eye wateringly expensive. The developing world cannot afford that luxury.

For the time being only conventional sources can deliver the power needed to help these countries rapidly improve the lives of their people. Developing countries should be able to use the resources they have – be it coal, oil or gas to improve the lives of their people.
Leaders across the developing world, particularly across Africa and developing Asia, have said this is exactly what they plan to do. Ignoring the reality will condemn hundreds of millions of people to a life in the dark and risks causing more damage to the environment.

Yet how can the continued use of coal, oil and gas fit with the world’s need to cut greenhouse gas emissions? The experts at the International Energy Agency say we need to use new technology. In the long run carbon capture can all but eliminate emissions while using more efficient power generating technology, which is already widely commercially available, is an important first step.

Some countries which rely heavily on coal are already committing to use this more efficient technology, which can cut emissions by up to 20 per cent. For example, in it is widespread use in Germany and Japan whilst India has announced that it is replacing older, less efficient and most polluting power stations which are over 25 years old.

But other countries are not able to afford this, nor even afford the additional up-front costs of this technology when building new plants. Regrettably, Word Bank and UK government decisions mean investing in this technology is all but forbidden. This means developing countries are often left with a difficult choice. Leave people without adequate power or use out of date technology. We can’t go on like this and must take a more pragmatic approach supporting countries to use all sources of energy open to them.

Looking forward carbon capture will reduce the emissions from these plants by over 90 per cent. The technology has been a reality for a number of years but costs were too high for the developing world. Yet recent technological breakthroughs are reducing the costs rapidly.
Ministers in the Department for International Development have paid lip service to the need for reliable access to energy but have failed to deliver. They now need to look again at how new technologies can make the use of fossil fuels much cleaner and recognise that renewables alone cannot yet meet the developing world’s rapidly growing demand for energy.

Virendra Sharma is Labour MP for Ealing, Southall