In his July 3 column, George Monbiot reminds us of how much worse the threat of global warming may be than the consensus IPCC position. But he also reminds us that there are reasons for optimism too. He cites three studies that point to the fact that there is every reason to believe Europe and the UK can supply between 80 percent and 100 percent of electricity needs completely sun, wind, water, wave, tide, and minor amounts of biomass and geothermal energy, V2G Vanadium flow batteries, and pumped storage.
Given that electricity can drive just about all energetic processes of our civilization — domestic, commercial, industrial, and transport, that means that we have economically reasonable substitutes for just about all carbon use now.
According to Monbiot:
Last year, the German government published a study of the effects of linking the electricity networks of all the countries in Europe and connecting them to North Africa and Iceland with high voltage direct current cables. This would open up a much greater variety of renewable power sources. Every country in the network would then be able to rely on stable and predictable supplies from elsewhere: hydroelectricity in Scandanavia and the Alps, geothermal energy in Iceland and vast solar thermal farms in the Sahara. By spreading the demand across a much wider network, it suggests that 80% of Europe’s electricity could be produced from renewable power without any greater risk of blackouts or flickers.
At about the same time, Mark Barrett at University College London published a preliminary study looking mainly at ways of altering the pattern of demand for electricity to match the variable supply from wind and waves and tidal power. At about twice the current price, he found that we might be able to produce as much as 95% of our electricity from renewable sources without causing interruptions in the power supply.
Now a new study by the Center for Alternative Technology takes this even further. It is due to be published next week, but I have been allowed a preview. It is remarkable in two respects: it suggests that by 2027 we could produce 100% of our electricity without the use of fossil fuels or nuclear power, and that we could do so while almost tripling its supply: our heating systems (using electricity to drive heat pumps) and our transport systems could be mostly powered by it. It relies on a great expansion of electricity storage: building new hydroelectric reservoirs into which water can be pumped when electricity is abundant, constructing giant vanadium flow batteries and linking electric cars up to the grid when they are parked, using their batteries to meet fluctuations in demand. It contains some optimistic technical assumptions, but also a very pessimistic one: that the UK relies entirely on its own energy supplies. If the German proposal were to be combined with these ideas, we could begin to see how we might reliably move towards a world without fossil fuels.