The Key To Slowing Global Warming
We all know that global warming is causing climate change characterised by increasingly severe weather events which damage property, destroy food crops and is likely to have catastrophic effects with multi metre sea level rise later this century. Strong winds and floods, forest fires and droughts are more common and cause damage which, each year, is more expensive to repair and may eventually be beyond repair.
We also know that the prime cause of global warming is human activity involving the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – to meet our energy needs for transport propulsion and electricity generation. At the same time, we are actively engaged in destruction of carbon sinks – forests and woodlands, warming oceans – in order to meet the needs of a burgeoning population, while also increasing the number of methane producing animals and crops such as cattle, chickens and rice.
Most of us realise that if we are to avoid catastrophic events in the future – or indeed survive as a species on this planet – we must, at the very least, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What has to be done? It’s simple. Reduce and eventually stop burning fossil fuels, the major source of greenhouse gasses, and do so as rapidly as possible. We recognize the need to plant trees to replace those cut down and to modify our diet by replacing meat with other similar tasting nutritious products enabling reduction of animal herds and their emissions. Yet action taken globally is just the opposite of these measures.
There are two approaches to curbing use of fossil fuels: (a) make them more expensive by imposing a carbon tax on them and (b) provide an alternative renewable energy source which is cheaper, cleaner and more readily available.
A Carbon Tax
There are several problems with the first approach, the most significant of which are:
Participation: Although every country burns fossil fuels only 42 or 15% of Application: Even when imposed, a Carbon tax is not always applied to all parts of a country. Japan is classified as having a Carbon Tax, even though it is only applied to the Greater Tokyo Area.
Tax Rate: The rate applied varies from country to country and in no jurisdiction does it appear sufficient to reduce emissions on its own. In some countries (Zimbabwe, South Africa) the rates are so low, they are totally ineffective and revenues tend not to be used to promote clean energy technology.
Exemptions: The tax is not uniformly applied to all sectors of the economy that produce carbon emissions. Several countries exempt their export sectors from the tax in order to maintain a trade advantage. Others only apply it to a single product, e.g. petrol or electricity generation but not both.
Oversight: There appears to be no international agency responsible for monitoring and reporting on the use/lack of use of a carbon tax by each country or its effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions globally.
Another problem is that a Carbon Tax penalizes users of fossil fuels, including the largest individual users, businesses. Producers and retailers of goods and services will pass those increased costs on to their customers and this can have an all-pervasive inflationary effects throughout the economy. Because of this its introduction is resisted by many countries and half-heartedly applied by others, making it ineffectual as a means of reducing fossil fuel consumption and not applied at all by a majority of countries.
There is no independent agency with responsibility for reporting on the way in which a carbon tax is applied or monitoring its effectiveness in reducing the emissions of individual countries. Consequently, there is no uniformity in the way such a tax is applied, no CO2 emissions reduction targets set and no uniform reporting of the extent to which they are achieved. As a result, emissions continue to rise and in 2017 Clean Electricity
The second approach is to replace fossil fuels – used by every country – with energy generated from renewable sources – solar, wind, thermal, tidal and hydro, all of which are free. Solar and wind are available in all countries while thermal, tidal and hydro are available to most others. All offer an alternative to the use of fossil fuels, though at present, only thermal can assure continuity of supply sufficient to meet the growing, though fluctuating demand for electricity for domestic, industry and transport use.
In 2017 the cost of renewable energy continued to fall with wind energy in the USA as low as to around $50/mWh with grid-scale photovoltaic at $40/mWh and new coal fired generation The above shows that renewable sources are cheaper than new coal-fired generation and that the cost of solar is fast approaching that of existing coal fired power stations and is likely to be less by 2020. In Australia, where 75% of coal fired power stations are fast approaching their use-by-date(1), it is no longer commercially viable to replace them with fossil fuel generators. A similar situation exists in many other countries dependent on coal fired power.
Wind generation is already cheaper than burning fossil fuels and the cost of generating electricity by solar voltaic and solar concentrator technology is rapidly falling as its use increases. To ensure that electricity supply from renewable sources is both adequate and reliable, development of higher capacity and cheaper energy storage for quick and sustained release to the grid or major consumers during periods of sudden disruption and short term increase in demand, is essential.
This development is also essential to enable increased range of electric vehicles (EV’s) and reduction in their cost to the point where they are cheaper to own and operate than vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines. When this occurs – and it is likely The singular difference between the two approaches, imposing a tax to discourage use of fossil fuels and replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy sources is that the former imposes an additional burden while the latter offers an incentive in the form of financial relief. Given the choice, nations and consumers will always resist additional costs but embrace measures which reduce their costs.
Ability to reduce the cost and increase storage capacity of electricity is key to rapid displacement of fossil fuels as the source of generating electricity since it enables:
- Solar and wind generators to provide dispatchable energy, making them a reliable alternative to use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.
- Grid stability by both rapid and sustained discharge from storage facilities.
- Use for transport propulsion providing high range and low cost will rapidly displace use of oil and its derivatives.
With the limited exception of solar concentrator facilities, solar and wind generators can only supply electricity when the sun shines and the wind blows. To meet demand, these generators must have capacity to produce and store electricity for release to the grid and consumers 24/7.
To this end, large scale storage may best be provided by pumped hydro where water is pumped to an elevated level using surplus energy generated when the sun shines/wind blows. Water is then released to spin a turbine during hours of darkness or calm, ensuring continuity of electricity supply. Most countries have numerous sites suitable for such schemes.
The largest lithium-ion battery storage facility in the world – built by Tesla at Jamestown, South Australia in 2017. Photo: Neoen.
The facility has a total Grid-scale battery technology allows small but very rapid responses of less than 1 second to changes in grid stability, as well as providing much larger discharges for a limited period.
Vehicles of all kinds now propelled by oil-based fuels will, over the coming decade be replaced by motors fuelled by battery stored electricity. Technology advances have already increased the capacity of batteries enabling the building of road vehicles with a range of up to 500 km. However, battery costs, When this occurs, Conclusion
As the effects of global warming increase (fires, severe storms, property loss, crop failures, floods), pressure will grow for all countries to adopt and apply financial measures (a carbon tax) which effectively curb CO2 emissions. There can be little doubt that financial measures can achieve this – but not the way they are currently applied. To overcome shortfalls described above, an international authority with responsibility for reporting annually on the effectiveness of financial measures and the performance of each UN Member Country, would appear to be needed.
These pressures, combined with market forces and national legislation banning fossil fuelled vehicles, will also put pressure on builders to produce and sell electric vehicles which are superior in terms of price and performance. This is beginning to happen with global electric vehicle sales likely to exceed 1 million in 2017. Sales are likely to rapidly increase and within the next 5 years cause a significant decline in the demand and use of oil-based products.
The transition from fossil fuel generation of electricity to renewable energy sources has already started and is irreversible. After 2020 it is unlikely that any fossil fuelled power station will be built anywhere in the world and, thereafter the use of existing stations is likely to decline with increasing speed. This trend will be enhanced by cheaper, denser and more compact storage of energy, enabling better management of local, national and international grids.
The present state of technology for improved battery storage, on which this transition largely depends, is not fully known since, for commercial reasons, advances in this area are kept secret. What is known is that battery costs continue to fall and their capacity continues to rise, giving more and more certainty it will result in use of fossil fuels ceasing before 2050, possibly sooner.
(1) The Retirement of Coal Fired Power Stations. Engineers Australia submission to the Standing Committee for Environment and Communications inquiry. 10 November, 2016.
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