Renewable Energy 

The down side….


When considering questions of developmental pressure and environmental concerns in context of renewable energy projects, it is prudent to focus on their objectives and motivations: objectives aim to provide energy and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; and motivations are defined by reducing the impact of energy generation on the environment.

Carbon dioxide (CO2), a product of fossil fuel combustion, is a major GHG of concern, however, its impact is a matter of scientific debate - global temperatures have shown no statistical increase over the past 15 years as CO2 has continued to rise to record levels. To further clarify: CO2 does contribute to the GHG affect, but certainty about how much of an affect is the pertinent question. (Spencer, 2013).

The human development index is based on 3 criteria: education, healthcare and access to resources; all of which are fundamentally linked to energy (UNDP, 2013). Current electricity generating capacity in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding SA, is estimated at 30 gigawatts; in order to reach SA levels the region is required to develop its infrastructure by an additional 1000 gigawatts, a 33 fold increase (Pielke, 2013). Decarbonising the global economy by 2035 in line with low stabilisation targets for atmospheric CO2, when considering a global average of 4500 kWh consumption per capita per year, will require global carbon free energy (renewables) to more than double (Pielke, 2013). To qualify and give perspective on global aspirations for decarbonisation at low CO2 stabilisation targets: consider that in 2010 South African per capita consumption of electricity was estimated at 4803 kWh (World Bank, 2013) - this advanced African economy is no where near supplying its population with the energy it requires. On the other end of the spectrum, the United States consumption per capita in 2010 was estimated at 13395 kWh (World Bank, 2013). By 2035 renewable energy, under unrealistic and optimistic assumptions, may increase 5 percentage points to 17.9% of the global mix, and thus falls dismally short of low CO2 stabilisation targets (Lomborg, 2013). It seems that green energy aspirations are unrealistic, with motivations for a carbon free future shrouded in uncertainty. Wind produces 0.29% of the world’s energy (Lomborg, 2013), this is due to: high conversion efficiencies; material costs; intermittent and variable supply that requires large scale storage and smarter grids; and requirements for large tracts of land (Bickel, Bosetti, Galiana, Green and Lane, 2009). My point is further clarified by this example: Spain spends 1% of its GDP on subsidies for renewable energy projects, which is more than what it spends on higher education; by the end of the 21st century this massive investment may delay global warming by about 62 hours (Lomborg, 2013).

Humanity requires and desires a high energy future; clarifying what modern energy access equates to and applying that mindset to sustainability concepts will create a foundation for policy discussions aimed at reducing inequality in energy, wealth and health and thus enabling a path to improved standards of living/human development (Pielke, 2013). Ensuring a circumstance where the world is more equitable in wealth, health and energy provides an opportunity for effective management of climate change challenges and mitigation; sustainable agendas reliant on renewable energy, under circumstances of perceived modern access to energy, paradoxically undermine one of sustainability’s key pillars, equality.

It seems to me that renewable energy projects do not adequately address the imbalances that exist between development and environmental concerns.

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