Does Renewable Energy have a hidden carbon footprint?

The mandate of renewable energy is to deliver clean energy to the appropriate grid network in order to reduce carbon emissions and help create a cleaner more sustainable environment for all. It cannot be disputed that with no fossil fuel to burn the renewable energy production process reduces emissions substantially in some cases close to zero.

However the generation process is not the whole story and there has always been voices of distraction pointing towards the manufacturing and distribution of the technology and its components. The detractors claim that these processes contain a hidden carbon footprint with the emissions they create pushing the projects over the course of their lifespan into a negative carbon debt position.

For example the factories that manufacture solar panels use vast amounts of electricity, much of it likely to be generated from carbon heavy sources. Wind turbine installations require a sizeable amount of steel and concrete and the transport costs of moving the core elements of any renewable energy project to its final location usually involves long distances and therefore carbon heavy transport issues.

New research however published in Nature Energy and carried out by Carbon Brief shows that the carbon footprints of renewable energy technologies including wind turbines and solar panels are vastly less than coal or gas generation including those with carbon capture and storage. In addition the carbon footprint of the renewable energy installations remained below that of coal and gas when manufacture, transport, and construction were included.

Dr. Gunnar Luderer energy system analyst at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research (PIK) and study co-author said: “There was a concern that it is a lot harder than suggested by energy scenario models to achieve climate targets, because of the energy required to produce wind turbines and solar panels and associated emissions.”

He went on to tell Carbon Brief “The most important finding [of our research] was that the expansion of wind and solar power…comes with life-cycle emissions that are much smaller than the remaining emissions from existing fossil power plants, before they can finally be decommissioned.”

The first stage of the research was to work out the energy required to build power stations and provide the fuel in order to generate electricity. The study found that fossil fuel plants require “significantly higher” amounts of energy for this process than wind and solar power.

The study found for example that 11% of energy generated by a coal fired power station is offset by the energy required to build and supply the plant. Wind and solar in comparison need only 2% of energy generated to offset build and supply requirements.

Study co-author Edgar Hertwich – Professor of Industrial Sustainability at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies – told Carbon Brief “I continue to be amazed just how low the embodied energy use of solar, wind and nuclear power is, in comparison with others.”

With the research stating that the footprint of wind and solar is much less than coal and gas generation Dr Luderer told Carbon Brief “A crucial strength of our approach is that it fully accounts for future changes in the energy system. For example, increasingly less energy will be required to produce solar modules, due to technological progress and a shift towards less energy-intensive technology variants. At the same time, the global climate change mitigation effort will reduce the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity and steel inputs, further limiting life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions. The earlier studies considered by the IPCC did not account for these future changes, thus overestimating indirect energy requirements and indirect greenhouse gas emissions of several low-carbon technologies.”

The footprint of solar comes in at 6gCO2e/kWh and wind is also 4gCO2e/kWh. In contrast, coal CCS (109g) and gas CCS (78g) have relatively high emissions, compared to a global average target for a 2C world of 15gCO2e/kWh in 2050.

The study therefore concludes that contrary to the claims of critics the hidden emissions due to building wind turbines, solar panels or nuclear plants are very low, in comparison with the savings from avoiding fossil fuels.

“Some critics have argued renewable energies could come with high hidden greenhouse gas emissions that would negate their benefits to the climate. Our study now shows that the opposite is true,” Dr Luderer concluded.

Reference: Information and quotes written here relating to the study mentioned above along with full details of the study and its findings can be accessed at https://www.carbonbrief.org/solar-wind-nuclear-amazingly-low-carbon-footprints

A New Smart Grid

Traditionally the UK’s electricity network has been a one way supply with a number of large power stations generating electricity and supplying it to the grid. The rise of renewable energy generation from more numerous small scale installations plus a rise in demand for power for electric vehicles however has created a demand for the new smart grid capable of operating efficiently in the 21st century.

SP Energy Networks, one of the UK’s network operators is currently in the process of developing new technologies which will help create this smart grid. Other network operators including SSE Networks and UK Power Networks are also involved and all believe smart technologies could help create mini regional energy markets across the country in addition to the national transmission system. Under the cross industry plans, power from solar panels on properties or from electric vehicles could be sold back to the network, or even directly to neighbours using block-chain technology.

For example a new type of network power transformer transformer, the LV engine project, which can closely control network voltage and power flow and can provide a direct current (DC) power supply – essential for electric vehicle charging – and developed by SP Energy Networks will go through a five year trial funded by Ofgem. LV Engine will be delivered by SP Energy Networks in collaboration with fellow electricity network operator UK Power Networks.

SP Energy Networks will also lead a separate research scheme called FUSION to be trialled in the East Fife area. The project will create the UK’s first intelligent local energy marketplace where energy flexibility can be bought and sold by consumers in an open and competitive market.

Jim McOmish, SP Energy Networks Head of Distribution Networks, said: “Business and residential customers are seeking to maximise the efficiency and lower the cost of their energy use, and the flexibility of their demand for energy is a marketable commodity.

“At the moment there is no open accessible transparent market to buy and sell this flexibility, and the challenge is building one which unlocks that value for everybody – electricity providers on one side and consumers on the other.”

This project could see consumer savings of over £200million and carbon emission reductions of over 3million tonnes.

Frank Mitchell, CEO of SP Energy Networks, said: “These globally innovative projects will enable customers to be fully engaged in the electricity market, creating additional income through local generation and storage, whilst unlocking additional network capacity to make a truly nationwide network of electric vehicles a reality.

“I am delighted to secure this additional funding on behalf of our customers. These awards, which come hot on the heels of another recent Ofgem funding award to roll out the latest network monitoring and control technology in the Dumfries & Galloway area, demonstrate our continued leadership in commercial and technical innovation together with our ongoing ambition and capability to innovate in the best interests of our customers, communities and wider stakeholders.”

The Energy Networks Association (ENA) said Wednesday’s plan is the culmination of almost a year of small-scale trials and marks the start of a “rapid increase” in energy mini-markets in the next six years.

David Smith, boss of the ENA, said the overhaul will help networks to meet the challenge of balancing more complicated energy systems, provide a cash boost to customers, and deliver a £17bn benefit to the UK economy in the coming decades. The economic benefit could rise to as high as £40billion according to Government estimates.

Without doubt there is an energy revolution on the way. The increase in use of electric vehicles is expected to sky rocket over the coming years with traditional petrol and diesel based vehicles being phased out around the globe. As this happens not only will demand rise but the ability to store it will also.

All this demands a new smart grid to ensure that the electricity can flow as readily as needed and stored efficiently when not. The new technologies and projects proposed are therefore very welcome. The long term advantages of creating a new smart grid network will benefit us all and open up more clean, renewable and less expensive electricity to all of us.